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Like One Sundered Star

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ARC I - INTRODUCTION

 

Karkat Vantas wakes up in the middle of the night to the dulcet skrees of the enormous albino crab looming over the side of his recooperacoon, clacking its meaty claws over its head. "Oh my fucking fuck," he groans, resisting, with great effort, the urge to attempt to drown himself in sopor. Not only is it physiologically impossible for a troll to drown in sopor, the attempt probably wouldn't even faze Crabdad. "What do you want?" Maybe he'll get lucky and Crabdad will shut up if Karkat tosses him a slice of grubloaf. Just, please, don't start screeching about -

With a petulant skree, Crabdad flings an empty black plastic tray to the ground, the demand clear as it skitters from side to side on skinny legs.

You've got to be fucking kidding.

Stupid. Fatass.  Lusus.

Karkat is aware that lusii become redundant as a troll ages and becomes self-sufficient. Eventually, it reaches the point that the troll takes care of lusus rather than the other way around. From that point on, it's only a matter of waiting until it's time for them to be assigned to a new grub, or eventually released for retirement.

Karkat just hasn't quite been able to accept how fucking annoying it is when your lusus gets it into its head that you're in charge of feeding it when it gets weird cravings at one in the morning. This always, always, without fail, happens on the rare occasions when Karkat wants to sleep through the night. It's like he's fucking cursed to never get a good night's sleep. He's so used to operating on three hours of sleep by now that it's almost pathetic.

Another screech pierces the air, and Karkat grabs the nearest comic from the desk by the 'coon and flings it at Crabdad. "Shut up! You're gonna get us fucking evicted, you incompetent festering nookstain!" he hisses, hoisting himself out of the sopor and yanking off his sopor-drenched black shirt. He throws on the same hoodie he's worn all week and the first pair of pants that aren't similarly covered in sopor. Appeased by Karkat's movement, Crabdad clicks his claws but shuts the fuck up, thank god. The last thing they need right now is to get kicked out over Crabdad's constant fucking noise the goddamn week before school starts.

Toeing on a raggedy pair of Flashstep sneakers, Karkat grabs his wallet off the desk and removes a twenty - no fucking way is he wandering around this part of town at night with his wallet on him. "Keep quiet, and I swear to god I will bring you back iced roe," he promises.

Crabdad gives a slightly quieter skree in reply, and, wearily, Karkat skrees back, feeling like a fucking wiggler. Content, Crabdad huddles down on the floor in the kitchen block and doesn't even look up as Karkat walks out. He does not slam the door, but only because knowing their piece of shit hivelord she would probably choose tonight of all nights to get pissed about it. Hunching his shoulders, Karkat shoves his glasses up his nose and stomps down the stairs.

The closest store that stocks lusii rations is the shitty 24-hour convenience store five blocks away, on a slightly less shitty street that hosts a McDonalds, a bank, and a cheapass pharmacy. The street is relatively quiet for once, one of the street lights buzzing in flickering death throes even as Karkat shuffles underneath it. A bum is scrawling through a dumpster by the side of the shitty McDonalds, eyeing Karkat sideways with dull human eyes. Karkat turns the corner before the man can decide whether he's an easy mark or not. Crossing the street, he ducks into the convenience store, squinting his eyes against the harsh fluorescent lighting. The troll girl behind the counter snaps her bubblegum as she drums her claws on the counter, her luminescent eyes a dirty green as they flash under the lightning.

Automatically, Karkat goes tense, pinning his stare on the ground and nervously readjusting his glasses as he stalks to the back freezer. His own eyes ache and itch, as though just the thought of another troll's eyes was enough to trigger a reaction. He fights the urge to prod at them, to scurry to the bathroom and check to make sure they're still rusty red, and forces himself to open the freezer without accidentally ripping it off its hinges. Stacking three trays of iced roe in the crook of one arm, Karkat shoulders the door closed and shuffles back to the front, dumping the trays in front of the olive-blood.

Thankfully, the troll girl has just as few fucks to give as Karkat at the moment, tapping in the item codes with a stabbing claw and nearly tearing the currency when she takes it from his palm. When the roe and the change have both been stuffed in a tattered grocery bag, Karkat thanks her "very fucking much" and barges right out, relaxing only when he's out of the range of the fluorescent glow. Shoving his hands in his hoodie pouch, he slumps over and keeps to the lit part of the sidewalk as he starts back toward the corner.

Which is, of course, when the police cars veer around the corner, sirens going full fucking blast.

Karkat stares, jaw dropped and one eye twitching, just as the doors of the bank behind him burst open with a huge crash and a flurry of shouts. Before him, the police cars shudder to a stop in a rough circle, trolls and humans popping out with various strife specibi in hand and claw.

The next second, a gunshot cracks the air and Karkat realizes those fucking fucks behind him are shooting at the cops

And he's standing in the middle of it.

Instinct kicks in, and Karkat flings himself to the ground just as yet another gun goes off overhead. His ears ringing, he crawls around the side of a car parked by the curb, rolling so that he has the very solid vehicle between him and the crazy shooting bank robbers.

"Hold fire! Civilian!" one of the human policemen shouts, and the few police wielding firearms jerk to a halt. A troll with a pistolkind fires off once before someone yanks him back behind the armored car doors. The shot doesn't come anywhere near Karkat, but he still flinches, frozen in place. The robbers on the other side of the car are still firing, the repeated blasts of sound hammering into his auricular sponge clots. Every few seconds another bullet pockmarks the front of the police car doors, which means that if Karkat tries to run he's most likely fucked in every conceivable way.

Oh my god, he thinks. This is it. This is how the universe decides to flip one last middle claw at Karkat Vantas: by having him accidentally get shot by a bunch of TAINTCHAFFING SPAZ MAGGOTS WITHOUT A SINGLE FUCKING THINKPAN BETWEEN THEM, revealing the secret swilling through his veins like a cosmic 'fuck you.' Hell, if they see what he is on the inside, the cops might just finish him off themselves. The troll cops, anyway. He had thought he'd at least make it through high school before a highblood decided to punch a hole in his chest cavity, but apparently even asking for that was too much.

The only warning Karkat gets is a sudden roar coming at him from the right; then someone is kneeling beside him, a pair of arms shooting out around his back and under his crumpled up knees. "Hold on!"

Karkat doesn't even have time to ask "What the actual fuck?" before there's a blast of air and the wind tunnel makes his eyes water as they rocket up into the sky. He somehow swallows down a reflexive scream, but his arms latch around the other person's neck desperately, tight enough to choke out a grown troll. The bag full of iced roe cubes is squashed between his side and the person's chest, and he wants to cry hysterically over the fact that he almost died over lusus food. That was a thing that actually happened.

It's not until the wind dies down a little and the little veil of rust clears from his eyes that Karkat realizes what the hell just happened, as the person cradling him in their arms floats down gently and touches down on the roof of a nearby building. The gunshots below sound like little pops of noise that barely register over the fact that the fucking Heir of Breath just flew Karkat out of harm's way. The arm under Karkat's knees drops away and a firm hand steadies him as he stumbles onto the roof, dazed by the realization.

"Are you okay? Hey, sir, are you okay? Were you hurt?"

Karkat shakes his head before the questions reach his thinkpan, too busy staring at the Heir's masked face as he tries to process what just happened. "I - I, no, yeah, I'm fine," he says at last.

"Just hang tight here for a few minutes, okay? I'll give you a ride down after I help take care of that mess down there." A small grin presses through Heir's blue mask, the outline barely visible beneath the obscuring layer of cloth.

The last thing Karkat has time to notice is that Heir's eyes are really, really bright blue through the slight tint of his goggles, the same unreal ice blue you see on all the photoshopped posters in the local comic book stores. Then Heir is in the air once more, the breezes streaming around him in a nearly visible curl, and the hero shoots back down the side of the building, right back into the firefight. Karkat walks over to the edge and peers over, the plastic handles of the grocery bag knotted in shaky hands.

It's not even a fight. Heir lands right in front of the robbers with a burst of wind, slamming all five criminals up against the wall and holding them there with a hand outstretched. A single gesture, and the pistols the robbers hold are knocked out of their hands, revolving in a circle in midair before the Heir sets them gently on the ground well behind the police line. The police respond after a brief pause, advancing on the robbers with specibi still at the ready. Heir lets the criminals drop and takes off, easily floating over the cops' heads, his hood blown back to reveal a thatch of messy black hair.

Karkat's brain must be completely pansmashed, because he's slow to realize Heir is flying back up to the rooftop. Like he'd just promised he would. Fuck.

"Sorry about that. You should never have gotten caught in the middle of that," Heir says before he even reaches Karkat's level, yanking his hood back up almost as an afterthought. "If you want, I have time to drop you off somewhere else. This was the first real emergency I've had all night."

Karkat's mouth feels drier than a desiccated sheaf of molt-skin. "I just live in that building over there," he croaks out, pointing in the general direction of his apartment. "If that's, uh, okay." He wants to slap himself upside the forehead. So fucking suave, Vantas. Way to sound like a stammering fuckwit in front of the Heir of Breath.

Heir just tilts his head to the side and smiles again. "You got it!" he says, chipper. There's another whirl of wind and Karkat is once again in the air, Heir's arms supporting him as they arrow over a block of buildings. Seattle is a blur through the wind enveloping them, the glow of the city lights hazy and yet dazzling. They touch down without a jolt in front of the apartment's front entry. "Stay safe, okay sir?" Heir says earnestly, bright blue eyes meeting Karkat's.

"Yeah," Karkat manages, wondering where the fuck his usual eloquence had fucked off to. Usually he could go on for ages, but right now he can't even muster up a full sentence. Heir has him completely at a loss. "Thanks - thank you."

"No problem! Goodbye, sir!" And with that Heir takes off, the greyish blue of his suit vanishing against the cloudy night sky.

Karkat realizes he's been standing around aimlessly for a good five minutes, staring at the space in the sky where the Heir had flown off, and shakes himself. He goes inside and back up to his apartment block, mind still absorbed in running through the night's events on a loop. He doesn't realize his mistake until he's already absent-mindedly told Crabdad about everything that happened, and the lusus begins skreeing in genuine alarm, flailing around the respite block with such frothing agitation it starts toppling lamps and breaking plates, utterly beyond pacification until Karkat shoves an entire tray of iced roe down its gullet.

By the next morning, there is no more roe to bribe the lusus with, and Crabdad is tossing Karkat's belongings around into packing boxes, ignoring all of Karkat's attempts to hang his hero hoodies back in the closet and apologize to the hivelord for the lusus's intense screeching.

By the end of that day, Crabdad has pissed off the hivelord enough that Karkat no longer has any choice but to go along with their relocation because they've been fucking evicted.

Motherfucker.

That's how six days before school begins, Karkat Vantas finds himself loading a small moving van and driving out to Maple Valley, Washington, a suburb probably voted 'more sleep-inducing than nitrous oxide.'

But it's too late. The idea has already worked its way into Karkat's thinkpan. It consumes him as he tapes up the box of utensils, as he empties his recooperacoon and dumps the sopor into the disposal unit, as he piles all of his earthly belongings into one van. It's with him as he takes one last look in the ablutions room mirror, tracing the edges of his eyes with a single nubby claw.

It's going to take a while. He's nowhere near in fighting shape, and he's been suppressing certain parts of himself for so long, he can barely remember how it all works. This is going to involve months of training, if not longer.

But now that he knows he can have it, he wants it. It's about time he stopped hiding, whiling his life away in the grip of suffocating fear.

In his mind's eye, he can already see the shape of a mask creasing across the brow of his nose.

It looks good. It looks right.

---

Rose doesn’t sleep anymore. One’s intimate connection with the Horrorterrors of the Furthest Rings does not tend to itself, you know.

There is a moment of disconnection before she settles back into her body, and she is slow to readjust to the feeling of being confined in a single container. She sits in the center of the observatory, legs folded neatly beneath her and back arched in a perfectly straight line, a faint light seeping out from behind closed eyelids. When she opens them at last, lips parted in a dry gasp, the glow vanishes, leaving only lilac eyes with pupils blown out like dark stars. Her perfect posture slumps the moment she returns to herself, and she lets it happen, feeling like a puppet whose strings have been cut.

That simile is inaccurate. No, it is more that she has felt what it is to have porcelain in place of bone, piano wire instead of muscle, dank clammy water rather than blood. How can she hope to support herself with mere meat and bone after that?

Sweat sticks her reddish-blonde hair to her wide forehead as she tremblingly tucks stray strands behind her ears. She rises on shaking legs, her head hollow and fumbling without the absolute will of the Void chanting into her mind. There is a vast goldenrod sun painted in wide, haphazard splashes of paint across the inner curve of the observatory ceiling, the curling tendrils of sun rays embossed with orange and gold. Her childhood self had thought it a heartening venture, a pleasant image to open her eyes to and a way to ease her mental state after hours in the colddamp.

Her childhood self had been a fool.

Early morning rain patters on the roof and the uncovered balcony as Rose makes her way back into the house proper. There is a moment, when the wind picks up and her hair and skirt toss wildly, where her balance falters and she is uncertain whether her foot will fall on the balcony or through air, and she is giddy with the jolt of adrenaline that shoots through her veins. Then her foot slams hard onto the balcony, and she staggers against the side of the house, head still dizzy with the near fall.

She regains herself with more focus this time, her regular analytical mind expanding outward from the protected corner in which she hid herself from the corrosive presence of her Tentacled Patrons. By the time she strides down the stairwell and into the restroom, leaving a trail of damp footprints in the lush ivory carpet, she feels fully herself at last, no longer worn thin by the dark. She refreshes herself in the restroom, stripping off clothes that drip with sweat and rainwater, and turns the water as hot as it will go, a hint of raw desperation in the tremble of her hand as she turns the knob. She tucks the wild emotion away, smoothing it into the logical pattern of her thoughts before it can consume her.

If she had not learned to control herself this way, she would have gone fully mad years ago. As it is, she can feel the dark cracks in her mind, the scraped raw edges where her thoughts and emotions trail away. Dampness oozes up through the cracks, but she can ignore it. For now.

She finally peels herself out of the shower, the hot water having done nothing to warm the ice in the marrow of her bones and the creases of her brain. Drying herself carefully with a fluffed towel, she begins pulling on the uniform she had laid out the evening before her nightly trance.  First is the light, woven Kevlar body suit, specially ordered and tailored to her body. Then the lower layer – dark orange pants tucked into supple boots, and a pale yellow top with long, tight sleeves. She straps on the arm guards for her needles and another vest of Kevlar, this one painstakingly dyed orange in a fit of fashion-savvy a few months ago.

She slides a yellow headband into her hair, tucks her orange hood in and pulls on a short sleeved, billowy, creamy golden tunic, with an orange sun covering her entire slim chest. It flares just right from her hips, tight around her waist as she does up a utility belt loaded with her backup knives and needles. She pulls on the standard gloves that heroes all gravitate towards, high quality and soft against her palms, tiny orange suns sewn across the backs.

The next part is the hardest, the most pointless and yet most central part of the ritual. She smooths out her complexion with powder, highlights her cheekbones and erases the deep purple shadows that underscore her eyes. She forgoes mascara – it would only look  unnatural on her nearly translucent eyelashes – but liberally applies layers of gold and white eye shadow. Finally, she lines her mouth dark, and fills in her thin lips with lipstick so dark a purple it verges on black, purple like bruises and the dark between the stars, her one concession to the horrors that lurk within her mind.

Finally, she fits her mask onto her face. It is a slim strip of gold cloth, a single layer between her face and the eyes of the world. Her façade feels as inadequate as ever. Most heroes work in the dead of night, she knows, and they can get away with flimsy disguises when the dark does most of the obscuring for them.

She has more pressing obligations when the sun falls. So instead, she fights crime in the day, from earliest morn to the latest in the evening she can manage before the coiling darkness calls her home. Horrors know, there is enough crime in a city as large as New York that she has plenty to occupy her even at high noon.

Rose Lalonde takes one last look in the mirror, taking in the elaborate embroidery worked into the hem of her coat, the sky-blue bright of her boots, the edge of her armguards peering out just beneath her sleeves.

(One day, she will walk the streets of New York dripping with darkness and wrapped in sleek shadow. But for now, she is the Seer of Light. She is the heroine of this story. She must be. She has no other choice.)

Unable to meet her own eyes in the mirror, Rose wrenches away and walks out, picking up her twin needles with slim fingers and sliding them into the arm holsters. She strides out of the house without hesitation, stepping over the shattered wizard statues and overturned furniture that she has not had the energy to clean up since the day she’d first toppled them.

It’s not as though her mother is around to passive-aggressively pander to the mess, anymore. Rose has more important matters to occupy her time than thoughts of that final unfinished martini, still sitting abandoned on the table by the front door as Rose strides out of the house.

Picturing her usual destination in her mind's eye - visualization is key - she raises a needle and cloaks herself in light that burns at her tearing eyes. The thick forest that surrounds the country estate vanishes in a flare of white-hot light, and when she blinks away the film of tears she is on top of the Flatiron Building, the slowly growing roar of New York City rising up beneath her.

(For a brief moment all she sees below is so much meat. The humans of this city are of such startling insignificance, and the idea of saving them from themselves yet again draws a chuckle of mind-breaking laughter from the tangle in the back of her brain -)

Banishing all such irrelevant thoughts to the back of her mind, the Seer of Light swallows the bile rising up in the back of her throat, raises her needles, and tilts her head to the side as she surveys her domain. Other heroes have to hunt for crime, comb through back alleys and wait for cries of pain and gunshots to alert them.

Rose closes her eyes, and when she opens them again the sun illuminates all she needs to see, some of them current events, some potential crimes that she can just barely sense the makings of, glowing in her mind’s eye like little bursts of light. The colddamp, grimdarkness subsides, and she sighs with relief as the last of the night's taint is burned away.

A faint smirk curving her purple lips, she teleports to the scene of a robbery in media res.

And she begins her work.

---

Dave rolls over and punches his head into the pillow, his much-battered sunglasses creaking as the plastic bends under the pressure. He can really give no fucks at all. If he keeps his eyes shut and the sunglasses on, the sun pouring in through the gaping hole in the wall won’t mean a thing. It’s not like he has somewhere to be – Striders don’t do public school. He can stay in bed all day while other unfortunate souls have to wake up and go through the motions of caring. It would be deliciously goddamn ironic, and it is going to be a Thing. He is totally doing this. He is making this ha-

He doesn't hear Bro. He never does. One moment, Dave is wrapped up in all kinds of awesome sleep irony; the next he rolls out of bed, a katana stabbing into the pillow where his head used to lie. He snatches up the first sword he lands on and comes up in a fighting stance. Bro has already vanished again, and there is only a second's pause between the bright blue smuppet flying at Dave's face and a sharp blade slicing in from the side.

He dodges both, and hears the faint whine when Bro's katana finds nothing but air. Next there's a flurry of puppets and sword all coming at him at once, and Dave is too busy parrying and dodging and darting out of range to even think about striking a blow of his own.

Time to even the odds a little.

Oh fuck, that has to have been the corniest pun in the history of paradox space. You're welcome, world, hold your applause, your daily dose of ironically sick humor has just been served by Dave fucking Strider.

He barely manages to brace himself. Dave sucks in a breath and twitches his hand, shoving at a tiny part of his mind and telling it to stop -

Everything goes hazy red and sluggish as time grinds to a relative halt. Dave can only hold it for a breath, but it’s enough; he flashsteps out of range, and when time jolts back into motion, Bro’s lunging strike stabs the wall rather than Dave’s face.

This doesn’t faze Bro, of course. Not a second later the blade is free and slicing once more, the edge of the nigh-unbreakable blade glinting in the light from the hole in the wall. Every other breath Dave has to brace himself and reach inward to twist time to a standstill just to be able to keep up with his brother’s agile moves.

In a straight, sword-to-sword fight, Dave knows Bro would utterly wreck his shit. He’s just that good. It’s only since Dave figured out how to flashstep that he’s been able to hold his own, and even with the ability to stop time in his repertoire, he can’t get off the defensive.

None of the dumb shits they beat up on a daily basis are anywhere near Bro’s level, but that’s not the point. Dave has been trying to catch up to Bro his entire life, but some days it feels like the gap just keeps widening, like he’s gunning for warp one but can’t break light speed, and fuck, that thought is just nerdy enough that Bro’s next swing opens a thin slice along Dave’s cheek before Dave can parry it. Jaw clamping tight, Dave reapplies himself to the strife, stopping time and trying to hold it so he can get in past Bro’s guard.

All he manages to do is set off a firework in his brain. One sharp burst of pain later, and the world blanks out in a fuzzy veil of reddish darkness.

Dave wakes up on the carpet, an elegant sword stabbing into the floor mere inches from his sunglasses. His head is pounding like a bassline gone horribly wrong, which means he's overdone it again. Fuck. He accedes, avoiding Bro’s probing gaze as he puts a hand to the dip between his nose and his upper lip, smearing a tiny trickle of blood down his face with a finger and grimacing. Bro gives a sharp nod, and Dave pauses before nodding stoically back, waiting until Bro puts the sword away and vanishes before rubbing the blood off and standing. A few moments later Dave can hear the click of the shitty microwave turning on. Bro can’t stop time like Dave, but he’s fucking fast enough that there doesn’t seem to be a difference.

So much for sleeping in. If Bro is actually cooking something in the microwave, as opposed to fiddling with it as part of his latest foray into bizarre technological experimentation, then it means he wants them out and working today. Dave tosses his current shitty sword back onto the overturned bed and goes to the closet to obtain a slightly less shitty model.

As always, the only warning he gets is a split second blur of color before the trap is triggered; Dave flashsteps backward, and what seems like a hundred disgustingly colorful smuppets topple out of the closet, forming a sinisterly plush pile on the ground where Dave had been standing.

There is a pause as Dave is gripped by revulsion and the noise in the kitchen stops, waiting. Dave is sure the pile hadn’t been set to go off until Dave had pushed himself too far; this is, in an incredibly fucked up way, Bro’s concerned way of making sure Dave hasn’t actually had a time-stop induced aneurysm and broken his brain.

Dave grimaces and kicks the pile out of his way, pulling on a layer of Kevlar before yanking a pair of fancy crimson suit pants on. He keeps his sleep  shirt on instead of going all out and wearing the rest of his costume. Bro can go from predictably ironic to unpredictably ironic on the slightest inscrutable whim, and it wouldn’t be the first time Dave has assumed they are heading out, only for Bro to simply tilt his head to the side, take in Dave’s outfit with a smirk, and then stay at home all day to play FPS games while Dave stews.

But it’s all cool. That’s the thing about being ironic heroes; you have to do what feels right in the moment to achieve the maximum amount of irony. Dave is totally on board with that.

He hesitates, eyeing the thin metal collar lying on the floor by the torn up bed. With a raspy sigh, he leans down and picks it up, staring out the window for a few long minutes as he debates inwardly. After the third inspirationally ironic internal rap, he wraps the paper-thin layer of metal around his throat. Hell, even if they don't go out today, maybe Bro will feel like an actual rap session today instead of locking himself up in that creepy puppet shrine he calls a room.

(He doesn't bother testing the collar anymore; sure it's an amazing piece of technology and blah, blah, blah, but he's been using it for years now and the awe factor had worn off basically the day after he got it.)

He stops time to walk out into the kitchen just to prove he can, kicking open the pantry door and dodging a wave of spare parts as it falls out. If he's honest, the multiple traps spread out throughout the apartment on a daily basis are starting to get old. Heh. Maybe Bro is getting predictable in his old age. He's got to be hitting upper thirties by now, right? Practically ancient.

With that thought to bring a faint smile to his lips, Dave excavates a three-quarters empty box of Cheerio's left over from some bygone age of edible bounty. He scarfs down the handfuls of cereal before another trap can go off or Lil Cal can steal it from over his shoulder, which yes is in fact a thing that has actually happened. He still has nightmares about it.

He doesn't look up when he finishes the box, just tosses it back in the pantry empty. His stomach still complains a little, so he starts hunting for anything else not lost to the great summer mold infestation. In the end he has to settle for chugging a few glasses of water, both to settle the last of the emptiness in his stomach and in preparation for a day of work. Bro catches his eye from behind pointy shades and nods approval before scratching at the scruff of beard growth on his jaw and disappearing into his room.

Which means they are working today. Hell yes. Hell. Fucking. Yes.

Dave is back in his room in one fluid motion, the headache of overreaching himself vanishing in the sudden clarity sharpening his mind. He's not excited. Just. He appreciates the work. Being a hero is a pretty selective field of work, okay, not everyone can be blessed with the kind of raw talent Striders casually throw around on a daily basis.

Ripping off his sleep shirt, Dave finishes putting on his newest work outfit. He’s never seen Bro wear anything but his white polos, tanks, fingerless gloves, and jeans when they head out, which Dave guesses is decently tongue-in-cheek because it’s the exact same thing Bro wears almost every day anyway, regardless of whether they do hero work or not. But Dave personally thinks coming up with a new costume whenever the mood strikes him is pretty damn hilarious too.

(This is due in large part to the fact that he trolls the local hero fan sites, and there are entire blogs dedicated to helping people recreate and cosplay Flashstep's latest ensembles. Entire flame wars have erupted over whether he personally alters his more outlandish suit jackets himself or not.

The answer is yes, but it’s not like he actually likes sewing or anything. Irony is a demanding mistress, alright? She requires regular blood sacrifices and the occasional bout of indentured servitude at the altar of Her battered sewing machine. And Dave is a loyal disciple, what can he say.)

This week it’s all about the red and white. He covers up everything with Kevlar before tucking a white dress shirt into his pants, hooking on a pair of red suspenders so his pants don’t fall the fuck off while he’s running across rooftops all day long, and shrugging a too-long, bright crimson jacket over it all. He pulls the hood over his head. And fuck yes, the little miniature black gear on the lapel is hand sewn. Fuck the haters.

He belts two black, battered sword sheathes across his back, the straps crossing his chest in a black x, and stuffs the inner pockets of his jacket with some of the card-suit themed ninja stars he keeps mostly for shits and giggles. He skips over his favorite shoes to put on a sturdy pair of white sneakers. He’s learned the hard way that he can’t actually wear his favorite shit out in the field, or eventually it’ll be destroyed before its time by the sheer amount of wear and tear his clothes go through on a regular basis.

Selecting two only moderately shitty swords for the day, he goes out to the kitchen again and sees that Lil Cal is absent from his usual perch above the fridge. Dave grunts to himself, the metal collar humming along with him, and digs through the pantry one last time until he finds a carton of apple juice he stored for just such an occasion. He tosses it back as he heads to the stairwell and starts upward.

Aw yeah. Motherfuckin’ AJ. It’s like the goddamn elixir of life. Without it, how could he hope to maintain all this concentrated awesome? If he ever has to pick one thing to subsist on for the rest of his life, apple juice is where it’s at.

On the roof the sun is hot overhead. The air feels muggy and sticks Dave's shirt and Kevlar vest to his skin almost instantly. The onset of fall has done absolutely nothing for taking the edge off Houston's stubborn heat, but Dave's been putting up with Houston's bullshit all his life. The best fuck you to an uncaring sky god is to wear long-sleeved shirts and stew in your gloriously Pyrrhic victory.

Bro is standing by the AC unit, staring off across the Houston skyline with an impassive face. More impassive than usual, anyway. When Dave flashsteps to the edge of the roof and raises an eyebrow at him, Bro just raises an eyebrow right back. That's all the signal Dave needs, the usual Strider-speak for ‘get going, kid.’ Dave nods without a word and pulls off his sunglasses, leaving them in the little nook between the AC unit and the roof itself. He doesn’t see Bro take his off, though he does note that there are now two pairs of sunglasses sitting in the shade when he straightens up, now alone on the rooftop.

It's ironic as fuck that for Striders the best disguise is to leave their faces completely uncovered, and Dave is all for irony, but hell if he doesn't feel just as naked with his eyes exposed today as he did the very first time he and Bro went out to wreck people's shit.

Suck it up, Strider.

He orients himself by the sun and aims for downtown. He checks to make sure his swords are secure across his back and then takes a running leap at the roof next door. Soon he’s built up enough momentum that he can afford to fall into a rhythm, the steady beat of the bass in his head syncing up with each stride he takes.  

---

In the slow moments between dreaming and waking, John imagines he can feel the breath sliding in and out of his lungs, the cool brush of air sinking into alveoli, sighing down through his trachea, flushing into his blood. He’s intensely aware of every flutter of air stirred up by the turning fan overhead, the autumn air suffusing the room through the open window. Somewhere, at the edge of his awareness, he thinks he can feel the inhale and exhale of a second pair of lungs, just barely out of sync with his own, and that presence comforts him deep in his bones.

With a grating beep, the alarm clock goes off, and John flinches bodily in response, his mind jolted out of its sleepy, muddled imaginations. The hyperawareness of his own breathing dies back, and the sensation of a second pair of lungs fades out. All that remains is his usual sense of the wind curling in through the window, tousling his hair and skimming across his face like a familiar greeting.

He scrubs the base of his palms over his eyes before putting on his thick glasses. He turns off the alarm and then concedes to the eager nudging of the breeze: he flips his palm upward, and a small gust of wind sends his bed sheets flying off him. Wrapped instead in a blanket of breezes that rustles his pajamas and hair constantly, John stumbles to the bathroom to get ready for the day, sighing wistfully at the thought of crawling back into bed.

But of course, he can’t afford to miss the first day of school.

John’s dad is already downstairs in the basement by the time John arrives, just beginning to flow through the familiar patterns of a t’ai chi sequence. Stifling one last yawn with his hand, John smiles at Samuel Egbert, and receives a faint smile and a slight nod in return as he falls into line with his dad, falling into the correct first stance and synchronizing his movements with the ex-Marine’s. He enjoys the steady, soothing way his lungs rise and fall, paying strict, practiced attention to his every twist and sweeping reach and correcting minute flaws in his technique. Morning katas have been a part of John’s routine pretty much since he could walk on his own, and he never feels fully awake until they’ve finished their father-son morning run-through.

After a half an hour, by mutual agreement they both stop, though they haven’t finished the last sequence. The school year always calls for changes and readjustments in John’s tightly scheduled workout routines, particularly once swim season starts up. Schoolwork has never been a problem for John, but there’s just no way around the eight-hour daily commitment that has to be accounted for come August.

“Do you have everything you need?” his dad probes after they towel off and return upstairs, pouring homemade batter into the waffle iron and setting bacon to sizzle on the already heated frying pan. “Nothing last minute?”

John nods from where he is rinsing strawberries in the sink and slicing them up into thin slivers, occasionally popping a whole berry into his mouth. “I should be okay. How do my contacts look?”

Samuel wipes off his hands with a hand towel and takes John by the chin, angling his son’s face from side to side. John lets him, tilting his head obediently despite the fact that he could resist the manhandling if he wanted to. “They’ll do,” Samuel says at last, patting John on the cheek before turning back to the waffle iron. “Just make sure you keep your glasses on as well.”

“Yes sir.” When the waffles are ready John covers them with the sliced strawberries and a dash of syrup, taking the plate to the table to eat while his dad makes another round and prepares a bowl of granola garnished with sliced banana and cinnamon. By the time Samuel places his own plate, a rasher of bacon, and the bowl of oatmeal on the table, John has already ploughed throw his waffles, the usual ravenous hunger slightly assuaged. He starts in on the oatmeal, savoring each hot mouthful.

Maybe it’s John’s powers, his duties, or just the growing pangs of a regular teenage boy – whichever is the case, John has always needed twice the amount of sustenance per meal that his dad has. When he’d been younger, his dad had been incredulous at the sheer amount John could put away; now, he just makes sure that everything John eats is healthy and filling without worrying about John’s total intake. With the kind of regular, strenuous activity John engages in every night, there’s certainly no worry about him getting flabby.

John finishes his meal and waits for Samuel to finish as well, his legs bouncing with restless energy in no way worked off by the t’ai chi workout, then takes all the plates to the sink to wash while his dad dries. He runs upstairs to change out of his workout clothes and into something more appropriate for the first day of school, finally deciding on a Superman shirt, dark jeans, and a white zip-up hoodie. Adjusting his tinted contact lenses and glasses one last time in the mirror, John practices a smile on his reflection, pushes the corners up with his fingers when he judges it a little too hesitant, and swings his backpack over his shoulder.

“I’m off!” he calls as he leaps down the stairs two at a time, landing easily in a tiny burst of wind. He’s trying to burn off as much of the excessive energy as he can before he gets to school and has to sit relatively still for an interminable length of time. That had been an issue last year. “See yah later, Dad!”

Samuel Egbert intercepts him at the door, brandishing two slices of toast even as John puts his hand on the doorknob. “Have a good day at school, kiddo,” his dad says as John stuffs the first piece of toast into his mouth.

There is a moment of tension, and John’s stomach turns uncomfortably. His dad is well aware that last year had been…rough, having had to deal with John’s emotional ups and downs throughout the school year until the sudden relief of an overdue summer. Sure, they have plans for how to deal with any kind of similar trouble this year, but John can still feel the space between them that hadn’t been there before, the void where a relatively stoic but supportive father just hadn’t quite been equipped to handle a stupidly hurting sixteen year old on his own.

Then his dad finishes. “I am very proud of you, son.”

John smiles back with real feeling, so hard his cheeks hurt, as the familiar praise warms him and eases the last of the jitters from his system. They run through the usual last few Dad-required questions (“Do you have your lunch?” “You put it in my bag yourself!” “Try not to stand out too much.” “I know, Dad.”) and then with a final pat of the head from his dad John’s out the door and down the street. He suppresses the urge to fly; the cool dawn air is crisp and enticing, the breeze light and welcoming, but he knows better.

He feels wistful all the same, and maybe a little depressed, but he puts that out of his mind. He always feels a little blue when school starts, because it means less time for flying and his duties, but school is just as fulfilling in its own way! He just has to adjust, that’s all.

A house three doors down still has the moving boxes piled up in a messy heap by the end of the driveway for the garbage truck, and, not for the first time, John tries to peer in through the windows to get a glimpse of his new neighbor. It’s no good – the blinds have been drawn shut for the past two days now. He knows for sure it’s a troll – he’s seen the spindly, ghostly pale crab lusus skreeing and trundling huge stacks of cardboard boxes inside from the moving van, but he has yet to get a glimpse of the troll itself. He’s intensely curious, and wonders if his dad will wait and take John with him when he goes to deliver a traditional welcome-to-the-neighborhood baked confection so he can meet them. It has to be a kid or an adolescent, or someone just barely out of adolescence; a fully matured troll wouldn’t still have an accompanying lusus.

Such thoughts occupy his mind as he walks to school, fifteen minutes away. He’s early, but the parking lot is already a mess of confused new students in their cars and parents walking their ninth-graders in. The first day of school is always a nightmare, but this year in particular a lot of school zoning has changed, shuffling enough people around to make it even more hectic than usual. John examines the schedule emailed to him back in July, locates his new locker and the first classroom he needs in his mental map of the school, and takes a deep breath before summoning another smile and diving through the crowd.

He weaves between the thronging crowd expertly, reaching his locker without incident. He sees a few familiar faces in the crowd, and three members of the swim team actually wave at him from a distance, but he’s painfully aware of how many more personal, exuberant reunions are taking place around him as old friends and groups shout at each other across the halls and embrace each other. He takes the rising stab of wistfulness, all too similar to the pang he’d felt about not flying this morning, and quashes it, waving at one last fellow swimmer before ducking into the AP Biology classroom, happy to be away from the claustrophobic, crowded hallway.

Three other students have already made it to the classroom, though there’s no sign of the teacher. Two of them John knows; one is a relatively well-known member of the football team that he is familiar with by reputation, while the other is a slim female troll whom Rose used to complain about back in middle school.

The third is totally unfamiliar, and even as John goes to sit at the desk just behind the unknown troll, he is struck by two significant details. One, the troll is wearing an oversized Batman hoodie, black and grey with the occasional flash of bright yellow. And two, this guy’s horns are tiny. Like whoa, some of the troll kids at school have pretty dramatic racks, but this guy is the exact opposite, his candy-corn horns rounded and almost obscured completely in bed of glossy grey-black hair.

And John can hardly help it if his first thought is ‘shit, he’s adorable.’ He finds himself staring at the back of the troll’s head instead of reviewing his textbook even after he opens the book, unduly intrigued by the smooth bumps of the troll’s horns barely rising above his head.

The urge to talk seizes John, and he’s halfway leaning forward before he even registers the old tightening of nervous anticipation in his chest. “Hello, Bruce,” he says before he can abort mission, and then immediately wants to slam his head against the desk with humiliation. Way to be a complete nerd, Egbert. If the Superman shirt hadn’t been enough of a hint, he’s just outed himself completely as completely lacking in any kind of social graces.

Almost sick with fascination, John waits as the troll’s entire body stiffens, and the kid slowly turns to eye John with an intent, rusty-red eye flashing from behind thin-rimmed glasses, and wow that is one hell of a scowl. It’s too late now; John plasters a wide smile across his face, torn between trying not to seem to eager and ducking his head and hiding his face in shame for the rest of the day.

The troll is silent for a long time, his mouth in a firm scowl as he raises a delicate eyebrow. “What do you want, Clark?” he says at last, with so much annoyance laden in his tone that John almost didn’t register the deadpan emphasis on ‘Clark.’

And then John feels his smile widen stupidly, uncontrollably, as he kicks his legs forward in a burst of irrepressible excitement. He’d actually talked back. It’s such a stupid thing to get excited about, pathetic really, but he can’t stop feeling it like a little firework going off in his chest. “Eheheheh. I’m John. What’s your name?”

The troll frowns, and his scowl deepens, any trace of that deadpan humor John thought he’d seen completely shut down. “None of your goddamn business,” he says, his voice just barely tinged with a growl, and spins around to face the front of the classroom.

That Batman hoodie seems more and more fitting with every passing moment.

Before John can press his luck, the teacher begins to speak, calling out attendance. This suits John just fine; unwilling to let his determination flag, he waits impatiently as the teacher runs through the list, almost missing his own name being called in his preoccupation, and is finally rewarded when she calls out the name “Karkat Vantas,” and the troll before him raises a hand in response.

Success.

“Nice to meet yah, Karkat,” John says, leaning forward a little to nudge the troll with a finger. The troll looked over his shoulder once more, and oh yes, that had to be the most downright unimpressed, 120% done-with-you face ever worn by trollkind. John can’t help it; he barely contains the burst of laughter that attempts to spew out of his mouth, swallowing the body-shaking giggles down after a single choked-off snort. Karkat just looks at him like he’s a complete and utter imbecile, but that frown is just so expressive, so completely done with John’s shenanigans, that it just sets off another bubble of laughter that has the teacher eyeing both of them. Karkat whirls in his seat when the teacher gives a significant cough, and John smiles at her apologetically before settling down, almost humming as he watches the back of Karkat’s head.

John should be discouraged by this, especially when the troll ignores him through the rest of class. But for some reason, he can’t feel his excitement dying at all, listening to the teacher give her first-day lecture without really paying attention as he looks over Karkat’s horns, trying to figure out why they seemed so damn familiar -

And then, finally, John places where he’s seen those nubby horns, angular features, and rusty eyes before, and has to swallow down an exclamation of recognition.

He looks different, in the bright light of day, not trapped in the middle of a shootout between bank robbers and the police with nowhere to run. But, yeah, this is the troll Heir had flown home not a week ago. John had been distracted at the time, first by the need to get the troll to safety and to stop the shooting before someone was seriously injured, and then by the nagging tug of the wind informing him of a break in across town he needed to take care of, but he remembered the nubby little horns and the utter, shell-shocked sincerity in the way the troll had thanked him.

Holy shit. Someone John’s saved is in the same class as him. He doesn’t think this has ever happened before, ever. His stomach is doing something really bizarre that he can only describe as a mix of excited flailing and panicked twisting. Because on one hand, oh my god, maybe he can be friends with someone he saved as Heir, and then on the other hand, oh my god, someone who has seen Heir up close and personal is sitting barely a foot away from John’s face, with only the assurance of a mask, a pair of goggles, and tinted contact lenses keeping John’s secret identity from being all over the Seattle Times. It’s like a birthday present and a nightmare all wrapped into one.

John’s dad would probably be a lot more worried. But after that initial moment of panic, John is right back to the bubbling burn of excitement. He doesn’t even know what’s causing this; he just knows that he is determined to be friends with Karkat Vantas, even if it’s the last thing he does. Him and Karkat, best friends – it is going to be a Thing.

When class ends, Karkat is one of the first on his feet, packing up his things in one smooth motion before heading for the door without looking back. Despite the abrasive attitude Karkat blasts, John still can’t shake the desire to talk to the him again, so he heads after the troll, weaving between slower students with practiced ease as he trails Karkat through the crowded hallway.

The troll comes to a stop by a locker not far from John’s own and begins to fiddle with the combination lock, giving John time to catch up. Then he pauses, realizing he doesn’t actually know how to initiate a ‘let us engage in glorious brohood my friend’ invitation without the medium of a pesterchum window between him and the potential bro. Which, uh. Awkward.

While he waffles and feels his momentum slipping away in the face of his awkward inexperience, Karkat looks up from his lock, which he’s still having trouble with, and grants John yet another annoyed glance. “This is getting really creepy, really fucking fast, Clark,” he drawls, yanking on the stubborn combination lock and bestowing upon it an even more fantastic death glare than the one he’d given John. “Either spit it out or shut your flapping mastication trap and leave so I can get on with my life. Newsflash, asshat, I have better things to do than be on the receiving end of your panaddled attempts at awkward social interaction, so if you would be kind enough to fuck right off and let me annihilate this shitty lock in peace, I would be the happiest little wriggler in this entire blasted cave!” Karkat finishes this with a vehement, but ultimately futile, tug on the lock, letting his head fall forward with enough force to probably dent the locker itself.

The answer is on John’s lips before he really processes the fact that he knows the answer, can feel exactly what he wants to say next with perfect clarity. “S’okay, man. You know, since my name isn’t Clark. It’s John.”

Karkat goes completely still, and then, almost in slow motion, knocks his head against the locker again with a groan of bone-deep existential despair. John snickers. “God damn it,” Karkat says seemingly to the empty air. He angles his head to glare up at John. “What. Do. You. Want.”

John barely suppresses another burst of giggles. It's an entirely novel sensation - he's never been so thoroughly entertained by the sight of someone else being so very, very annoyed. "Uh. Nothing, just - you're new here, right?" Oh my god he's awful at this.

"This is either the worst attempt at flirting ever, or you are the single most painfully awkward person on the planet," Karkat says, turning his attention back to the locker. This time, it clicks open and he almost snarls in triumph. It's just as adorable as the angry faces.

"Whoa! Uh, no, not flirting, uh!" John says coherently, flailing as he scrambles to shake his head in negation. "I guess I'm just not really good at this, huh?" He tries to keep up the smile even as he feels something low in his stomach begin to tighten and sink, a kind of wistful regret that he recognizes all too well. He should have known better than to try this, he muses, shoulders sagging as Karkat's unamused glower remains intact. He's never made a friend in his life, aside from Rose, and Rose had done most of the groundwork there.

"...You're absolutely fucking awful." A hint of a smile tugs at Karkat's straight frown, and for a moment John thinks he's imagining the faint amusement in the troll's voice. "I can only assume that means this is intended to be some kind of inane human friendship initiation ritual. Well, you have my attention for the next thirty seconds. Proceed."

"Really?! Oh, uh," John says, thrown off by the sudden release of the tension in his stomach. Somehow he hasn't messed this up yet, and realizing that brings the smile back up to full intensity on his face. "Ahaha, I was just wondering what your next class is. I have Intermediate Alternian."

Karkat rolls his eyes, sorting through his textbooks and slamming the locker shut again. "Film," he says succinctly, tucking a textbook away in his bag. "The class your fumbling, pathetic human gesture of friendship is keeping me from is Film, and I intend to leave in the next ten seconds so I can go revel in what may be the single enjoyable class offered by this pedestrian little high school. Continue."

"Oh." John deflates again. "Sorry, then, um, I didn't mean to keep bothering you."

Karkat arches an eyebrow, waiting as the last ten seconds tick by, and then huffs out a long-suffering sigh. "The solution here is to ask me about the rest of my schedule," he says, folding his arms across his chest.

"Can I see your schedule, Karkat?" John asks automatically, seizing on the opportunity. Karkat whips the yellow paper schedule as though he'd been just waiting for his cue. Then he frowns again as John reads over it, as though he hadn't meant to give away that much enthusiasm.

John's good mood is rapidly returning. Okay, maybe John sucks at making friends, like that's anything new, but he's starting to get that he can't take all of Karkat's glowering expressions seriously. Whatever the reason for it, the troll's actions don't match his expressions, and it's possible John isn't annoying him as much as he thinks. Right now Karkat looks both angry and curious, as though he's incapable of showing any emotions with mixing in a balancing dose of annoyance to offset any genuine expression.

John can work with that.

And judging by the number of shared classes they have, John is going to have more than enough time to figure this whole friendship thing out. "I'll see you in physics, then, Karkat," he says, grinning at the troll as he hands the schedule back. He almost bounces back on his heels when Karkat rolls his eyes and squashes the smile threatening to edge out his perpetual frown. "See you later!" John calls as Karkat starts walking in the opposite direction.

The troll raises a hand without turning around, a kind of half-wave that transitions into rude gesture before Karkat vanishes around the corner, an irate smile still half-visible on his face.

John hurries off to his own class, still in a daze, and barely arrives before the bell rings. He doesn't mind though. If everything goes well, he may just have made his first friend since Rose moved out of town. It's not as though friends are out of bounds; he's just always been very aware that with the kind of life he leads, anyone he befriends could be at risk, so he's tried to keep it to a minimum.

But last year had only made it clear where trying to go at it solo would land him. Shrugging off a wave of unsettling memories, John takes out the Alternian textbook and focuses on the teacher, even as she begins to review the chapter he's already read.

Maybe school won't be so lonely this year.

---

Jade wakes up with a jerk, snorting and sending the pen clattering across the work desk. There's a thin trickle of drool running down her chin, the source of a mostly-dry puddle on the top layer of papers spread across the desk. For a brief moment, she can't breathe, a last ripple of fear shaking her before the half-remembered nightmare is forcibly shoved out of mind. She rubs at her chin with the back of her hand, grimacing at the leftover drool from her nap, and then turns her head to smile at her masterpiece. "It's almost time to go, Bec!" she says, reaching down unerringly behind her chair to scratch behind the ears of the enormous wolf sitting guard beside her. "Come on, boy, lets finish packing!"

Humming, Jade strips off her oil-splattered work apron as she dashes out of the garage, into the middle of a clearing. A large stretch of the jungle has been cleared for nearly three miles - maybe overkill, but Grandpa always said there was no kill like overkill!

She soon approaches a steep cliff face, takes a running leap, and begins scrabbling upward, not willing to waste time going the long way around by the actual path. She knows this cliff well by now, her grime-rimmed fingers expertly finding the cracks and crevasses she needs to pull herself upward. When she reaches the top, she whistles. In a crackle of electric green light, the white wolf appears beside her, still sitting at attention. When she ruffles his fur, Bec's bleach pale tongue lolls, and he gets to his feet at last. Together they run the rest of the way to the spindly towers and round orbs of the Harley residence. The thick, sweet scent of lush tropical plants fills the air.

Jade has already used the transportalizer and Bec's help to move most of her belongings to the garage over the course of the past few weeks, ever since she had found her Grandpa's last plans in his study and followed his instructions for this next big step in her training regimen. All she has left to pack are the essentials she's needed to keep out to live from day to day.

Now she bursts in through the ground level door and onto the battered transport pad, reappearing on her floor in a flurry of tangled brown hair. The suitcase is mostly packed; she shoves her second to last rifle into its case, tosses her favorite bath towels and toothbrush on top, and does a once over of the mostly stripped room, checking in the drawers. She leaves the doors of her empty wardrobe hanging open when she whips around with a laugh to duck under the bed. She finds one last dusty squiddle, a limited edition Fancy Princess Berryboo, underneath, and throws it in the suitcase before slamming it shut.

"Goodbye room!" she says cheerfully, waving at the walls, bare of posters. She hefts the massive suitcase in a single hand, unbothered by the fact that it weighs approximately two hundred pounds. Then it's back to the transport pad with her suitcase in hand, and down to the kitchen floor. There she takes the time to irradiate a steak for Bec, and slices enough tomatoes and meat and lettuce for twenty sandwiches, topping each off with a flourishing slather of yellow mustard before storing them in an icebox. She has a long trip to make after all, and she can sometimes eat three sandwiches a meal!

Everything is ready. Almost. Twisting her hand sideways, Jade mimes opening a drawer and tosses the suitcase and ice box into her sylladex pocket. Bec noses at the rip in space/time and wrinkles his pale muzzle in distaste. Bec never likes when Jade uses space for selfish things, but the sylladex dimension is really really useful and convenient! Grandpa had shown her how to open one up, one of the last things he'd trained her in before dying and leaving her to the care of the practice strife robots.

And Bec of course!

Smiling a little sadly now, Jade transportalizes to the living room. A familiar figure stands outlined by a permanent electric fire, framed by a pair of tall clocks. "Goodbye, Grandpa! I'm off on an adventure!" Jade hesitates, and then steps over a pile of her grandpa's hoarded junk and takes the last rifle in the house down from its rack, cradling it reverently. It is a prototype sniper rifle, one with no official make or model, a custom job Grandpa had designed himself. Jade has always used one of the hundreds of riflekind stocked around the house and island for practice. Grandpa always said she needed to wait for the right moment to take up his arms.

Well, she decides, the moment is now. Slinging the rifle across her back on a well-worn strap, Jade nods decisively and flips open the faces of both tall clocks. Beneath the one on the right is a bright red button; behind the left, a blue button. She plants a kiss on the taxidermied cheek of her grandfather's face, and pressed both buttons down at the same time.

Overhead, a familiar gruff voice chortles over the speakers. "Self-destruct engaged, my dear girl! Let's give it the count of ten-nine-"

Jade sets the transportalizer to the coordinates of the pad in the garage she'd just come from and activates it. Safely away from the house, she turns and walks over to the rickety plane waiting in the center of the garage. It is more than fifty years old, and looks as though a stiff wind could rip the wings from its sides. A blue wolf's head has been painted on one side, a large atomic symbol on the other. Bec appears in the pilot compartment as Jade tosses the last of her tools and rifles from the garage into the hold.

She changes her outfit, even as a low rumble rocks the garage - the sound of the residence imploding, leaving no trace of the Harley home and sanctuary for the outside world to find. Tying her hair back up in a long green scarf, Jade pulls a pair of old-fashioned aviator goggles over her face as she slams the hold shut and clambers up into the pilot seat. "Ready Bec?" she asks. Bec presses his nose to a fuel gauge, then huffs and lies down, at ease.

Cackling, Jade cranks the engine. The fuel is a little old, but no less potent for it; the nuclear engine warms up with a purring thrum, and the gauges and GPS screen light up bright green, a personal touch. Metal shields slide over the ancient wings, augmenting them, and an airtight cover closes over the pilot's compartment. Pressing a few more keys, Jade's lunchtop, sitting on the panel beside her, connects to the onboard Bluetooth. The display plays a hologram across the reinforced glass screen, outlining distance to destination, altitude, latitude, longitude, and assorted other necessities.

Jade revs the engine one more time. Just for fun.

She types a last message to her penpal on her lunchtop before shutting down everything but the program needed to help fly the plane. Then she lets the plane roll forward, picking up speed, and cues the engine one last time.

Fueled by the power of science and great justice, the plane containing the heroine who will be called Sharpshooter takes off, loud whoops escaping the airtight dome as Jade punches the air.

Success.

Behind her, the entire island shudders, and explodes, the volcano triggered by the secondary self-destruct sequence. That's okay - most of the important stuff can be replaced, and the really unique stuff is safe and sound in the hold. Fragments of half-molten rock patter against the back end of the plane, but they're already almost out of range.

Jade reaches cruising altitude, pulls out a sandwich from her sylladex, and crunches down on a juicy tomato and parrot sandwich. Delicious, delicious science. And to think, her career as a super heroine hasn't even begun yet! She can't wait to reach the mainland. Grandpa is gonna be so proud of her!

On the floor of the airplane, Bec gives a start and growls, staring with blank white eyes at something in the shadows at the back of the plane.

But in the next moment the unnatural shadow is gone, vanished back down the vent opening it had emerged from, and the green sparks playing along Bec's teeth die down. If the wolf could think in English, it would have admitted to itself that the thing now hiding in the hold never proved itself a threat to Bec's mistress even once during all those years on the island, and thus can be permitted to remain alive.

For now.

Jade, oblivious, stretches out and lets the autopilot do its thing.

The sunrise from the pilot's compartment is the most beautiful thing she's ever seen. Then the autopilot steers the plane away from the east, and they begin to coast toward her first destination.

Down in the hold, a black figure, barely distinct from the lightless shadows of the hold itself, conceals itself in the depths of an old cupboard, muttering to itself with irritated clicks and grimaces every time the plane jolts a little. It has grudgingly enjoyed its time on the island these past few years, against its will, but now - it's time.

Spades Slick has an old score to settle on the mainland, and nothing will stand in his way.

Chapter Text

By the time Karkat makes it to lunch, he's so thoroughly confused that he just agrees mindlessly when the source of his confusion asks if they can eat lunch together.

John Egbert isn't just in Karkat's biology and physics classes. Oh no. Karkat has weaseled out of him that, out of an entire seven period day, they somehow have five of the same classes. And the same lunch. And their lockers are in the same hallway, so Karkat can't escape even between classes.

If Egbert were a troll, at least Karkat would be able to say with some bewildered certainty that he's being hit on. Bewildered, because like hell would anyone court Karkat seriously. Ever. Like, this much unadulterated flirtation from a troll would be fucking embarrassing and any troll with a shred of pride left would at least make an attempt at not seeming so painfully desperate.

Egbert isn't a troll though, and so Karkat is faced with the key quandary that has plagued human/troll relations since the two species first met - how to interpret the difference between flagrantly pale come ons, and regular old human friendship offerings. If nothing else, Karkat's secret stash of embarrassing romantic comedies have taught him that the line between pale romance and the human disease called friendship is a line both subtle and variable, which can lead to embarrassing (yet comedic) shenanigans for all parties involved.

All things considered, it would probably be for the best if Karkat heads off any potential palemance or friendship off before the situation mutates into a giant tangled knot of inane antics and concentrated stupidity.

There's a major problem with that, though.

The problem is that when Karkat emerges from the serving line, a tray of questionable food in hand, he looks up to glare at John Egbert and gets a faceful of the most pitiful fucking puppy dog eyes ever worn by mankind. When Karkat then sighs and glowers and starts stomping toward Egbert, the kid's entire face lights up and he practically starts bouncing on his heels, grinning.

This is not normal behavior. Normal people don't smile and laugh when faced with Karkat's standard bitchy expressions. The entire reason he doesn't bother hiding his rage hardon behind a civil mask every day is so that people don't get too close to him, don't get curious about him or his eyes or his blood or any number of things that it would just be better for the entire goddamn planet if no one ever got wind of. Sure, Karkat has one persistently obnoxious pesterchum, but she's persistently obnoxious with everyone, not just him, and he'll most likely never meet her in person again, so he's pretty much in the clear.

Egbert, however, finds Karkat's best, most practiced rage masks entertaining. And when he laughs, Karkat doesn't get more irritated at what should feel like mockery. Quite the opposite in fact.

Which is a really, really ominous sign. Like wow, current Karkat, you need to stop being pacified by this nookchafing asshole right the fuck now. You've known this totally annoying dumbass for a grand total of five hours, get a fucking grip. He's some random guy who gets some perverse amusement out of being yelled at, that's all.

Karkat launches into a very nice rant even before he's finished walking up to Egbert, keeping his face in a nice neutral frown as his shoulders tense up. "Well? I can only assume you have a miniature horde of fellow buddychums waiting within this sea of uncivilized asshats ready to continue your work at trying to latch onto me like a parasite on an unsuspecting herdbeast. I'm warning you right the fuck now, it's not going to work. I'm only putting up with you because your looks of pathetic disappointment resemble a small animal after it's been caught stealing cookies from the pantry. If you think I'm going to be this disgustingly charming to every random wriggler you throw at me, you can think a-fucking-gain." He glances around the cafeteria suspiciously; he hadn't noticed Egbert plotting with anyone while he'd been in line for food, but it could have happened when he turned to grab the carton of milk from the freezer.

When he looks back at Egbert, irritated by the lack of immediate response, Egbert is fiddling with the strap of his backpack, and his grin has lost its lopsided earnestness, tightening into a perfectly constructed, apologetic grimace that can only nominally be called a smile. He's looking at something over Karkat's shoulder rather than at Karkat himself when he answers. "Oh, uh, no. No, I wouldn't just throw you to the wolves, Karkat! Ahahaha! I thought we could eat outside, since the weather is really nice today!"

Okay, wow. He's only spent half a day around this kid, and Karkat can tell something is up. It's like all that goofy sincerity got sucked out of Egbert, which yeah, Karkat has been trying to provoke the kid into revealing his ulterior motives all day long, but he didn't actually think he'd get a response like this? Egbert almost looks like he's in pain and trying to hide it. He's a horrible actor, of course.

"Fine. Lead on, Egbert," Karkat says at last, rolling his eyes at the exit doors of the cafeteria. At his old school in the middle of the city they hadn't been allowed outside during lunch, but that's apparently not a thing here - or at least, no one yells or moves to stop Egbert from pushing open the exit door and holding it open by leaning against it, some of the goofy tilt returning to his grin as he looks back at Karkat.

Like hell is Karkat going through that door then. For all he knows, it could be a trap, this whole morning an elaborate setup for some stupid prank by Egbert that involves dumping a bucket of water on his head or something. Karkat just has that kind of shitty relationship with the cosmic distributer of good luck. He shoulders open the other door, glaring at Egbert before he can protest, and walks out onto the grass, chomping on an apple in a satisfactory burst of irritated victory. Sure, choosing to open another door in a moment of all-consuming paranoia is a little fucking weird, but hey. As far as Karkat Vantas is concerned, he just gave a massive pair of middle fingers to the prankster’s gambit of the universe, and it's totally worth it.

Egbert matches his stride anyway, his slowly growing smile and the lack of disappointment over a failed prank probably a major hint that Karkat had indeed imagined that whole paranoid prank saga without any basis in reality. The kid is almost whistling as he strides to a tree wedged up on a hill, and there's an actual fucking bounce in his step. Karkat seriously has to find out what happy drugs they have this kid on, because they're clearly top quality and super effective.

A passing breeze runs through the tree branches, ruffling Karkat's hair as he slumps down against the side of the tree. He combs at it absently, then uses the same hand to adjust the apple in his mouth and take another bite. Then he looks up and realizes Egbert is still standing.

Which is really creepy. He raises an eyebrow and is about to say so (in much more elegant, vitriolic terms, naturally) when Egbert catches himself with a visible start and sits down, legs sprawled out in front of him as he pulls a brown bag lunch and a Tupperware container out of his backpack.

Egbert fidgets with his food, turning his brown bag to face the other direction for some bizarre reason before opening it up, while Karkat processes two major things:

One, they are alone out here. Yeah, it's a nice day, and the weather is fucking perfect, but no one else has decided to take the opportunity to claim part of the yard for themselves. Egbert has staked his claim on this spot under the tree, but the rest of the schoolyard is like a goddamn ghost town. All the social interaction is going on inside, which Karkat is totally okay with, except -

Two, yes, judging by Egbert's reaction to Karkat's quip about friendmobs earlier, and by the fact that the kid has literally chosen the most isolated spot on campus for this little friendship and feeding ritual, Egbert-

"There actually isn't a friendhorde, is there, Egbert?"

Egbert takes a massive bite out of his sandwich and blinks at Karkat innocently as he tries to talk around it. It's as disgusting a display as it sounds. "No! I told you, Karkat!" He swallows loudly, and Karkat is left to marvel at how one mere mortal can fit that much food in his mouth without choking as Egbert takes another impossible bite.

"So, for whatever reason, despite your looks, your hypothetical but as yet unproven swimming talent, and stupidly happy personality, you’re a social pariah who spends most of his free time socializing with a tree." Karkat feels that this is something that needs to be firmly established before he can move on with the conversation.

John stops chewing, and there's an almost painful pause before he swallows and looks down, smiling weirdly at the sandwich in his hands instead of Karkat. "Ahaha. Yeah, I guess?" Egbert rubs the back of his head, making his cowlicks worse as he closes his eyes and grins at Karkat, the smile once again dangerously balanced and symmetrical.

And Karkat realizes, with a sick twist in his stomach, that he could break Egbert. He could break him so, so easily, right here and now. It's so obvious.

All he has to do is ask why.

And -

He can't do that. He can't.

"I’m glad we covered that," he says instead, letting the apple drop onto his tray.

Egbert recovers in the space of seconds; it's a remarkable process to behold, as his smile creaks back out of line and he crosses his legs, leaning toward Karkat as he starts talking again. "Anyway, enough about me, Karkat! You keep ignoring me in class! Come on, I'm really curious - why did you move here?"

Karkat doesn't swallow back his reply and try to mitigate his usual abrasiveness. If he's going through with this friendship ritual, he thinks, he can't start pulling punches with Egbert. Just because the kid has some fucking issue where the subject of other friends are concerned doesn't mean Karkat is going to treat him like he's made of glass. "None of your business, you panshattered friend of trees. My lusus just decided to freak the fuck out and get us evicted from our apartment over something stupid."

Egbert just leans in further, eyes going big behind his thick-framed glasses with naïve curiosity. "Whaaaat? There has to be more to it than that!"

Karkat keeps eating on autopilot as Egbert bothers him until he tells the kid the story of the bank robbery incident in bits and pieces, rolling his eyes at Egbert's bright-eyed worry.

He doesn't know how or why Egbert has somehow ended alone. It's not his fucking business, and unlike Egbert, he's not going to go prying into someone's personal life. Especially not when it's clear that even barely mentioning the topic sets Egbert off like that.

But hell, if it isn't pathetic as fuck.

Karkat spends the rest of lunch fighting an internal battle with the sneaky tentacles of impotent pity trying to wriggle their way into his friendship ritual.

God fucking dammit.

-

He drives home and stops there only long enough to confirm that yes, Crabdad has somehow managed to transform their new kitchen into a warzone of tattered boxes and overturned chairs. The thermal hull appears to be upside down, and for reasons unknown an entire crate of untouched tomato soup cans has been lodged in front of the window, so that the only light in the entire kitchen is that which streams between the cupboards and the crate, and through the open front door when Karkat walks in.

It would be almost hilarious if it wasn't so panmeltingly frustrating because Karkat has to clean this up. As far as Crabdad is concerned, it has done its job and it has enjoyed a rapturous success. The giant crab has taken up residence atop a nest of shredded cardboard in the corner, lording its lazy ass over a court of futile destruction and broken dreams. It even has the gall to skree in triumph when Karkat stares slack-jawed at the new levels of failure to which his lusus has sunk.

No doubt it expects a reward for this.

After a long day of pale confusion, Karkat doesn't have it in him to even argue. He strips the plastic wrapping off the iced roe he picked up from the store, mouth tight. His lusus lurches to attention, eyes fixed on Karkat as it clicks its claws. Feeling old beyond his years, Karkat wearily shakes the tray of roe as he kicks off his shoes and leads Crabdad through the house, clicking every so often whenever the lusus gets impatient and tries to snatch at the tray. Karkat yanks open the back door and flings the entire tray as far as he can. Tiny cubes of iced roe glint in the sun before landing a long line across the backyard.

With a war screech, Crabdad flings itself after them. It's fucking embarrassing, is what it is. Shaking his head, Karkat closes the door. He can't lock it or Crabdad will just freak the fuck out until Karkat lets it in. But hopefully the unwarranted dessert before dinner will keep the incompetent little shit occupied until Karkat has somehow restored the house to livable levels of cleanliness. Fortunately, he'd planned for this kind of unmitigated disaster, because Crabdad is getting fucking predictable in his old age.

Thankfully, the kitchen seems to have received the brunt of Crabdad's 'helpful' rampage, and the lusus didn't have time to upset Karkat's room. Tipping over a still-intact box in the entry way, Karkat starts sweeping everything on the floor back into the box. When the box is full, he takes it out front and dumps the contents into the already crammed trash can, and then heads back inside to repeat the process.

Soon he can actually walk on floor instead of a layer of ragged packing paper and cardboard strips, and he is in the middle of setting the fridge the right way up when the doorbell rings. Out in the backyard, Crabdad skrees once before scrabbling at the door, frantic to get back inside. Swearing under his breath - which for Karkat implied a level of volume most people used for shouting at the top of their lungs - Karkat slams the broom into the corner and stomps his way to the door. Much to his disappointment, when he swings the door open, his mouth ready to unleash the full force of his wrath upon the unsuspecting asshole beyond, he only catches the tail end of the UPS truck as it zooms down the street, its headlights flashing a merry 'fuck you' in Karkat's general direction.

He forgives the UPS asshole a moment later when he looks down and sees the package sitting on the corner of the front porch. "Yessss," he hisses, snatching up the parcel. He throws a suspicious look from side to side, and glowers at the world as he hunches over his prize and closes the door. Cleaning up the rest of the mess can wait until tomorrow - Crabdad is only going to fuck more shit up in the morning when Karkat leaves for school - and he feels only a small stab of regret as he goes to let the lusus in, the package occupying most of his attention.

He's so preoccupied that he makes it halfway up the stairs before he realizes that it's not just the sound of his footsteps on the stairwell. Freezing, Karkat rotates his head to stare at his lusus, which has decided to follow him up the stairs. It stares right back with big eyes, letting loose a short, trilling shriek as it clacks out a question with its claws.

"No. Absolutely not. Go back downstairs," Karkat orders, glaring. He runs the rest of the way up the stairs and darts into his room.

An enormous, meaty white claw catches the door before he can close it. Crabdad screeches and waves its other claw in a wide circle, nearly knocking a lamp over in the process.

Karkat kicks at the claw on his door, rapidly losing his shit. "Oh my god. No. I do not have time for this. Go the fuck to sleep. God dammit, what the hell have I been feeding you?!"

His kicks are having little to no effect on the lusus, who seems to think Karkat kicking at him is a hilarious game, clicking its claws playfully in return swipes. No, fuck no, this is not turning into some wriggler game of pseudo-strife with his custodian, not when said custodian is apparently of such unfathomable girth that its fat is serving as some kind of unnatural shield against damage. Karkat refuses to believe the crab's exoskeleton is this durable. No fucking way. Crabdad screeches with new volume, grating against Karkat's eardrums, and yeah, that's the last straw.

"No! Nononooo!" Karkat screeches back, his voice hitting a shrill note he'd thought he lost the ability to make back around his second pupation. "Sleep! It's time to sleep! In your own fucking nest! Yes! Sleep!"

Crabdad warbles out another high note and tugs at the fabric of Karkat's shirt. Karkat gives the lusus a swat with the empty delivery box and drives the custodian back until he can close the door on its continued shrieks. Eventually the sound of pincers scrabbling on the door dies away and the lusus clicks away down the hall, no doubt intending to gorge itself on whatever food Karkat has failed to nail down to the cupboards. Fatass lusus.

Crabdad is definitely overdue for a new grub assignment: its custodian instincts seem more overbearing than ever in the new house. Karkat is more than ready for some peace and fucking quiet in his life.

Now then. He rips open the package with his claws, and closes the blinds in a fit of paranoia before laying out the fabrics on his desk.

Seeing the dull crimson of the smaller roll of fabric brings home that this is actually happening. He actually ordered this stuff, he paid money for it, and now it's been delivered to his house and it’s all sitting on his bed, having the audacity to look like totally innocuous heaps of fabric.

Which means he can't put this off anymore. He made a resolution last week, before he'd been distracted by this sudden, inconvenient relocation to the 'burbs, and now - the nervous anticipation roiling in his stomach reads more like eagerness than terror.

He's actually doing this.

Looking down at the rolls of neoprene and other materials, Karkat decides to deal with that later, the nervy anticipation in his stomach riling him up for something else he needs to deal with, something more important than his costume. His plan is still in the beginning stages, and he's not even sure the half-pictured outfit in his mind’s eye will look anything like the finished product. He just wants to order material now, and at intervals, so that no one searching records for a large order of durable, hero-typical fabric will notice him purchasing a shitton of black, grey, and crimson. It would kind of be a dead giveaway.

No, what he really needs to do is to start practicing. Right the fuck now, before Future Karkat does something idiotic like changing his mind. He knows enough martial arts to defend himself, and he already has plans to take more classes so he can reach his maximum potential as a fighter. But there's one aspect to his plans that no one can help teach him, that no one can ever even know about until he has a mask between his face and their eyes.

He has to figure out his powers. Again.

He only has vague memories of his childhood, when he'd been a lot more lax about keeping his mutations secret - past Karkat being, as usual, the embodiment of sublime idiocy, the standard by which all other examples of stupidity are measured and found wanting. But he knows it's been a good thirteen or so years since he began suppressing his talents in earnest and covering himself in so many layers of baggy fabric that even when he does get injured, the unfortunate color of his blood can be easily concealed.

So he doesn't know if he still has that same control he had as a kid. But he knows what he chose to specialize in for his strife specibi, and he's fairly certain he can use his abilities to create a weapon that can never be left lying around where someone could find it and trace it back to him, as they could with the regular sickles he keeps for practice in his closet.

He sits down on his bed, rethinks it, and then goes to the ablutions block, pacing back and forth before sitting on the counter top. He's got a kitchen knife in case he needs it, but he doesn't think he needs to get too crazy here.

Hopefully. If his powers even still work at all. Maybe his long standing wish came true, and his freaky mutant powers have vanished, right when he needs them the most. That would be a pretty fucking typical comic plotline, and probably just the kind of luck Karkat has every day of his cursed fucking life. He's already been putting this test off for a full week, his ingrained wariness about seeing even a drop of his own blood driving him to make up stupid excuses to avoid doing this.

Fuck it. No more running. Only half believing this stupid stunt is going to work, Karkat pressed a claw into the pale grey patch of skin at the base of his wrist, just above the artery that runs a dusky maroon line down the inside of his arm. The maroon is, of course, misleading; the blood that wells up slightly around the yellow of his claw is a bright, searing candy red, and Karkat only realizes he's starting to hyperventilate and flail around reaching for a towel when he has already lunged for the towel hanging on the wall, clutching his wrist in a death grip.

Sucking in breaths, Karkat forces himself to look away from the trickle of red running in a line down his palm, staring at the ceiling as he backs away from the towel. Shit shit shit, this is such a stupid idea; he can't even handle the sight of his own blood, so how does he expect to use it as a fucking weapon?

Okay, no. Fuck no, he's not wriggling out of this one, not now. "Motherfucking fuck pissmaggot-eating cowardly sack of shit," he chants to himself, baring his teeth in a silent snarl as he forces himself to look down at the cut on his wrist.

As though all it needed was his attention, the blood stops trailing down his palm, and slowly, as he gnaws on his lips and pictures what he wants, it begins to reverse direction. Little globules of bright red trundle back up, a few drops even rising from the ground when he thinks to extend his focus to them.

He sinks into his veins, his awareness of the thrumming pulse of his own heartbeat overlaying the sound of his harsh breathing. Pressing in, he guides himself to his wrist, and the artery he tapped into. Instead of letting the blood pool back into his body and congeal with a scabless, unmarred surface, the way it wants to, he fights the healing instinct and directs more blood outward.

The blood emerges still wet and pulsing, his head spinning and dizzy as he leans heavily back against the countertop. The sheer amount of red is getting to him again, well-trained reflexes urging him to pull it back in because what if someone walks in right now.

Karkat grits his teeth, forgetting that his lip is still in-between his front incisors, and blood starts to trickle down his chin as he envisions the shape he wants.

A sickle. Give me a sickle, give me something to fight with. Do this. Do this because I will it.

The blood forms a shaking curve, and he hardens it with a deft thought, letting out the breath he's been holding when the thought actually works. The blood sickle is rough and unbalanced, the point is duller than a pencil eraser, and it sticks out of his wrist at the worst possible angle.

But hey. He fucking did it. Angling it this way and that, Karkat stands upright, and catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror.

It’s a good thing he does. From the corner of his eye, he can see the bright candy red luminescence burning around the edges of his rust-colored contact lenses. Forgetting the sickle, he nearly stabs himself in the throat as both hands jump up to touch his eyes in horror. He swears loudly and uses one hand to remove both lenses, laying them out on the countertop.

Both lenses are limned with bright red blood, and he leans forward to inspect his eyes themselves. A shiver of old revulsion runs down to his toes at the unnatural red of his uncovered eyes. They don't seem to be hurt when he prods at them with a claw, and when he taps into his blood sense again, he can't detect any injury. There's nothing that his body registers as needing to be healed; apparently, leaking blood from his eyes is considered a completely fucking normal process.

Wow. What is the point total now? Universe, three million and fifty two, Karkat zero? Yes. It is official. He has been fucked over by the universe yet again. Now, suddenly, he can't even hide his eyes if he goes through with this stupid plan. It has been hard enough deciding to use his obviously mutant blood to its full potential, but now -

Well. Maybe it says something about just how invested Karkat is in this insane plan that no, not even the thought of running around with his eyes uncovered is enough to scare him off.

He studies his eyes for a long moment in the mirror, blinking several time as he adjusts to the unnatural sensation of having his eyes free of contact lenses. He brings the blood sickle up, and closes his eyes against the freaky reflection in the mirror.

He opens them again with a grimace, and begins the tedious process of transforming the dull sickle from a useless piece of shit to an actually useful weapon.

And in the back of his mind, he starts thinking of names.

Something to do with blood, he thinks, a crooked smile breaking across his face.

---

Rose finishes cleaning up a hostage situation on 48th Street with an unintentional bang.

It is one of the few situations she cannot predict the specifics of, due to the unpredictable nature of the crime. When she is near blinded by the flare of sunlight that directs her to the bank, she only knows the situation is serious, and has the potential to escalate quickly beyond her ability to control it. Rather than teleporting directly in, she summons a palmful of swirling orange stunning spells and appears across the street from the miniature sun pulsing around the bank.

She can see from the dim glow around a troll sitting behind the wheel of a black van that he is somehow related to the criminal activity, and she strides up to him to knock on the driver's side window. He rolls it down, fangs already bared in a snarl, and she gently pats him on the cheek, letting the stunner do its work. He slumps over, and she reaches inside to unlock the car door. She opens it and removes the gun from his lap.

It is a very unsafe place for him to have kept it; she is only doing him a favor by setting it down where the police can find it under the van.

Then she turns and stiffens when she realizes just how bad the situation within the bank already is. With an impatient jerk of her hand she turns off the early crime detection logo-thaumic vision (magical copyright pending) and the blinding brilliance of the robbery in process dims until all she sees is an ordinary bank, and she can observe the scene through the large glass windows that line the front of the building.

Several figures in masks walk between the huddled forms of civilians who are crouched or lying on the floor with their hands over their heads. Seer magnifies her vision by splaying her fingers across one eye and letting magic run through her hand. Judging by the shape of the specibi carried by each robber, these are professionals; they have specialized in assault rifles and the like, and she can predict with a good amount of certainty that these are merely the guards; they aren't demanding anything of the bank tellers behind the bullet-proof windows at the counter, merely keeping their weapons trained on key members of the crowd - the security guards, all of whom have been disarmed and lined up against a wall. This is not a good sign: it reads like a potential firing squad.

The best course of action is to knock as many out at once as possible, and disarm the rest. The priority is the firing squad goons; the men in the back stealing the actual money can wait until she has the security guards clear. Her method of approach must be immediate, and she will position herself within the security guards' bullet proof office, which will provide her with cover from stray gunfire.

Calmly, Seer sits cross legged on the sidewalk, blocking out the increased crowd volume and the sound of sirens as more people become aware of the hostage situation within the bank. Breathing in and out in a steady rhythm, Seer begins preparing the spells she will need: six stunners for immediate use, fast acting corroders for guns whose wielders she can't stun in time, and a mass shield spell for deployment over the people on the ground. With these three spell types carefully envisioned in her mind's eye, Seer rises and slides her wand into its holster. The wand is specialize for focused blasts of power; for this job, she'll need to spread her attention too much for it to be of assistance.

She breathes in one final time, and closes her eyes.

She opens them within the security guard's office. She stuns the masked troll standing beside the kicked in door with a tap on the side of his head, and then kneels to touch the floor, casting a dome of light with a height of three feet over the floor of the lobby. It is intangible to anything but bullets, a special design of her own creation, and protects most of the people on the floor. "Will the civilians please convey themselves to the doors and abscond in an orderly fashion?" she orders sweetly, smiling when all the robbers turn to gape at her.

Before they can recover she fires mobile stunners at the four criminals covering the security guards, dropping them. She hears the glass door of the bank open, and the sirens outside become near deafening in volume while people crawl out on their hands and knees. She gestures to the security guards silently, and all but one take up their strife specibi from the counter on which the robbers had stored them and begin to provide cover for the absconding civilians. The last one ducks past her with a grateful nod and answers a radio in the guard booth, responding to inquiries from the police outside.

However, in the time it took her to ensure the guards' safety, the sixth robber takes advantage of her priority on saving lives to run through the door into the back of the bank. She surveys the lobby one last time, assuring herself all potential threats here have been neutralized, and raises a small shield that only covers her body before teleporting into the back hallway.

She realizes her mistake when she opens her eyes to see a man holding a gun to the chin of a bank clerk. "Don't move, Seer!"

Seer freezes, mind moving rapidly to reassess the situation.

What she comes up with is...disturbing.

Because of course there are more bank tellers and workers at risk back here, trying to hide. Of course the second team of robbers would similarly take hostages in the event the lobby was compromised. Seer of Light is a very well-known New York City hero; any potential bank robbery would have contingencies in the event she came to stop them. Her hostage situation has always extended beyond the lobby, and she has been a fool not thinking of that.

But she is not a fool. So why? How could she have missed something so obvious? It doesn't make any sense, it's not the sort of thing the Seer of Light herself could fail to foresee, and now -

Now she is going to have to - to -

(kill them all)

It is not Seer but Rose who flinches and gasps, clutching at her skull as a sudden wave of colddamp seeps up into the folds of her brain, brine leaking into her sinuses and tendrils of darkness caressing the backs of her eyes.

(no other choice now you have no other option kill the fleshlings who stand before you rip them apart-)

"No," Rose gasps, tears streaming down her cheeks as she leans heavily on the wall. She can see the robber's mouth moving as he gesticulates dangerously with the gun, yelling at her, but she can't hear it. The roar of the ocean rumbles in her ears and the absolute whisper of the Void booms in her mind, both sounds she has only ever heard in the dark of night, in her meditation room. She closes her eyes, shaking her head, but all the action serves is to send water trickling icy cold down her spine, twining into her nervous system.

(do it)

This is impossible. The Horrorterrors can't reach into her mind during the day, and especially not at high noon, when her light powers should be at their peak -

(he's going to kill the fleshling you care about so kill him this is the logical choice we understand rose our rose the other fleshy thing is insignificant so you don't have to kill it rose just him justhim)

Breathing air feels unnatural. Rose does it anyway. "I won't," she says, voice cracking. "Stop this, stop, we had an accord!"

She can feel her hands moving against her will, the grimdark tendrils working through her nerves until she is standing and moving forward, some unspeakable spell on her lips.

(yes we are friends aren't we rose we are buddies we will help you this is only way now because you forgot about them forgot about the little landdwellers and now you have to kill him if you want to save them-)

"You made me forget." The insight blazes in Rose's mind like sharp clarity, and her heart beat is suddenly the loudest thing in the room. Louder than the grimdark. Louder than the robber with the muzzle of his gun pressed to Rose's forehead. "You made me forget the rest of the hostages," she whispers, the anger pounding a new tempo in her brain.

And then -

And then, she has control again.

Her fingers are still smoldering with black fire when she rips them away from the robber's throat, and she can't release the charge of the spell in her palm without blowing something up, without unleashing the concentrated grimdark into something. She doesn't have time to predict the blast radius, or how the robber will react to this turn of events. She spins away from the gun muzzle and slams her blazing palm against the reinforced steel wall.

Dark cracks appear across the wall, and then everything explodes.

Rose goes flying back, feeling the crunch of her spine against the opposite wall before that too is blown back by the force of the explosion. At the last second, she rips the last of her self-control free, and casts a cushioning spell just before she hits the ground in the lobby, tumbling over and over until she hits a counter in the center of the lobby and stops. Her back screams with pain and her ribs ache when she rolls onto her side, but aside from what feels like a scrape down one side of her face and slices where shrapnel cut up her gloves, she is relatively unharmed.

If that blast had gone off against human flesh, though, it would have torn that man apart from the inside out. It would have reached in and wrapped around his bones and organs and simply twisted -

Rose throws up. She hasn't eaten much today, so it's mostly bile. But there's also a tinge of black when she wipes her mouth off on her sleeve, and she shudders.

It is only when she looks up and sees that the rest of the robbers have appeared in the opening she blew through the lobby wall that she realizes she can't hear anything at all. Even the roar of the ocean has subsided. All she can hear is an intense ringing, her ears slightly bloody when she touches them.

But the Horrorterrors are gone. And at the moment, that's more important than anything else in the world. Suddenly, she can do anything.

She raises her hand, deaf to the low murmur of incantations on her own lips, and launches the corroding spells she'd prepared earlier, the pattern still fresh in her mind. In moments the robbers yelp soundlessly and drop their gun specibi while the metal corrodes hundreds of years in a matter of seconds. Now that they are thoroughly disarmed, Rose - no, she can be Seer again, she can be Light again now that the dark whispers have fled - Seer summons a trembling smirk and stuns them all, using as little power as possible. They'll only be unconscious for a few minutes, unlike the earlier robbers, whom she had put down for several hours, but better they wake up as the police arrest them than she risk something grimdark bolstering her spells unconsciously, amping the power up to the point that the robbers might not wake up at all.

No, she can't risk that. Not now. The burst of confidence subsides as Seer pulls herself upright, hugging at her ribs briefly before sucking in a breath and regaining her poise and composure. No doubt there are camera crews outside the bank by now, and she can't afford to look anything less than the serene, dignified Seer of Light in front of the camera. The Seer's reputation rests on her ability to foresee and head off major crimes and on her unflappable certainty.

So when the first police officer steps in through the door and turns to her hesitantly, his lips moving against the backdrop of ringing in Seer's ears, she simply nods at him, smiling enigmatically, and gestures toward the robbers. "All yours," she says, brushing her hair back behind her ear and adjusting her uniform so that the rips and smears of dust and debris are less noticeable. "Sorry about the wall. Things got a little out of hand. It will not happen in the future, I assure you."

Then, Seer takes the only logical option. She is not in a fit state to endure an interview with the media outside, primarily because she wouldn't be able to hear a word they were saying. Instead, she strides to the front door and steps out into the sunlight, smiling brightly and nodding to the crowd.

Before the news crews can rush the police line, she teleports out. She does not return to her base atop the Flatiron Building; instead, she reaches desperately for the comfort of home and finds it. She lands hard in a veil of light that is just a little too bright, the glow of the spell brittle and white-hot. The grass burns in a circle around her, leaving a smoldering ring of ashes when she stumbles forward and limps to the front door. She shoulders the door open and sucks in a welcome breath of the still, dusty air within the manse.

She does not know what happened today. But it is clear that she will need to spend far more time in meditation tonight. It is tempting, so tempting, to stop meditating altogether, but she has tried that before. Unfortunately, as unpleasant as interacting with the grimdark is, the consequences of ignoring the Outer Gods would be far more severe than what had happened today.

Swallowing another wave of bile curdling the back of her throat, Rose Lalonde strips off her mask and rubs at dry, aching eyes. Then she heads for the kitchen, and the wine cellar that lies beneath it.

She needs a good, strong drink.

---

Dave’s considering the merits of sitting on the Metro and riding it uptown a ways just to dick around when he hears gun shots. He automatically tags the sound and adds it to the beat he’s working on in his head, then races toward the origins of the booms.

Another shot rings out and he skids to a halt on the roof across from a gas station, just in time to hear a faint scream. He jumps off the edge of the roof in the next step and drops to the fire escape stairwell, falling with precise control until he hits pavement with bent knees. Then he takes off across the street, rolling over the hood of a car still in motion, and at the last moment falls into a slow pace, slouching in through the front door of the gas station with his hands in his pockets as though he’s got all the time in the world. No need to let the asshole with a gun think Dave is in a hurry to meet him.

“Hey, hands up! You too, asshat!” the gundouche yells, lowering her shitty pistol from where she shot three rounds into the ceiling to level it at Dave. Her partner in crime snaps her gum, looking bored out of her mind as she keeps her own firearm trained on the cashier’s nose. So it’s basically a hostage situation, except the hostage is strictly in an unofficial capacity, and neither girl realizes they’re about to experience justice slamming down upon them like a heavenly facepalm.

That said, why did it have to be girls? It’s stupid, but hell if it isn’t harder for Dave to hit girls than guys. It’s not like Bro is all about that southern gentleman shtick, so Dave’s not entirely sure how he developed this useless chivalry complex.

“Sup,” he says, obediently putting his hands up and wrapping them around the hilts of the swords.

He pauses time just as the trigger happy girl’s eyes widen with panic and she pulls the trigger on reflex. He steps neatly out of the way, checks behind him along the bullet’s trajectory, and lets time go again so the bullet buries itself in the wall beside the door. He knocks the gun from her startled hands during the obligatory pause between flashsteps, and punches her square upside the chin.

He halts time once more to lower her unconscious body to the floor and steps behind a row of chips and candy, so when the girl at the register reacts by whipping her gun away from the cashier to follow his random position, he knows any shot she fires will end the short, overinflated life of a bag of chips rather than that of any of the customers flattened on the ground. Then he jumps over the row and brings the flat of the blade to her throat between one second and the next. “Drop it,” he says, meeting her eyes with his red eyes narrowed and the hand on the hilt of the sword braced to flip and cut if she tries anything stupid.

She drops the gun. “I-I’m sorry!” she stammers. “We weren’t going to hurt anyone. Please don’t kill me!”

Yeah, he doesn’t have the patience for more than a few seconds of pretty subpar apologist whining. He pops her one in the chin as well, nods once at the cashier, and then kicks both guns away from their respective criminals. He puts the swords away, and stuffs his hands back into his pockets to leave.

“You’re not going to stick around until the cops get here?” the cashier stammers, eyeing the unconscious girls nervously.

Dave has to fight the urge to raise an eyebrow; with his shades off, it’s much more difficult to present an emotionless, unexploitable straight face to the world. Until they’d started taking off their shades as part of their disguise, Dave hadn’t realize just how much he and Bro expressed behind them, the little cues that only Striders could read behind them that become obvious tells in the light of day. “Dude, they’re down for the count. Just hit ‘em with something if they start to wake up.”

Having imparted the wisdom of the ages to the cashier, Dave walks out of the gas station. Fuck yeah. Mission accomplished. He can already hear the sirens as two police cars round the corner, drawn by whatever alarm the cashier had hit under the counter.

As the cops approach and skid to a halt, Dave sighs and flashsteps away. By the time the first officer shouts, “Freeze, vigilante!” Dave is already on the rooftop again, rolling his eyes to the evening sky.

Some goddamn lucky sons of bitches get cities who embrace their resident vigilantes; the Seer of Light is practically a New York City franchise, the Lady Cascade of Los Angeles has a yearly regatta in her honor, and the Meowrails over in Jacksonville are pretty much universally accepted as the most disgustingly adorable pair of heroes ever to make a living off terrible cat puns. Even Heir up Seattle way has a quiet policy of mutual non-interference with the police; as long as he’s in the air before they arrive, the cops report to the papers that Heir made several dozen citizens’ arrests in one night and conveniently ignore the whole vigilante aspect.

Then there’s Houston. Sure, Blind Justice has every Chicago legislacerator on the force clamoring for her blood, but they’re legislacerators – it’s pretty much standard operating procedure for them. For some reason Dave cannot fathom, the entirety of the Houston PD has openly named the Flashstep and the Puppeteer as their top priority for arrest.

It’s just so hilariously stupid that it loops right back around to just being fucking idiotic.

Knowing them, that entire squad will waste an hour pissing around trying to locate Dave, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that with his ability to stop time he’s halfway across the city in a few minutes. That’s part of the reason Dave and Bro go out during the day, just to show them how very few fucks the Striders have to give.

Sometimes, it’s the little 'fuck yous' in life that really bring a half-smile to a hero's face.

Dave stops for lunch and a badly needed water break at noon, eating a motherfucking chicken salad from Trader Joe’s on the roof of a parking garage, then loses track of time. This happens a lot; for someone whose power relates to time, he finds it easy to lose himself in the seemingly endless afternoon. Probably all the accidental time stopping when he was a kid did a number on his internal timer. He always knows exactly what time it is, down to the millisecond, but he just can’t bring himself to care about the time slipping away.

All he knows is that when he next blinks and looks up at the sun, it’s halfway to setting, the sky burnished orange and red, and his hand throbs with a dull pain from where he may or may not have broken a knuckle smashing it into a car jacker’s smug face. Yeah, he probably should have known better than to punch a troll head on. It’s harshing on his sicknasty beats.

Shoving the injured hand into a pocket, Dave starts jumping toward home. He should probably pick up some actual food from the convenience store – fuck, Bro going grocery shopping, even ironically, would probably be a sign of the apocalypse. Adjusting his course, Dave locates the nearest CVS-knockoff and lands noiseless on the fire escape. The ladder barely even rattled. Flawless landing. He flashsteps his way down the stairs and crawls down the ladder. He already knows he’s heading straight for a new case of AJ when he gets inside.

He turns around and only then does he realize there’s actually a crime in progress at the back of the alley and holy fuck how did he miss that.

“What,” he says, waiting for his brain to catch up while he stares at the five figures fighting in the shadows. A tall woman presses up against the shadows of the wall. A wide-brimmed hat obscures her face, and her body is wrapped in a tight black trench coat that makes about as much sense in the late Houston evening heat as Dave’s elaborate suit jacket does. The four assailants are ranged around the woman in a rough circle, each with strife specibi at the ready. It’s an even split between trolls and humans. The really weird thing is, they’re all wearing heavy black suits. All of them, even the female troll.

Four seems a little much for a case of robbery. Four people in suits in 85 degree heat is downright bizarre. But hey, not like Dave’s complaining. He keeps the fucked-up hand tucked into his pocket and draws a sword with the other. “Should probably leave the lady alone, asshats,” he says, kicking a rock out of his path as he strides toward the tense group.

“Stay out of it, brat,” one of the men spits, not even turning his head to look in Dave’s direction. “This ain’t business of yours.”

“A beautiful lady in distress is always my business,” Dave drawls, raising an eyebrow at the dame when the brim of her hat angles slightly in his direction. “These guys giving you trouble, just say the word and I’ll help you kick their asses.”

The brim of the hat raises, and he has a direct line of sight on her face. For an instant he wonders if he’s seeing things, if the summer heat has finally cracked his brain open to fry like a yolk on the pavement, because the lady is black as night with slitted eyes as pale as bone, and that’s not skin, it’s a carapace. He sees her hands flowing in a series of motions that are definitely not ASL, but the words bloom in his mind like black, cold ink skimming over his brain.

??: Oh, do feel free to jump in if you wish. But I can more than take care of ones such as these.

“You get one last chance,” another of the assailants begins, and that must be the cue for the battle music to start, because the carapacian dame reaches out and quite calmly grips his hair and slams his face into the wall three times.

By the time she lets go, the guy’s face is a bloody pulp, and he slides to the ground unconscious. The other four black-suited assailants flinch away, clearly taken aback by the sudden violence, which Dave can totally sympathize with because damn. The carapacian draws a long, thin-bladed knife and tilts her head to the side, beckoning the others on.

??: Come on then, if you think you’re hard enough. I will rend you like the benighted worms that you are.

The male troll flips the fuck out and lunges at the carapacian with a hoarse roar. And maybe the lady can take care of herself, but the troll has probably a hundred pounds of pure muscle on her, so Dave stops time with a twist of his injured hand and darts in close, cracking the hilt of his sword against the guy’s temple.

The carapacian is staring right at him. Even as he watches in that breath before time restarts, she blinks and smirks.

She moves.

Time rushes back in. The force of the blow catches up with the male troll and he goes crashing sideways into the wall, slumped over just as unconscious as the first man. Dave then lashes out with his sword to ward off the third assailant, who turns to attack him with a small cudgel in hand. One time stop later and the guy is on the ground with a slash down his left side and a stabbing hole in his palm, gritting his teeth against the pain as Dave wipes the blood off his sword. These guys are dressed weirdly, but they’re not really a challenge.

While Dave is occupied, he can still see the carapacian dame as she whirls in a fluid circle to knock the last troll’s glancing blow aside, kicking out with a slim leg to yank the troll’s legs out from under her. She stabs the thin blade into the girl’s side before kicking her unconscious, inspecting the upwelling of teal blood soaking the troll’s suit with clear disdain.

“Don’t suppose you’re gonna want the police called,” Dave says, trying to judge just how serious the troll girl’s wound is from here. Bro drilled him on how to inflict nonfatal but debilitating sword wounds all through his childhood because killing people is the opposite of cool, but the carapacian clearly has no such qualms.

Fuuuck. Is she a bad guy? Did he just help the bad guy take out four possibly totally innocuous passersby in the heat of the moment? Logic is telling him the four had drawn their weapons first and were clearly threatening the carapacian about – something – but Dave’s mind does this thing where it gets stuck on a tangent and won’t shut the fuck up. It’s great for coming up with nonsensical raps, but awful when he just want it to stop winding itself up in knots of confused, morbid fascination and fucking focus.

??: No, I do not.

The carapacian seems to have noticed his mental disarray, her hollow eyes crinkled perhaps with a silent chuckle.

??: They are the heavy-handed efforts of a foolish man trying to convince me to join him in a business venture of questionable legal repute. Naturally, I refuse to negotiate with such lowly pawns.

“Yeah. Of course. Naturally,” Dave deadpans as he puts his sword away. If this lady was going to attack, she’d have tried it already.

??: Your assistance is appreciated.

??: I am glad to have met you at last, Dave.

The hair on the back of Dave’s neck prickles and he rips his sword back out. Fuck. Fucking fuck. “What the fuck did you just say. Who the fuck are you?”

The carapacian isn’t concerned by Dave’s fighting stance or the high-strung tension he’s giving off in waves. She has put away her own knife, but he’s seen how fast she can move. Not as fast as Bro, but with enough skill that she could take him off guard.

??: An ally, perhaps.

??: An answer for an answer, Dave. Why did you stop time that way? It is…inefficient.

“How do you know my name?” Dave grits out, the metal collar burning against his throat.

??: That is not how an exchange works.

She shows no sign of answering the question, waiting with a talon on her hip for a response. A bead of sweat drips down the side of Dave’s face, stinging his eye, but he’s too tense to wipe it away, keeping his sword leveled at the carapacian’s throat. When the pause lasts long enough, tension growing a pulsing headache behind Dave’s ears, he answers. “Because – fuck – because that’s the only way to stop time. At least for me. That’s how the powers work. How do you know me? What do you want?”

??: I have always known your name, Dave Strider.

And that…is just weird enough that Dave lets the sword fall, completely and utterly dumbfounded. “Okay that’s a great answer except for how it answers nothing at all and fuck, you know my last name.”

The carapacian chuckles.

??: I’m sure you can figure out the answer on your own, in time. But for now I have other matters to attend to. Meeting you at last has been most fortuitous, but I am afraid it has happened at a bad moment.

??: But I give you this last boon – some advice, as a token of my gratitude. Your power is more than you know. Stopping time is merely the first step, but it is an unnatural step. Time will most likely fight you if you attempt to hold it too long. If you truly wish to attain your full strength, I advise you to stop pausing it at all.

??: Time is not meant to be stopped. It is meant to flow. And you, Dave Strider – you have the ability to flow with it. To alter the course of the flow itself.

??: I do wish you all the best.

??: Now then. Tah, love.

“Wait, seriously, what,” Dave gets out. Then there is a swishing sound and the shadows behind the carapacian rush forward holy shit. The carapacian smirks as she falls back into the darkness, completely unconcerned about the fact the wall has just decided she’s the main course of one fucked up buffet. “Who are you?” Dave says, but the shadows finish swallowing the carapacian whole and settle back against the wall.

“What. The. Actual. Fuck.” One of the assailants still on the ground moans and stirs, and Dave kicks him in the temple to keep him down, not taking his eyes off the shadowed wall.

She never had told him just who the fuck she was. But there’s no doubt in his mind that this mysterious dame is a total Badass. A Badass Quandary, if you would.

Shuddering and sheathing the sword in one motion, hunching his shoulders defensively as he does, Dave scans the pile of criminals one last time and leaves the alleyway, looking for another fire escape to climb that isn’t attached to a people-eating shadow wall. He walks by the convenience store, pauses to deliberate with himself for a few long minutes, and then trudges back, edging his way inside. The old guy behind the counter has been working there as long as Dave can remember. His name is Gerald and he barely rolls his eyes at the sight of Dave in costume. “AJ’s in a new place by the coffee, Mr Flashstep,” he says before flipping his paper open once more.

“There’re some assholes beaten up in the alleyway. You might want to call the cops.”

Gerald grunts and pulls the phone off the receiver without looking, unfazed by Dave’s news. Dave can’t remember how many time he’s reported the unconscious bodies of criminals to the people behind the counter here. Apparently the novelty factor of having a hero visit your store once a week runs out after a few years.

Dave grabs his juice and a couple frozen pizzas and pays with cash before trudging back out, significantly more laden down. It’s officially night now, and he forgoes the rooftops until he’s almost back to the apartment, using the time to mull over the weirdass encounter with the carapacian. Then he flashsteps wearily up the fire escape of an adjacent building, feeling the mental strain that’s built up over nearly twelve hours of crime-fighting and time-stopping sap at his strength.

When he reaches the roof, bags in hand, he ducks under the AC and retrieves his sunglasses, his whole body slumping with relief once he has the protective shades between him and the world. He sees that Bro’s glasses are still underneath. Whatever. He’ll show up when Dave has finished heating up the first pizza just to fuck with him and eat all the crust and then hog the bathroom for one of his marathon endless showers.

As luck might have it, this is pretty much exactly what happens. Bro is unscratched and looks completely unaffected by the day’s work when he finally shows up, yoinking a pizza slice out of Dave’s hand without even looking at him. Lil Cal appears atop the refrigerator, as glassy eyed and smiling as ever.

Dave grimaces at the puppet. He’d been down with the puppet when he was a little kid, but in recent years he has realized that Cal is just plain creepy, the kind of creepy that smiles down on you with unblinking eyes while you struggle and squirm through life like the miserable little fleshcreature you are.

He should probably mention the carapacian now. Usually the Striders don’t talk about work – hell, they don’t really talk much at all, with good reason – but something as huge as a random alien dame knowing Dave’s real name and vanishing into the shadows should probably be stated for the record. It did not mean that actual conversation had to take place. Just a quick, offhanded mention –

Dave swallows his AJ too fast and nearly chokes. The words are on the tip of his tongue, the metal collar around his neck tight as a noose, and when Bro gives him a sweeping, bored-but-curious look, Dave swallows down what he had been about to say.

Bro ruffles Dave’s hair as he walks to his room, and Dave is left sitting alone at the shitty kitchen table. He tries to imagine finishing the piece of pizza in his hand, but the thought of all that grease just makes him feel kind of nauseous. Food does that sometimes, when he hasn’t eaten in a while and he’s past the point where the hunger actually hurt. He crams it in anyway and swallows, reaching up and unclipping the collar from his throat. He tosses it on the table and scrubs a hand through his hair, trying to figure out why the fuck he had just not mentioned the Badass Quandary. At the very least he should get Bro’s opinion on how to deal with such a massive breach of their secret identities.

He doesn’t. Instead, he shoves the leftover pizza in the fridge for later and slouches into his own room, stripping off the last of his costume as he goes. He gets into the same sleep clothes from that morning and sits down at the computer, staring unseeingly at the screen and ignoring the little flicker of a Pesterchum window at the bottom.

He’s…not going to tell Bro. It takes him a minute for his brain to really process the thought, and then he knows why.

Because he maybe, just once, he wants something in his life to be completely his own. He wants to investigate the Quandary by himself, independent of Bro Strider, and maybe he wants to take her advice about the whole time travelling thing, and maybe he’s actually more intrigued by her knowledge of his name than rightfully worried, now that he’s had time to process the shock of it all.

Having settled that in his mind, he smiles and plugs in his headphones, setting up a playlist of his own mixes and zoning out as he settles in to draw some shitty comics and answer his one chum.

Hell yeah, secret shenanigans. Hell fucking yeah.

---

The rest of the day passes in a pleasant blur; none of John's classes are doing anything more strenuous the first day of school other than going over the syllabi, and Karkat shares all but two of his class periods. Sure, Karkat isn't exactly much of a talker when he's intently reading ahead in the textbooks instead of listening to the teacher, but that doesn't stop John from sitting next to the troll and passing him notes from time to time just to see Karkat's exasperated glares of impotent fury.

The thing is, John is learning to catch the faint hints of amusement that barely touch the corners of Karkat's permafrown, the way he doesn't just stand up and walk away despite how outright annoying John knows he's being. When John suggests they eat lunch outside together, Karkat has every opportunity to say no and sit with another group of people; instead, with another faint not-smile, he agrees, and they spend the lunch break outside under John's favorite tree, chatting about nothing important at all.

If this is a friendship, it's going to be an odd one, one that builds in the spaces between classes, in the oblique smiles that don't quite make it to Karkat's face.

It's wonderful.

John walks home in a better state of mind than he's had in - too long. The breeze actually billows up through his shirt at one point, sensing his ridiculous excitement and tugging in an attempt to get him to celebrate in the air, and he has to flail madly to flatten his shirt back down, glancing wildly from side to side in a search for possible witnesses. Thankfully, no one seems to have noticed the wind's slip up.

However, the brief lapse in John's control dampens his mood a little, especially as he turns the corner and his house comes into view. His dad's car isn't parked outside yet, but he should be home in a few hours, maybe sooner. Dad had talked about coming home early in case...the first day hadn't gone well.

And yeah, John is totally grateful that his dad cares about him that much! Of course he is! But now, when his dad comes home, John is going to have to tell him that he's made a friend in Karkat Vantas, and John is just a little nervous about how well his dad will take it.

This has always been the price of the good John does as Heir. He’s never been able to make time for friends outside of school, not even during the summer months. No conceivable excuse can explain away how John occupies nearly 90% of his time with training and duties he can never share with anyone. He’d been friends with Rose, back in middle school, before his dad had really picked up the pace of his training in anticipation for John’s fighting debut, but then she had moved all the way to New York and John had found himself in a limbo, all of his friends made through Rose gradually dropping away, with no time or opportunity to reach out on his own.

By the end of last year he’d only had people from the swim team he could sit with at lunch, not because they were really friends, but more out of a sense of team camaraderie. He'd ended up eating outside on his own, because it was just easier than dealing with the hesitant dance of glancing over an entire cafeteria full of people he barely knew. And at least outside, he'd had the breeze to fluff up his hair in comforting gusts of sympathetic understanding.

And. Fuck. John can’t go through another year like last year. He can’t. The very thought makes his stomach lurch, and bile rises up in the back of his throat.

He can’t handle being so alone anymore.

So if his dad says it isn't safe to be friends with Karkat - John doesn't know what he's going to do. It's going to royally suck, okay? The worst part of it all is that John already knows and has had the reasons why having a close friend is a bad idea drilled into him since he was five years old. Rose had been a pre-approved potential friend, who knows why. But Karkat will definitely be a potential target if John's heroic secret identity is ever discovered. And John doesn't want Karkat to be in danger, but on the other hand, he wants to be friends with Karkat a whole lot. Enough to take that risk.

He's just going to have to convince his dad of that.

Piece of cake!

-

Oh god this is not a piece of cake this is the opposite of cake this is spinach quiche or something why did John think he could do this -

"John. You've barely touched your meal. Do you have something you need to talk about, son?"

John looks up from his bowl of chicken salad and accompanying plate of whole wheat pasta, sure that the haunted expression on his face has been more than enough to tip his dad off to his troubled state of mind. "Uh, yeah. I do," he says, fiddling with his fork. He stops himself from gnawing on his lip, and settles himself inwardly. Focus. He can do this.

He meets his dad's eyes. "I made a friend at school today."

The silence over the table lasts just a fraction of a second too long. John can feel his stomach collapsing in on itself in hollow despair even as he watches his dad for any reaction. Samuel Egbert doesn't look angry or stern, just thoughtful, but that only means his logic, when it comes, will be well-thought out and irrefutable, and then John's first friendship in two years will be over -

"I see. I'm sure you put a lot of thought into this kind of decision, John. I trust you." His dad smiles at him, his eyes crinkled reassuringly.

John's mouth falls open, and for a long moment he has to slam down on his innate connection to the wind and grip the edge of the table with both hands shaking, because otherwise he's going to go flying out the window and start doing some celebratory cartwheels a few meters above his house. That kind of thing is a no-no, for obvious reasons.

"I - yeah." John smiles back, his grin so wide his lips feel like they're tearing a bit at the edges. He starts eating in earnest now, chattering about Karkat between huge bites. "His name is Karkat! Karkat Vantas! We're in a lot of the same classes together, and we have the same lunch period. So, I can see him a lot every day, and I don't think I have to worry as much about not being able to meet him after school, because he seems pretty busy too. So. I think I can make it work."

His dad nods throughout all of John's sometimes stuttering, sometimes too-loud rant, and keeps smiling. A little more of the nervous tension eases out of John with every passing moment that his dad doesn't shoot this idea down. "That's good, son. I'm glad you've found someone you can connect with."

"Yeah. He's new at school, and he seems kind of angry a lot of the time, but I think we get along okay. Or at least he didn't try to run away when I kept talking to him." John smiles when a memory of one of Karkat's many furiously despairing frowns returns to him.

There's a note of hesitation in his dad's voice when he speaks, and John understands why when he hears the full question. "Son...will this help you? Do you think this will prevent something like last year?"

That...yeah. John should have been expecting that. He shovels the last of the salad into his mouth to keep from responding, chewing and swallowing deliberately while he tries not to feel guilty about being the cause of that solemn, anxious look on his dad's face. "I don't know," he says at last, because he's learned after last year that he has to be honest about this. He can't lie to his dad; it just lets things build up until John can't handle them anymore. "I think so. I didn't feel all that claustrophobic today after I started talking to him. I hope I just needed a friend as an outlet. But one day isn't enough to judge by, I think."

Thankfully, his dad just nods in response. "I understand. Thank you for being honest with me, champ."

By the time they finish dinner and start cleaning up the dishes, John feels a lot more even-keel. Now that he's not freaking out over the whole Karkat thing anymore, he can let himself relax into the usual rhythm of their father-son dinner routine. When there's nothing on John's mind, there's just something inherently relaxing about being around his dad.

John fills the sink with hot water and dish soap and begins scrubbing on autopilot, handing the cleaned dishes off to his dad by his side to dry. In these brief moments a pleasant buzz fills his head instead of the usual swift analysis and careful self-censorship necessary to maintain his secret identity every minute of the day, and he can think of nothing at all but the clink of dishware and the warm awareness of his only family standing beside him.

Part of him still has to focus beyond the quiet calm on keeping the air around him calm and still; more than once in his childhood the sheer happiness of being around his dad had led to unfortunate mishaps in public playgrounds. The wind likes it when John is happy, and wants to frolic and tug at him to express that joy with action. John is so used to curtailing the instinctive rush of wind that it barely registers anymore when he’s around his dad. He’s had to learn how to manipulate the wind for battle and flight mostly on his own, not just because flying isn’t exactly in a Marine’s repertoire, but because he’d been so unable to focus properly around Samuel as a kid that training proved impossible.

Not that he could really remember those early attempts, of course, but the sheer number of near misses and barely-avoided accidental sightings of a kid flying ten feet off the ground because his dad had been proud of him had been significant enough – and amusing enough, in retrospect – that Dad has shared the stories numerous times, particularly around birthdays.

“Go ahead, son. I’ll finish up here,” Dad says as the last of the light leaves the sky. He reaches over to turn on the kitchen’s overhead light and takes one of the last uncleaned dishes from John so he can take over. John feels the pleasant buzz leave his mind, and grins, drying his hands and running up the stairs three at a time. His heart pounds dizzyingly in his chest, little wisps of breezes slipping around his wrists and tousling his hair in reaction to his excitement.

Once in his room, he carefully removes a worn but loved poster of Captain America – one of his favorite fictional heroes – from the wall, laying it gently on the bed. Behind its usual position on the wall sits a metal safe, and he fishes out the two keys from their usual places. One he has hidden in a careful pouch underneath the bedside table drawer; the other he wears around his neck beneath his shirt. Even if one is ever taken – say when he has to remove the shirt key for swim practice – it would be useless to any potential thief or snoop without knowledge of the second key and the seven digit key code known only to John and his dad. Sliding each key into their respective locks and thumbing in the key code, John swings the safe open.

He’s been wearing variations of this same basic costume for so long, he takes him mere moments to change into the plain neoprene suit, check and recheck the Kevlar weave for holes, buckle on the arm guards and pouches, and pull on the steel grey boots and gloves. He pulls the goggles on over his head with a pop, barely needing to adjust them, and then yanks the thin nylon mask up over the bottom half of his face. By the time he slings Casey across his back, the heavy weight of the war hammer barely registering as a light thump, John thrums with anticipation, the wind practically a gale force dragging him toward the window, stirring the carefully pinned posters on the wall and ruffling the pages of his textbooks.

He needs to be gone, needs it, a bone-deep desire that’s as close to terror as it is to desperate longing. Dragging his hood up over his head at the last minute, John plants one boot on the window sill and kicks off.

And finally, finally, for the first time in nearly fourteen hours, lets go.

He’s never known what it feels like to fall, but Rose had described it to him once, how the fear of heights and falling worked for those who felt it. She said it is because when a normal person falls, they have no control, no way to stop themselves from feeling a lurch in their gut that says gravity has them, and no chance of surviving a fall from anything higher than perhaps twenty feet without severe injury. She had described the sensation of having one’s stomach drop out from under them, and John had experienced it for himself one blisteringly hot day years ago, at an amusement park during the summer with a parasol-toting Rose at his side, when they had decided to ride a rollercoaster.

But he just can’t associate that half-remembered, sickening drop with flying. All he feels as the night wind wraps around him and he shoots up into the sky is joy. His hoods rips off in a flurry of wind as his speed increases, the breeze responding to the ecstasy singing through his veins with renewed energy.

The drive from Maple Valley to Seattle is forty minutes on a good day; John makes it in five. As he hovers over the glowing city, he begins to pull the wind back in, using calming breathing patterns his dad had taught him to slow his racing heart and bring the irrepressible joy of flying back under control, until it is barely a niggling hum.

Within moments, John is in hero mode, the winds streaming around him in sleek, controlled waves that do no more than support him in midair. He has a job to do, duties to attend to. He can’t just let the breeze run wild while he’s on patrol; it would be unprofessional and distracting.

Having settled down, John begins his patrol, drifting over the city in a grid formation with his eyes scanning the ground intently. He pays close attention to dark alleys and other trouble spots whenever he passes over, but he pays more attention to the gentle pressure of the wind as it wafts him through the air. Nine times out of ten, the breeze alerts him to criminal activity before he even sees it himself. It can be difficult to interpret the wind’s will, but it almost always leads him where he needs to go.

For example, right now. A faint curl of air tightens around his wrist, a murmur of urgency brushing up against his ears. John focuses, letting the sense of unerring direction guide him as he urges a little more speed from the winds pulling him along. The breeze tugs him over to an alleyway near the center of the city, and he lands on a cushion of air atop the roof nearby, peering over the edge to assess the situation.

It looks like a fairly standard mugging; three men with strife specibi in hand have a single man backed up against the wall. The victim is shaking his head, most likely in some stubborn, foolhardy attempt to deny the muggers whatever they're asking for. He's going to end up shanked if he isn't careful.

Bluhhhh. As though Heir would actually let that happen! Grinning, Heir checks to make sure his hood is in place and then steps off the edge of the building. He floats down, arms crossed as he comes to a halt hovering just a little above the ground. "Hey, guys?" he says, clearing his throat. All three muggers spin to face him, and he waves, still smiling. "Sorrrrry, I can't let you do this. I just don't condone this kind of criminal activity. I don't suppose you'd be willing to give up now and come quietly? Turn yourselves in, and no one gets hurt."

The mugger on the left tries to shoot him. The blast echoes in the enclosed alleyway, loud in Heir's ears. Between one second and the next the wind rushes forward in his defense, howling as it wraps around the bullet and halts it, the bullet flattening out against a solid wall of dense air just inches from Heir's forehead. Heir flicks his fingers to the side, and the spent bullet falls to the ground with a clink. "Wow. Rude. Not okay, guys. Not okay," he tells the muggers, all of whom have gone pale.

Apparently, these guys missed the memo on what happens to criminals who cross the Heir of Breath.

Heir cracks his knuckles and sets to work. The moment these guys threatened one of the citizens under Heir's protection, they earned a nonrefundable ticket for a righteous asskicking. He disarms the one with a gun first, ripping it from the mugger's trembling hand with ease and sending it flying into the dumpster nearby where no one else can grab it. The man tries to pull a fistkind next, but he's clearly not well trained in hand-to-hand strife; Heir dodges to one side, swaying easily around the man's very obvious pattern of attacks, then darts around to hit him in the back with a broad swathe of wind. One last kick to the temple, his strength carefully adjusted so as to not break the guy's head open, and the mugger falls forward on his face, unconscious.

Heir ducks under the next mugger's swinging blow, and palmheels him in the chin with an accompanying blast of air that tosses him against the wall. By the time he rounds on the last mugger, one eyebrow raised, the guy is sweaty and pale, his knife almost slipping out of his grasp.

And then he turns and runs away.

Heir scratches his head, and put his hands around his mouth to amplify the sound. "Uh, running away wasn't an option! Hey! Hey? Mister?"

The mugger just keeps running.

"Seriously, man, I'm not letting you just abscond from justice!"

...Still running.

"Soooo rude," Heir huffs. He twists his hand and clenches it in a fist. The air around the fleeing criminal's feet lashes in a sudden gale, knocking him off balance. The mugger hits the ground hard with his chin and doesn't get up, even when Heir floats over to nudge him in the side and make sure he's breathing. Whelp. That was...kind of anticlimactic.

Oh well. Heir shrugs his shoulders and zipties the mugger's hands together, then floats back over to the mugging victim, trying and failing to calm himself down enough to just walk. He gets that the whole flying thing can weird people out, but he can't help it sometimes, honestly - when his adrenalin is up and pumping, the wind doesn't want to let him go.

Thankfully, this guy turns out to be a fan. A major fan. "That was awesome!" he yells when Heir gets close enough, all of his fear vanished now that the muggers are unconscious. He continues to babble as Heir cuffs the other two muggers and dumps them all bodily in the dumpster, and is absolutely euphoric when Heir asks him to stick around to wait for the police and make sure he testifies so they'll be arrested and not just released immediately.

Normally Heir would stick around until the police actually arrive in person, but after the first five minutes of nonstop, fawning chatter, he's just plain uncomfortable. "I'm just going to wait up there. You'll be totally safe," he assures the almost-victim, and then he takes off in a single bound, not really waiting for an answer. He settles down on the edge of the roof and sits with his legs swinging over the void, his chin resting on his hand as he observes the scene below. He replays it in his head a few times, a play by play looking for any mistakes he might have made, any fighting stances that could use some extra practice. He thinks he did well, but there's always room for improvement, right?

Anyway. When the cops arrive, the guy below flags them down, and Heir waves at the one cop who thinks to look up and check the skyline. He gets a stern nod in return, which is always cool, and then he lets the wind whisk him up into the air, tugging him up gently until he's high enough that the city spreads itself out beneath him, a glittering array of glowing lights, moving cars, and dark shadows.

A faint grin still playing on his lips, the Heir of Breath guards his city.

And if he indulges in a few midair cartwheel and backflips, well, it's not as though anyone can see to judge him.

---

Vladivostok, Primorsky Krai, off the coast of Eastern Russia

A pair of Russian fishermen sit, mostly apathetic to the cold as they keep watch and huff quietly on cigarettes. When later questioned, they would state that they were busy cleaning the last of the previous day’s work off the deck. Instead they chat between cigarettes and rub their gloved hands together to keep warm, the flickering gleam of the lighter casting their faces in half-shadow.

To say that they are unprepared for the boat to suddenly jolt and tilt dangerously to one side in a sudden upswelling of water is an understatement. They both roll off their perches and crash against a strapped down stack of equipment. The entire boat – not in the best shape to begin with – groans in protest, and the two men can only cling to the railing, the dark belly of the ocean yawning beneath them until, at last, the boat settles back in the water, uncapsized.

One makes the sign of the cross against his chest, his cigarette still clamped between clenched teeth, and mutters a belated Lord’s prayer. The other, his coat hood fallen back, gets to his feet and stares up at the fifty-foot tall, pure white squid that has just emerged from the sea. Its heavy mantle hangs slightly to one side, unsupported by the water. The enormous lusus opens its beak, screeches loud enough to rock the boat, and begins slowly drifting through the water, heading south.

“как это могло опять случиться?” one man says, shaking his head as the mutant lusus slouches away.

“Ceрьёзно. удачи, Япония.” The other spits out the ruined cigarette in his mouth, takes out another, and lights it up. There is no doubt in either man’s mind where a giant sea monster from the Pacific could possibly be heading, and so they contemplate the lusus’s sluggish trek south in a companionable silence until the irate captain stumbles up on deck to demand to know what the hell just happened.

-

Tokyo, Japan

"You've got to be fucking kidding me!" someone in the crowd yells. "Why am I even surprised?!" Another man sighs and walks over to the nearest public bulletin board, and swaps out the number under "Number of Days Without a Giant Sea Lusus Invasion" from ten to zero. Nine tenths of the crowd simply whip out their smart phones and begin recording as the enormous pale squid paddles its way through Tokyo Bay and onto dry land. It flails a tentacle, and then flops over onto a street, writhing weakly when someone crawls up onto a lightpole and begins filming it from a safe distance.

"Yes, we have a squid-morph lusus naturae encroaching on sector 4," a police officer says over the radio. "A possible rogue from an aquatic retirement preserve. Yes, please see if we can request a violet-blood's presence as soon as convenient. Thank you." The officer walks in closer and watches the squid's frantic motions, sighing and shaking her head. Aquatic lusii are harder to keep contained in their retirement preserves, but for a lusus of this gigantic size to have escaped, it could only have come from the poorly maintained Dalni Vostok preserve off the coast of Russia.

Again.

One day, the government is really going to have to petition Moscow to start paying for these fiascos. Between the exorbitant cost of tranquilizing each near-feral giant sea lusus and the additional expense of then housing it in the Tokyo Aquatic Reservation for the rest of its natural life, Russia must surely owe Japan trillions.

But of course, no one asks a lowly police officer how to handle foreign relations. They just send her in to clear the area around the giant monster incursions and wait for backup.

That's when a small fighter jet lands on the roadway, barely twenty feet from the white squid's mantle.

"No you fool, you don't have room to taxi!" the earlier irate man in the crowd screeches, sounding nearly hysterical. The plane proceeds to prove him wrong, the thrusters in the back flipping around to face forward and bring the entire machine to a near-silent halt. The green flames die down and the plane taxis to a calm standstill just a few feet from the police officer, the whole braking procedure having finished in a mere fifty feet. "THAT'S NOT EVEN FUCKING POSSIBLE!" the man protests before he breaks down into sobbing tears.

"Yeah, Control? We have an unidentified retrofitted British fighter plane that just landed next to me." The police officer listens to the questioning response over the radio. "Looks to be nuclear powered, sir. Probably unrelated to the lusus incident. Please send for the British ambassador and the Sailor Senshi squad, in the event the pilot self-identifies as a villain. Thank you."

The dome of the pilot compartment slides back, and a girl in aviator glasses and a green headscarf pops up. "Hey there! Do you need some help with that?" she asks, grinning, her teeth bright against her dark face. "You have a giant monster on the road!"

"We are aware of the situation, yes. You get used to it after a while." The officer takes out her notepad and clicks open a pen. "May I ask for your name, country of origin, and whether or not you have any intent to commit acts of villainy, mass property destruction, and/or grand larceny during your visit to Tokyo?"

"Ohhh! Sharpshooter, none, and no, hopefully not!" the girl chirps. "That's my codename, you know! Having a hero name is still a thing, right? My grandpa said having one was important if I wanted to be a hero, but he also thought the Internet was a newfangled instrument of German propaganda when he was having a bad day."

"Ah, you identify as a hero. Excellent." The police officer nods. She takes out her radio and cancels the order for the Sailor Senshi. Then she bows politely to the hero. "Unfortunately, I must ask you to remove your unregistered aircraft from Japanese soil before our lusus naturae task force arrives. You have parked within one hundred feet of a major aquatic lusus incursion, and we will need the road you are parked on in order to position the cranes and the tranquilizing tanks."

"Why do you need all that? I bet between me and Bec, we can move Mister Squiddle back into the water, no problem!" The girl whistles, and grins as a large white wolf sticks its head up beside hers, sticking its nose into the side of her neck.

The police officer has to squint at the wolf, slightly thrown off. "Is - is that a lusus?"

"Nooooo~" the girl says, pursing her lips. "It's Becquerel! He doesn't have a code name yet. He still hasn't decided on one he likes."

"Of course not."

"Anyway, yeah! You just need the big guy back in the water, right? We can totally help with that!"

"While we appreciate heroic assistance in the event of any violent lusii incursions, it would appear this lusus is merely senile, rather than actively violent. The lusus naturae task force ison its way, and then this lusus will need to be tranquilized before it is taken to the deep sea preserve, located several hundred meters offshore. Unfortunately, unless you have mega-elephant dose tranquilizers and a very strong propulsion system on that plane, you would be unable to manage it."

"Eheheh, don't worry! Definitely not a problem!" The girl vanishes back down into the pilot compartment.

When she emerges, the aviator goggles and headscarf are gone. She's in a skin tight black and dark green body suit, with a white lab coat over top that doesn't quite fit her right. She has a set of noise-deadening headphones on, presumably to block out the sound from the massive rifle slung over her shoulder, and a pair of thick glasses with an attached telescopic lens on the right eye. A spiral pattern combined with a duplex crosshair sniper scope pattern is sewn into a patch on her right sleeve.

She's also floating in midair.

"Great. We've got a flier over here," the police officer mutters into her radio.

The wolf hovers up to fly next to her, crackling with green fire, and for a moment the police officer isn't sure if it is just that the wolf's fur covers its eyes, or if the wolf is, in fact, eyeless.

"She also has a flying wolf sidekick," she adds, and then she ducks down behind the guard rail, because like hell is she getting between a flying super hero, her possibly radioactive blind flying wolf, and a still flailing giant sea monster.

"Ready, Bec?" Sharpshooter calls. The wolf lets its tongue loll out of its mouth, then vanishes in a flash of bright, caustic green. When the police officer next locates the canine, she sees it has taken up residence on the mantle of the giant squid, tongue still hanging out of its mouth as it pants and tilts its head to the side, awaiting further instruction. Sharpshooter brings the rifle - no, not a rifle, it's a massive dart gun, where did she even get that? - the dart gun up, bring her telescopic lens down over the right side of her glasses, and takes aim. She pulls the trigger and the recoil sends her floating back a bit. She just laughs a little too loudly, occasionally snorting and clapping a hand over her nose when it happens.

The dart hits the squid dead on and disappears in the mantle. Presumably, Sharpshooter manages to hit the mantle artery, because within a few minutes, the squid stops trying to feebly raise a tentacle to brush off the white wolf and just passes out, the mantle deflating even more than it already had when the lusus heaved itself out of the water.

Up above, Sharpshooter pulls out a handheld computer, tapping at it thoughtfully with the dart gun slung over her back. "You said you wanted Mr Squiddles in a deep sea preserve?"

"The lusii preserve, yes," the police officer shouts back.

"The one called Tōkyō Suisei Yasei Dōbutsu Hogo-ku on the Google map?"

"Uh. Yes!"

"Okie dokey! I have the coordinates right here. Bec! 35° 0'13.85"N and 142°27'12.83"E!"

Sharpshooter makes a rectangular box with the thumb and forefinger of each hand, squints through the box with her tongue sticking slightly out between her teeth, and then gives the wolf a thumbs up. She floats down to land beside Becquerel and there is a pause. The air hums and vibrates after a second, and the police officer feels her ears pop as a large amount of air is suddenly displaced.

The squid is also displaced, along with the girl hero and her wolf.

"Oh dear," the police officer says. After all three fail to reappear after nearly five minutes, she removes her radio from its holster and prepares to cancel the lusus naturae team and contact the deep sea preserve in the faint hopes that the squid lusus actually made it there in one piece. If they've actually lost a sea lusus on her watch, it is coming out of her yearly review, she can feel it.

-

At the coordinates 35° 0'13.85"N, 142°27'12.83"E, somewhere a good ways away from the Tokyo coastline, Jade Harley lands with a splash on top of a tranquilized squid-type lusus in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. She whoops loudly, laughing when a wave of saltwater crashes over the side of the lusus and splashes Becquerel. The wolf glows a faint green, and dries itself off with a thought, not even moving to shake itself.

"Awesome job, Bec!" Jade says, even as the squid recovers from its drugged sleep and begins sleepily rousing itself. Water is already lapping at her boots. "Now, let's head back to the plane!"

The world warps away in a portal of green light as Bec obliges. Jade catches herself on the back of the pilot's chair in her plane, wiping her damp boots off on the floor. "Awesome first job!" she repeats, stretching an arm over her head and taking off the dart gun to hang it on the rack on the wall. "We saved the city from a really depressed giant Squiddle, and no one even got hurt! Grandpa was right, going on a Grand Tour of the world is a great idea!"

Becquerel pants in silent agreement. Then it tilts its head to the side, listening and smelling something Jade can't. "Something wrong, boy?" she asks.

Bec vanishes, but Jade can see the slight greenish glow of its luminous fur through the open hatch to the hold. That's funny, though. Jade could have sworn the hold had been closed when she and Bec left; it had been locked down for the duration of the flight, so that nothing went flying out of the hold when Jade got creative with the flight controls and practiced some midair death-defying loops. She stomps back and kneels beside the open hatch, looking down into the mess of boxes and eccentric antiques that she had rescued before imploding the Harley residence. "What's up, Bec?"

Down in the hold, Bec maintains its usual silence. Having searched the entire hold in a matter of milliseconds, the wolf has deduced that the third passenger on the plane, who had been quiet and relatively nonthreatening throughout the transoceanic flight, has vacated the premises.

Becquerel is, of course, well aware of who and what the stowaway had been. But at the moment, it is no longer relevant. Bec's duty is to guard Jade Harley, and nothing else.

For now.

-

The police officer will return to where she parked her vehicle to find it gone, and she will be forced to call in backup to pick her up and return her to base, where she will then have to explain to the irritated violetblood troll, who swam in specially from Okinawa to deal with the lusus, that said lusus has been detected within the deep sea reserve by the motion sensors within the preserve. This will end her day on an overall unpleasant note.

Spades Slick could care less, okay? He has places to go and people to stab, and the police vehicle had been the closest thing with the keys still in the ignition. He needs wheels if he's gonna get where he's going, and he doesn't have time to fuck around with that crazy dame and her enormous dog. Fuckin' thing gives Spades the heebie jeebies.

Eighteen years he's spent trapped on that godsforsaken island, five of which he'd spent locked up in the joint being interrogated by that ancient geezer before he kicked off and got stuffed by his own daughter.

Humans. Fuckin' lunatics, the lot of them.

Spades floors it. He's the only carapacian around for miles, and he has to take advantage of that fact for as long as he can, because there's a certain Bearcat Quaintrelle he'd like to avoid for as long as possible.

Yeah, he's running scared. But what can he say? That dame is damned good at what she does, and he still has nightmares about the last time he crossed her.

Better he keep his nose clean, and stick to the shadows.

Anyway. Yeah. Places to go. People to stab.

And a certain Crew to deal with...

Chapter Text

ARC II - PROVOCATION

18 MONTHS LATER

 

Karkat Vantas never expected to fill any of his quadrants. Any of them.

Aside from his absolutely charming personality, he’s always known that having someone get as close to him as a quadrant could only unleash a tempest of hemohierarchal outrage if (when) his little mutation is noticed. Which, given the nature of troll romance, was basically inevitable; matesprits draw blood even if only by accident, ashen and black romances have physical violence both minor and major as key components, and palemates can specialize in feelings jams to the point of tears, just as damning as blood if Karkat doesn’t keep his lenses fresh.

For some reason it had never occurred to him to try to find a connection with a human. In hindsight, Past Karkat was so stupid a potential matesprit could have salsa-danced past him stark naked with ‘ALL HUMANS HAVE CANDY-RED BLOOD YOU DUMB SHIT’ tattooed across their chest and he probably wouldn’t have been able to logic his way into the right conclusion.

So the only reason he can possibly be so lucky as to have the human moirail flopped across his lap, engrossed in watching Batman Returns, is because Past Karkat was not only completely emptypanned, but also the most spectacularly lucky spawn of a female barkbeast to have the fortune to wriggle onto the base earth at the same time as John Egbert.

Even if his moirail is a massive nerd with the worst taste in movies ever observed in a sentient being with half its thinkpan intact.

In a way, he almost regrets the fact that now he can’t tell John the truth for an entirely different reason. After tonight, in fact, it’s going to be more vital that ever that he keep his blood hidden, but for once the thought of hiding himself doesn’t fill him with shame and fear.

After tonight, he’ll have the outlet he feels like he’s always needed, one where even if he spills blood and reveals his other unusual abilities, it can’t be traced back to his real life and get him culled. Even the guilty thought of keeping such a secret from his moirail can’t blot out the sheer anticipation.

Of course, before he can begin Operation Scarletgilante (name pending due to absolutely shitty quality of the current portmanteau), he needs to somehow detach himself from John. It’s an unusual problem; generally, Karkat has been able to dedicate much of his spare time over the past year and a half to training without alerting John to his unusual extracurricular activities by virtue of the fact that John had almost as much training to do for swim team. Combined with the human’s near constant volunteer commitments, part-time job, and bizarre father-son bonding activities, most of the time it feels like John begs off feelings jams more than Karkat himself does. But despite the unusual hours they both keep, Karkat has never felt deprived of support; even when he can’t see John in person, they’re in constant contact over Pesterchum or their phones. And in the end, isn’t that the very essence of moirallegiance? To be able to support each other equally, to be perfectly in tune with the other’s emotional needs, capable of easing distress and pain with effortless pity, even when you can’t be physically together?

Tonight of all nights, however, John Egbert seems to have cleared out his schedule for Karkat, and now Karkat finds himself in the difficult position of having to figure out a way to lie to his moirail’s face.

It’s so very tempting to just stay like this, one hand combing through John’s perpetually messy hair, absently smoothing wayward cowlicks whenever John gets too emotionally involved in the drama of the movie until the human settles down. John isn’t a troll, Karkat knows, and is probably oblivious to just how big of a deal it is that he trusts Karkat so completely, that he relaxes rather than tenses when Karkat has his claws this close to John’s throat. Sure, trolls aren’t nearly as prone to extreme bursts of violence and rage as they were all those millennia ago when the two species first met, but the fact remains that in the hindbrain of every troll there is an innate wariness, a primal instinct that tells them to brace for pain when another troll places their horns or claws too near a vital organ. John has no such compulsive wariness, and the way he sprawls out with his head in Karkat’s lap, neck bared where any passing troll could rip it open, makes Karkat’s bloodpusher ache so fucking pale it feels like it’s about to burst, raw with the need to protect this fragile dumbass.

But tonight is the night. As tempting as a night spent jamming on a pile of ridiculously soft human pillows sounds, Karkat has made this commitment, and he’s not backing out now. When the ending credits roll, he reluctantly untangles his claws from John’s hair and pushes at his face lazily with the palm of his hand, trying not to convey the tension knitting its way up his spine. “Get up, John, we’ve watched that cinematic abomination for the last time.”

John pulls a stupid face and shoves Karkat right back, his palm half shooshing, half abjuring at the same time in that disgustingly adorable way he had, even as he sits upright. “Batman Begins is a goddamn classic, Karkat. A shining gem of its genre.”

Oh for pity’s sake, it’s official – he adores John, but he is in diamonds with a complete moron. “Said genre being the age-old category of 'atrocities created specifically to induce brain death by rage-aneurysm and cause the viewer to attempt to remove his eyeballs with a rusty pair of tweezers?’”

“No, the genre of heroic drama!” John replies, with that shit-eating grin that means he knows exactly what Karkat is talking about, and is pretending to be deliberately obtuse in order to troll Karkat into new depths of existential despair. Karkat remembers with horrific clarity the day he learned John actually liked pissing Karkat off, because apparently his swear-word laden rants fueled by righteous indignation amuse John to no end.

That had been the day he realized just how fucking pale he was for the idiot, and that John was just as pale right back, because who else could put up with Karkat’s obnoxious personality for more than a year and actually find it endearing?

“I can’t even argue with you about this anymore. You have no taste in movies, John, it’s absolutely pathetic.” Karkat stands up, picking a kernel of popcorn off his shirt and dropping it in John’s hair. Because he can. “Walk me to the door, you insufferable, ungentlemanly, tasteless host.”

“Whaaat? Where are you going?” John yelps, flopping back over on an unfinished pile of pillows, and yeah, Karkat has to turn away and march toward the living room door before the pity overwhelms his better judgment and he just crawls over to tuck his head under John’s chin. Another yelp and the thump of feet start up as Karkat toes his shoes on by the front door. “Come on, Karkat, you know we probably have time for another, reeeeally short movie!”

Karkat can read between the lines, and some of the guilt eases. John has something to do as well; most likely the idiot is in fact supposed to be doing it right now, and is putting it off for Karkat’s sake. “We’ve both got stuff to do, John. Like sleep. As if I don’t know that you pass out around 10 even on weekends after all this time.”

John blushes dull red across his face, the flush more prominent now in March after the sunless winter months have caused his dark, olive brown skin tone to fade slightly. “Y-yeah, like you’re not just as bad.”

“I have one more AP class than you, and I’m somehow stuck being the goddamn friendleader of the single most incompetent herd of nookchafing imbeciles ever to presume they could produce a modicum of talent in the creative arts,” Karkat retorts, grimacing at the mere thought of this year’s crop of Film students. “If I don’t micromanage their asses, nothing will get done.”

“Hehe, alright,” John says, his lopsided grin firmly in place by the end of Karkat’s mini-rant. Which was in no way Karkat's intention when he started off on his angry tangent. “Oh, wait! Before you go!” He jogs through the door opposite into the kitchen, and Karkat slaps his forehead when he hears the freezer door open and John emerges with a tray of fucking iced roe cubes. John is always pandering to Karkat’s lusus’s shenanigans.

Except it’s not a tray of iced roe cubes. It’s something far worse. Karkat stares at the slightly frosty pie John shoves into his arms. “Oh please no. Please tell me you didn’t -”

“It’s an iced roe pie!” John declares, blithely ignoring Karkat’s look of pure horror as he stacks a more familiar looking lemon  merengue pie on top of the abomination. “And that’s for you. Say hi to Crabdad for me!”

“That fatass lusus cannot retire too soon,” Karkat mutters, then stops at the sight of a pout slowly edging its way onto John’s face. John has somehow become more attached to Karkat’s lusus than Karkat is himself, and the news that Crabdad is mere months away from being set out to pasture in the wilds of a lusus sanctuary in Brazil has hit him particularly hard. “Yes, fuck, John, I’ll tell it you said hi.”

“Yay! G’night, Karkat!” John beams and then Karkat lets himself out, closing the door on the Egbert house and breathing in the late evening air.

Not even the pie equivalent of the Antichrist sitting in the crook of his arm can stop the feral grin from spreading across Karkat’s face. He runs home, barely stopping long enough to toss the roe pie at Crabdad and the lemon merengue in the thermal hull for tomorrow before he dashes into the respite block and starts tearing off his clothes.

This is the first time he’s pulled on the suit with the intention to actually wear it out in public, in front of other people, and as he does so he's hyper aware of just how goddamn skintight this thing is.

Nothing is left to the imagination.

Nothing. At. All.

His cheeks burning so hot he can almost see the red in the corners of his vision, Karkat starts pulling his other clothes back on over top of the grey and red suit. When he creeps down the stairs, the weighty backpack slung over his shoulder, Crabdad is still occupied with the culinary abomination born of John's sick imagination, and Karkat is easily able to slip out the front door, closing it behind him without a sound.

He regrets that he can't drive his car to the city. The last thing he really wants is to ride the night bus with a bunch of random fuckwads while he's secretly in costume, but he can't take his car. For one thing, someone (and by someone he means John fucking Egbert, the stalkerish asshole. <>) would notice if his car consistently drove off in the middle of the night every day; for another, he didn't have the goddamn gas money to pay for that kind of daily round trip.

So instead of driving to Seattle in the safety of his nice government-issued car, Karkat catches a bus to the city, trying to appear completely absorbed in the music blaring over his headphones whenever the driver and the two other passengers happen to look in his direction. Why, why did Seattle have to be a forty-five minute drive from Maple Valley? If he still lived in the city, he wouldn’t have to take public transport and risk fucking up in front of witnesses like this. He’s hyperaware of the suit hidden under his ratty old clothes, and of the fact that he hasn’t put the mask on yet, and that the tired looking man in the nursing uniform may look like he’s flipping through a magazine but he could actually be looking at Karkat and noticing the exposed edge of a neoprene collar or the weird material of Karkat’s boots –

He slaps himself mentally, berating internal Karkat for being a paranoid little fuck until the bus rolls to a stop. He rushes off, head ducked as he glances around the street. He has memorized where he’s going, but he’s still on edge as he skulks toward the Seattle Public Library, trying and no doubt failing to look innocuous as he makes his way around the back entrance. He used to volunteer here in a darker time in his life, and he’d just so happened to visit two weeks ago. His old co-workers thought it was nice to see him again; Karkat had just endured the torment of having the life stories of twelve librarians dumped on him while he stole one of the spare sets of keys hanging in the back. Yeah, great start to being a crime-fighter – break into a library.

But he needs a place to hide his regular clothes, and to surreptitiously change in and out of them where no one passing by will notice Karkat walking in and Hemogoblin walking out, and fuck if he trusts any of the downtown bathrooms to be secure enough. There are no cameras in the circulation room, and the only ping on the security system will be a log that someone with maintenance keys came and then left in under five minutes, which he hopes will be ignored by anyone who might be checking. Until he can put together some kind of secure base in the city itself (which he honestly doesn’t have the first clue how to do; renting an apartment is not only financially infeasible but would again involve his regular identity being linked to his alias) he’s just going to have to commandeer the library.

Yeah, this is incredibly stupid.

But it’s also the best plan he’s come up with over all these months of planning, so it looks like past Karkat’s stupidity is rapidly becoming current Karkat’s as well.

After making sure the coast is clear and that no stray librarians have decided working until eleven at night is a good idea, Karkat locks himself in a printer room and starts shedding his baggy outer layers, folding them up and stuffing them into a paper cabinet where they won’t be seen. He pulls on a pair of skintight arm warmers, tugging them up until they sit right on his arms and keep his wrist and palms exposed. He knows he’s a better fighter than your average troll, has been training himself specifically for the kind of work he anticipates tonight, but in the event he has to make use of his more…unusual talents, he’d rather not fuck up part of his costume trying to defend himself.

He puts on his mask, smoothing it anxiously across his nose and checking and rechecking that it is fully secured because, of any of the pieces of his costume, if the mask falls off he is royally fucked. He then attaches the prosthetic horns. He’d ordered them as discreetly as possible, paid in cash, and repainted them himself from the standard candy-corn orange to a deep red, crudely altering the basic shape so that no one would connect them with the original prostheses he’d purchased. He’s not leaving anything to chance, and like fuck is he running around the city with his extremely recognizable stunted horns exposed. No troll hero with half a thinkpan intact would leave their horns unaltered or uncovered, not with how uniquely each pair is shaped, like the human fingerprint. Okay yeah, there’s Blind Justice over in Chicago, but her’s are a generic enough shape that no one could call her out.

The last step makes Karkat hesitate. He stands awkwardly in his skintight suit (like fuck, this outfit doesn’t hide anything at all) and grips the edge of the printer as he stares down at the contact lens case.

It wouldn’t matter, really, if he left the lenses in. No one would know any different except Karkat. He’d just be a rustblood hero with obviously dyed horns, and no further questions would be asked.

But he – fuck, he’d told himself he’d do this. Because if he isn’t hiding his powers and his unnatural endurance anymore, why hide this.

In fact -

He’s so sick of hiding this. His claws are fucking shaky and he snarls at himself as he reaches up, places a claw on each side of the contact lens in his right eye, and – pops it out. Immediately his eye starts tearing up, exposed to open air for the first time since he’d last exchanged the lens a week ago. He plops it in the lens case and then removes the other lens before he can second-guess himself, blinking rapidly to try to clear the suddenly wash of stinging fluid from his eyes.

Abruptly, the world shifts into sharp focus, and he stares around the room, adjusting to the sensation of being able to see clearly since the first time he’d had to cover up his changing eyes when his secondary pupation hit around almost five years ago. Even blinking feels different without the thick layer of color-muting contact lenses between him and his eyelids. It’s a double-whammy, being free of both his contacts and the ever-present dark frame of the glasses he always has to wear to make up for the blurriness the lenses cause.

Taking deep, steadying breath, he sets the lens case inside the cabinet on top of his civilian clothes and locks it with a key. He tucks the key into a slim pocket flush against his leg and does one last check of his uniform to make sure he hasn’t forgotten anything before he leaves.

Karkat’s just grateful there aren’t any mirrors in the room: the sight of his own gleaming, candy red eyes would probably have sent him scurrying back to the lenses like a wriggler running to its lusus for comfort.

Not Karkat, he then corrects himself mentally. Hemogoblin, Hemogoblin, Hemogoblin. It's better than Scarletgilante, alright? He can’t afford to accidentally drop his own name while on the job; better if he starts thinking of himself as Hemogoblin from the moment he puts on the suit.

From the moment he steps outside the library he feels exposed. Surveying the area to reassure himself he’s alone, Kar-Hemogoblin runs to the building across the street and ducks into the alley. He’s confused for a moment by how well-lit the empty alley is, until he remembers he’s not wearing the contact lenses; there’s nothing obscuring his night vision anymore.

The spring air is still cool enough to nip at his fingers and the gap between his arm guards and the shoulders of his bodysuit, and it wakes him right up as he scales the building and begins to run and tumble across the roof tops, slowly gaining confidence as he goes. He’d known himself capable of travelling this way for some time, but again, this is the first time he’s done it with all of his senses clear and alert. Each leap across the gap between one building and the next is a breath of weightlessness, before his body reacts almost before he thinks to land smoothly, with plenty of room to spare.

After running nearly to the point where he intended to begin patrolling in earnest, Hemogoblin stops, taking a moment to revel in the adrenaline pumping through him before making last minute adjustments to his costume, his mask, and his false horns. Everything seems to have held up well despite the jostling, just like in the practice runs, and now –

With one hasty look at the sky, flushing at his own (stupid) half-formed desire to see the form of Heir hovering somewhere above, Hemogoblin goes to work.

-

It takes Hemogoblin nearly an hour to come across his first crime-in-progress. It’s possible he’s nervous and overlooking potential incidents, but he really hopes not; it just seems to be a relatively quiet night, crime-wise. But a sharp cry breaks the night to his left and he nearly stumbles to stop himself midstride before another arcing leap would have taken him in the wrong direction. He turns and runs in the direction he thought he’d heard the noise, scanning the alleyways and the street even more intently until he hears another scream. He reaches the source and steps without hesitating off the edge of the building, from a height no normal troll or human could handle without breaking bones. He lands lightly in a crouch, and keeps to the shadows as he observes the scene before him, fighting every flaring instinct that tells him to rush in and start kicking.

What he sees looks like – if he’s honest – a drug deal gone wrong. A tall troll in a raggedy overcoat stands over the prostrate body of another troll, who is trying to cover his horns as the tall troll kicks at him viciously. “Where’s. The. Money?” he demands, punctuating each word with another blow, the last one catching the fallen troll square in the ribs. “Where is the fucking money, Qexien?!”

“I don’t have it,” the fallen troll wheezes, rolling away. “I’m sorry, I don’t -” He chokes and spits out a mouthful of blood when the tall troll kicks again.

Alright. Time to intervene. Hemogoblin circles around the two figures in silence, almost holding his breath as he creeps in closer behind the tall troll’s back. The troll on the ground stops whimpering and Hemogoblin glances down to make sure he’s still alive. He catches the troll’s startled gaze, which only widens when he sees the exact luminescent color of Hemogoblin’s eyes. ‘Wha-’ the troll mouths, and Hemogoblin places a finger to his lips, shaking his head.

Too late. “What are you gawking at, you useless waste of -” the tall troll whips around with a snarl creasing his face. He blinks when he sees Karkat, clearly just as stunned.

Well, fuck.

So Hemogoblin kicks him in the face, a horribly angled kick that glances off the taller troll’s cheek. It’s enough to knock the startled troll back a few paces with a yelp, his pale blue eyes  widening as he focuses on Hemogoblin’s face with horror. “What the fuck are you?”

Karkat has thought the same thing too often for the words to do more than trigger a panicked wave of self-preservation instinct.

Someone has seen his eyes.

He channels the ensuing burst of tense panic into a more controlled, sweeping roundhouse kick, this time landing perfectly and slamming the troll’s head to the side with a sharp crack as bone crunches beneath his heel.

He doesn’t pause. Even as the troll growls and lunges at him, Hemogoblin’s leg lands and he spins with the momentum, bringing his other leg up in a back kick that angles up and collides with the troll’s chin as Hemogoblin kicks up into a handstand. He pushes off and lands upright again, turning to face the troll in a fighting stance again.

He needn’t have bothered. The tall troll crashes back against the wall, blood pouring from his nose and trickling down over his mouth, eyes shut as he slumps to the ground. Hurrying forward, Hemogoblin jabs at the troll’s pulse point and pulls his eyelid up to assess him. A tiny fraction of worry eases when he finds a very strong pulse. Just unconscious then. Most of his training has been not just to get into fighting shape, but also to learn to constantly pull his kicks so that he doesn’t accidentally kill someone.

Looks like he has managed to hit just the right balance. It isn’t quite a one-hit knockout, but he’ll take it. Reaching into a pouch, he takes out a ziptie and cuffs the troll’s hands together behind his back. “Hey, you-” Hemogoblin says, turning to look at the fallen troll –

Who is gone. Hemogoblin takes a full minute to process the tiny smudge of blood on the ground where the other troll used to be curled up in a defensive ball, then smacks himself in the forehead for being a fucking idiot not fit to pass a third grade level logic test. Clearly the smaller troll had been involved in some kind of illicit activity with the guy Hemogoblin knocked out; no way he’d stick around to wait for the cops when he would only be arrested as well.

Now Hemogoblin is stuck with an unconscious body and no witness or potential victim to leave behind to explain the situation to the police. That’s always Heir’s modus operandi, and here Hemogoblin’s very first act of vigilantism has already gone off script. Rolling his eyes, Hemogoblin raises an eyebrow at the unconscious dealer. “And what the grublicking fuck am I supposed to do with you, now?”

In the end, Hemogoblin ends up calling the police from the nearest payphone, and he leaves the still-unconscious troll ziptied to a bicycle rack. He checks around the area for the beaten troll, worrying he’ll find the guy passed out and dying of internal bleeding or something. He’s pretty sure letting the first civilian he’s ever rescued die would be the heroic equivalent of fucking up so bad you literally transform into the physical embodiment of abject failure and shrivel up in shame for all eternity. He finally finds the guy passed out behind a recycling bin four streets down, and drags the guy back to the same bike rack, leaving him at the opposite end as the other troll, and smacks himself again when he realizes he has to find another round of quarters to call the ambulance.

By the time the police arrive, Hemogoblin has scaled the nearest building again, and is watching right up until the ambulance appears a few minutes later. Okay, maybe his first rescue ended up being a possible drug dealer who needed to be shipped off to the hospital afterward, but hey. He actually hadn't fucked up that badly. Nobody even died. What a goddamn pleasant surprise; finally, something Karkat Vantas hasn't ruined just by touching it.

With considerably more confidence in his step, Hemogoblin starts patrolling in earnest.

-

Within a month, Hemogoblin merchandise has appeared in the local comic store. It's fucking creepy to be on the receiving end of this, Karkat realizes, even as his moirail proceeds to geek out. John has never been a huge Heir fan, but he reveals that can fangirl with the best of them when the first Hemogoblin posters show up. Over the next few weeks, this new enthusiasm for a real life hero, as opposed to one of John's usual obsessions like Captain America, shows no signs of abating.

Karkat can only draw two conclusions. It's either John having really, really weird taste in heroes - because now that Karkat has actually met Heir in person, he is only more convinced that Heir of Breath is fucking awesome - or some bizarre, previously unknown twist of moirallegiance that John is obsessively supportive of Karkat, even when he doesn't know it's Karkat that he's supporting.

Which would have really disturbing consequences, and Karkat would prefer isn't the case. John has made several worrying comments about Hemogoblin's butt that are in no way in line with moirallegiance, and Karkat has literally no good excuse lined up for why he could possibly object to the butt of someone he's pretending he has no connection to.

Okay, fucking everyone has noticed the butt. Everyone and their mother has commented on it. Why. Why is it a thing. Karkat's brain may yet explode from the incomprehensible nature of the general attention that is paid to his behind. Even motherfucking Heir has noticed the butt and holy fuck it takes everything Hemogoblin has to maintain a flirtatious mask and not freak the fuck out whenever he's within ten feet of the other hero.

That stops being a problem sometime between Hemogoblin witnessing an enormous explosion from halfway across the city, and him arriving at the Dockyards just in time to watch Heir get blown out of the sky.

After that night, Hemogoblin and Heir are partners in crime fighting, and maybe for the first time, he feels less like Karkat in a suit, and more like Hemoglobin isn't just some stupid whim.

This...this feels right. Maybe it's cliche as fuck, but he can feel it in his blood, in his bone barrow.

He can spend the days with John, being stupidly happy. But at night, he's free.

---

Rose is quite tipsy when the first Pesterchum alert begins flashing in the corner of the screen. She ignores it and continues mixing some sugary and purple in preparation for the on-coming day. Lately, it seems as though if she doesn't start with a couple of martinis before noon, the day just never goes as planned. She completes the drink and sips at it experimentally as she sways toward the desktop, stumbling and staggering over books on the floor as she does.

When she sees the color of the pesterer's text, she makes a face. She's not sure what the face looks like, as she hasn't been able to feel her skin in several hours, since she'd woken herself up with a shot of cognac. One is supposed to sip cognac slowly and enjoy the subtle flavors; Rose, however, stopped tasting the alcohol a couple months ago, when the occasional 'good stiff drink' had become more of a persistent habit.

Anyway. Focus. Rose makes a face. It's a truly scandalous face, but Rose is feeling more than a little lax about appearances at the moment. The jade green of the text on the screen is worth a face or three, though.

The purple drink is, as usual, an abomination to the senses and an affront to human decency, but she downs it as she half-falls into her chair to reply to the steadily but politely escalating chat.

-- grimAuxiliatrix [GA] began pestering tentacleTherapist [TT] at 5:45:02 --

GA: I Have Been Very Patient.
GA: I Have Contacted A Friend Who Possesses Expertise In Technological Matters, And He Has Informed Me That There Is Nothing That Would Have Prevented You From Receiving Or Viewing My Messages Over The Past Few Weeks.
GA: I Have Drawn The Conclusion That You Are Avoiding Me.
GA: I Did Consider That You May Have Been Injured Or Otherwise Disabled And Thus Prevented From Responding, However Your Continued Appearances In News Reports Out of New York Would Suggest You Are Completely Able Bodied.
GA: By An Extremely Loose Definition Of Able.
GA: There Have Been No News Reports Today. The Media Has Noted Your Absence.
GA: Seer.
GA: Seer, Please, Answer.
GA: Rose.
GA: Rose, Please.

-- tentacleTherapist has joined the chat! --

TT: Are we ugprading t o first naems now?
TT: How froward of yuo, Kanaya.
GA: Rose.
GA: The Abominable State Of Your Quirk Tells Me You Are Once Again Intoxicated.
GA: You Told Me Once That You Began Work At Six O'Clock In The Morning.
TT: And I will aggrieve when I aggreive, Kanya.
TT: *arrive
TT: The city wil not excoriate in my avsense if I do not get in until sevenn.
GA: Rose, It Is Five O'Clock In The Evening.
GA: You Did Not Work At All Today.
TT: Noo, that's not
TT: Kaanyaya
TT: *Kanaya
TT: I missed wrok???

Rose collapses half off the chair before she regains her footing. Her heart beats an unsteady, too-hard drumbeat in her chest, and the pressure makes her feel woozy and sick to her stomach. She lets the drink topple over as she goes to the bedroom window and peels back the thick blackout curtains.

The sun peers through the trees just over the horizon, and Rose is ready to lurch around and triumphantly inform Kanaya that her clock must be broken when Rose remembers that her window faces west.

That is a setting sun.

Rose pushes back from the window, making a lunge for the closet before she realizes there is no point. The setting of the sun has always been her alarm bell, the deadline after which she has to travel home from work and take up residence for the night in the observatory. She sits down hard in the computer chair instead, vaguely aware that her fingers are trembling as she swallows hard. She feels quite sickeningly sober now, and it is an unpleasant sensation.

She can feel that she has part of her costume on, the leggings half-sagging down one leg with a single boot laced up in clumsy knots. She most definitely began getting ready this morning, so what had happened? Her memory is a blur, fogged with alcohol and the ever-present weight of sleep-deprivation, but she would have noticed an entire day passing by! This is not -

(shhhh)

The edge of a headache twinges behind Rose's left eye, and she has to knuckle at it with her fingers  until the deep ache abates. When she reaches out for the purple drink, she spies the glass overturned on the floor, a small grape-purple stain forming a puddle on the ivory carpet. Having failed that, Rose takes up the vodka sitting next to her computer and takes a quick swig, grimacing and nearly choking on the hard burn. It's hard to keep the alcohol down with her stomach in knots like this, but she suppresses her gag reflex through sheer force of will.

She's had too much practice at this. Her stomach protests, but the headache subsides, assuaged by the psychosomatic relief of a straight shot of alcohol burning its way down her throat. She doesn't know when the migraines started, and has honestly lost track of which are genuine headaches and which are just the result of the constant cycle of hangovers.

It is most likely irresponsible and foolish in the extreme to go out to fight crime while intoxicated, but she hasn't had much choice lately. If she doesn't drink her way into a pleasant buzz before work, debilitating tremors bring her to her knees before the day is halfway gone. It is a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle.

Resting her cheek on the lip of the bottle, Rose returns to Pesterchum, the happy buzz gone as she begins to respond to Kanaya's ponderous messages. She takes extra care to ensure her own quirk doesn't include any more typos, which would only provoke Kanaya further.

GA: Yes, You Did Rose.
GA: You Did Not Realize That?
GA: I Find This To Be Extremely Concerning.
GA: This Conversation Has Yet To Assure Me As To The Continued Status Of Your Well-Being.
GA: Rose?
GA: Please Do Not Cease Communicating Again Or So Help Me I Will Take Matters Into My Own Claws.
TT: I am still here, Kanaya.
TT: It is nothing. I must have lost track of time.
TT: I am quite well. There is no need to feel undue concern over me. I am quite capable of taking care of myself.
TT: You have your own city to care for.
GA: Philadelphia Can Go Without Its Malachite Sylph For One Night.
GA: My Urban Auspisticism Is Strategically Applied In Order To Instill The Maximum Amount Of Apprehension In The Hearts Of Potential Ruffians.
GA: Criminal Activity Would Be Minimal Even If The Masses Noted My Absence.
GA: Please, Rose. Tell Me Where You Are.

(- do not respond)

Rose doesn't respond. Her brain is comfortably numb as she takes another long sip of vodka and closes her eyes against the foul taste, the sick feeling in her stomach from having lost an entire day fading beneath the heavy weight of the alcohol swishing in her gut.

Rubbing her hand against her face, she leaves the pesterlog open on the screen, ignoring the little flash that goes off each time a frantic new message arrives, and stands up. Her floor feels uneven and rocks up beneath her, as though she is at sea. It is nearly nightfall, and her time in the observatory is almost upon her. She can do no more than feel resigned when she realizes that to her foggy mind, it feels as though she only just left the meditation room an hour ago; now she must return to the horrid chore without even memories of a long day at work in the sun to sustain her.

As she stumbles down the hallway, occasionally clipping her elbow on the wall when it seems to leap out into her path, she strips off what little of her uniform she managed to struggle into earlier, leaving only the skintight Kevlar undershirt, leggings, and the skirt she had worn to meditate in last night, which she had apparently never managed to take off. She has to balance herself with one hand on the railing overlooking the dark living room in order to undo the messy knot she has made of the left boot, and she kicks it off the landing. The boot takes out a small wizard statue as it flies, and then lands in a dry puff of dust somewhere below.

(hush)

She is so very tired. She stops in the middle of the hallway and wonders - why not? Why not just go back to her room, the room she has never slept in? Why not see how it felt to actually lie down and just sleep for once in her life?The blasted meditation can wait one night…

She has turned without realizing her feet are moving when suddenly, impossibly, there is a knock on the front door.

Rose freezes, a little of the haze in her head clearing as she shifts behind the wall, glancing over her shoulder at the door below. It is hard to focus, like her eyes can't quite stay all the way open, but she does hear the second knock when it arrives.

Someone is at her house.

For the first time in nearly three years, someone is at her house.

(do not-)

She half-runs, half-falls down stairs, forgetting all dignity and grace as she does. Her hair is lank and unkempt, hanging in her face, and she just has time to shove it back behind her uneven headband, taking in her own haunted stare and bedraggled clothing in the mirror by the front door. She can't bring herself to care about the mess, not when there's only one person in the world who still knows where this house is -

Rose yanks the door open, an unwanted tear blurring her sight. "Mothe-"

There is no one there.

There is - There is no - no one at all -

(hush r̎o̓͒̏s̾̎͂̅ͤ̓ͦ͑͂e̎̄̒́̽)

Rose feels nothing. She steps out onto the porch, and scans the lawn, the edge of the forest where it hedges in the grounds. There is no one in sight, and no movement in the trees to mark where they might have passed out of sight. She cannot hear the rumble of an engine, so the knocker had to have been on foot. She should still be able to see them -

But no. She is still alone. You'd think after spending a long enough span of time in solitude, one would adjust, but the disappointment is as fresh and bitter as ever. Perhaps she should have read up on the effect of isolation on a growing adolescent mind, but she can't recall the last time she received her subscription to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It mostly likely stopped being delivered around the same time the postman had stopped noticing their house, and the letters from John had trickled to a halt.

She slumps to her knees in an ungainly pile, the wood of the porch scraping through her leggings, and something crumples beneath her leg. She blinks slowly, wearily, and somehow finds the effort to extricate a flimsy envelope from under her knee. She turns it over in her hands, squinting to try to make the letters focus.

It bears her mother's seal, and for an instant Rose's heart pounds, until she realizes with a dull pain that there is no point in being excited. It had been foolish to expect her mother to deliver something in person after three years of the good doctor avoiding the Lalonde manse like the plague. No doubt she'd sent some suitably passive-aggressive form of messenger, who had stuck around just long enough to deliver the letter and play upon Rose's emotions, to teach her better than to get her hopes up. Her mother's lessons in fortitude and self-sufficiency have always combined needless complications, psychological games, and passive-aggression in equal measure. Not even a three year pause seems to have changed her despicable tactics.

(it's all right, r̎o̓͒̏s̾̎͂̅ͤ̓ͦ͑͂e̎̄̒́̽)

Rose just wishes she were bitter enough to take the letter and set it alight. But no, she is still desperate enough through the dull pain to slit the sealed edge of the letter with a perfectly manicured nail, and unfold the paper to read the contents.

What she reads is a perfect work of art. Doctor Rue Lalonde's handwriting is a masterpiece, none of her drunken slur present in the looping whorls and elegant curves of her script.

Daughter mine,

I do hope this note find you in good health. I have always had utter confidence in your ability to succeed and flourish even in my absence. You have always been such a self-sufficient child.

I wish that I could have communicated with you sooner. Three years is rather a long time. But I have only just now engaged a Passing Messenger whose methods would not draw undue attention to your location.

I assure you, it is all for the best. Don't forget to meditate regularly, my dear. And do give my regards to John.

Affectionately yours,

Doctor Rue Lalonde, Ph.D

The note is, as always, everything Rose has never wanted.

(it will be fine, r̎o̓͒̏s̾̎͂̅ͤ̓ͦ͑͂e̎̄̒́̽)

She rips it in two.

There is something wet streaming down her face. She shakes her head, sucking in breath through her nose as she attempts to control herself. She must maintain her calm. As long as she can show that her mother has not affected her, Rue Lalonde hasn't won this standoff. Rose just has to be serene. Be inscrutable. Go up to the observatory and meditate until she's too tired to feel all this hate.

(after all, your tͫ̑͊́a͊n̈́ͨͣ̃̽ͪg̎̄l̓͂ë̌͗̿ͥ̃̆͒b̈́͆̚u̓̑͑̆͊̄d͌̌́d́̾̌iͣͭ̾͊̿͋̀̒ͨe͛̑͊̇̚s͑̑̈ͭ͛ͧ are always here F͈̹̗̳̖̹̳̩̞ͭ͂́̉̎O͉͕̱̎̍̓ͦ̓̍R͎̭̭̯͒͋̔ͫ̚ ͉͇̠̰̿ͨ̿̅͂̃ͦ̚Y̞̜͓̬̽̋͛O̪̪̦̲̟̓͌ͣ͒̓ͧU͔͕͇̹ͭ̔̌ͧ̓͗)

Rose feels the exact moment she loses to her mother. She feels it like a stabbing pain right through the middle of her, and it is as though her perfectly analytical mind has chosen this exact moment to recall every time she walked in on a cold, dark house. Every time she ate a solitary dinner. Every time she ignored frantic pesterlogs from her oldest friends because she couldn't give in, she can do this she can make it on her own she will not lose to that damned woman not this time -

She loses all control, screaming as a sob racks her body. She reaches up with both hands, furiously wiping at the tears, even as she wails in agony at the empty night sky.

Her hands come away bloody, and she can taste the blood in her mouth, but she doesn't care. She is just so - so enraged.

How DARE she?!

(don't cry, sweet rose, ī̘̙̝̜̰̔ͦ̽ͨ̾ͩͮ̋ͅt̟̻͇͕̓ͯ̚ ̲͍̰̫͔̱͆ͮd̹̜͈̻̬̙̋̈͑ͧ̿̉̂̇o̟̫̲̣͐͒e̠͉͖͖̾̓͗̍s̺̠̳̯̺̣̹̐ͣṉ̤̝͎̦̫̍̏̊͋ͭ'͕̦̱̦̣͓̞͙̙ͥͫ̔͋̌t̞̞͎͌̅ ̣̠̜̱̲̝ͨ̅͐ͤ̎̎̎h͈̞̣̱̥̦͊ͮ̑̅ũ̩ͤ̈ͨͫ͛̒̓͛r̪̻̝̮̂ͤt̼̲͎͐ ͉̳̬̭̤͋̒ͪͨ̔́̅à͇̩͉̲̳͔͕͒n͉̯̘ͥ̐̇ͬ͆͒̀y̳̤̫̬͙͕̱̖̔̃ͦͨ̿͌m̼̗̦̩̜̘̻̔̎ͦͪͅo͎͎̯͇͖̭ͧͮ̂̚r̭̫͓̝ͭ̾̀͐e̪͉̠̥͖̼̙̤̩̓͒͋̂ )

It doesn't hurt. Why should this hurt, after three years of nothing, after three years, after rather a long goddamn time?

Rose isn't hurting anymore. She is brutally, coldly, undeniably furious.

(after all)

(w̩̼̜̗e̩͍̺ are here)

(w̩̼̜̗e̩͍̺ are A͑͋ͦ͐̓L͆͂ͪ̔ͥ̃̄ͣW̾ͯ͌͒ͮͦ̉Aͣ͌̀̾̊Y̒ͦS͑̊͆ͥͩͦͫ̆ here)

(and we will N̄̎̐̈͐̿̚Eͥ̊͛ͯ̂̽͛V̾ͨE̓ͬ̇̚Rͮ͐ ̒̍ͥͬͥL̋́̐ͨ̅̓̽Ȇ̊̉ͥͦAͣ͐̆̒ͣ̏V͊̎̂E͂͐̒̒̍͗ͮ̿ ͪ̒͑̓͌Ỳ͋͋̒ͬͭ̆ͤO͒͆͐ͮ̿͌̂̚U̍͒̏͛ͣͮ͊ͥ̒)

Yes. Why would Rose have ever been hurt, when she has never been truly alone? Her entire body rocks with convulsions.

She isn't crying anymore. She is laughing. The tears are still running down her cheeks, but all she can do is laugh, her lungs wheezing as she gasps for the air to keep laughing.

stop laughing what are you doing rose why did you drink so much you need to fight them you need to wake up wake up YOU NEED TO STOP THIS ROSE NO!

Her head feels like it's about to split in two. Part of her - a rapidly dwindling portion, barely noticeable after all, shrieks and writhes in protest as it is slowly crushed beneath the rolling tide of colddamp.

The other half roars with triumph as Rose realizes the truth. It is the roar of the absolute Void, the sound of the Abyss, and it can no longer be denied. If there is any spark of the Seer of Light left in her, it doesn't matter. What good has the light ever done her? Now that she has the dark -

She will Wͬ͐ͫ̅҉̵͝I̵̢̒̀L̓̽̿͂̀͝L͗ ̵ͣ̅́Ñ̎͗̽͛͗͆͘E̴ͨͮͮ͂͏Vͨ͆̀̄̿҉̴Eͥ́͞R̡ͩ̌̋̂͑͌ ̷͑͛ͪͤB̑̇͐͋ͦ́̌̽͡҉͘E̵ͮ́̇͂̅̂͒ͣ̀ ̎̐̅̂ͣͪ͂̃̃͢L̓ͣ͢҉Oͦ̐͒͂ͧ̚̕N̊͑͌ͫ͌̕E̓̈ͫ͑ͦ͏͠Lͥ҉͏̴Y̢͐ͣ̈ͯ̎ͫͥͧ͋ ̔͊͏̀Ǎ̏ͫ̎̆͢͢Ǧ̷̀͡A̵̛̾͑ͬͪȊ̏̐̈͌ͥNͬͫͪͤ̎̇͊ͦ 

The grimdark curls its tentacles into her mind, and the last thing she sees as Rose Lalonde is the darkness overhead and all around her, the darkness between the stars.

-

At approximately 18:21:03 on a Friday night, a massive explosion occurs in the middle of Hamilton county, New York. It is, reportedly, visible from orbit.

At the epicenter of the blast, a slim figure rises from the resulting crater, and turns eyes that burn white with power to the south. It bares sharp teeth in a vicious grin, and steers the body formerly known as Rose Lalonde toward New York City.

---

Dave zones the fuck out. It takes true talent to be this unfocused, even as his hands move over the turntables and adjust sound quality at intervals. His latest ironic project is an attempt at turning Bruno Mars into something worth listening too. So far, all he’s managed is to elevate Grenade to the point at which it no longer makes his ears bleed in horror.

It’s not that he doesn’t like mixing some sick beats anymore, and gets sick thrills off subjecting himself to this torture. Quite the opposite. It’s just that at the moment, he’s attempting something a little bit more complicated than –

The door to his room swings open, and a second Dave walks in. “It works,” he says around a mouthful of taco. “I didn’t even die of a brain aneurysm or anything, so kudos on not fucking up in about five minutes from now.”

Dave raises an eyebrow, but otherwise doesn’t react to the fact that there’s two of him. If other-Dave can keep a straight face about this, so can Dave.

Sure, this is the culmination of nearly two years’ worth of hard work and embarrassingly stupid shenanigans that will never be spoken of in polite company ever again, but they’re Dave Strider. No need to get all worked up into a lather about winning. Success is basically a forgone conclusion when you pack this much coolkid into one fantastic bod.

Well. Two bods, at the moment. Details.

“Five minutes?” he asks, turning back to the turntables. The rest of the question goes unspoken – what happens in five minutes that makes this attempt  so different from the hundreds of other times we tried this?

Other-Dave shrugs noncommittally and walks over to the turntables, switching off the Bruno Mars. “Stop listening to that shit, it’s probably rotting our brain or something. This project isn’t ironic anymore. We’ve been working on it for weeks. Now it’s just sad. The irony is dead. Rotting. Risen again in a twisted mockery of its former glory. BTW, the BQ will be hanging out around the medical center when you think to go looking for her. Don’t be fucking late. You don’t keep that dame waiting, she’ll fuck you up. Start a reign of creepy shadow terror all over your ass or something.” He shovels the rest of the taco into his mouth, and then kicks Dave off his chair.

Dave lands flat on his back on the floor. “Not cool,” he says, sitting up. “Seriously. What happens in – three minutes, now?”

“Other-me didn’t tell me when this all happened to me, so I can’t tell you. Is the impression I get, anyway.” There is a pause as both Striders have to pause and think about the use of tenses in that first sentence. Both raise an eyebrow at the same time in mutual agreement that there’s probably no better way to have phrased it. Other-Dave starts fiddling with the turntables, pressing a headphone to his ear as he frowns at the readouts. “This is how I remember it happening, and hell no, we are not dicking around with paradoxes when we’ve only just started getting this thing to work right. This is me, drawing the line. Right there. It’s a huge fucking line, you can’t miss it. We’re not unraveling the fabric of space-time to satisfy our morbid curiosity.”

"Wow, you need to calm down man. Our inner asshole is showing," Dave says, getting to his feet and stuffing his hands in his pockets. "Pretty sure if you just tell me what to do, this will all be over with that much faster and we can sail off into the sunset with our brand new time-travel merit badge on our sashes."

"I still don't remember me telling me. So I'm not." Other-Dave rubs the bridge of his nose and shakes his head slightly.

"I think you're full of shit. Tell me."

“Whatever. I’m too tired to argue with me. I don't even have the energy for Pesterchum right now. That bed is serenading me with some intense lullabies. You can’t hear them, but they’re there, dude. It wants me, and I want it. Some of us just spent twenty-four hours awake without thinking through the consequences of reliving an entire day.”  He lifts his fingers off the turntable in a gesture Dave recognizes – it’s the same hand motion he tends to make when he’s finished up a project. It’s hella weird watching himself do it from three feet away. There’s the weirdest sensation in his own hand, as though he can feel some phantom limb shit going on.

Other-Dave unplugs the headphones and a steady bassline pumps through the air unchecked, the volume rattling the dead things in their jars on the shelves. ‘Here, listen to this for a minute,’ that total asshole signs with his hands as the bass drowns out all other sound.

Dave refuses to give in and sign back. The collar at his throat burns and vibrates slightly as he determinedly plows through audible words. The sound comes out garbled and unintelligible in his ears, the loud drum beat in the air confusing the sensors. But what he means to say goes something like, “I thought I only had one minute. Shouldn’t I be engaging the flux capacitor? Firing up the metaphorical DeLorean? Can you please turn this off? Ho-ly shit why is future me a total douche?”  

It feels like a giant fucking robot is bouncing on a pogo stick against his eardrums. After a long day of trying to focus on his internal sense of time and make the clock run backwards with Bruno Mars wailing in the background, it’s the exact opposite of what Dave wants in his life. He’s extremely tempted to stop time and flashstep around himself to turn down the volume. But he only has thirty seconds left before apparently he’s due for this major epiphany that will let him time-travel like the Badass Quandary has been harassing him to do since day one of their weird friendalliance. He decides to wait it out, leaning against the edge of the hole in the wall where the window used to be, where the noise from the bass rumbles out into open air. Other-him just sits there at the turntables, face unreadable even without the sunglasses on, and yeah, that is frustrating as fuck when Dave’s on the receiving end of it.

The bass drones in his ears, until it feels like one big pulse pounding so insistently even his heart matches tempo and fuuu-

-uck, is he losing track of time again?

Yeah, he is. He totally is.

Everything feels like it’s happening in half-time, and his movements are sluggish as he shakes his head to try to clear it. Dave claws at his own sense of time, trying half-heartedly to care when his body starts feeling distant and disconnected. It feels like trying to walk outside in Houston on a slow, muggy summer afternoon, when the air is more humidity than oxygen and breathing feels like drinking a glass of lukewarm water. If he fucking misses when he finally figures out time travel just because his future self started blaring some brain-melting bassline, he is going punch other-Dave in the goddamn gallbladder. He doesn’t care if it would be the same as punching himself in the gallbladder, it would be worth it.

“Sorry, man. This is the way it’s going to have to go. I do feel kind of like an asshole about it, though.”

Dave blinks and time chimes back into focus. The air is weirdly still and clear, and he realizes that the bassline has stopped. All that’s left is the residual thrum in his brain. He has just enough time to stare at other-Dave, who is suddenly standing right in front of Dave's face, for about a second, before the other guy puts a hand on Dave’s chest and shoves him backward.

Out the fucking hole in the wall.

“Wha-” Dave starts, before his survival instincts kick in. The problem is, his instincts say to grab onto the fire escape, which is completely out of reach. His feet kick wildly but neither the metal bars of the fire escape nor the wall are anywhere near him; he’s got nothing to push off of and get the momentum needed to jump to the wall opposite, because other-Dave shoved him hard enough that he’s falling almost exactly a foot out of reach of anything useful.

Future-me just pushed me off a thirteen story building, Dave thinks, feeling a bit put out. When he looks below him, he can see the dumpster right beneath him in the alleyway.

Future-me just pushed me off a thirteen story building to land in a fucking dumpster, Dave thinks, completely incensed.

This is…

This is beyond irony. This is the pinnacle of everything irony has ever aspired to be. Irony is the naïve handmaiden in service of the goddess that is this moment right here, right now, at exactly 4:13:00 in the afternoon on a Friday. Oh my fucking god, not even Bro can top something as ridiculously stupid as this. This is incredible.

The only problem with this sublime moment is that Dave has no way to stop the whole falling thing.

He’s around the eighth story now and okay he definitely has a problem. Yup. Oh, there goes the seventh story, that’s awesome. This is the highlight of his day. This is clearly how he was always meant to go, falling to his doom from his own apartment building after years of insane roof-jumping antics in the name of great justice and ironic heroism.

Around the fifth floor, he starts to panic.

Something feels like it's lodged in his throat and it’s really hard to breathe around it, so he starts wheezing a little as his arms flail around for something, anything to grab onto and halt his fall. That fucking bassline is still going in his head and he refuses to die with that and Bruno Mars the last music he ever listens to in his life. If Dave Strider ever dies, ever, he fully intends to do it with a goddamn symphony going full blast in the background, thank you very much, so fuck this fucking noise, and –

Something seizes in his throat, and he can’t breathe at all.

Dave jerks forward, curling up as he grabs at his neck, fingernails scraping on the metal of the collar. But it doesn’t feel tight, and he can’t find the clasp when he’s busy falling past the third fucking floor anyway, and his throat seizes in pain again and he’s dying even before he hits the bottom of the empty dumpster, what a class act -

With the last shred of consciousness he has left, Dave yanks mentally on the part of him in charge of time, rips at the time-stop option that won’t do a damn thing to help because he’ll just keep falling while the rest of the world stops around him. It’s the last thing he can think of to do, and he stops time, stops it and holds it there until the usual firecrackers start spitting fire into his brain.

He blacks out before he hits the ground.

-

Dave wakes up.

This is a huge deal. He feels like this deserves a round of applause. Unfortunately, his arms feel like they’ve been ripped off his body and filled with enough helium that they’ve floated off into the atmosphere. He’s used to a little disassociation here and there, but this is a whole new level of dreamy weirdness. Normal people would need some good drugs to hit this kind of high.

While he tries to regain his sense of his limbs, Dave does a quick inventory. Point number one – not dead yet. He pauses for another round of mental applause. Not every day you survive a thirteen story fall with your skull mostly intact. Point number two – everything stinks like a dumpster, and when he shifts his body, trying to tilt his head enough to see if his legs move when he tells them to, he sees that he is sprawled out on top of several bags of garbage, one of which apparently burst open under the force of his plummeting body.

Point number three needs to wait its fucking turn because this goddamn dumpster had been emptied this morning. Dave had heard the rumble of the garbage truck all the way through Bruno Mars at around eight in the morning, and he had looked down while falling and definitely noticed that his future resting place was empty. That was totally a thing that happened.

Still woozy, Dave raises his arm and pats at the garbage bag cushioning his lower body. All he manages to accomplish is unleashing another wave of rotting garbage smell, and ascertaining that yes, his butt isn’t just imagining the garbage bag. It’s real. He’s lying in a pile of several days old trash that hadn’t been here when he’d started falling at 4:13 pm.

Dave’s eyes widen behind his shades, and he stares, fascinated, at the sky above as he checks his always accurate internal clock.

Like a handy little internal pocket watch, the little ticks that always tock along in the back of his mind inform him that it is 6:12.

In the morning.

“Son of a bitch,” Dave Strider says, watching the peach and orange streaks of a sunrise eat their way across the morning sky.

-

The first order of business is making sure his neck isn’t broken.

Dave swings himself out of the dumpster, wincing when his feet hit the ground and his entire body aches in protest. But hey, he’s not bleeding anywhere that he can see, and he can still feel his legs so, awesome, his neck isn’t broken. Seriously, A+ landing. Maybe a smart person would have waited and called for help or something before trying to move with a possible broken neck, but Dave doesn’t have the best precautionary first aid training. He’s still alive and kicking, so he must be doing something right.

The next is figuring out what the hell he’s supposed to do all day. He can’t go back to his room – otherwise he’d remember himself walking in and chilling all day on the bed, nursing bruises and minor abrasions. He doesn’t remember that happening, so it…must not have happened?

This is going to be annoying, isn’t it. Yeah, it is. He can feel it.

His mood worsens when he remembers what his future-self had been wearing. Dave is still currently in his shades and sweats and his totally, purely ironic red Star Wars shirt, and they all reek of garbage. Other-Dave had been in an old work outfit, with a pair of not-very-shitty swords on his back, and he hadn’t smelled like trash that’s been sitting out for days on end in a Houston springtime. Which means at some point, Dave – current Dave – has to go back to his room and, presumably, steal his own clothes from his closet without waking himself up. It’s going to be a pain in the ass, even though he’s successfully done it once already – in the future. And if he chooses not to go through the hassle, he’ll not only be creating a paradox, he’ll be forced to walk around all day in clothes that smell like they need to be doused in kerosene, burned with extreme prejudice, and then scattered into the ocean as ashes in tribute to the truly epic lazy-day level of comfort they once gave him.

Actually, no wonder other-Dave was in such a bad mood. No doubt he was in mourning for this beautifully ironic Princess Leia shirt, and had just been taking out his well-deserved grief on an unwitting victim. Dave gets it. He really does. It’s all such a jumbled up mishmash of potential paradoxes and temporal obligations that Dave can already feel a new headache brewing in the already aching tissue of his brain. Between the whole near death experience and the usual aftershocks of trying to hold a time-stop, his brain can’t handle much more of this nonsense.

Time travel is hard. It’s hard and – yeah, no fucking way is he going to sink to that level of self-pity. Suck it up, Strider.

Looking up, Dave sighs and tries to jump up and grab the edge of the ladder for the fire escape.

Jumping hurts. Never trying that again. Nope. He grits his teeth, smooths the pain off his face, and then shifts a stray box of recycling under the ladder until he can just barely grip it with the edge of his fingers. Pulling himself up is nearly as bad as the whole jumping thing, but he manages it, and then he starts jogging up the stairs. He slows to a tiptoe when he nears the thirteenth floor, and he continues up the stairs past his room until he reaches the roof. After scanning it to make sure Bro isn’t up there training, Dave walks along the edge of the roof until he’s above the hole in his bedroom wall where he’s going to fall out nearly ten hours from now. He stops time gingerly once before he tries climbing down, and thankfully all his brain does is whine in protest at the brief pause. With that established, Dave stops time and lowers himself down into the bedroom, flashstepping and tiptoeing for all he’s worth.

Past-him is asleep in bed, dead to the world from the neck up. It’s really fucking weird seeing himself sleep, maybe even weirder than watching himself walk around being a future-douche, so Dave pointedly avoids looking at the giant puddle of blankets curled up in the corner of the bed by the wall. He grabs the first outfit he finds in the closet, a black hoodie and pants combo he’d worn last week and that his future self has - had - will have been (god fucking dammit) apparently slumming around town in all day long. He can’t change in here, because if he left his garbage-clothes in the room he would remember smelling them earlier. Later.

Earlier in his timeline, later in the day.

Fuck. He’s going to say it. Time travel is hard. It’s hard and no one understands. Dave’s not even sure he understands – he has no idea what made the whole time travel thing happen, or why his throat started seizing up right before he went back. And time-travel tenses are going to annoy the shit out of him, he can tell.

It hits him when he’s in the middle of changing his shirt in the restroom of a classy McDonalds just down the street, and he starts changing in more of a hurry.

There’s always been one person who mysteriously has known more about his powers than either Dave nor Bro have ever been able to figure out, and his future self already told him where to find her.

-

Dave hits up the McDonalds for dinner, only to find that there are no chicken nugs. None. Only breakfast food.

Because it's six in the goddamn morning.

Everything tastes just a little bit less satisfying after that revelation. He ends up ordering shitty McDonalds pancakes from the brownblood behind the counter, a troll with curvy horns who stares right through Dave's hero costume with the shell-shocked thousand yard stare of a man who has spent too long in food service and has started having war flashbacks while still trapped in the trenches.

With his daily dose of absolutely pointless calories out of the way, Dave walks to the medical center. He does end up taking the Metro this time, because honestly if he tried to run across roofs right now he'd probably face plant. No one even gives him a second glance. It's possible the bag of soggy pancakes throws them off his manly, heroic scent. The perfect accessory for a disguise; just add one standard McDonald's bag and viola, everyone thinks you're a hero cosplayer who forgot to change back in the morning. He disembarks in a swarm of medical students in their sickly pastel scrubs at the Memorial Hermann stop, immensely dissatisfied with the pancakes but still mindlessly shoveling them in when he spies a familiar, dark green trench coat lurking in the entrance of a parking garage. He's there between one moment and the next, everything else in the world stopping except for the Badass Quandary, who merely tilted her head to the side and continues to stare at the tiny embers at the end of her cigarette. She's not actually smoking it; she just has it lit up while she taps on her cigarette holder with a sharp black claw.

See, what Dave had first thought to be a really thin bladekind when he met the carapacian dame in a dark alley is, in fact, a weaponized cigarette holder. And the fact that BQ is tapping away on her strife specibi means that she's fucking pissed. Part of her strange telepathy is tied up in the motion of her hands when she speaks, which means that she's giving him the silent treatment.

He leans back against the pillar of the parking garage, dumping his empty food bag in the trash. "Figured out the whole time travel thing," he offers. "Any other miracles you'd like, ma'am, because I'm on a roll here. I refuse to slow my roll. I can't be tamed -"

She lightly tips the cigarette holder away from her mouth and the little furrow appears in the smooth carapace above her right eye that Dave thinks is the equivalent of an eyebrow raise. But then she puts the cigarettekind away and he relaxes a bit as she starts to speak.

BQ: Dave Strider, your nonsensical verses test my patience on a regular basis.

BQ: However, the news that you have at last begun to refind yourself, after all these years of futile effort on my part is...undeniably welcome.

BQ: If, of course, it is true.

BQ: Prove it.

"What." Dave folds his arms. "Lady, future-me had to shove me out of a building to make it happen. Sorry if I'm not jumping up and down trying to recreate the circumstances.

BQ: It could be arranged.

Dave takes a step to the side, so he has the street behind him. This lady doesn't make idle threats, and if he needs to run he wants to be in the sun, where her freaky shadows can't grab him. "As awesome as that sounds, I think I'll pass. Thanks though."

She just smirks at him, folding her arms as she leans up against her own pillar, one hip hitched up higher than the other.

BQ: I will pander to your whim for now, Dave.

BQ: Though there are many reasons why you might wish to feign ability you may not yet possess, I think I shall give you the benefit of the doubt.

BQ: If you are foolish enough to lie to me, you may as well suffer the consequences which may befall you.

"Thanks, I really appreciate it," he drawls, folding his own arms. "Now, can we get to the point here? Are you finally going to explain how you knew about the time thing? How you know anything you know, really? Because my patience ran out, like, two years ago. You didn't even have the decency to test it, my patience literally just ran out the door when you arrived. You goddamn owe me, woman. You owe me a patience debt."

BQ: You are being inanely whimsical again.

BQ: Sometimes I wonder exactly where they find you people. All of you are so...damaged.

BQ: You do not even realize how broken you are, do you?

Dave shifts restlessly, and has to fight the urge to look down at his feet, at the shadow he casts on the ground. He doesn't know if she can control his shadow, or if it's just whatever shadow she's touching at the time. But when she starts spouting really vague, ominously all-knowing bullshit like this, he gets antsy, as though the shadows might come alive and swallow him up while she has him distracted. "See, stuff like that," is all he says, allowing himself a small frown. "Some context for those things you just said? That would be fantastic. I might even shed a tear of joy. A tear, I'm telling you."

BQ: You are not ready to know the truth.

"No. Oh, hell no. You did not just pull the 'You Are Not Ready' card, what are you, some kind of alien dame Jedi mentor - oh." Dave freezes, then stares at her, jaw dropping. "Oh my god -"

BQ: Cease. Cease speaking. Do not even finish the sentence I know you are about to utter. I will not tolerate it. I absolutely refuse to tolerate these shenanigans.

BQ: I intend to tell you one thing and one thing only, Dave Strider.

BQ: Now that you can harness your true ability, it will begin. Once you have fully mastered it, they will know, and they will come for you.

Dave waits. The Quandary shows no sign of elaborating on that last bit. She just stands there, eyebrow raised, as though expecting some kind of reaction from him.

He flings up his hands and rolls his eyes so hard they actually ache. Or maybe that's still the headache from earlier. "Oh shit," he deadpans. "The nonspecific 'they' are coming. I can't believe it. Say it ain't so. I will not go -"

BQ: You are not taking this seriously.

"Lady, there's nothing to take seriously." Dave lets his arms fall. "Yeah, I get it. The spooky lady in a trench coat thing. It's your thing. It's a great thing, it works for you. The thing is also causing some serious communication problems here. Like. If you want me to be worried about some mysterious 'they,' I kind of need more to work with here. Striders don't scare that easy."

BQ: They are the same people who approach me on a regular basis seemingly with the sole purpose of earning my undying ire.

BQ: The ones who will destroy you if you are not careful.

BQ: They would already have set upon you if not for my efforts, and those of your elder relative.

"Now Bro knows about these guys?" Dave wants to fling his hands up in genuine confusion. He sticks his hands into his hoodie pocket instead, fiddling with some card suit-themed ninja stars still stuck in there from last week. "Wow, somehow a bunch of nameless unspecified assholes trying to destroy me never came up at the wholesome, all-Amerian Strider dinner table."

When the Quandary responds, her voice feels cooler and almost disdainful as it blooms in his head - but she literally always sounds as though she expects Dave to bow down and kiss the toes of her sleek boots every time they meet, so he's just learned to let it fly over his head.

BQ: If I were you, I would question your 'Bro,' then.

BQ: Ask him what he knows about the Midnight Crew.

BQ: Better yet, I would check the news. They have already begun to target one of your own. He too has been foolish enough to go wandering around in the public eye, flaunting his powers.

BQ: The females, at least, have been discreet.

BQ: Well, I say discreet...

"And now there are females. Your story keeps getting more complicated. The bullshit is shining through the cracks. Like a pile of gold-plated bullshit in the sun." He spreads his hands apart and shrugs again. "Nice try. If you're not getting any more chatty now that I've finally fulfilled your insane reality-breaking requirement, I'm done here. Sayonara, g2g -"

BQ: You think to win more details from me by plaguing me and threatening to ignore me.

BQ: Do you think me so simple?

Dave keeps his mouth shut. He runs a nervous hand through his hair as the awkward silence stretches out, scratching behind his ear to keep the hand near the hilt of his sword. He still doesn't know who has the quicker draw, him or the BQ, and he doesn't want to find out the pointy, painful way.

Clearly reveling in her conversational advantage, the Quandary nods her head, adjusting the brim of her ever-present hat. She stands up from her lounging position against the pillar and lets a hint of a sharp grin crinkle her eyes.

BQ: You think I do this deliberately to frustrate you, Dave.

BQ: And the truth is...you are absolutely right.

"Oh my fucking god."

BQ: I am kidding.

BQ: Ha. Ha.

"Okay, now that just sounded painful, did that actually hurt you -"

BQ: In truth, you would simply not believe me. It is literally impossible. Your brain would not allow you to hear the words as I spoke them. You are, all of you, such painfully broken creatures.

BQ: And so I will simply lead you to draw your own conclusions.

BQ: I will provide you the ability to access all the tools you need, and no more.

BQ: And you will be forced to accept the truth, one slow step at a time.

BQ: I am not here to mollycoddle you. I am here to make you strong, because I have no other choice. If you fail, we all do.

Dave lets his face meet his palm. "I remember we talked about the vague thing," he says, his voice muffled by his hand. "I swear, we just had this long conversation about how making really vague statements about dire consequences is a really cheap plot device -"

BQ: Ask the one that you call Brother.

BQ: And tell the blue windy one to tone it down.

BQ: His antics are making more than one major party nervous.

BQ: The Heir has always been...flighty.

BQ: But he listens to you.

Dave's head shoots up and he meets the Quandary's eyes. "Shit. What don't you know, lady," he said, licking at dry lips.

BQ: I know everything.

BQ: Ha. Ha. Ha.

Dave twitches bodily at the harsh laughter that coughs out in black bursts in his head. "Okay, no, that needs to stop. That needs to stop being a thing. It needs to have never been a thing. Like, I am willing to jump off another building and go back in time and prevent you from ever making that kind of hell-noise again. Please stop."

BQ: A tempting proposition.

BQ: But no, I am afraid our time is up for the day.

BQ: Until our next session, Dave Strider.

"Can you at least wait until I look away before you do the - yeah, you're already doing it," Dave says, averting his eyes too late as the shadows of the parking garage rip up and swarm the Quandary, wrapping her up and dragging her down into the floor. He gets a little nauseous whenever she does that, like some kind of weird motion sickness.

When he looks up at the sky, waiting for his stomach to settle a bit, he sees the sun is now edging upward, his internal clock telling him it's nearly 10 in the morning. The heat of the oncoming day is burning away the little clouds of polluted mist, and he still has nearly eight hours before he's due to show up in his own room with delicious, delicious tacos and shove himself out a hole in the wall.

How did this become his life? When did he start having legitimate issues with time tenses on a regular basis? For that matter, why had he actually believed that learning how to travel back in time would make the Quandary any less of an answer-hording, stab-happy alien mentor-figure?

How long has that janitor been standing there, jaw slack, staring in total horror at the spot where the Quandary used to be?

Dave waits for a second. The poor guy just keeps staring, eyes wide. It doesn't seem like he's taking the sight of a woman being eaten by shadows very well.

"I feel you, man," Dave says, patting him on the back. Then he pulls his hood up and walks out of the parking garage, leaving the traumatized janitor behind.

He still has hours until he can reach his computer or his phone - both of which were on his desk when future-Dave pushed him out a window, and are now currently still in his room with past-Dave, because he remembers using them throughout the day and therefore couldn't yoink them when he raided the room for clothes. So he may not be able to log onto his Pesterchum account, but he can at least find a computer and check the Seattle Times. Try to figure out what the hell has the BQ all riled up.

Seriously. He leaves his ironic penpal alone for a few months, and apparently everything goes to hell and crazy alien dames start name dropping the Heir of Breath in ominous conversations.

Muttering under his breath, Dave crosses the street and heads for the nearby library. He has some catching up to do.

---

Even after surviving a grenade, Heir had thought he’d be able to finish up his patrol, riding the high that came from successfully dealing with Boxcar and getting Hemogoblin to agree to be his partner, but no dice.

At the moment, he is dealing with a couple of vandals in the Lake View Cemetery on 15th Avenue East. This crime had only been a gentle touch of the wind on his shoulder, not all that urgent since no one living was likely to be harmed by some assholes breaking into mausoleums. But it feels like it’s the first alert the breeze has given him since he’d ignored it earlier to go confront Hearts Boxcar by the docks, so Heir goes along with it, flying down until he’s concealed in a tree above the two men. Privately, Heir suspects that the wind is sulking; sure, he had let loose with a proper tornado for the first time since he was a kid, which naturally got the breezes excited, but before that he’d disregarded them entirely. And, as weird as it sounds, yeah, the air gets moody. It’s still willing to waft him along above the city in a grid-search pattern, but he had to hunt down at least one attempted break-in on his own, without even a hint from his powers that a crime had been in progress beneath him.

Heir waits until the two men have chosen their next target and one pulls out a pair of bolt cutters before he descends, landing as lightly as possible to avoid jolting his collarbone too much. The general bodily ache from the grenade explosion has eased a bit as the night has worn on, but even turning too sharply in midair proves enough to send a stab of sickening pain outward from the broken bone. Definitely going to need to wear a sling to school; John wonders how he’s going to explain this one to Karkat.

No, stop that. No thinking about John things while on the job. Focus.

“Guys, I don’t even want to know why you’re breaking into dead peoples’ tombs, do I?” he asks, folding his arms and wearing his best imitation of a look of stern fatherly disapproval. “Seriously, no. Just stop.”

The two men flinch and whirl to face at him. To Heir’s surprise, the guy with the bolt cutters groans and tucks them away into the back of his pants, pinching at the bridge of his nose. “Wow. Great. Heir is here. Tonight must be our lucky night.”

“Come on, we can take him!” the shorter vandal insists, waving his flashlight in Heir’s direction. “He’s just one guy!” He does a double-take when the flashlight crosses Heir’s face. “He’s a kid!”

“Aha. Yeah, and I’m sure every single other person he’s put in prison thought the exact same thing before he kicked their ass. Just leave it. We’ve already been to three cemeteries tonight, and I’m pretty sure this one is a bust too.” The other vandal shakes his head. “This is so not worth it.”

“Come quietly while I have the night guard call the police, and no one has to get hurt,” Heir offers, doing an internal dance of glee at this turn of events. Even after years of crime fighting, it’s still really rare that a criminal decides to surrender when Heir arrives. One day, he likes to think, he’ll have established enough of a reputation that people choose not to commit crimes at all out of wariness of Heir's presence, but the city isn’t quite there yet. It's a long term goal.

The shorter one laughs briefly, rolling his eyes up at the sky as he hefts the flashlight, his hands spread out on either side. “Yeah, police. About that. I don’t do police.”

And then he lashes out - with the flashlight. The first wild jab is aimed right at Heir's face, and he's so startled he barely knocks the stab off-course with a wall of wind in time.

A flashlight strife specibus? Who even does that?! Crazy people, that's who! Jeez!

Heir dodges another swing of the unconventional weapon, and the bright beam of the flashlight blinds him momentarily. Shit. Blinking hard to try to restore his night vision, he swipes out without looking with a blast of wind. He must hit something, because he hears an 'oof!' of pain. When he can see again, the flashlight guy has stumbled back against a tall tombstone, looking winded.

Oh god yes. What a truly epic pun. He's adding that one to the list of convenient one-liners.

All puns seem funnier when you're concussed, Heir decides. But as much as he hates to admit it, fighting with a broken collarbone kind of sucks, and he needs to wrap this up before he topples over sideways. He walks over the guy and knocks the flashlightkind out of his hand. Just when he socks the guy in the jaw, however, the ground shimmies underneath his feet, and his center of balance vanishes. Heir catches himself on the tombstone, but his vision spins for a few long, dizzy moments, and he panics internally until the graveyard comes back into focus. "Augh," he mutters, standing upright and putting up his hands in a fighting stance as he turns to face the second vandal.

The criminal looks hesitant, then raises his hands above his head. "Yeah, sorry about him. I swear, I'm not stupid. I'm coming quietly."

"Good," Heir says, flying off the ground a little. The world tilts as he flies up to scan for the groundskeeper, and he has to close his eyes for a moment while his brain tries to keep up with his thoughts. He finally has to use the wind to shout for the groundskeeper and send the noise directly to the old man's ears, and then Heir floats down to the ground to wait by the two vandals as the guard hurries over between the rows. Thankfully, the flashlight vandal stays down, and the other criminal stays true to his word, staying docile and quiet until the police sirens begin to grow in volume.

It isn't Heir but John who flies away, arcing up into the early morning sky. His collarbone throbs in earnest now, and between the slight nausea and the headache, his vision feels slow and unreliable.

Yeah, he's going to have to call it a night. Being this dazed on the job is just too much of a risk to take. Waving down at the police below, John takes off into cloud cover.

The sharp, dull ache in the back of his skull only worsens as John flies home. His ears are ringing, and he highly suspects that more than once during the flight he starts to veer off course, lost in a fog of sudden fatigue until the wind nudges him roughly in the side to wake him up. He yawns widely and his mask catches between his lips when he closes his mouth. He hasn't felt this bone-tired after a night of work in a long time, and he's beginning to suspect that somewhere along the way he managed to exacerbate that head injury from the first explosion into a full-on concussion.

Or at least, he thinks he feels concussed. He might be too concussed to judge accurately. Definitely time to get a second opinion.

So, for the first time in quite a while - years, actually - when he gets home and lets the wind gently set him on his feet in his bedroom, he closes the window, strips off his goggles and mask, and crosses the hall to knock on his dad's door.

-

The worst part about being officially concussed, John muses, is that he can't go to sleep.

He knows he's unusual in that he only needs three or four hours of sleep to function well - he relies on that endurance to maintain his long days and nights as a crime fighter. But the fact is, he really, really needs those four hours of sleep. When seven in the morning on Thursday rolls around, his eyes feel too dry and gritty, and he can barely keep his head upright as he lounges on the couch in the living room, his dad propped up on the armchair across from him for moral support. His muscles feel heavy and useless on top of the residual ache from the grenade and the bank explosion, and without any sleep he's not healing as fast as he usually does, either.

Basically, when he staggers to his feet and looks in the mirror over the bathroom sink, he has no choice but to admit he's a mess. While the scabby bump on the back of his head is hidden by his hair, at some point, perhaps when the grenade blew up, he managed to take enough of an impact to his face that the entire right side is a bruise that just barely misses swelling up to close up his eye. Combine that with the sling on his arm, and he looks like he came out the loser in some kind of bar fight. Or, you know, like some guy who just survived a grenade.

He knows exactly what his dad is going to say when he sees this mess in the light -

“No school today, I think,” his dad says, leaning in through the door to raise an eyebrow at John in the mirror. He raises a hand for silence when John starts to protest. “No buts, John. I want you awake for at least eight more hours, to see if this concussion gets any worse. I don’t want you going to school and collapsing in the middle of class, in which case I wouldn’t be aware of the situation until the school or the hospital informed me. We’ll talk about work tonight after we assess you again.”

John sighs, well aware that his dad is probably right. He grimaces at the mirror one last time before smiling ruefully. “Oh my god. Karkat is going to be so pissed.” He does feel a little bad about that, actually. Karkat likes to hide behind his prickly outer shell, but he really does have a soft, squishy inside when it comes to his friends, of which there are few. Actually, aside from a few rare pesterchums, John might be the only one Karkat knows in real life, and it shows. When they’d accidentally blown up a glass beaker in Chemistry earlier in the year, Karkat had fretted over a cut on John’s hand to the point that the nurse had almost used troll-class sedatives on him. John can only imagine how he’ll react to the rather obvious bruises and sling.

The ragegasm will no doubt be of epic proportions.

It’s probably for the best if he doesn’t let Karkat see him until tomorrow, after he gets a chance to actually sleep the concussed headache off.  John scrubs at his face and nods to his dad. “Alright. I’m gonna call Karkat so he knows I won’t be there.”

His dad steps aside so that John can leave the bathroom and walk to the phone in the living room. “Karkat can come over later, but no roughhousing,” he cautions, eyebrow raised speculatively.

Haha, Dad. John only wishes there were a certain kind of roughhousing involved in his relationship with Karkat. “Nah. I’m pretty sure Thursday afternoons he has his part time job until late,” John says. Yeah, Thursdays are definitely Karkat’s work-intensive days, when he works two shifts back to back at the store to make up for taking Friday afternoons off. John should be more certain about that, but his head is still a little foggy, and even stuff he has memorized like Karkat’s afterschool schedule seems kind of fuzzy. Blehhhh. Yeah, he doesn’t think he’d be able to focus in class, even if he did go. Good thing he’s always so far ahead on the homework!

“And your cover story?” Samuel asks, closing up the first aid kit on the coffee table and tidying up the couch where John had been sprawled in a daze for the past four hours.

John thinks. “I went to catch a box when someone was unloading a shipment at the community center, and it was too heavy to be dropped like it was on my collar bone. Totally an accident, nothing serious. The hospital sent me right home.”

Before he begins dialing Karkat’s number, Samuel’s hand covers the number pad. When John looks up, confused, his dad gives him a searching look. He reaches up and pulls on John’s eyelids, ignoring John’s surprised jump as he inspects John’s pupils. “Son, you don’t  have community center ‘volunteering’ lined up for Wednesdays. That’s Tuesdays and Thursdays. Your cover on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays is the land training for swim team.”

Oh. Whoa. Okay, yeah, now John understands why his dad might be checking his pupils again. He bites his lip. “Yeah, I remember now. It’s alright, I almost messed up Karkat’s schedule, too. Sorry. I think I’m just tired.”

“Confusion and fatigue are symptoms of the concussion. Just let me know if it gets any worse than a little confusion.” His dad pulls away, apparently satisfied that John isn’t completely out of touch with reality.

Still, there’s a weight in John’s head, a feeling he recognizes with a flip in his stomach as a kind of tired, sad resignation. Just another thing for his dad to worry about, huh? Just another way John has failed to balance his work life and his personal life -

He’d thought he was done feeling that particular emotion. That way only useless self-recrimination lies. He shakes his head as the dial tone rings in his ears, unpleasantly shrill, and tries to shove the resignation out of mind.

“And son?”

“Yeah, Dad?” he says. There’s silence except for the phone ringing until John looks up and meets his dad’s eyes, curious.

Samuel smiles warmly. “I’m proud of you. You did great work last night.”

The familiar words work instantly. John’s shoulders slacken as the tension stirred up by his brief foray into resigned self-pity falls away. Yeah, he still feels like he got blown up a few times, but emotionally, the obvious care and pride in his dad’s face brighten his darkening mood.

Sometimes, John doesn’t know how he’d get by without such an awesomely supportive dad. Unable to suppress a wide grin in response, John is smiling when the line clicks and Crabdad answers. Not even the lusus’s piercing skree of greeting can get him down! “Hey, Crabdad! How are you!”

The lusus’s screech may or may not have hit a high F note worthy of a trained soprano. Then it devolves in a series of excited clicks and skrees, Crabdad chattering at John incomprehensibly while he sits down on the couch again, maneuvering his sling so that it rests on a cushion. He doesn’t really understand the lusus; apparently it’s a troll thing that a custodian basically develops its own language for use with their assigned trolls, so the only one who actually communicates with Crabdad is Karkat, and John gets the feeling a lot of that is just Karkat swearing in crab-language. But Crabdad doesn’t seem to mind that John can’t talk back. Maybe it’s just happy to have an audience that doesn’t try to silence it with food bribes and pseudo-strife whenever it starts screeching.

He doesn’t need to ask the lusus to go get Karkat for the same reason – Karkat seems to have the uncanny ability to sense whenever his lusus is on the phone. Well, John says uncanny. It’s more that Crabdad’s regular speaking voice is so shrill and loud that you can hear it talking from half a block away. Sure enough, after three minutes of John nodding to himself and making small sounds of affirmation whenever the lusus pauses, he can hear the heavy thump of footsteps that means Karkat is charging downstairs to intercept the call.

“You useless waste of crabmeat, I can hear you shrieking at John! Will you give me that – oh, come on! Tell me that is not dinner from last night. Tell me that is not my leftover lasagna smeared all over your fatty claws – OH FOR THE LOVE OF THE MOTHERGRUB. PUT THE PHONE DOWN AND NO ONE GETS HURTS.”

Crabdad lets out what John assumes is a battle screech. He snorts and bites back laughter at the sound of Karkat’s one-sided argument. “You tell him, Crabdad,” he says encouragingly, drawing another gurgle from the lusus.

“JOHN! I CAN HEAR YOU ENCOURAGING THIS! I CAN HEAR YOU ENABLING THIS FATASS, INCOMPETENT, MISERABLE EXCUSE FOR A LUSUS! STOP THAT RIGHT THE FUCK NOW OR SO HELP ME – PUT THAT TABLE DOWN, NO, NO! DOWN! DAMN YOU, I AM ARMED!”

John starts cackling, and he’s still giggling on and off by the time Karkat tames his lusus and extricates the phone from the crab’s pincer grip. “I do NOT need this first thing in the goddamn morning, John,” Karkat growls. “I have not yet had my coffee and you have caused these shenanigans. What can you possibly want before coffee happens, John? What. Do. You. Want.”

“Ah. About that coffee,” John begins. “Uh. I probably won’t be able to make it to school today. At all. Sorry about that.”

“What,” Karkat says, his voice flat. “What in the sixteen hells could possibly prevent you from going to school?! I think you have a better attendance record than me. I’m pretty sure the day you miss a full day of school is the same day I’m due to have this bloated fucking rage tumor removed from my brain, and oh wait, looks like I forgot to pencil that one in on my calendar! What the hell is wrong with you, John?! Do I have to come over there?!”

“Haha! Calm down, Karkat,” John laughs. “I just kind of tripped yesterday during land training. It was really weird, I was on a hill, and my collar bone took one for the team! It’s not really that bad, it just hurts  a little, so my dad’s making me stay home today. I really am sorry about the coffee thing. I’ll owe you two on Friday!”

He waits for Karkat to answer, but there's a long pause before he gets a response, long enough that he wonders if the connection dropped. He's about to ask if Karkat is still there when the troll finally speaks.

“…I’m coming over. Don’t fucking move, you clumsy idiot, I’ll be over in five fucking minutes.”

Oops. “Whaaaat? Karkat, school starts in like a half an hour! Seriously, I’m okay! I’ll be back tomorrow, I promise.”

“School can go fuck itself right in the state-funded, clique-infested ass. If you’re in pain, I’m coming to see you.”

Oh, boy. John has seriously underestimated Karkat’s protective streak. The last thing he needs is for Karkat to come over here in a defensive rage over the collarbone and get an eyeful of John’s very concussed-looking face. The troll might literally implode. “No – Karkat, you have that…thingy today, right?” He’s scrambling for the answer; he knows Karkat has something in one of the classes John isn’t in, his brain is just so slow on the uptake – “History of film! You have that group presentation today!”

He can almost hear Karkat jerk to a halt, pausing for a moment before letting loose a low, sobbing groan of despair. “Those imbeciles.”

“Yeah, you’re pretty much carrying the team, right?” John says, seizing on this line of thought. Of all the classes at their high school, Karkat’s most tumultuous relationship is with his History of Film elective. He can swing from babbling excitedly about the chiaroscuro effect of early 1930s*black and white films, to tearing his hair out while declaring totally platonic hatred for every single other person taking the class. “And that’s first thing in the morning. I don’t want you to get screwed over by your team in your favorite class because of me. I’d feel awful!”

Karkat has started muttering unintelligibly to himself, and John can already tell he’s going to try to skip out in the afternoon even if the troll does give in and go to Film. Before Karkat can jump in and insist on coming over, John continues, “I’d really appreciate it if you’d apologize to Ms Hathaway for me in chem, too. I know she wanted us to finish up with that crystallization lab today.”

“…Fuck. I’ll go in and finish it,” Karkat says, sounding defeated. “Goddammit, you asshat, I have work right after school today, too. Can you somehow manage to avoid further damaging yourself until tomorrow morning? I’m fucking serious, if you say no, I swear to God John -”

“I’ll be fine. Seriously, man, I’m going to be pretty boring today anyway. They gave me some pain pills just in case, and I think I’m about to just pass out on the couch here.” John doesn’t need to fake a yawn, he just lets some of his exhaustion out from under the cheery shield he’s been maintaining. His jaw gives a small crack with the force of the yawn. Nailed it. “Hit me up on Pesterchum during lunch or something so you can make sure I’m not dead yet.”

“Do not say things like ‘dead’ right now, John,” Karkat hisses. “I mean – fuck – just – don’t even move from that couch. I absolutely forbid it as your moirail. That couch is your new seat of power. If your ass leaves that couch, I will know about it.”

Guilt starts building up in John’s stomach again, and he purses his lips. Now that some of the instinctive anger has died off, Karkat sounds tense and worried, and by the end of his mini rant he sounds almost like he’s in pain himself, and John can’t stand it that he’s made Karkat that upset. John’s mouth opens and the sound just kind of – happens. “Shoosh, dummy. I get it, the couch is my friend. Shooooosh.”

There's silence on both ends of the line. "Did you just shoosh me?" Karkat asks.

Oh, fuck it. "Shoosh, Karkat."

Karkat is quiet again, and when he replies at last, the pain is gone. He just sounds kind of dazed. "I. Yeah. Alright. Um. I'm just - I'm gonna go - can you do that again?" He sounds almost painfully hopeful.

Meanwhile, on the inside, John is screaming and trying to mentally beat himself into shutting up sometime this century because why why why this is the opposite of what he wants oh god why is this happening.

On the outside, he can only pathetically repeat, "Shoosh?"

"...I-I'll see you tomorrow then, John," Karkat says, still dazed. John realizes why the troll sounds so strange - there isn't any anger or irritation in his voice at all. He hasn't even said fuck in nearly a minute, which is seven different kinds of freaky. "Stay safe and don't injure yourself anymore, got it?"

"Yeah, I got it," John says weakly. "Have a good day at school, Karkat!" Then he hangs up in the middle of Karkat's dazed farewell and topples over sideways onto the couch, letting the phone fall from limp hands as he stares into the middle distance.

Yeah, he succeeded in getting Karkat to go to school.

But he’s also pretty sure he’s just moirail-zoned himself into the next century.

John takes the cushion from under his sling, plants it over his face, and muffles a frustrated scream against the fabric. When he finally emerges, his head buzzing with a new headache, he hears a chuckle that tries to morph itself into an innocent cough at the last minute. He looks up to see his father standing in the kitchen, still coughing and trying to look busy with making breakfast.

Yeah, John is never going to live this one down.

-

After a very long, rather boring day of staying at home and forcing himself to stay awake, running through only the gentlest of t'ai chi forms when it's time for he and his dad to practice together, John crawls into bed as soon as his dad gives the all clear. He wakes up once during the night, groggy and confused by the fact that it's dark out and he isn't patrolling, before fatigue yanks him back down into slumber.

The next morning when his alarm goes off, he's so bleary-eyed and sticky-mouthed that it feels like he's been to the fifth dimension and back. This is what usually happens when he's slept for too long, and it feels awful. He wakes up properly and feels more alive after a shower, though it's hard to maneuver with the pangs from his collarbone restricting his motions. However, when he gets out and dressed, the bruises on his face have clearly faded, and he knows he can't endure another endlessly drawn-out day of sitting around like yesterday. He needs some fresh air before he explodes or something.

His dad insists on driving him to school. John rolls the passenger side window down and the wind stirred up by the car blows right into his face, curling around and through his hair with bright greetings. By the time they reach the school, he feels almost normal again, totally recharged by the crisp spring air.

Now he just has to face down Karkat. This should be fun. Stacking one mug of hot, black coffee on top of the promised second mug, John rolls out of the car and waves with his sling as his dad drives off. Then he walks into the school building and heads upstairs to his and Karkat's lockers.

Karkat isn't even bothering with the pretense of sorting through his textbooks when John rounds the corner. The troll scans the hallways with his back to his locker, hunched over in his oversized grey hoodie, and when John waves and begins his approach, Karkat glowers at him with a combination of relief and his usual irritation.

Then his rust-red eyes open so wide John can see them almost bulging as Karkat gets a better look at John's face.

John grins with all his teeth and braces for impact. "Heya Karkat! Good morning!"

It is a slow-building rage, and is somehow simultaneously heart-warming, hilarious, and terrifying to behold. The dull dark red of a flush rises in Karkat's cheeks, one of his eyes twitching as his lips move soundlessly. His hands jerk and flail in weird, half-aborted motions; Karkat is clearly torn between tearing at his hair in distressed fury, reaching out to grab John's arm, and attempting to strangle him. The latter instinct may or may not be winning out, which would be goddamn hilarious, if painful to fight off.

But Karkat's face just keeps getting redder and redder, and John's not really sure the troll is remembering to breathe between his choked noises of utter fury. The last thing John wants is to finally cause the rage-aneurysm Karkat has repeatedly threatened to develop in the past, so he drops the shit-eating grin and puts on his best apologetic face. Karkat would say he was pouting if Karkat could speak at the moment. He would be right. "Yeaaaah, it looks a lot worse than it actually is -"

Karkat holds up a hand, and John shuts up. The hand twitches between strangle-mode and calm as Karkat visibly attempts to collect himself, hiccupping silently as he opens his mouth, then closes it repeatedly, still unable to find words. Tears of pure, undiluted fury seem to be touching the edges of his eyes with red.

John has finally done it. He has made Karkat so angry, the troll is literally speechless. He wishes he had a camera to immortalize this moment of their friendship for all eternity because this is hilarious.

A single chuckle bursts out of John's lips, and he realizes what he has done too late, slapping his free hand across his mouth.

And then, like a volatile, incensed god unleashing his boundless wrath upon an unwitting creation, Karkat loses. His. Shit. He reaches out and seizes John by the - thankfully - uninjured arm and suddenly John is being dragged through the halls by a surprisingly strong grip. He lets Karkat do his thing, despite the fact that they're aiming for the biology classroom rather than their first classes, because John has a feeling Karkat needs to get this off his chest, and John has kind of been a bit of a dick about this by keeping him out of the loop.

Karkat kicks open the door of the biology lab with great prejudice, and the teacher grading papers at the front of the room yelps and bangs her knee on the side of the desk as she stands up, giving the two of them a wary eye. Ignoring her, Karkat rounds on John, and the invectives pour forth like a fountain of fury.

"Oh my god, you pompous fuckwaffle, what the gibbering fuck did you do to yourself?!" he yells, his voice half-shrieking when he hits a high note and keeps climbing.

"Ahaha, sorry, Karkat, I told you I got kind of banged up yesterday-"

"'Kind of' he says! 'I FELL', he tells me! You look like you got into a fight with the wall, and the wall fucking well kicked your ass, and then it called its magical gang of wall-friends and they decided 'you know what would be fun? You know what would be fucking hilarious? If we beat the everloving panshattered fuck out of John 'dumbass' Egbert!' Does any of that sound familiar?! BECAUSE IF NOT YOU BETTER HAVE A GOOD EXPLANATION FOR THIS!"

Ooooh, boy. He'd sworn he wouldn't do this. He wasn't going to -

"JOHN EGBERT I AM GOING TO HUNT DOWN THE PERSON WHO PRESUMABLY DID THIS AND RIP THEIR SHAMEGLOBES OUT THROUGH THEIR STOMACH IF YOU DON'T ANSWER ME RIGHT NOW -"

But he needs a distraction! Before the scared-looking teacher calls the police on them or something! Shit! He's going to do the thing! 

John paps Karkat on the cheek. It takes everything in his being not to stroke said cheek and take this in a very different direction. Instead, he takes his hand off and paps Karkat again. "Shoosh." When he doesn't get his hand bitten off, he does it again. "Shoosh, Karkat."

Karkat's hands fall and he stares at John, one eye still half-scrunched in stilled fury. "You're not getting out of this that easily," he says weakly, sounding uncertain and dazed. 

Oh my god, it's like a magic anger-off switch, John thinks, equally dazed. Why has John never known about this before? Has this always been a thing?! He's not oblivious, he's watched Karkat's stupid rom-coms and seen how the troll romances work, how the moirails shoosh each other and the auspices slap their feuding partners into stunned calm. He's just never put two and two together and realized it works when it's a human and a troll friendship. Interspecies moirails aren't exactly a common thing, not when troll serendipity works the way it does.

Which means Karkat really and truly does see John as his moirail. 

John's stomach twists with guilt, and he swallows back bile as he musters up a smile from somewhere. Pretending he doesn't wish he could just lean forward and kiss the anger off his best friend's face, he pulls Karkat into a hug. "I'm fine. I'm fine, and you're fine. We're fine. You don't need to eviscerate anyone in the middle of a schoolday, I promise. I just fell down a hill badly."

When Karkat hugs him back, his short claws digging into John's back and his coarse black hair brushing against John's face while the troll rests his forehead on John's shoulder, John feels both guilty and happy at the same time and he has no idea what to do about any of it. 

Because yeah, he really doesn't want to get friend-zoned the rest of his life. But he also really wants his best friend to not be upset. John is happiest when Karkat is his usual irritated, amused self, not drowning in so much rage on John's behalf that he can't even breathe.

And he thinks, as Karkat pulls away and glares to hide the faint smile on his lips, that if being moirails makes Karkat happy, then he doesn't know how to say no. 

But somewhere low in his belly, he can feel the ugly guilt twisting into a more permanent knot.

This...isn't going to end well. He can feel it. 

-

When John gets upstairs, easing his backpack off over his sling and tossing it beside his desk, the first thing he notices is the small beep of a notification from Pesterchum from his computer. Which is kind of weird; Karkat wouldn’t have reached home yet, and normally they don’t really pester each other in earnest until they’ve both had dinner and settled down to do homework. Sometimes their schedules sync enough to work on their homework together, but it hadn’t worked out today, though John could tell by the worried look on Karkat's face that he'd probably wanted to just sit and watch John some more. Even after getting shooshed into a stupor, Karkat had spent the rest of the day all up in John's personal space, following him in the hallways even when their classes were are opposite ends of the building, and growling whenever someone - particularly trolls - accidentally jostled John's arm and aggravated his collarbone. He seemed to accept John's story about a bad fall, but John still caught the troll eyeing the facial bruising speculatively.

Frowning, John pulls his hoodie off and opens the window to let in a nice breeze, wrapping it absently around him as he sits heavily in the chair, clicking open chat window with the scent of early spring heavy in his nose.

It isn’t Karkat’s handle, carcinoGeneticist, nor is it an unceasing wall of caps locked grey text spewing artfully crafted metaphors and invectives on his screen.

The handle is turntechGodhead, and John sucks in a breath at the bright crimson text that is currently sprawling its way down the screen in rambling, short, uncapitalized fragments. It’s been months since he’s heard from this particular contact. There had been a time when speaking to him had been the only thing saving John from a mental breakdown. Then Karkat had moved into town, and John’s mental stability had a real life friend to latch onto and depend on, not a chum with strange hours and a penchant for rapping at length about anything from the weather to the latest criminal he’d captured.

That’s because turntechGodhead is the handle for Flashstep, the time-stopping hero based in Houston. Of course, they don’t use their heroic aliases or last names on here; it would be idiotic to leave that kind of electronic evidence lying around where any decent hacker could find it. Instead, John had given Flashstep his real first name – in hindsight, that had been pretty fucking stupid, but…John hadn’t exactly been on top of his game when they’d met. In return, he’d been told to call the other hero ‘Dave.’ Who knows if that’s actually the guy’s name or not.


-- turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 19:36:01 --

TG: yo
TG: sup EB
TG: john
TG: john
TG: your chumstatus says away
TG: but my heart says he wont let me down in my time of dire peril this is john were talking about here
TG: yeah i can wait
TG: drink some aj
TG: finish this godforsaken taco
TG: god not even the tacos bring me joy anymore nothing can make today worth it john
TG: you wouldnt believe how unbelievably long today has been
TG: …
TG: john
TG: john i will rap so help me god
TG: yup thats it im feeling some sick beats rn
TG: i just have to let it out
TG: near
TG: far
TG: wherever you are
TG: i believe that
-- ectoBiologist has joined the chat! --
TG: oh thank titty christ i thought i was alone in the void john
TG: was about to have myself a commemoratory last man standing orgy of existential despair up in here
TG: i mean are you reading this i nearly broke out into celine dion and called it a rap
TG: thats not even ironic anymore that goes straight past ironic and into full crazy
TG: cant leave a guy hanging like that EB it does things to a mans mind
EB: sorry! jeez, dave, some of us have regular people school to go to! :P
TG: im telling you EB
TG: homeschool
TG: its the wave of the future for all aspiring hero types
TG: 10/10 would recommend
EB: yeah, yeah
EB: hang on while i shut my door

John has been glancing over his shoulder all this time, his anxiety increasing with each new line of red text. He leaves his chair, listens to the sounds of dinner being prepared downstairs, and closes his bedroom door noiselessly.

Yeah. His dad doesn’t exactly know that John’s in contact with another hero.

It’s not that John had intended to keep it a secret; it was just that at the time he had been in a really bad place, mentally. He had felt so caged in and suffocated by the work, so very alone when Rose’s letters trickled to a halt, and talking to his dad had stopped helping and started being part of the problem once John was thoroughly immersed in the negative, circular logic of his depression. When John had returned from his…excursion, he had kept his near hourly conversations with Dave on the downlow as he slowly worked through the process of dealing with his depression, not wanting to risk his dad cutting off one of the few human connections John had left.

Between the awkward therapy sessions where he wouldn’t talk about half of his real problems and the much more useful, rambling chats with Dave, John had somehow pieced himself together enough to get out of bed in the morning. The summer months had helped, freeing him from the constraining burden of acting normal at school and letting him channel his frustration into nearly sixteen hour shifts of nonstop crime-fighting. Then the next year Karkat had arrived, and things had gotten so much better.

But in the midst of all that chaos and motivation-sapping, tired sadness, the topic of going to Houston and accidentally running into the Flashstep, only to end up being pesterchums with the guy, had somehow failed to come up. His dad knows John reached Houston, but not what happened there that made John turn back and come home. And now it’s been long enough that John feels reeeally guilty about neglecting to tell his dad about such a huge potential security breach.

But the Flashstep is also a hero. John uses this to justify it to himself that if the other hero ever leaks John’s side of the pesterlogs to the media or something, he also risks exposing himself. And in the part of his brain that grew up on a steady diet of Rose Lalonde-brand psychoanalysis, John knows that he sees Dave as a backup, a failsafe, a safety net in case he loses control again. In case he’s alone again. If he reveals this secret to his dad, John risks losing that safety net, and somewhere deep down, he’s still not ready for that. He doesn't know that he ever will be.

By the time he goes back to the computer, only a moment later, Dave has somehow managed to rack up another monologue. He and Karkat are both as bad as the other about chattering nonstop about nothing at all. Rose could do the same thing with her psychobabble if you let her. Does John just have some talent for picking up friends who enjoy monologuing?

TG: whoa closing the door
TG: damn son you move fast
TG: i mean i dont know if my innocent eyes are ready for this
TG: you said no webcams does this mean were doing this the old fashioned way with selfies from a camera phone
TG: ngl EB that would be ironic as fuck and i would have no choice but to be proud of you
TG: against my better judgment
TG: the anticipation is killing me
EB: oh my god dave how is it even possible for one man to type so much in twenty seconds???
TG: its a talent john an art passed down in my family for generations
TG: now put out
EB: i'm not sending you naked pics you asshat! :P you’re the one who pestered me, so what did you need?
TG: whoa
TG: a man cant just want to talk to his main internet compadre?
TG: catch up after a few months of heartwrenching silence?
TG: heartwrenching john you hear me youre taking the contents of a home improvement tool kit to my heart here
TG: youve replaced me havent you
TG: and you didnt even have the decency to refund my dowry
TG: you bastard i want my bros twenty head of cattle back
EB: no refunds man sorry
EB: the cattle are alllll mine now
TG: cold man
TG: and now my family will starve through the long winter months
TG: will send you pics of our frozen wasted corpses later for the scrapbook
EB: winter is over, dumbass!
EB: do they even have winter in houston? i thought snow was a myth there.
TG: it is john
TG: snow is a conspiracy of global proportions
TG: but thats not the point the point is i am speaking to you from beyond the grave because you didnt return my familys cattle before the long cold came and now the world will never be blessed with the righteously sick beats of my first solo album

John can feel his face almost hurting with the force of his smile, and he tones it down, shaking his head slightly. He’s forgotten how weird conversations with Dave could be. It’s a change of pace from talking with Karkat about school and part-time jobs and superhero comics. You never know what bizarre tangent Dave will go off on next.

There’s also an opportunity here. Usually they keep the hero stuff to a bare minimum on the chat forum; neither of them have ever outright declared the subject out of bounds, but by mutual agreement they didn’t bring up hero work unless John was having a crisis, and that clause hasn’t been used in ages.

The thing is, from what little John has been able to decipher from Dave’s unpredictable banter over the years, the Puppeteer is more than just the Flashstep’s partner; they’re brothers, and they definitely seem to live together. Maybe it’s a stretch, but the Puppeteer is probably around twenty years old than the two of them, and he would have more experience as a hero than Dave. He might have run across the Midnight Crew before – Houston is a big port city after all, and John can’t imagine a big-time criminal organization wouldn’t have attempted to put down roots in such a key urban area. Dad had promised to check all his contacts for information on the Crew, and he'd found out quite a bit. John should do the same.

EB: serious talk time
TG: what
TG: oh fuck
TG: tell me youre not pregnant EB
TG: i am not the goddamn father am i
TG: fight me i am not
TG: my body is a virgin temple dammit
EB: stopppp dave i'm not pregnant! :P
EB: i just have a question for you
EB: and maybe your bro
TG: whoa
TG: whoa man when did bro become part of this
TG: you been cheating on me with him EB that aint cool
TG: i want a paternity test
EB: dude will you calm down? this is not a federal fucking issue AND I AM NOT PREGNANT
EB: ANYWAY. i just wanted to ask if you or your bro have ever come across an organization called the Midnight Crew
EB: they came into town recently and they started off by blowing up two buildings and tossing a hand grenade at my face
EB: which you can imagine was kind of a downer
EB: so i wondered if your bro might have dealt with them before

Radio silence. John winces and cracks his neck, eyeing the pesterlog before glancing back over his shoulder. The door is still closed, but when he tugs on the air that passes under the door frame he can hear the sounds from downstairs, the beep of the oven as it finishes cooking something that smells like chicken parmesan. He doesn’t have much longer before he has to head down to eat, or his dad will come looking for him. Rubbing at his collarbone absently, he turns back to the screen.


EB: dave?
EB: daaaave?
TG: okay youre the second person today to mention this midnight crew thing to me
TG: the other one told me to ask bro about them, too
TG: let it be known that i am officially concerned
TG: also a grenade
TG: literally what the fuck
TG: hang on lemme figure out how to ask my bro
EB: why is that a problem? are you keeping me a secret dave?
EB: and you accuse me of being ashamed of our brohood!
EB: lame, man
TG: shut up our broship is the stuff of legends
TG: but maybe i just want something that my bro hasnt completely taken over in my life
TG: oh but no now everyone and their mother wants a piece of him
TG: christ

Whoa. That was...unexpected. John actually sits back a little from the computer screen and raises an eyebrow. The Puppeteer and Flashstep have been partners basically since they first showed up, and they've never shown any signs of animosity. Hell, they barely interact while on the job at all, at least according to the Houston news reports and numerous fan-made comic series. But that was definitely some resentment John just read, there.

EB: uh
EB: do we need to jam about this?
EB: because i don’t think i'm allowed to have unsolicited feelings jams without permission anymore but that rant right there? reeks of some feels that need jamming
TG: dude what the fuck is a feelings jam why is that a thing
EB: it’s a troll thing okay can we get back on topic
TG: im still thinking okay
TG: youre not a troll
TG: which means youre totally in one of the troll things arent you
TG: why am i the last one to hear about this john

John just rolls his eyes, pulling a face. This conversation is going nowhere fast. Seriously, why do all of his friends go on and on like this? Does he secretly just like suffering through this kind of pesterspam all the time? He wishes Rose were here to help sort things out.

Actually, he just wishes Rose were here at all. He's been missing her a lot lately, though it's still not nearly as fresh a pain as it had once been.

In the end, he decides to put Flashstep off by playing the confidentiality card.

EB: one of my significant relationships is with a troll alright. any more detail is breaking our confidentiality clause
EB: :PPP
TG: fine i see how it is
TG: anyway okay im gonna go ask my bro
TG: since the grenade thing means things are all kinds of fucknasty
TG: seriously you alright
EB: oh my god dave, it was like two days ago, i'm fine now. but it seems like things might be escalating again and that is Not Okay.
TG: fine
TG: wait what
TG: did you actually just say this happened two days ago
TG: and yet youre FINE
TG: do you not listen to the words that come out of your mouth because holy shit
EB: gosh dave you're totally overreacting
EB: the, you know, windy thing caught most of it, and i'm pretty resiliant. all things considered, i got off pretty lucky!
TG: yeah none of this is okay
TG: no assholes are allowed to blow up my promised husband without my permission
TG: its on
TG: gonna go approach bros lair brb
-- temperedTitan has joined the chat! --
TT: already here
TG: what
EB: what
TT: that's just fucking adorable

Wait, is that - it must be. This is the Puppeteer. John has to readjust his sling, staring at the screen with shocked fascination on his face. Of all the things he'd thought he'd be doing tonight, chatting with the actual real-life Puppeteer was not on the list in any way. This is...kind of awesome.

TG: how
TG: youve been spying on my chatlogs
TG: you fucker
EB: uh
EB: hi dave’s bro?
TT: sup
TT: don’t need to spy on you kid
TT: trust you not to fuck up too bad
TT: just got a trace on ‘Midnight Crew’
TT: which your friend set off
TT: it piqued my interest
EB: so you do know about them!
TT: depends
TT: gotta a few questions for you first kid
TG: okay no
TG: fuck no
TG: you see this this is me telling you no
TG: piss off and ill come ask you about this in your room
TG: get out of our chat this is fucking private
TT: nice try kid
EB: you guys seem to need to talk about this, should I leave for a bit?
TG: no
TT: no

Well then. John just shakes his head, trying to figure out where this messed up conversation is going. It's like Dave is just incapable of staying on track.


TT: first – you’re Heir, right
EB: um, no i'm not.
TT: good enough
TT: second – the MC just got started in your neck of the woods this past week?
TG: i can’t believe youre doing this
--  turntechGodhead has banned temperedTitan from the chat! --
--  temperedTitan cannot be banned from the chat! --
TT: let the kid answer my question
TG: leave him alone
EB: uh, it's okay dave, they’re pretty reasonable questions!
EB: yeah, actually, they just showed up out of nowhere about four days ago.
TT: good
TT: then you still have time to run
EB: huh?

John feels his whole body go tense, darting a look at the open window even as a restless breeze stirs around him, wary and ready for trouble. He has to unclench his fists before he can type again, painfully aware as he types that his dad should be coming up the stairs any moment, and he has no good explanation for the conversation going on right now with not just one but two prominent heroes. This is really nerve-wracking!

TG: oh my christ
TG: why the fuck would he run are you completely insane
EB: seriously!!!
EB: i can’t just run away and abandon my city to them! >:( not cool dave’s bro!
TT: you fucking run kid
TT: you take whoever you care about in this world and you run
EB: why?!
TT: because that’s what i did

John stops. His head is buzzing, and he stares at the strange mixture of blue, red, and pale orange-yellow that form a long column on his pesterchum window. He buries a hand in his hair and tries to fight back the frustration and confusion pounding in his brain. This is not what he wants to hear from one of the most powerful known heroes in the continental United States.

TG: what are you talking about
TG: bro wtf is going on
TT: kid you think i have a texas accent?
TT: we started in fucking Atlanta
TT: then those MC fuckers turned up out of bugfuck nowhere and started harassing us
TT: you were a barely toilet trained and they had machine guns
TT: and they weren’t pissing around trying to take over the city or anything
TT: they were targeting us. deliberately.
TT: when i couldn’t run them out of the town i grabbed you and we fucking ran
TT: if i couldn’t fucking root them out, no fucking way this kid is gonna be able to

By this point, John can only shake his head, trying and failing to imagine just what the Crew could have brought to bear against the Puppeteer that would actually have driven him out of town. He's a legend among the ranks of real life heroes, almost inhuman in his fighting prowess with both sword and puppet.

But knowing the Crew has faced off with the Puppeteer himself and won, as disturbing as the news is, doesn't change anything.


TG: EB
TG: john
TG: fuck john you still there
EB: yeah i'm here...
EB: and like hell am i running away!
TT: i can’t believe i'm fucking saying this
TT: don’t be the hero here kid
TT: you’re only gonna get you and everyone around you hurt or killed
EB: that’s not gonna happen.
EB: i'm not turning tail just because you say so!
EB: i was just asking if you had any info that might help me and my partner counter them.
EB: anything that isn’t telling me to abandon my city to these guys?
TT: nope
TG: you never fucking run from anything what the hell happened
TG: no way a bunch of pansy ass gangsters could beat you so what the fuck
TT: i had my priorities
EB: well clearly you and i have different priorities!!! and mine include not running away when these guys keep blowing up public buildings! >:/

John is shaking with anger now. He doesn’t actually know that he’s ever been this angry just staring at a computer screen before. He can hear the loud clattering downstairs that means his dad is setting the table, a chore John usually helps with, but he doesn’t think he could leave this spot even if his dad came upstairs and started reading the chatlog over his shoulder. The sharp pain of the concussion is beating a tattoo against the back of his head, which just irritates him even more.

John is so. Fucking. Furious.

How dare this guy suggest Heir run.

TT: then you're suicidal
TT: at least give this partner of yours fair warning before you drag him into a firefight he can’t walk away from
EB: that’s not gonna happen!
EB: we can handle ourselves!!!
TT: they have way more than bombs and guns kid
TT: you haven’t met all the card suits yet
EB: what, like Hearts Boxcar? been there, beat that.
TT: if he’s not dead you haven’t beat him kid
TT: Hearts isn't gonna go away just because he’s behind bars
TT: believe me kid. i went through this before. you think you can handle this, but they have numbers, they have money, and they have one thing none of us can match
TT: they have Jack Noir
EB: i don’t know what the hell a Jack Noir is but i get it. you can’t help.
TG: im sorry EB
TG: fuck this was a fucking mistake
EB: it's not your fault dave. your bro is apparently just a totally unhelpful douche...
TT: last warning, kid. just get out of town. go settle down in some nice new urban locale and pick up where you left off
EB: just. stop. just stop i can’t even deal with this right now.
EB: you barge in on our private conversation and you have the nerve to tell me to leave my city to be taken over by some crazy gang cult???
EB: fuck you.
EB: fuck. you.

John’s fingers mash the keyboard too hard; he can hear the plastic creaking with each pointed jab.  But he can’t stop. The breeze is tearing up the posters on his walls, upsetting the sheets on his bed, and prowling around the edges of the room, ready for a fight that won’t come.

He’s too agitated. He knows this, objectively, but he can't seem to calm down. He needs to get a grip on himself, or something incredibly stupid is going to happen, he can feel it. Dave’s Bro isn’t here, and there’s nothing else he can hit. He needs to just walk away from the fucking computer and go down to the basement and hit things until he passes out, but he can't because his arm is in a goddamn sling and his head hurts and ow ow ow -

EB: i think i need to go :(
TT: i know your chumhandle kid i'm not letting this go. it's fucking serious
TG: okay stop
TG: leave him alone bro for fucks sake
TG: this is getting old
EB: now what? you're going to fucking pester me until i say i’ll leave town?!
EB: you are infuriating you are the single most infuriating thing on this fucking planet congratulations it is you!
TG: (daaaamn fucking tell him EB)
TT: fuck your city. fuck whatever moral code is making you so blindingly stupid right now.
TT: I really mean that, fuck them over and get out now while you still can
TT: better they get another city than they get you
TT: go somewhere new. think up some new air pun, or better yet, rework your powers so you can pretend to be something other than a fucking air-bender, they’ll be looking for you after this. they won’t stop. now stop being a fucking stubborn moron and act like you have a modicum of intelligence. your guardian should be telling you this, not me, where the fuck is he in all this?
EB: OKAY THAT IS IT YOU PESTILENT NOOKSTAIN CONGRATULATIONS YOU ARE OFFICIALLY THE MOST RAGE-INDUCING BULGELICKING ASSHAT THE UNIVERSE HAS EVER HAD THE DISPLEASURE OF SECRETING INTO EXISTENCE!
EB: LOOK AT THIS I AM REDUCED TO USING HIS FUCKING CAPS LOCK QUIRK! THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE!
EB: I SWEAR TO ANY GOD LISTENING I AM GOING TO
TG: whoa what
TT: shit
TG: john you know caps lock
TG: were those weird troll swear words because i got maybe half of that
TG: john
EB: WKSHRISEHSKW
TG: oh my fuck what was that
TG: did you just keyboard smash in rage
TG: I swear to god bro if you broke my fucking friend i will end you
TT: shit
TG: im not fucking around here

After a minute of inactivity, the computer goes into sleep mode.

The room is empty.

The curtain flutter in an uncertain, aimless breeze.

-

“John! Dinner is ready!”

Samuel Egbert places the bowl of pasta on the table with a thud, frowning slightly as he leans over to look up the stairs to the second floor. John’s door is still closed, which isn’t unusual, but usually doesn’t impede the boy’s hearing, either. John’s mastery over the wind lets him hear things most people can’t perceive. The last time John had ever really ignored Samuel, whether deliberately or incidentally, had been almost two years ago.

“John!”

No response.

Samuel freezes up, stripping off his oven mitts in slow, deliberate motions. He walks to the foot of the stairs and looks up into the dark hallway above. “John?” he asks, more quietly.

Nothing.

Then he’s going up the stairs a bit more quickly than his usual measured pace, taking the last few steps two at a time before striding to John’s closed door. He forces himself to stop, breathes in once, and raps out his usual knock on the door. It’s entirely possible John has simply lain down and decided to take an impromptu nap, after all. He can’t assume the worst just because –

No answer, not even the muffled yelp of a boy awakened from sleep. The door isn’t locked when Samuel tries it and he pushes it open, eyes scanning the room with more than a little worry.

That worry becomes full-on desperation when he realizes John is gone.

The window hangs open, the curtains fluttering in a gentle breeze, with John’s backpack kicked under the desk and his bed torn apart by something – a breeze no doubt. Samuel takes only two steps to cross the room to the Captain America poster he knows John uses to conceal the safe with his uniform in it. It doesn’t make sense for John to have left in the middle of the evening without telling Samuel, unless perhaps there was an emergency -

He uses his backup key and opens the safe. Heir’s costume lies folded up in a neat square beside Casey, and John’s flying goggles still hang on their hook.

John is gone.

John is gone, again, and this time he hasn’t bothered to put his suit on before leaving. Anyone could see him flying like this, anyone at all.

What the hell is John thinking? Swallowing back a mix of both concern and anger, Samuel composes himself. He can’t jump to conclusions. The room is a mess, but John may have left a note explaining his disappearance, only for it to be tossed into a hidden corner by the wind when he took off. Samuel methodically searches the entire room, sweeping beneath the bed itself and through John’s closet and flipping through the textbooks still in his backpack. He can only conclude there is no note. He moves the computer mouse and the login screen comes up, the computer having gone into sleep mode due to inactivity at some point. And Samuel doesn’t have the time to figure out John’s password.

Maybe once they had trusted each other with everything, but John’s depression two years ago had driven a wedge between them. Even with his illness having abated, there are still hollow, painful gaps Samuel can’t touch, topics that bring a weary sadness to his boy’s face and a weight to his shoulders that Samuel can't force the issue about without risking breaking his own child.

But Samuel had thought that John had recovered. The specialist had said there might be relapses and darker swings, but John has always kept Samuel abreast of his day to day shifts in mood, in addition to his crime fighting performance evaluations. And his friendship with Karkat Vantas, which Samuel might once have disapproved of as a distraction, seemed to have smoothed away the last of the lines from his child’s face.

Karkat.

With one last intense look out the window, trying and failing to pick out the dark shape of his son flying against the dark evening sky, Samuel runs downstairs to the home phone line, and dials a number he has memorized from the sheer number of times he has seen it before John picks up the phone.

Maybe this is all very easily explained. Samuel has researched the concept of moirails ever since Karkat first mentioned the term. Perhaps, if John has had an episode, he simply flew to Karkat’s house in order to have one of their feelings jams. It would be a reckless, stupid course of action, but it is a legitimate sequence of events. The depression had taken out John's better judgment last time, too.

He is greeted with the loud, customary skree of Karkat’s lusus. It gabbles and clicks at him incomprehensibly. In a calm, sensible tone of voice he tells it, “This is Samuel Egbert. May I speak with Karkat, please?”

Another trilling screech echoes across the line with a burst of painful feedback, before the lusus sets the phone down with a loud thump. It sounds as though the giant crab is still screeching, though the noise grows more distant as it scuttles away. Samuel waits impatiently, eyes closed, until he hears thumping footsteps and irate yelling rather than the clack of claws on the other end. “Y-Yeah, Mr. Egbert?” comes the wary, just-this-side-of-yelling growl of the young troll. “Can I help you with something, sir?”

Samuel would normally have smiled and shushed Karkat’s nervous formality. Now, he has more pressing concerns than maintaining the façade of an ordinary parent around John's friend. “Karkat, my boy. I just wanted to check to see if John might have gone over to your house for a visit after school today.”

“Huh? Fu-no, John isn’t here. I dropped him off at your house after school.” The troll boy hesitates, and when he speaks again there is an undertone of worry that Samuel had hoped to avoid triggering. “Why, is something wrong?”

“Nothing at all,” Samuel says, tacking on a reassuring chortle of laughter, and proceeds to feed Karkat one of his standard emergency excuses. “I believe he took off to his extra volunteer hours without stopping by my office to say goodbye, that’s all. He did say he was running late, and he knew I was in an important conference call. I thought I’d check with you, just in case. Take care, Karkat.”

“...Yeah, okay, are you su-”

Samuel hangs up too soon, but he barely pauses to regret it. He dials John’s cell number, and begins to list swears in a military cadence under his breath until he hears the familiar, buzzing ring of ‘Final Countdown’ echoing down the stairs from John’s room, and his blood runs cold.

John doesn’t have his cell with him, he’s not in uniform, and he’s not at Karkat’s.

Where the hell could he be?

---

Touring the world is fun! Jade doesn't know why people don't do it more often!

She's been at it for almost a year and a half now, exploring places and saving people, but she has in no way seen even a fraction of all the cool stuff out here! Clearly if she really wants to reach her final destination, she's going to have to cut some of her planned stops short. It's kind of disappointing but not really. She'll have plenty of time for saving the world after she finishes running some errands for her grandpa!

Sighing, Jade pats Bec on the side and stands up, brushing the black-footed penguin off her lap. It brays like a donkey in irritation before waddling off. This island off the coast of South Africa is populated almost entirely by these obnoxious things, but they're just so cute! And the island air is nice and warm and salty, though not as tropical as back home. Jade hadn't thought she'd ever want to go back to that tiny island in the Pacific until after she'd already blown it up and started feeling homesick. Not her smartest move, in retrospect.

Nothing she can do about it now!

"Bleehhhhh. Alright, Bec, let's go." Jade slides on her aviation goggles and concentrates until she teleports into the plane. A year and a half has done wonders for her control; she hardly ever needs Bec to help direct her and orient her spatially anymore, though he still helps her out with moving heavy objects. The wolf appears a moment later, a brief glimpse of foreign galaxies visible instead of fur before it settles down behind the pilot's seat.

Jade doesn't mind the lights show. A lot of people seem really surprised by Bec's abilities when they're out saving people, but she doesn't see why. It's just how the wolf gets around; it rarely, if ever, walks when it can just as easily teleport everywhere.

Anyway. Jade reaches into the pocket next to the driver's seat and pulls out a messy bundle of papers that she's been consulting on and off since she left home. One's training is never over, of course! These are Grandpa's last lesson plans, diagrams for repairing the plane in case of emergency, and details on a few last minute errands Grandpa always intended to finish, but never got around to. Some of them are really boring, but a couple are time sensitive apparently. And Jade has cross crossed most of Asia and Africa, visiting the places Grandpa visited during his wilderness adventurer years. It's only right that eventually she visit Grandpa's old lab in his hometown!

She fires up the engine and starts typing in new coordinates.

Her fingers hesitate over the lunch top's keyboard after she finishes, and she bites her lip. Then she shakes her head vigorously, hard enough that her hair comes loose and ends up in total disarray, which makes her feel a bit better.

Just because her only Pesterchum hasn't ever answered her pesterings, ever, doesn't mean it won't work eventually! Grandpa had been the one to give her the chumhandle, and she's been trying to establish contact with her chum for years. After a while, she'd realized that for whatever reason, her messages weren't going through, or at least, her chum wasn't logging on to see his messages.

Ahahaha! He's going to have such a backlog when he finally decides to login!

Jade smiles at the absolutely hilarious thought of the look on her chum's face when he sees how much material he has to read through, and starts a new chatlog to begin her daily, rambling monologue.

-- gardenGnostic [GG] began pestering ghostyTrickster [GT] at 17:25:04 --

GG: heyyyy!
GG: good morning john! :)
GG: it must be around eight in the morning where you live, right?
GG: i hope you're feeling awesome this morning :)
GG: i met a bunch of penguins today, and we played tag together!
GG: Bec always wins of course, but it doesn't get that it's not supposed to cheat by teleporting everywhere
GG: this one time, it teleported into the ocean to catch a penguin that was trying to swim away. the poor penguin was sooooo surprised! it made a face like :O
GG: and then afterward we took down an animal poaching ring! that was really sad though because they'd already hurt a lot of rhinos by the time we got here, and i almost didn't catch them in time
GG: does that ever happen to you john? i'm sure you're an awesome hero, just like me! otherwise why would Grandpa say to stay in contact with you and talk to you about hero stuff???
GG: usually i really like being the hero because i get to help people and save them and everyone is happier after that
GG: but sometimes things go wrong and then people get hurt
GG: and usually when i arrive it's the bad guys who get hurt but i still feel bad about it :(
GG: i don't know!
GG: anyway, i hope you start to answer me soon, john! having a one-sided conversation gets really boring sometimes! :P doofus!
GG: byyyye! :DDD

-- gardenGnostic [GG] ceased pestering ghostyTrickster [GT] at 17:34:12 --

Jade runs out of steam after that, and signs off with a flourish. She realizes she’s chewing on a wayward strand of hair and spits it out before hitting enter on the keyboard one last time. The engine rumbles to a start, and the radiation shields sound off little pings as they confirm they’re working to keep the engine from irradiating the rest of the plane.

Excellent. As Grandpa always liked to say – tally ho! Jade pulls down her goggles, spins once in her chair for luck, and –

Someone is standing in the back of the plane.

She skids to a stop by dragging her feet, heart pounding as she pulls a rifle from her sylladex and levels it at the back. “Hey -!” she starts, then stares, nonplussed, at the empty compartment behind her. There’s no one there. The roof at the back of the compartment slopes down low enough that Jade would have to crouch to fit, and there’s nowhere a stowaway could have hidden that fast, not with the hold bolted shut.

Her skin is crawling though; the dark figure she’d seen had just been standing there, watching her from behind. It definitely hadn’t been there when she first teleported in, or she would have noticed the extra mass impacting the space around her. In fact, even in that brief moment, she’d barely felt its presence at all, as though its atoms had only stabilized and possessed mass for a split second, when her eyes had scanned over it while she turned –

“Huh. But that’s so interesting,” she murmurs, fixed her eyes on that one spot. “Hey, Bec? Someone was in the back of the plane just now, right? You felt them too?”

The wolf huffs an affirmative, its weighty head heavy as the wolf tucks it onto her foot. It doesn’t appear to be overly concerned about the mysterious figure, which does a lot towards calming Jade down, and she feels free to let the SCIENCE! instinct take over her brain. Because ooooh yeah, there is some serious science going on here. She wishes the figure would appear again, but she highly suspects that it won’t. She’s observed it, but then she’d looked away in that split second between her seeing it and drawing her specibus, and she might never get that opportunity again. Darn!

Because that hadn’t been teleportation – not enough leftover baseline radiation in the air – and definitely hadn’t been remote viewing or anything involving a spiritual/mental energy construct – there wouldn’t have been mass involved if it was just an image or a spell. Which leaves the extremely intriguing possibility that she just witnessed someone with serious issues at the quantum level. If her theory is right, as long as no one observes this person, they exist in all possible quantum states at once, including the states where they don’t exist at all, cancelling out their own mass; but if observed under the right circumstances, they can collapse into one single possible quantum state and can be seen, heard, felt.

Considering current scientific experiments have only managed to observe this effect in molecules on a scale of nanometers, the fact that she just saw someone the size of a grade-schooler exhibiting quantum wave superposition is a pretty darn significant scientific breakthrough.

This requires investigation.

Jade faces forward and sets the autopilot running, eyeing the back of the plane every so often as the plane takes off and veers to the north. She remembers to stick her head out and wave good bye to the penguins at the last minute. Warm wind tearing at her hair, she shouts out, “Byyyye!” and laughs when a penguin slips and falls off the side of a rock in surprise. Then she lowers the pilot’s dome again and begins shuffling through her sylladex pocket for her tools and her palmtop to take readings of the spot in the back of the compartment.

It’s a good thing she’s headed for Grandpa’s old secret lab! This is going to require some SERIOUS SCIENCE.

-

Jade has to stop and meddle a bit as she passes over the western coast of Africa, stopping several smuggling and poaching operations and more individual crimes when she spots them from above. She can’t let herself think of all the criminal activity she might be missing. There’s a reason there are so many heroes in the world - one person can’t solve all the world’s problems just by running around and beating people up. That was something Grandpa had drilled into her early on, and Jade is really grateful he did; it’s hard enough knowing that someone, somewhere is always being hurt or stolen from or killed, without feeling guilty over not being able to save the entire world. If she took responsibility for the whole world at once, she’d probably explode!

But anyway, between that and her periodic breaks to adjust the engines, trying to alter their radiation output and perhaps trigger another decoherence event for her quantumly unstable passenger, she takes nearly a week to arrive in British airspace. When she reaches the coordinates from her grandpa’s records, she lands the plane, braking to a halt at the end of an overgrown, mossy runway.

The radio crackles. “Password required, old sport! Quick now, hup hup, we haven’t got all day, the missile launchers are locking on as we speak!”

Jade grins at the record of Grandpa’s voice. “It’s me, Grandpa! The password is -” she glances wildly from side to side and leans forward to whisper “- ‘Frederick Marshman Bailey, tiptip tally ho, and an epicycloid with a k value of 4.13’.”

There is a long pause as the responder ticks along to the next prerecorded message. “Quite correct, my girl! Welcome to the old estate! Do try to keep the good china intact, and redirect all explosions to the portrait gallery on the third floor, there’s a dear. There are spare riflekind in the usual places; do not go outside with taking at least three! One must always be prepared!”

Jade mouths the last part of the advice along with her Grandpa, smiling nostalgically as the airplane hangar off to the side of the runway opens, the automatic gates still running smoothly even after years of disuse. Grandpa had always been really big on preparedness, and it’s really nice to hear him say the words himself again instead of just the faded memory she plays back in her head sometimes when she and Bec are about to go somewhere new.

She steers the plane inside the dark garage and parks it between an antique WWII fighter plane (definitely a Hawker Hurricane) and what appears to be a fully operational late model Churchill infantry tank. Jade pulls off her goggles and brushes crumbs off her skirt as she stands up to leave the plane. “Come on, mister Variable!” she says loudly, cocking an ear to listen for a reply. Sight isn’t the only way to observe someone, after all. She has begun talking to herself out loud again instead of just to Bec, hoping that her stowaway is at least able to hear her even when he might not necessarily have access to ears at the moment.

From the occasional promising blip in her palmtop readings, she can say with relative certainty that the figure is still on the plane. It seems to like the back of the compartment, but she’d almost panicked one day when she couldn’t find any quantum markers there. Worried, she had gone over the plane with a scanner until she finally located evidence of partial wave state collapse in the hold, wedged between a refrigerator full of food and an old suit of armor.

Yeah, no one ever said Jade knew how to pack for a crime-fighting world tour. In hindsight, bringing along her Grandpa’s entire collection of weird paintings and other miscellaneous artifacts had been kind of dumb, but she’d certainly had the space for it all after opening up a secondary sylladex dimension in the hold. And now she can transfer all this weird junk to the Harley estate here in Britain! Everybody wins!

“Let’s go see the old lab, guys!” Jade yells, opening the door for the Variable to use before jumping out herself. A tiny cloud of dust rises up when her boots hit the ground, and she sneezes once, rubbing her nose on her sleeve. “Blehhh! Looks like no one’s been around since Grandpa left,” she says, lifting up a boot to observe the clear footprint she’s left behind. “Let’s hope the lab computers don’t have this kind of gunk all over the insides!”

Instead of teleporting straight over to the main building, or using the dusty transportalizer she spies in the center of the airplane hangar (because who knows how such an old transportalizer would interact with someone as atomically unstable as her mysterious companion!), Jade runs across the stretch of lawn between the hangar and the main estate. Well, it probably used to be a lawn, anyway; now it’s more of an open field, full of tall wildflowers and the thin saplings of new trees. It’s a little bit chilly out, and dew coats the plants, so by the time she emerges on the other side, where the field gives way to a gravel driveway, she’s damp all over, even inside her boots. Squishing in wet socks, Jade makes a face, swapping her footwear out with a click of her fingers. Having a sylladex and the ability to teleport objects between the pocket dimension and reality instantly makes it really easy to change her clothes in seconds. So convenient!

“Come on, Bec! Here, boy!”

Bec slides into existence next to her, green fire flickering around its paws as it sits and sniffs at the air, its hackles half raised. Grandpa had told Jade Bec only ever lived on the island, and had never visited the other Harley estates. The fact that the wolf is on guard, as close to baring its teeth and growling as Jade has ever seen it, puts her instantly on guard as well. Her smile slips a bit as she observes the estate more carefully, reaching out with her sense of space and dimensions to feel for any intruders on the grounds. She’s really excited about getting to see one of her Grandpa’s labs for the first time in two years, but there’s no reason to let her guard down in a strange new place. Grandpa would slap her silly if she let nostalgia overwhelm her good common sense.

She can’t feel anything though, aside from a brief flicker that might or might not have been her Variable friend, who could possibly be standing just to her left, on the opposite side as Bec. Variable has never set off Bec’s guard instincts before, which was just another reason for Jade to trust that the mysterious person didn’t mean any harm. Having established that there’s no one in her range that she can sense, Jade slings a rifle out of her strife sylladex and keeps it at the ready as she steps onto the wide front porch and places her thumb on the fingerprint scanner disguised as a doorbell. It lights up pale blue as the machine scans her thumbprint, and then beeps cheerfully. The fancy, lion-faced door knocker flips over to reveal an eye scanner, and she widens her eye and presents it for the reader. When it asks, she gives it the same password as before.

The door does not unlock or swing open. Instead, the wooden slats of the porch a couple paces to Jade’s right emit a whirring sound and fold up, revealing a dust-free transportalizer pad. She hesitates, turning to look at where she can’t see the Variable. “Oops. I didn’t think of that,” she says, feeling a bit sheepish as she rubs her chin with her thumb, thinking. “Grandpa’s most secret labs are only connected to the main estates by transportalizers. I still don’t know how that will affect your quantum state though. Maybe I can use that old explosives pack to blow a hole from the basement through to the sublevels-”

Something brushes up against her arm, and Jade’s sense of space jolts, like her body suddenly jumped a foot to the right without her consent. Heart pounding and shocky, she whirls around, trying to see what just touched her, but that sudden jolt is the only warning she gets before the transportalizer fires up without anyone on it, and crackles with electricity as it sends something down to the lab.

Bec noses at her side, but he doesn’t immediately chase after the source of the jolt, so Jade figures she must still be all in one piece, even if it does feel like her arm just got struck by lightning.

She’s starting to think she underestimated just how much power might be involved in whatever had caused the Wandering Variable to end up like this. Because when she tries to calculate it, the amount of energy involved in a human-sized quantum anomaly like that has to be astronomical. Worse still, the universe is playing fast and loose with how much mass – and therefore, how much energy – is at play in the Variable’s atomic structure at any given moment.

Even if she does help observe and stabilize him permanently so he can communicate with the observed world, the Wandering Variable might turn out to be just as powerful as Bec. And that’s…kind of a scary thought. The only reason Bec isn’t scary is because Jade knows the wolf loves her. She doesn’t know anything about the Variable aside from a few readouts on a palmtop and her own hypotheses.

…Yeah. She’s going to have to run a few more tests before she messes around with Variable’s quantum state. A lot of tests, actually. Take this slow. Science can’t be rushed, you know.

Between that revelation sinking in and the tension she can still feel in Bec’s spine when she pats him on the back, Jade is feeling a little more sober about this visit. She wants to enjoy her time here at Grandpa’s old place, but she can’t fight the lingering sensation that, even though she can’t sense them, someone is watching her.

-

Jade appears in a spartan hallway, about forty feet below ground level according to her internal altitude sensor. As she steps off the transportalizer pad Bec steps into space beside her, and a blip from the sensors in her glasses alerts her to a registered energy signature that belongs to the Variable. “Are you still all in one piece?” she asks aloud, worried, but she receives no response – none that she can hear, anyway. “We can start trying to collapse you into one permanent eigenstate once I’ve finished up with Grandpa’s errands, all right?”

She takes the silence as an implicit affirmative and strides off down the corridor, her footsteps echoing in the dull, still air of the lab. It feels like the air is still fresh, so the life support protocols must be running, and the lights brighten to a comfortable level automatically when she enters the main room. The lab counters have been swept clear, but when she unlocks one of the cupboards by the wall with her thumbprint, she finds a shining array of clean lab equipment. The chemicals will be in a much more iffy state, but she’s not too concerned about them right now.

“Awesome,” she murmurs reverently when she finds a modified Winchester rifle stowed behind a row of test tubes. This one is a keeper. She smiles to herself as she loads it with ammo, still crouched down on the floor, and tucks it away in her sylladex for later.

“Right-o. Attention. Code 653,” Grandpa’s voice suddenly rumbles from overhead, and a red light starts to flare on and off in the corner of the room, painting everything red. Jade stiffens and drops back into a fighting stance at the stern, severe tone in his voice. “Unidentified projectile inbound at 370 kilometers. Please evacuate to the tenth basement or man battlestations. I repeat, chaps, code 653 in progress, potential code 413, please see monitor 42 for tracking information.”

“Whaaaat?! Where’s monitor 42?” Jade demands, kicking the cupboard shut and heading for the nearest computer monitor. It turns on obligingly when she hits the power button, and she frantically runs through Grandpa’s list of usual passwords until one (HKSWRISEWSKH) lets her access the system. It appears that this is monitor 36; 42 is somewhere else, but she should be able to pull the same information up here if she can just find it -

“Attention. Unidentified projectile inbound at 340 kilometers, descending at a rate of ____ km/sec. No paradox radiation detected; deployment of standard point-defense counter missiles recommended. Cancel potential code 413.”

“Argh! Where are the defense controls, Grandpa!” Jade yells, but the warning voice over the intercom isn’t an auto-responder like the radio earlier; it continues to drone out updates on the projectile’s position and rate of descent, but that doesn’t exactly help her out when she can’t find the missile launcher controls from this computer! She just doesn’t have time to search through the masses of data and programs that she finds on the hard drive, and Grandpa’s cheat sheet notes never mentioned the possibility that she’d have to activate the estate’s more specialized defenses.

Which mean –

Oh yes. Hecks yes.

Jade gets to pull out the big guns.

“Stay down here, WV!” she calls over the alert system, and she snaps her fingers, centering in on the roof of the estate above. She misjudges it a bit in her haste, and appears a few inches above the roof itself. Instead of landing, she lets herself fly up a bit, manipulating her position in space until she’s facing up toward the sky. She squints behind her glasses, then flicks her sniper-scope into place, staring up at the angle at which the alert system had detected the inbound projectile. She should be able to see it in 5…4…3…2…1…

There.

The projectile is growing rapidly in her field of vision, little burst of friction sparking along its sides as it plummets down toward her current location. It looks like a relatively advanced missile, streamlined and efficient.

Jade switches out her riflekind for a rocket launcher specibus. The only reason she’s able to hold up the weight of the extremely large apparatus is because mass doesn’t mean very much when you can levitate things through space with the power of your mind. The recoil is going to hurt, but who cares! She’s been waiting to use this beauty for years!

Tongue poking out slightly between her pursed lips, Jade takes aim. It’s a slightly more laborious process than she’s used to, with a small computer attached to the launcher itself helping her to line up the sights instead of just relying on her spatial sense. She doesn’t want to mess up when she’s dealing with a pretty frickin’ huge explosive, here.

The incoming weapon is still about ten kilometers out when she hits the trigger. She has enough foresight to put the rocket launcher back in the sylladex moments before the recoil slams her back-first through the roof of the house.

“Oof!” she grunts, yanking herself to a halt before she crashes through the floor of the attic. Bits of the roof fall around her, and she coughs on a wave of dust. Letting her shoulder rest for a bit, she floats just a little bit upward, watching as her missile rockets up to meet the inbound projectile. When they collide and explode in a delightful display of mutually assured destruction safely in the air above the house, she claps her hands together and squeals with happiness. The resulting explosion is quite magnificent.

One snap later, and she’s back down in the basement sublevels. Mission accomplished.

“I took care of the mean explosive missile!” she calls, righting herself and bending to scratch at Bec’s ruff. "I wonder who was shooting at us, though." Bec doesn’t appear to have moved from where she left it, having apparently decided she could handle the missile on her own. But now she can’t tell where Variable ended up. “WV? You still in here?”

“Good show, lads and ladies!” her grandpa’s voice echoes through the lab. “Cancel code 653. Air debris shields up and running at full capacity. Station 42 should be extrapolating point of origin in an hour, and then we'll give these impudent bastards the old what-for! Back to work, all!”

“Yes, sir!” Jade chirps back, giggling as she salutes. She shakes her head and stretches her sore arm, rubbing at a budding bruise she can feel swelling up across the upper right side of her chest. “Soooo worth it,” she says, and then she scans the lab with her palm top until she locates the WV’s signature huddling in the corner by a dark computer screen. “All right, Mister V! Just a few more minutes – Grandpa just wanted me to recalibrate the temporal and spatial distortion sensors, and then we’ll be all set to start figuring out what’s wrong with you!”

She spins in a circle and grins widely at the lab. “This is going to be so much fun!”

-

Prospyet, Outside Astana, Khazakstan

MP: Are you sure you have to go?

Approximately three hundred years ago, an enormous meteorite crash landed in the middle of the Kizil Kum Desert. The alien creatures that survived the impact never quite explained how or why they ended up in an uncontrolled descent towards Earth on runaway space debris, most likely because the descent was neither uncontrolled, nor was the landing a crash.

Carapacians are quite the experts at piloting meteorites, thank you very much.

Most of them have since learned to cluster in the desert cities, after an incident in 1940s Eastern Europe had resulted in near genocide for a significant portion of their genetic records. Prospit-A and Derse-1 are both major cities now, populated almost entirely by carapacians, on opposing sides of the original crater.

Prospyet, in northern Khazakstan, is significantly smaller. The checkered pattern of the buildings and streets is less noticeable than in the major carapacian metropolises, with more mingling between light and dark. Few of the inhabitants still claim allegiance to the Reginae Absentes, and fewer still acknowledge the Grey Protector as their liege. No, this is a place that remembers the Villein and his creed, and no one has direct ties to the Queens' Shatranj spy networks anymore.

The perfect place for a certain carapacian down on his luck to lay low for a few years, at least until the heat dies down.

Spades stays hunched by the open balcony door, glowering out into the night. The moon is a sickle overhead, and he feels like that’s an omen of things long past, an old, heavy weight that presses down on his chest, cracking his carapace.

After his initial run in with the Midnight Crew – what, almost two years ago now? – he’d realized he needed to rethink his strategy. Because the Crew isn’t his anymore; they’re all soft and spongy humans, for one, and they answer to some new big shot now. And the Huge Bitch hadn’t even been involved in the takeover – in Spades’s absence, some new goon and his gal took over, their names spoken only in hushed whispers that even Spades’s sharp ears hadn’t been able to catch. A select few talk a little louder about some scumbag called Jack Noir, but Spades doesn’t think about that guy too hard. It makes his head hurt.

Upon scoping out the situation and realizing he and the Crew were no longer going to see eye to eye, Spades had fled back to Europe. America has too few carapacians. They’re seen as exotic mysteries, aliens with a tragic, unknown past. Being a carapacian on this world gets you noticed, which is the last thing Spades wants at the moment.

Eventually, he made his way to Prospyet, intending to stay only until he lost the Shatranj and Crew spies on his tail.

At least until he went and met the woman of his dreams.

He doesn’t want to talk about that part. It’s fucking embarrassing, all right? He’s dizzy for the dame, end of story.

A pale hand touches his arm and it’s only through great strength of will and months of practice that he represses the instinct to stab first and ask questions later. One does not go around stabbing things willy-nilly around a classy Prospitian dame like Ms. Paint.

MP: I understand why you have to go.

MP: But please allow me to be selfish, this one time, and let me ask.

MP: Please do not go.

Oh, is it tempting. Spades Slick, hardened criminal, is very much on board with staying here with his lady love, and for a moment there’s a warm space in his carapace that might have been a heart – if, you know, the person feeling it wasn’t Spades Slick. He doesn’t get all sappy and namby-pamby like that. It’s just heartburn or something.

Besides. He can feel not one but two things pulling him west, and while one of them he hates with a seething passion that knows no bounds, the other has settled a claim in the very darkest depths of his being, an old vow sworn in blood and carved into the fabric of paradox space, that draws him back to the troll that he once called bloodbrother.

SS: I can’t. You know I wish I could, and you don’t know how much I wanna make yah happy.

SS: But I don’t think I’m allowed to –

MP: To?

SS: …Be happy.

SS: Some things you can’t atone for.

SS: Some things you can’t run from.

SS: Some assholes you need to give a good kick in the face before they go and get themselves killed.

SS: ...This is something I gotta do.

Ms. Paint sighs, and the sound most certainly does not tug on the nonexistent heartstrings of the completely hypothetical heart that Spades does not have. She rests her pink-wrapped head upon his bony, sharp shoulder, and they look out at the stars together. And if Spades maybe spends more time eyeing his lady love than the stars, that don’t mean a damn thing.

MP: I know. I know.

MP: I think I’ve always known.

MP: It seems all I can do for now is wish you luck.

MP: And ask that you come home soon.

Spades just looks at her, and looks and looks, and wonders when he went and found himself a home.

SS: You got it, darlin’.

SS: Home before midnight, that’s what I always say.

She smiles at him, her dimples silver in the moonlight. And maybe people really can change. Maybe even people like Spades Slick, because what he does next feels natural. Feels right. It’s the exact opposite of what he’s always done before, but to hell with that. He’s defined his life by this damned thing for too long. If they’re throwing out the rules, they’re throwing out all the damn rules.

He’s sick of looking at this ring and seeing the monster he could become in his nightmares.

He takes the ring on its chain out of his pocket and stares at it almost as long as he’s stared at Ms. Paint. And then he presses a hand to her cheek and loops the chain around her neck. Her eyes are huge black pools in the pale light, and he touches her face lightly with both hands.

SS: Now I have to come back.

SS: Me and that damned thing, we’ve been dancing together for how long now?

SS: Somehow, someway…we always find ourselves together.

SS: If you can’t fight fate, make fate your little bitch.

SS: So if you have this ring, no power on this pathetic, watery rock can come between you and me.

Ms. Paint pats him on the cheek, and it’s stupidly adorable and loveable and oh no Spades is doomed. There are no words for how very doomed he is. This woman will be the death of him, he can feel it, and yet he can’t fight it because being with her feels like being whole for the first time in his life.

MP: Don’t say bitch, dear.

SS: …Yes, darlin’.

He stays the rest of the night standing by the window with her, swaying to a tune Ms. Paint just barely hums above a whisper. In the morning, he tells himself, his expression less of a malicious glower and more of a contemplative stare as he rests his chin atop her head. I can leave in the morning.

And Karkat goddamn Vantas had better appreciate what I'm walking away from for his sake, the little shit.

Chapter Text

It really was only a matter of time before Karkat's shitty luck kicked in.

Sure, he's had a good run of it lately. Maybe he's been overdue for a good old-fashioned Karkat-class fuck up (a phenomenon which is capable, according to general consensus among the scientific community, of wreaking about as much interpersonal havoc and emotional distress as a class-5 hurricane) after all these months of disgustingly wholesome happiness.

First he met John and actually managed to maintain a friendship that didn't slowly self-destruct due to Karkat's brain and its easily overstimulated rage gland. Then, he miraculously didn't fall off a tall building during his first few weeks as Hemogoblin, and even got Heir's attention. And apparently the other hero liked what he saw enough to want Hemogoblin as a partner.

Yeah, he's still internally screaming over that last part. It's like something out of an actual comic book - the newbie hero and the seasoned veteran partnering up to kick ass and wreck shit. Hemogoblin had even helped rescue Heir last night. In fact, since Karkat is a huge Ancestors nerd, he can in fact tell you that this is all uncannily similar to the classic plot line from the first ever Signless/Ψiioniic crossover, in which the mysterious unsigned troll frees the more experienced psionic hero from a mindtrap, beginning a partnership that continues, despite occasional falling-outs, in the comics to this day.

This is fucking huge, okay, and he reserves the right to internally fan-girl about it whenever the urge strikes him.

Since that night at the docks, when he'd formally accepted Heir's offer (insert high-pitched shriek of fan-girly goodness here), he's been antsy. The problem is, he wants to rave about this mind-blowing development to someone - aka John - and about how fucking fantastic it is that he - and by 'he' he'd of course mean Hemogoblin, and not actually him because they're clearly two different people - gets to fight crime with Heir of fucking Breath. He almost fell out of his recooperacoon wriggling around with repressed excitement, reaching periodically for his phone and getting slime fucking everywhere in repeat attempts to pester John because this news must be shared with the whole goddamn world and John is his whole damn world, only to catch himself at the last minute.

Because only Hemogoblin and Heir know about this partnership. That's it. If Karkat starts blathering on about it like a panaddled, vacuous dipshit the morning after it fucking happens, it's going to be pretty fucking obvious he's privy to knowledge only two people could possible have.

So he has to sit on this until the team-up becomes common knowledge. Which holy fuck is going to be hard. Karkat's specialty is running his mouth, not censoring himself.

So he expects his biggest problem Thursday morning is going to be sitting on this priceless nugget of intel while hanging out with John all day, especially knowing that John is a massive Hemogoblin fan.

It's when he's awakened by Crabdad's shrieking click-skree that is the lusus equivalent of John's name that everything goes sideways. By the time he retrieves the home phone from his custodian's grubby claws, he's ready to punch a baby or something. No, really, put a wriggler in front of him, he will punt that sucker through the wall. Crabdad's retirement cannot come soon enough.

And then John has to open his mouth and tell Karkat he's going to be out of school because he 'fell.'

This sounds like so much bullshit, because John may be a ditsy, nerdy son of a bitch, but it's not like he's tripping over himself all the damn time. Some of the swim team kids - what few Karkat has been forced to absently notice, since he's always getting dragged along to cheer at John's swim meets - are downright klutzy on land, at home only in the water, but John isn't, despite the fact that he blows everyone out of the water the vast majority of the time. So some random fall during the land training he puts himself through instead of the regular swim practice the incompetent members of the team (read: anyone who isn't John) go to doesn't make any fucking sense and so help him he is going over to the Egbert house right the fuck now to see this for himself -

"Shoosh."

That's all that Karkat really hears. The rest is soothing, humming white noise, and before he knows it, he's put down the phone and begun to walk in a daze to get his school stuff together, buoyed in a weird sense of goodwill. It feels suspiciously like not being angry, and that's just not normal.

Fucking serendipity. Wow.

-

The effect in person is much more dramatic, and Karkat would be lying if he didn't admit that some part of him deliberately lost its shit when he saw John in the hallway in the hopes of provoking a repeat moirailing. John has no subtlety, of course, and zero sense of timing (because who starts initiating such blatant pale flirtation in front of a teacher for god's sake?! Fucking John, that's who), but that doesn't really seem to matter after Karkat gets shooshpapped right back to that same level of lulled, peaceable calm. Seeing John throughout the day keeps him reassured that his moirail is well, and by the time Karkat drops John off at his house, he can barely maintain a properly angry rant, except to instruct John to stop breaking his fucking collar bone, for fuck's sake.

His bad luck really hits its stride, however, sometime around six in the afternoon, when John's dad calls and everything starts going downhill.

Karkat is absorbed in his calculus review when he hears the phone ring downstairs, followed by an answering screech from Crabdad. Karkat groans and lets his head thump forward onto the desk, slamming his clenched fist down onto the open textbook with the pencil still in hand. When he huffs angrily through his nose and sits up, composing himself to answer the phone in a state of only mild irritation rather than murderous intent, he sees that he has stabbed the pencil into the pages of the textbook itself, so deep that the pencil actually remains upright when he lets go of it.

Wow. Fucking fantastic. Good to know that he can put all of this strength and fitness training to good use by stabbing textbooks right in the problem set. Criminals, beware, Hemogoblin’s new fucking weapon of choice is a goddamn mechanical pencil, and he will shove that fucker right through your kidney.

Unless the caller is John, they better have an absolutely mindblowing reason for calling. Really, Karkat wants to see chunks of brain everywhere after this call is through. Muttering to himself, he clatters down the stairs and wrests the phone away from Crabdad. The lusus doesn’t fight him nearly as much as usual, so it’s not John, who always encourages flagrant mutiny from the lusus for his own incomprehensible amusement.

What ensues is the most worrying conversation Karkat has ever engaged in with John's dad ever. Usually he's too intimidated by Samuel Egbert to do more than stiffly exchange pleasantries and try to keep the swearing to a minimum. This conversation is strange enough that Karkat can't help but try to pry more details out of Samuel.

He fails miserably. John's dad doesn't even let him get a word in edgewise, which for Karkat is an unpleasant new experience. Samuel has the nerve to fucking chortle as he shuts Karkat down, hard. “I believe he took off to his extra volunteer hours without stopping by my office to say goodbye, that’s all. He did say he was running late, and he knew I was in an important conference call. I thought I’d check with you, just in case. Take care, Karkat.”

All these last few sentences are spoken rapidly, with no pause for breath, as though to prevent Karkat from trying to break in and start his own question. “...Yeah, okay, are you su-” he finally gets the opportunity to demand, when the click of the phone hanging up greets him.

Dad Egbert just hung up on him. Always polite, ridiculously courteous Dad Egbert. Hung up. On Karkat.

…Wow. Like that wasn’t suspicious at all. Karkat totally believes every word out of that man’s mouth!

He throws a look back up the stairs toward his room, then growls and grabs his hoodie off the hook beside the front door, yanking it on over his head. After the collar bone debacle, like hell is Karkat ignoring some fresh fucking crisis going on at the Egbert house. Anything that can rile Samuel Egbert up is pretty damn serious. Especially when, from the way Samuel was talking, he has no real idea where John is. Given that the kid has such a regimented schedule, losing him would have been pretty hard work.

He gives the door a piece of his mind as he kicks it open and slams it shut in one smooth motion before Crabdad can try to escape. He sets off down the street toward the Egbert house. If Karkat’s moirail is actually missing or hurt, he reserves the goddamn right to freak the fuck out.

-

He knocks on the door of Chateau Egbert (also known as the House of He Who Makes Me Vomit Diamonds), and begins tapping his foot in anxiety the moment he’s forced to stand still and wait. He jogged all the way here, but that’s done nothing to work off the nervous energy engendered by that really fucking weird phone call. Twitchy and irate (or at least, more so than usual), Karkat waits for Dad Egbert to answer the fucking door.

And waits.

…He pounds on the door again.

Still no answer.

“You just called from the goddamn grubfucking home phone, you – grah!” Karkat swallows down a burgeoning rant just as the door swings open, and tries to cover up his guilt with a forced, toothy smile as he looks up at Samuel Egbert. All he really manages is a grimace. Dad Egbert is just really fucking intimidating sometimes, alright?

Right now, though, Samuel looks…at loose ends, and that puts Karkat on edge. For the first time Karkat can remember, he’s not perfectly done up in one of his dapper white suits, and his cropped blond hair is in slight disarray, as though he’s been raking his fingers through it. “Ah. Karkat,” he says, his icy blue eyes sharpening as he recognizes Karkat at the door. “Is something wrong?”

“I can only assume there is. Or did you really think I would just ignore you calling me in a panic over John? What’s going on – uh, sir.” Karkat tacks on the ‘sir,’ an afterthought as always. There’s just something about Samuel Egbert that screams ‘military man’ even twenty years after he apparently resigned, at least according to John’s account. Whatever it is about him, it works to intimidate pretty much everyone on the planet except John.

But if Samuel thinks he can use that to put Karkat off when John is involved, he has another thing coming.

Samuel laughs, and it sounds so obviously forced Karkat nearly gags himself. “Karkat, my boy, John really is just at his volunteer hours. I’m sorry for the little scare. I don’t know how I got it into my head that he might have stopped off at your home first. I apologize.”

“Where is he volunteering?” Karkat demands. He sees Samuel’s hand tremble on the door, and Karkat puts his own hand on the door, leaning on it without an ounce of subtlety as his jaw tightens.

Oh yeah. Something is up. Karkat talks right over the start of whatever excuse Samuel tries to give. “I mean, usually he says he’s doing land training on Fridays, not volunteering. And anyway, shouldn’t he take the afternoon off? That collar bone isn’t going to fu- I mean – oh for fuck’s sake – isn’t going to fucking heal if he doesn’t get some rest! I will drag that halfpanned idiot back by his fucking goggles if he thinks I’m letting him do some kind of manual labor in a sling!” By the end of his tirade he’s almost spitting. He can tell he’s working himself up into a fucking knot, tripping over the line from mere irritation into a full-fledged meltdown, but he can’t stop himself, how is he expected to stop himself when his moirail isn’t here, isn’t anywhere

“Karkat, there is no need to -”

“Do not ‘Karkat’ me!” Oh fuck. Oh fuck. He’s freaking out. The rage is squeezing his bloodpusher so hard he thinks his chest might implode. He staggers back from the door, trying to put distance between him and John’s dad. Homicidal rages are more the purview of highbloods with coldblood-type dementia, but all trolls can get stupid and violent when they get worked up, and who even knows how Karkat’s mutant brain will react to a genuine meltdown.

Karkat has always thought that by maintaining a standard level of fury, he’s been able to regulate it himself, to prevent any violent incidents that could draw blood, but this is the third time in as many days that he’s nearly gone crashing into a full-on class-A tantrum. He digs his claws into the hornbeds around his horns, feeling the prickle of claws digging into his scalp. Everything is too much, too close, too tight, and he can’t focus. Get it together, you fuck up, come on, this isn’t hard, you’ve managed without John for fucking years –

“Karkat. Breathe.”

It’s not soothing or reassuring or relaxing. It’s just an order, spoken with the expectation of obedience, and Karkat’s jaw unclenches automatically in response. He sucks in a breath, and almost immediately some of the pounding in his head dies away, the tunnel vision widening so he can see more than just the blurry white of Samuel’s shoes.

Oh, way to fucking look like an idiot in front of John’s dad. Karkat can’t believe he just freaked out so hard, he literally forgot to breathe. Sucking in furious breaths through his nose, Karkat glares when he catches a hand descending to land on his shoulder. He lurches backward a step to dodge the hand, and hugs himself. He’s progressed into sobbing hiccups now, and he can barely meet Samuel’s eyes as he hiccups and gasps for control like a wriggler barely out of its first cocoon. “Then – why didn’t you – know where – he went,” he forces out between hiccups. He’s still furious, but at least at this level of anger, he can still fucking talk. “Not like – him – to take off – without telling you.”

Samuel spreads his hands out placatingly, but Karkat’s in no fucking mood to be placated by anyone but his moirail, goddammit. “It was just a mix-up, Karkat. I got a little caught up with my work, and missed John when he left. Like you said, though, he really shouldn’t be working with that collar bone – I told him so, myself. So I just thought, perhaps, that he went to your house instead, and called in sick to his volunteer work. But I called the community center, and he is definitely there. He is not missing, Karkat. He’ll be back in a few hours.”

And okay, yeah, that…sounds logical. Certainly more so than the hasty explanation Samuel gave over the phone not ten minutes earlier, even though it basically is the same explanation. Besides, what reason would Samuel have to lie?

But does it really match the state of Samuel’s hair, the way his white suit jacket has been left crumpled over the top of the sofa rather than carefully and neatly hung up on a hanger?

Karkat can’t tell anymore. Some part of him, the part that isn’t hiccupping and struggling not to swandive off the metaphorical handle into a panic attack, can tell he’s not thinking clearly. He rubs his hands up and down his arms, chafing against the chilly spring air of the on-coming evening. Finally, he just nods, clamping his mouth shut against more hiccups, not trusting himself to stop before tearing his moirail’s guardian a new one in a fit of irrationality.

Samuel nods solemnly back. “Now, my boy, you seem distraught. Is there anything I can get you, anything you need?” Samuel smiles and yeah, he has this reassuring, fatherly look on his face, but it just pisses Karkat off all over again.

“What I need is for my moirail to not be wandering around taking heavy boxes from old ladies like an oblivious, dumbass gentleman and pretending he doesn’t have a fucking broken collar bone,” Karkat hisses, before losing it with one huge hiccup. “Where is he right the fuck now, I’m going to help him. I want the address.”

“Karkat.” Samuel fold his arms, giving Karkat a stern look. “While I appreciate that you care about John, you are in distress and in no fit state to be operating a motor vehicle or wandering around while John is working. I’m certain John knows better than to overwork himself. He knows his limits. And while I’m sure he’d be glad to see you, he would also feel obliged to work longer to make up for any distraction you might pose. Please, do not become a distraction.”

Karkat freezes up. He has about five different instincts yammering at him, three of which urge him to go corral his moirail and prevent that dopey idiot from injuring himself further.

But Karkat is not a goddamn grub. He isn't some demented highblood who can't help but act on ancient psychoses. And this is him. Putting his foot down. Enough.

Samuel must see something in Karkat's face at the moment Karkat forces himself to calm his fucking tits.This time, when Samuel reaches out a hand and claps Karkat on the shoulder, Karkat lets him, even though he feels an immediate spike of irritation at the touch. He crushes it as best he can, trying to maintain just a faint grimace of distaste. Control. Control. "Thank you for understanding, Karkat," Samuel says, and then the door shuts, perhaps with a little more force than usual. Hell, Karkat can't tell anymore.

Karkat stands outside the Egbert household for a long time, staring at his shoes. All he really wants to do is head down to the community center - walk there, if he has to - and see John, to make sure he really is there. The urge is overwhelming.

But. Fuck. Dad Egbert is right. Jeez, John shooshes him one damn time and suddenly Karkat starts getting all clingy. Fucking fuck.

Instead, Karkat goes home. He strips off his clothes on his way up the stars and sits in the recooperacoon for nearly an hour instead of working on his homework, letting the sopor soak its way into his skin. A heavy fuzz settles over his thoughts as his body shifts gears from panic to a drugged lethargy, and when he drags himself out to do homework instead of just going to sleep, his thoughts feel like they’re slogging through mud. He feels like shit, but his breathing has calmed and his heartbeats ease to a slow rhythm.

He no longer feels like crawling out of his skin and clawing at anyone who breathes too loudly, but he also feels – well, drugged. It’s extremely fucking tempting to just dunk his head back into the ‘coon and sleep through the night for once, because at this rate he’s not sure he’ll be alert enough to handle crime fighting. But he can’t. Working off some of this distress with a night of being Hemogoblin might be the only thing that can work the aggression out of his system – or at least distract him until he can latch onto John again.

He’s never been this dependent on John before, and Karkat can only assume it’s because John’s the source of the distress itself. Objectively he knows John isn’t some fragile dumbass glass butterfly, but in his troll hindbrain all those lovely hormones in his panic glands are stewing because John got hurt, and it just keeps building up every moment Karkat isn’t able to personally reassure himself John is safe.

Serendipity. Wow, it can be a bitch.

-

Three aborted muggings, a thwarted car-jacking, and a domestic dispute gone wrong later, Hemogoblin feels just a little bit more sane. Few things in this world are more therapeutic than getting to kick bad guys in the face. Every thirty minutes or so he’s seized by the urge to run all the way back to Maple Valley and bust down the doors of the community center, demanding his moirail be returned at once, but John has no doubt gone home by now; it’s nearly one in the morning. He had pestered John via his phone before leaving the device in the library, but hadn’t received a reply before starting his patrol. It wouldn’t be unusual for John not to reply until early in the morning. That does not lessen Karkat’s brand new goddamn anxiety problem in the slightest.

Focus. He can’t fall back into Karkat thoughts, no matter how much they’re weighing on his mind tonight. Hemogoblin leaps from one roof to the next, landing in a neat tumble and rolling to his feet, trying to lose himself in the attention-consuming work of running across the roofs without missing a step. Yeah, he’d probably survive the fall, but with his run of bad luck he’d probably break his arm or some other bullshit he can’t heal instantly.

That’s when the third explosion rocks the air.

Hemogoblin is far enough away that he feels the blast as barely a ripple in the air, but it sounds like a gun just went off by his ears. He stops before leaping to the next building and kneels beside a bird coop, searching the skyline for the source of the explosion. To his relief, when he locates the blast site, it’s nothing like the raging, fiery inferno that had broken out two nights ago, when Hearts and the Crew had torched an empty warehouse. Smoke plumes up in a heavy black cloud not far from his current location, but he can’t see any fire spreading to other buildings. Rolling his shoulders, Hemogoblin takes off in the direction of the fire.

He keeps checking the skies though. There’s no way Heir missed that, and he’s sure the other hero would have come to the same conclusion as Hemogoblin – this is retaliation in some way for Hearts Boxcars’s arrest the other night.

As it turns out, it’s a little worse than that. Hemogoblin’s stomach sinks as he draws closer and closer to Virginia Street, and realizes that the building that exploded is not some warehouse or bank, or any other convenient target.

It is the police station.

Well, fuck.

He approaches with more caution after that uncomfortable discovery, his stomach sinking as he scans the streets and alleys below for any sign of a fleeing prisoner. But by the time he reaches the station, he can’t find a damn thing, and he suspects – if Hearts was the source of this particular explosion, which Hemogoblin doesn’t doubt in the slightest – that Hearts and his accomplices are long gone.

Where the hell is Heir? Hemogoblin stops on the roof across from the police station to take in the damage, but his mind is still on the weirdly empty sky. There doesn’t appear to be much structural damage to the station; the street is flooded with evacuated officers and staff, but aside from a smoking hole where the front wall used to be, it doesn’t look like any part of the building is in danger of collapsing.

After a few minutes, Hemogoblin realizes he’s stalling because his next instinct is to drop down and ask the police if they’ve already spoken with Heir. This seems extremely unlikely, since Hemogoblin would have seen the other hero fly down to street level even if Heir had beaten him here, but it’s possible. And if Heir hasn’t been by yet, it would probably be a good idea to check in with the cops, see if anyone is trapped in the building and needs assistance, or if they’d seen which way Hearts and his gang of merry fucking assholes took off to.

He should hurry this along. Uh huh. Yep. Time to go downstairs and play nice with the cops. Gather some valuable intel. Be the hero.

…Any second now.

Yeah. He’s stalling like a pansy-ass wriggler. It’s Karkat who turns away from the edge of the roof and has to spend a few seconds checking over his costume, his false horns, his uniform, before trying to shake off the nervous tension turning him into a twitchy, stilt-legged spaz. He’s failing pretty fucking miserably.

But the last thing Karkat’s ever wanted is to attract the attention of the police. His blood color is down as rust red in the records, thanks to either the most gracious, forgiving jadeblood in the history of trollkind, or the most colorblind son of a bitch this side of the Atlantic, and that has protected him from the more unfortunate consequences that would ensue if it got around that he was a mutant. However, he’s gone through most of his life avoiding hospitals, skipping out on blood drives, and hoping that he never gets selected for a random drug screening, either at work or at school. And now here he is, prancing about as Hemogoblin with bright red eyes and a costume most people would associate with the color of human blood. So far most rumors seem to have Hemogoblin down as wearing candy red contact lenses for dramatic effect, but who even knows how a troll police officer will react.

He jumps down at last, after a few long minutes of wondering where Heir could possibly be. Hemogoblin lands soundlessly in the shadows just beyond the edge of the street lights and the flashing police emergency lights, and saunters his way closer to the ring of emergency responders trying to contain the situation and keep people out of range of the smoke. This situation is even more sensitive than most; Hemogoblin has no doubt by morning people will be whispering about a potential terrorist threat. Three bombings in a row? Homeland Security could show up any day now, and he and Heir will have to watch their steps. Vigilante heroes and local police generally cooperate together without incident, but federal law enforcement is notorious for interrogating first and trusting heroes later, after they’ve been Mirandized.

Karkat would be intimidated. Hemogoblin isn’t. He can’t afford to be. He slinks up to the nearest human officer and clears his throat. The last thing he wants is to sneak up on an entire crowd of jumpy cops. His smile inches up into something more seductive when the cop turns and very obviously gives Hemogoblin an unintentional once-over. The human turns bright red. “H-Hemogoblin, I presume,” he says, taking a step back. “Should have known you or Heir would show up after something like this.”

Hemogoblin lets the smile drop. Shit. “Heir hasn’t been here yet?”

“No, there’s been no sign of him all night. And now this? If you or he have any information on what the hell is causing this ruckus, we here at the police department that just got blown up would really appreciate a heads up.” By the end, the cop has lost his fluster and gotten serious. He’s clearly pissed about the explosion. Which is pretty fucking understandable, all things considered.

“Let me guess. The explosion came from a holding cell containing one Hearts Boxcars,” Hemogoblin says, folding his arms over his chest and glancing at the shattered glass that litters the road in front of the station from where the front windows blew out.

“Actually, it was the interrogation room,” the cop says, pursing his lips. “He asked for a lawyer. An hour later, the lawyer shows up, and the next thing we know everything’s fucked to hell and back. Er. Don’t quote me on that.”

Like Hemogoblin would have any right to be offended on the whole swearing front. But – “Who was his lawyer? You just let someone just waltz in there with a bomb in their briefcase?”

He winces, because that came off way more accusatory than he intended, and the last thing he wants is to antagonize the police the very first time he interacts with them.

“Well obviously, now we’re fairly certain it wasn’t a lawyer,” the cop snaps back, his body language shutting down. Fuck. Way to shit all over that one with your incompetence at social interaction, Hemogoblin. Note to self – grow some fucking tact glands, starting yesterday. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave; this is being classified as an on-going potential terrorist attack at the moment, and I doubt you or Heir want to be around when the feds show up. Legislacerators could be involved.” He raises a meaningful eyebrow.

Great. Exactly what Hemogoblin had expected, but not wanted, to hear. He hides an outright grimace behind a flirtatious smirk. It’s one of his many layers of disguise that he uses to separate Karkat from Hemogoblin; whenever Karkat would want to throw a fit and run his mouth for days on end decrying the incompetence of the Seattle police department, Hemogoblin just simpers and flirts. “Thanks for the heads up,” he says, winking, and then he slides back into the shadows of the alleyway. There. Mission accomplished.

He is torn, though. When he scales the building and searches the skies, he finds nothing. There isn’t a lot of cloud cover tonight, aside from the burgeoning cloud of smoke rising from the police station, and thus nothing really obscuring his now-impeccable night vision. Over the past few weeks he has definitely seen Heir in flight a few times, so he can see that slate blue uniform against the night sky.

But now there’s nothing. Nothing at all.

Hemogoblin’s stomach turns over.

The Midnight Crew has already lured Heir into a trap once. What are the odds they could do it again, lead him somewhere far from the police station so he couldn’t interfere with Hearts’s escape? Last time they had grenades and semi-automatics, and there’s no doubt in Hemogoblin’s mind after that harrowing night that the Crew intended to kill or at least maim Heir to get him off their backs. He wants to believe that Heir could have handled the situation even if Hemogoblin hadn’t arrived when he did, but…he’s not so blinded by hero worship and a (tiny, absolutely miniscule) flushcrush that he couldn’t see that Heir was in serious trouble.

If Heir got here via the sky, as he always does, then if the Crew wanted to lead him somewhere, they –

Would leave the note where Heir’d see it from above. Wanting to slap himself for taking this long to work through some grub-level logic, the exact same process he went through two nights ago (way to go, Karkat, you’re truly measuring up to your usual minute level of intelligence on this fine night, crack job dunking yourself in sopor before heading out to fight crime), Hemogoblin crosses the rooftops in a wide circle around the mess of people and vehicles packed in around the station and ascends the building next to the police station, using blood hooks to get a better grip on the vertical surface. Once he reaches the top he switches to the police building, landing gracefully in a crouch when he swings himself up over the edge.

It’s a similar set up to the other roof two nights ago, a mirror set up this time to reflect the beam of a flashlight up into the sky. The mirror rests at an angle against the side of the covered stairwell that leads down into the police station, and there is a slip of paper tucked underneath the mirror. Checking the surrounding buildings for any watchers or traps, Hemogoblin darts over to the mirror and carefully lifts it up, removing the paper and unfolding it.

‘Sorry, kid,’ the note reads. ‘Got orders not to kill yah anymore, but here’s a little something to remember us by. Special delivery, to pay yah back for getting me arrested twice. It’s only a little personal. Give my regards to that sneaky troll son of a bitch.’

It’s not signed. Hemogoblin frowns. There’s nothing here that he can see that would have lead Heir away from the police station to another amush. Fuck, it doesn’t even look as though anyone’s touched this note but Hemogoblin. Has Heir even been up here? Is he even patrolling tonight? Heir has such stellar record for patrolling nightly that it’s a thought that hadn’t even occurred to Hemogoblin until this moment – maybe Heir just isn’t working tonight. Maybe that grenade messed him up more than Hemogoblin noticed, which is a scary fucking thought.

And what does Hearts mean by a special -

Oh.

Oh, fuck.

The flashlight beeps, and the light shining at the mirror shuts off, and fuck, Hemogoblin is crouching barely a foot from it -

And the device explodes.

---

Through the lens of the grimdark, everything is clear. Now that the essence of light has been drained from the world, she is no longer blinded by the sun's harsh, deceiving glare.

Everything is dark and she can see the truth now. The channel between her mind and the swirling depths of eternity flows freely, the upwelling of bloodbrine and silt and ink flooding her body unhindered by such pathetic things as mental shields and a sober mind.

(wake up wake up wake up wake up)

There is nothing of the light here. She rides over the world wrapped in darkness, with thorny tentacles of power arcing up into the sky above and trailing in black whorls over the forest beneath her. The tentacles above reach out and gather in clouds, blotting out even the light of the stars until nothing can shine through.

When she glances beneath her feet, surveying the too-dry, cluttered earth beneath her, she waves a smoldering hand and her dark aura drips down in smears of grimdark. Her thorns tangle down amidst the trees and stab into the base earth, and she begins to rend and tear. Darkness envelops the forest and sinks through the bark of trees to the soft rings within, poisoning them from the inside out. Everywhere she reaches out, death snuffs out fleeting bursts of life, animals that flee before the onset of the blight. Of course, everyone is welcome to become a tanglebuddy in death, and she soaks up their minds as their feeble land bodies perish. They stop screaming once they understand that they will NEVER BE LONELY AGAIN.

Much better.

But honestly, everything the light has ever touched will have to go. All of these blighted, blasted creatures that thrive on such petty things as sunlight and clear air have no place in the salt sea of the Darkest Depths. Yes, when the Gate is open, they will have to cleanse this world and wash it clean with grimdark void and colddamp sea.

And then there will be nothing but the absolution of the void, the damp embrace of the tanglehorde, and everything will be at one with the most Noble Circle of Horrorterrors.

(please you have to stop this you can't let them do this wake up!)

There is, of course, that niggling voice that whispers up through the blood-dimmed tide, the strained, hoarse cry of a golden, bright mind. But it is swept aside in a rolling wave of dark water, and is gone once more. It stubbornly refuses to join the hivemind, Terrors only know why, but she will deal with it properly later.

Alas, that she must keep moving. She cannot loiter here and finish this work, not when there is still a Gate to open. Her gaze blank and pitiless as she looks down on the dark wastes beneath her, she continues to make her way south.

-

Rose wakes up over Albany.

She has been swallowed up by the sea for several hours now, and when she heaves herself up onto a dry refuge in her mind, she regains control of her eyes just in time to see that the forest has given way to city streets and buildings. The skyline is unfamiliar enough that it takes her a moment to identify it.

Albany is not the first town she has crossed while the Horrorterrors direct her toward New York City. It is simply the first Rose will be awake and aware of while the callous thing manipulating her body destroys it. While trying to make sense of the scattered memories that have survived being filtered through the grimdark, she can see what the Horrorterror working through her has wrought on the forests and small towns between the Lalonde manse and here, and she wants to vomit.

She is not the one in control, though, and the fragment of Terror that is in charge is in no way disgusted by the memories of destruction Rose sifts through. But suffice to say, if she were more than a simple mental construct isolated within the possessed depths of her own brain, Rose would be vomiting right now. From what she recalls, there is now an entire swath of dead earth through the middle of New York, and it is almost entirely her fault.

The thing controlling her body raises a hand gone grey with grimdark, and a thorny spell grows out of her palm. The rush of filmy, slick cold through her veins sickens her, and she has to retreat from the thin layer of salt left behind by the swelling power. But she can see what is about to happen; the spell is dark and crackling with unnatural power, but she can identify the basic magical structure, and extrapolate what this abomination means to unleash on Albany.

It will be awful. It will be cruel. It will be bloody.

What she does next is foolish, and reckless, and stupid. But Rose can't let this happen. She has to stop this. She can't let these people die.

She flings her mind at the tangle of raw power just before it can fire, wrenching at the smooth, moist flank of a massive intellect that is foreign and distorted, absolute and all-consuming, trying to divert the blast before it can happen. If she can just redirect it, just a little, take out a wall instead of a human, blow up a road instead of an apartment complex -

Her mental hands slide off the impenetrable, writhing tangle, and something slams into her side with the force of a geyser. Rose's mind cracks under the impact. Shards of herself break off and trail down into the dark sea below, and she barely stabilizes herself before she dissolves completely. When she finally connects to her vision again, she looks out through her own eyes just long enough to watch the spell drop to the ground below and explode in a brilliant burst of white fire and black thorns.

It's not Albany's fault, really. It was just in the way.

Thankfully, the tangle in her mind seems uninterested in more than that short display of its power. Even as screams and alarms begin to break the night sky, smoke rising from the wreckage below and feeding into the dark aura smoldering around Rose's body, she begins to float forward again, the black tentacles of power returning to wrap around her.

"S͛Eͩͭ͐E͐̍ ̏͊ͫR͑O͑ͦS̏Ě͗͌?̅ͯ̿ A͒͐͋̊ͪN͌̑Dͩ̾͆ͥ ͤŇ͛͑Ȏ̾ͮ̓̆̽W ̓̐TȞ̓̂̐̇̌E͌ͦ̂̓Yͩ̃͋ͩ͗ ͪK̄̑ͩ͗̈͊̐N͗̏͋̐O͌Ŵ̆ W̆ͮ̾̽̚E͂̂̂̍ ͥA̾͛ͪ̾ͤͣ̇Rͦͯ̊͗͛͌̈E ̓ͦͭ̆ͮ̈HE͌ͭ̾͆̆R̆̒̆̈͌̂Eͭ̌̇ͦͪͤ.͗̈͆̓ͯ̅ͯ"

The words drum straight into her mind, and Rose screams, clawing at ears that aren't there as the voice of the Void echoes through her skull, acidic and knife-edged and ecstatic as it smiles at the destruction below. Even in meditation, even when she had to deal with the Horrorterrors directly and bargain for them to respect the seals she placed on her mind, she has never heard them like this.

It sounds like her voice. It sounds like her and she can't she can't she can't -

-

Everything is sticky and wet, and when Rose licks her lips, she tastes blood and brine.

For the past few hours she has not been conscious within her own mind, and she knows with cutting certainty that the only reason she woke up this time is because the writhing, inky sea below has deliberately spared her. The tangle in her mind could have finished dissolving her from existence whenever it felt so inclined; but it seems to take some measure of amusement out of her horror whenever a new atrocity is committed by Rose's hands.

Black, thorny vines wrap around her hands, spikes digging into the flesh of her palms, and drag her forward out of the surf, and she no longer has the mental fortitude to fend them off. When the tangle brings the visual centers of her brain back online, she can see New York City through them. From this angle, they are no doubt on top of the Flatiron. The city looks rather unnervingly untouched.

"T̔͐̚H̓̓ͯ̎̔I͆̐̐ͬS̏̎̔ ͊ͯI͆ͣ̑S̑̄̈̓ ͂TH͂̾ͪ̊ͮ̅̚Èͪ͌ͯ ͯ͑̓̊̇ͯ Cͬ̊ͯ̌͆͛IT̈́̔Yͨ"

Rose's mental avatar of herself is already smeared with blood and salt-water, worn thin by the endless tide. At the sound of that horrifying voice, more blood begins to trickle from her ears and nose, and a little more of her sanity trickles away with it. But the tangle keeps her from slipping back into unconsciousness, forcing her to endure the grating whine of the Void without relief.

Raising a hand, the tangle floats over the city until they reach Times Square. "How cliché of you," Rose mutters, but the words come out a slurred mumble, and she has to spit a clot of blood out of her mouth afterward.

"ͩ̄̊ͥ̋̍T͊̄Ĥ̐Eͩ̓ͧͦ͒̒̂Sͬ̑̔E̔ ͂̌̂͂AR͗̑̐ͣ͐̒ͯĖ̆̓ TͧH̔̋Ė P̋̔̔̏̍͌ͭEͫ̔ͯ͑O͗̍ͮͯ͌P̽̌͌ͤ̅L̏E͆̓̆ ̅Yͫ̀OȔ P̍ͮͯ͋̅Ȓͣ͛O̎̽Tͩͦ͌̂̍͋̚È̐ͥͫC̈́͗ͯ̄͂T̒ͣͪ" the tangle continues, spreading her hands to encompass the crowds below. It is full morning, by now, but Rose has no hope that the tangle will be driven back into the Abyss by the rising sun. It is clear by now that the voices of the Eldest Gods have only abated during the day because that was when there was the most light for Rose's other powers to feed upon. The moment she spent a day in the darkness of her house, drunk and hungover in equal measure, her mind became an open channel for them, and she no longer has the strength to reach out to the sun and drive them back.

The Seer of Light is effectively dead.

The tangle descends. Rose's body glides down to the street below, her grimdark appearance and the crackle of dark tentacles reaching up into the sky sending people scurrying for cover. "THͯͣ́͛ͩEͫ̍̋ͦ͂ͣ̚Y̊ ͌̎ͭDOͥͯ͛ͪ ͐NͦO͒̎͌̅̚̚T̓̈ͧ͛ Ĕ͂̽͂̽V̈́͐̌EͭN̄ ̒̑͛ͭ̏RÈC͋ͨ͒ͨ̊̿O̔̽ͣ̇ͨ̊GNͨ͌ͤI͆ͮZE͊ ͯY͋O͆ͥͤ̍͆U̓̄ͫͨ͛̌ N̆͆O̎ͬ̆Ẅ͐͆ͭͩ" the Horrors comment, smiling with sharp teeth and white fire at the crowd as vehicles veer and swerve to avoid its lashing aura.

Get out, Rose begs them silently, seeing more than a few foolish souls take up their smart phones and begin filming from behind food vendors and around corners. They don't understand; walls won't keep them safe from the monstrosities this tangle will unleash. Run!

"͋TḦ́͌ͣ̑̊ͮ̅E̿̑͒ͤ͑͒͆Yͧ̔ͬͪͬ͐ ̿ͪ̄̆ͪH̒͑A̋̅̒͆̚T̅̐̅̑̌̈́E͊ͧ.ͥ̐̈ ̍̔ͥ̊̌̔THÈ͆Y Fͧ̂͋͛̐̈̑E̐͒̔Â̅ͤ͑Ř͌.̄ͥ͗͑ ̈́ͭ̾̾͛T̍HE̿͊ͫ̆ͣ̊ͣY͆̿ ̌ ͦ̓S̔ͦ̋̓̐͛Uͬ̾̄F̒͂̚Fͥ̎͊̾Ȅ͗͆̃ͤ̅R̒.͋" The tangle cocks her head to the side, and raises a hand. "T̐̒ͯ̋ͧ̎Hͣ̓͐ͦ́ͯEͧͭ͌Y͊̆̌ͩ͊ ͦ̔ͫͯ͆̈́̚Aͦ͐̓͊̋̇̋R̈́̆̇E ͪẄ́̆̆̂ĒͩA̎ͬͥK. ̊P͋Eͦ̇͗T͌̾ͣ̌̑̄T͊̅ͬͪ̿̈Yͥ͊̒ ͨͦͧ̇͒ͯS͐ͩ͋ͦ͐HͣŎR̔̊Tͧ ͦLI̍͗͐T̿ͩͬ̈̂ͧT̎̽͆L̄̒ͧE ̓Q̾͊̽ͤͬ̏ͭU̇͗̃ͫ̇Ȋ͆ͮCͤͭKͧ̾̎ͥ͆-̓̏L͒̐̆̿̍I̎ͪͩ̑V̌͒͛͛Eͯ͑̋ͨͣ̂Sͤͬ.͛̚ ̿T͆̇H͐͂̈EYͭ ͨ̉͒̊̈͌ͧAͯ͛ͮ̂͂ͫR̂Eͧ ̋̈́ͥ̐N͛̓ͬ͌ͣOTͭͣͩͩHͨͫͬ͗̿IN̊ͥ͗͐G̑ͨ̈ ͧ̑̑ͮ͛ͯ̿T̑̉ͫ̒O̓ ͊̄THͭͯͧ̿͛E ͤ͆̍̓ͯ͐͆T̆ͯ̒̆̍ẢͧͩNͣG̊L͆Eͯ̒ͧͤ͑HO̍ͣ͊R͊D̑͊͐Eͩͭ"

They are important to me, Rose thinks, but the tangle already knows this. In fact, Rose realizes, that is the reason they came here at all. Hadn't it said itself, 'these are the people you protect?'

Why use a few random, doomed souls in Albany to open a gate to the Furthest Ring when the Horrorterrors could wring so much more grief and despair from their host by using her city. By undoing all the work the Seer ever did?

The tangle cackles, and charges up its first spell. " ̋̑̊̅ͧͪ̆YES. TͯHͬ͋ͮEIͩ̅̓̓̐R ͭͣ̾̏͗D̿ͬ͆ͤ̓͂EͪA̋T̒ͮH͊͌S̄ ̅ͬ̒̏S̓ͨͨ̒ͩH͌̒ͫ̾ȦͩͤL̐̔̅ͩ̽̑Lͥ̊ ̅͋̎BR̂I̊Nͤ̂ͪGͥ͊̆͛ͥ̄̓ ̎ͦ̒̄̔̓͑U͗Sͩͨ̋ ̈́ͫ̽͗ͫ͑THͪͦ͊̉͒͐̒R̋̌O̅̾͌̋͐ͤͦŨ͛̑͊ͦ̄͊G̐͐ͫ̉ͭ̋Hͧͮ͊́ T̽̑̔H̃ͫͥ̓E G̿̃ͤ̈Aͪ͌ͥT͋̓̌̌̽È̔."

I won't let you do this. I won't let you get away with this. I will find you and I will kill you and I burn you for this -

The tangle clucks, and lets fly the spell in its hand. Black thorns like lightning erupt from the ground beneath a cluster of curious on-lookers, and they are impaled instantly.

Rose screams.

"ͪ̈̂̄Rͥͤ̂ͩEM͑͗̄̄ͫEͬM̒ͦBE̐̆ͧͪ̍Rͮ͛ R̄Oͮ̐S̆͗͆ͬ͛͐E͑̇͑ͭ.̿̏ͩ ̅ͤͮ̚̚̚REͨ̔̏ͬ̅̃̐M̑̂̂͐̌EͤM̿̚B͆EͪR̓͛̇̏̍ͩ" the Horrorterrors chide. " ͆̔̆Tͧ̂̄ͬͨ̑̆H̾̌̾E̒̿̍Yͪ̾͐̐ ̾̏̅Aͭ̓̑̓REͫ̌̐͛̿̊ͯ ͬͥ͗͒ͧ͂ĀL̈́̈́ͮ̒̎L̋͂̚ L̿̔Ì͊̐̊̽͗KEͭ̓ ̑͑̇͊̈Ÿ̍̑̋Ǒ̐ͤͮ̈́̿Ŭ͌͗͒̚Rͧͯ̂̑̏̿̔ ̔̍͆MO̐̓̿̍͒̆̂T̎̒Hͯ͐̏̑̊̓̚Ë́̇͐ͭRͨ̋̏̈́. ͒̿̒͆N̎̆̒̈́ͥ̓ŎNE̊͒͋ͮ͋̋ ͩ̌̿ͥ͛ͦ͒OͪͦF̎ͪ͗̈͛ ̑̔TH̓̑Eͬ̏ͯM̓ ̓̇̍̚L̋̆ͪ͗Oͭͪ̈O̅ͪK͐ͪ̆͛̒̊ͩE̒̔̊̒ͨ̄D̈́̄ͫ̌̎ F̄͑ͭͮͫͮOR Yͮ̇O̒̆̍ͨ̈͊U̇ͤ. ̋̐ͬͣ͐ͯͭN̐ͮ̒Ō̓̎̾N͐ͫ̐̂̂Eͥ̒ͯ̌ͦ ̌ͥO͌F͆͛͛ͭ͛ ͮT̋ͪͫ͆̅̓H͌͑ͫ̚Eͭͮͣ̑̓ͭḾͯͯ̿͆ͯ̂ ͆̈́̒C͑̏̅Ǟ̽RED̆̇̒.͒͌̆ͣ ̊̌̇ͨ͌ͪ̚"

The kind of enraged logic that had been so convincing in the despair caused by her mother's pathetic note is quite obviously paper thin by now. But even the merest mention of her mother of that bitch is enough to trigger a flood of anger in Rose, and she feels the colddamp sink a little further into her bones, until she is miserable with it.

No one deserves this no one not even my mother please stop I will do anything please please stop anything at all but this stop STOP STOP!

And somehow, miraculously, the tangle pauses. Rose's breath catches in her throat as a sob. People are still screaming and fleeing before her, but the Horrorterrors are too absorbed in turning their sanity-shattering attention upon her to give chase.

"REͭAͦ̄̉͋̾L͊ͯ̊͌ͨL̿Y̿̄,ͨͧͩ ͫ͒ RͯÖ͊̂S̒̽E͂ͤͦͮ̔̋?ͩͩͬͨ̚ AͮͫNͥẎ̑T̅̇̒̎̆̋Hͬ̄ͩ̓͌IͭNͨ̐G̋̾.ͧ͑͐ ȦͮT ͥ͊Aͭͧ͒̇ͬL̿͑ͣ̆ͩ̑L̿̍?ͨ"

This is a trap. This is a trap, and everything left of Rose, of Seer, knows it. But does she have any other choice? She cannot wrest back control, but she can take any opportunity to convince the tangle to stop using her body as an instrument of genocide. Yes, she thinks, and some last part of her mind cracks. Yes. Anything. Anything at all.

I will bring you through the Gate myself.

One by one, the tentacles supporting Rose above the grimdark sea detach from her wrists, and then she is falling, falling, falling -

"T̓ͨͪHͦͫͪ̽̋̃ͥE ͤͫ̊̐ͥ̾C̾ͥ͌͌Òͯ̅ͯ̓ͯ͐N̑̽́̋ͣ͑T̿͛ͭͪ͐R͛͒͂̅̐AC͊ͦͪ̍͗̀T́̒ ̉ͪ̿Iͦͦ̓ͬ̄̍͌S̎͐ͧ̐ ̈͊̃̆Sͬ̎̿ͨ̇E̽AL̆̏E̓̐D.͌̍̂̈ ̇͆ͭ̉͛ͪ

And Rose drowns once again.

Everything beneath the surf is cold and dark and bloody, and there is no light after.

-

She considers, for a moment, simply ripping the puny creatures before her to shreds. No, their deaths are no longer a necessary component of the Gate, but it would have been amusing to hear the last of Seer choke on her screams.

But alas, a contract is a contract. And the work of the Gate will still take hours, even if she doesn't waste time smiting every fleshling she comes across.

Shrugging, she stretches her arms over her head, the reinforced bones of this borrowed body creaking and cracking and breaking before settling back into place. She flaps a careless hand at the humans that still remain. "͗̌̅̎̋ͤB͛̋ͩ̽ͮ͆E̋̽͂ͥ̌̈G͗Oͨͨͭͬ͌̈Ń̾ͧͤEͨ̔ͩͪ̈,͌̔ͤ͌ ̂͗͑ͭW͊̌̓̐ͧ͐̽Ô͐RM̾̈́S."

They mewl and shriek and babble in their flat, lonely voices, but they obey, scrambling this way and that with no order, no finesse, trampling each other in their haste to escape their doom.

There. That should do it. Having fulfilled her obligation to get them out of the way and uphold the accord not to kill them all immediately, she begins charging the first of the sigil-carving spells between her palms, tracing with her eyes exactly where in the road she will carve the first curve of the Gate.

She hums to Seer, as cheerful as an eldritch abomination can be, the goodwill of the Tanglebuddies returned now that the host serves the horde willingly, rather than trying to block them at every turn. "̐ͤÒH͆,ͩ̋͊͐ ̅͌ͤ͑Rͫ͛̽O͆̏Sͬ͗̄Ȅ̿͆ͣ.̑̓̄ͣ̽ ͋̇N̏̿O̚Ẅ́ͥͥ̅ͨ̓͋ ̓̊ͩẎ̓ͫ̒O̚Uͭ ̌AR̓̓̽ͤ͂ͩE͆ͦ̆̈̽̚ W̌Iͨ̒͐͑̓ͧL̐̐͊L̔͋̈̋͌ͯ͑IN̓̄ͭͯ̔G͐̅ͣ.̾̊ ̾͆NOͦͧͬ̾̉W͂̊̋̏̑̇ ͒̆̌͂W͆̊͐̿̔͒Ȇ̓̍ͬ ͑Hͦͥͬ̎AVͦͦ͛̅̎E ͐A͌̅̾ͨͩ̌ͪÑ ̽A̔CC̐̌͂͛̚Oͥͪͮ͗̋ͦͧRͮD.ͨ̄̊͊̈́ ̎N̋ͯ̚Õ͒̓͌ ̐̔̌ͤ͛NE̐Èͤͥ̂̒D͑͐ͭ̎ ͂͛̋TO͂ ͂ͮ̽͐͛͊D̆͂ͬͣ̓Ŕ̌A͛W͛̌̇ ̔̒Tͧ͊̋Ȟ̂ͮ͒I̅̇̆͐ͯS̋̌͌̑̏͋ͭ ̾Oͦ͊͆̐̀͆͗Uͣ͗ͥT͑.̌͌ ͋̍"

She raises the spell between her hands, and she grins maliciously.

"̎LET ͣͪ̍I̎ͫ̐ͯ͗T͑͐ͣ̅ͦ B͒͊̊ͯ͂̏ͥE͆̓̈́̅̌̏G̽I͛͋ͭNͤͧͭ"" she croons, and beams of power lance out, clawing up the street to burn the first curve of the Gate into the earth.

Clouds continue to gather over New York City, blotting out the rising sun.

---

Dave is stupid angry. Just. Stupid angry. The only reason he hasn’t flashstepped to his Bro’s room to initiate a beatdown is because Heir is throwing down with equal intensity, stubbornly rebutting Bro every time he tries to pull this weird bullshit. Mad props to the windy dude; he may so goofily sincere it's almost sad, but he doesn't take shit from anyone.

And then suddenly, out of nowhere, everything goes to fucking hell in a lacy little basket full of freshly picked what-the-fuck posies.


EB: OKAY THAT IS IT YOU PESTILENT NOOKSTAIN CONGRATULATIONS YOU ARE OFFICIALLY THE MOST RAGE-INDUCING BULGELICKING ASSHAT THE UNIVERSE HAS EVER HAD THE DISPLEASURE OF SECRETING INTO EXISTENCE
EB: LOOK AT THIS I AM REDUCED TO USING HIS FUCKING CAPS LOCK QUIRK THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE
EB: I SWEAR TO ANY GOD LISTENING I AM GOING TO
TG: whoa what
TT: shit
TG: john you know caps lock?
TG: were those weird troll swear words because i got maybe half of that
TG: john?
EB: WKSHRISEHSKW
TG: oh my fuck what was that
TG: did you just keyboard smash in rage
TG: I swear to gog bro if you broke my fucking friend i will end you
TT: shit
TG: im not fucking around
TT: shit
TG: why do you keep saying that
TG: i don’t think it means what you think it means
TT: shit

A crash rings out through the apartment, coming not from the direction of Bro’s room, but from the kitchen. An unfamiliar voice yelps in pain as the kitchen’s pile of shitty swords collapses in a clatter of metal on linoleum.

Dave has his sword in hand and is in the kitchen the next moment, sword at the ready. Bro is already there of course, his face unreadable behind his shades as he observes the fuckass kneeling in the pile of piece of shit swords. Lil Cal is lounging lazily on his shoulder though, which means Bro is deadly serious.

“Ow,” the rando says, extricating himself from the sword pile with a wince. Dave can see the guy took a hard fall and landed pretty much in the worst way possible. One of the swords cut a long, deep slice up the guy’s inner arm, which is already in a sling, and he’s spewing blood everywhere. “Oh, fuck,” the guy says, gingerly dabbing at his arm.

“Yeah. Fuck,” Bro says, tucking his thumbs into his pockets. The more nonchalant he appears, the more of a threat he is. But there's no way this intruder will know that.

The guy whirls around, eyes wild. Dave’s stomach jolts with a sudden burst of recognition but – fuck, there’s no fucking way –

“Where the heck am I? What is this jackassery?!” the guy demands, tucking his injured arm up against his blue t-shirt. Blood starts staining it immediately, and the sling itself isn't looking so hot either, considering it's been slit up the side. His eyes track over both Dave and Bro, frowning and defensive. They're both wearing their sunglasses, so he wouldn't know them for Flashstep or Puppeteer. “Who are you?”

“Right questions. One problem. You should be the one answering them.” Bro shifts a hand slightly and Lil Cal’s eyes gleam. “Care to explain just how the fuck did you get in our apartment, little man?”

Your apartment,” the guy says, shaking his head slowly. And yeah, those fake brown eyes are kind of hard to forget, the rings where the contact lenses don’t quite cover a brilliant blue. “What are you talking about, I was just sitting in my room -”

“John,” Dave manages at last. “John.

The guy freezes. He meets Dave's gaze through his shades, eyes widening. Then, slowly, his frown transforms into a look of pure terror. “No,” he whispers, his face turning a sickly shade of maroon. “No, fuck no, fucking fuck -

Dave drops the sword and steps forward, just as John – aka Heir of fucking Breath – takes a step back and nearly steps on the shitty sword pile again. A weird breeze stirs up, and it takes too long for Dave to realize it’s Heir about to flip his shit. He hides his face in his good hand, his eyes turning an ominously luminescent blue as he stares out from behind splayed fingers. “This isn’t possible,” John stammers. “Dave? You live in Houston!”

Dave just nods, spreading his hands wide to try to look nonthreatening. He just - needs to keep it cool. Yeah. Random heroes from halfway across the country pop up in his kitchen all the damn time. It's getting pretty old, actually. He wants a refund.

Yeah, he's not kidding anyone, not even himself. This is fifty shades of fucked up, right here.

“Bro, put the creeptastic puppet away,” he hisses at his brother. Bro gives him a considering look, one eyebrow very firmly raised as he ignores the order. Yeah, Dave probably has some explaining to do. Which can, you know, wait until after Heir stops bleeding out all over their goddamn kitchen floor. “John, hey. Yeah, this is Houston,” Dave says, taking a step closer.

John has his back up against the fridge, and can only straighten up when Dave comes closer, still trying to conceal his face with his hand. It makes sense; the one time Dave had met Heir, he’d had pretty thick goggles and a face mask on. Secrecy is pretty important to the kid; half of the rules that guide their chat sessions were laid down by John. Even in the middle of one pretty fucked up mental break, Heir had been a stickler for protocol. Being caught without something covering his face must be just eating at him.

Well. There’s a solution for that. Dave takes his shades off and holds them out, squinting his eyes against the kitchen light. Even as he does so Bro is at the light switch, dimming the lights to a level more comfortable for someone just this side of albino. “Here, cover your eyes man,” Dave says, deliberately looking down at a corner of the countertop rather than John’s face. It’s too late and everyone here knows it; they got a nice eyeful of John’s face the moment he looked up from the swords. But this way, everyone except Bro will be almost halfway to hero mode, and maybe that will make John calm the fuck down and stop flinging wind around willy nilly.

John reaches out and takes the sunglasses, putting them carefully on his face. They sit weird on him; they’re a style suited to the impassive face of a Strider, and they look too big and clumsy on John. But they do the job, and John’s shoulders visibly slump with relief, the warning breeze dying off into a soft susurrus. “Thanks,” he says, with that same note of sincerity that Dave still remembers all these years later. Jeez, the kid hasn’t changed at all, has he? Just got a bit taller, filled out some, lost that hollow look in his face that stemmed from some serious depression.

Little things, really, not that big of a deal.

“No problem, man.” But of course, there’s still the question of - “Seriously, how the hell are you here? Last time I checked you were chatting with us from a computer in Seattle. How’re you suddenly in Texas?”

John shakes his head slowly, hugging the injured arm to his chest. There’s actually a worrying amount of blood spreading across the front of his shirt, now. “I have absolutely no idea,” he admits. “I mean – I was just chatting with you guys and then - I don’t know, I just suddenly landed face first in a bunch of sharp objects. Why do you guys have this stuff lying around on the floor, anyway?”

“You didn’t come here on purpose?” Bro says, his tone too noncommittal to sound like a demand. Lil Cal is still on his shoulder, even when Dave scowls at him. Then he remembers he’s not wearing his sunglasses, and he won’t get away with showing such obvious expressions. He smooths his face out again into stoicism.

“How could I?” John’s hand fists in his hair. The shades don’t work for him; Dave can still see the panicky confusion contorting his face. “This is – not possible. Even when I’m at top speed, I can only go as fast as the wind. I think the most I’ve ever clocked in at was maybe 250 miles an hour? And that was in a dive, almost free-fall. To get from Seattle to Houston – wait, what time is it -”

“You stopped responding five minutes ago,” Bro says, his shades glinting. “And we’ve been talking for three of them.”

John shakes his head. “That can’t be. That kind of distance – it would have taken me hours, if I flew nonstop. Days, if I needed to stop to rest, which I would have.”

“And yet, here you are,” Bro murmurs. “Go check out the window if you don’t believe us.”

John’s head swivels toward the open window in Dave’s room, visible through the open door, and he stiffens. “That’s not my skyline,” he whispers. “And – fuck, I can feel the humidity. Okay. I’m in Houston.” He laughs, and it sounds hysterical before he muffles it. “This is just. Wow. What a fucking mess.” His shoulders shake with suppressed laughter, and he winces visibly, pulling his arm away from where it lies sticky with blood against his shirt.

“Alright, yeah, we need to deal with that,” Dave says, taking another step closer. “Give me your arm.”

John stiffens, then holds his arm out, as though begrudging the motion. But his arm is shaking when Dave takes it by the wrist to examine the cut. It really does run pretty fucking deep, and it’s gonna need stitches, in addition to a metric fuckton of antiseptic. Dave knows his sword wounds, and this is at least moderately concerning.

“Here, we have some Neosporin and shit in the bathroom,” Dave mutters, keeping his eyes fixed on the line of red running down John’s forearm. If he looks up now John will get a good look at Dave’s eyes. Without his shades, in a situation that kind of fucks the boundary between work and personal life, Dave feels more vulnerable than ever with his bright red eyes bare. “It’s gonna need stitches though.”

“I heal fast,” John says, with the practiced tone of something he’s clearly memorized in the past.

“You’re not gonna heal if you pass out from blood loss and get fucking infected,” Dave says, raising an eyebrow. Eyebrow raises are still on the table.

“…Point,” John says, nodding. “Can I -”

Bro holds the first aid bucket in his hand when Dave looks up. Supposedly the bucket started out a mere first aid kit, and had been upgraded to full on bucket status as the intensity of Bro and Dave’s training increased over the years to accommodate the amount of shit they needed to keep from losing fingers. “Rinse it off in the sink,” Bro says, setting it on the counter by the kitchen sink, and then he vanishes again. Who even knows where to. Dave's lived with the guy his entire life, and he still has no fucking clue where all the hiding places are. Hide and seek as a kid had been all kinds of life-ruining.

Dave realizes he’s still got his hand on John’s arm when John steps over to the sink and turns the water on. One half of the sink is full of smuppets, and Dave’s face burns bright red for a moment before he stops time to pull a stray towel over them, mortified. John doesn’t seem to have noticed the puppet abominations, too busy extricating his arm from that sling and gingerly stretching out his arm to let water run into the cut, his jaw set against the pain. Dave hands him more towels to dry the arm, which is already starting to bead with blood again.

The silence is weird and strained as Dave helps smear antiseptic on the wound, with John biting back noises whenever the Neosporin has to touch the open gash itself. On Pesterchum words come easily; in reality, Dave is very aware of the collar around his throat (which he had only put on to go talk to Bro before he’d crashed their chatroom) and of the vague, ever-present buzz in his voice. It’s not like he’s fucking self-conscious, it’s just – it’s a thing, alright. And maybe John hadn’t noticed when they met that first time, but there's no need for Dave to go waving a pair of middle fingers at the guy and belting out an opera to show off how fake his voice is.

“Damn. It is going to need stitches,” John says, sounding mournful. He prods at the edge of the wound, and sighs. “I don’t even know how I’m going to explain this to my – guardian.” The pause when he probably means to use a more gender-specific word for a guardian is obvious. What a paranoid kid. Then again, Dave is hardly allowed to talk, right?

Then John's eyes widen behind the shades. “Shit,” John breathes, digging in his pockets with his uninjured hand, patting at them a few times uselessly when he fails to find whatever the hell he's looking for. “Shit! My phone is still in my backpack. Dammit, my lusus must be freaking out by now.”

Dave has to think about that one. “Dude, did you just use the troll word for parent? Exactly how much time have you been spending with your new troll buddy? Because that’s a little weird.”

“It’s gender-neutral,” John says, burying his face in his hand. “Fuuuuck. How do I even explain this? For that matter, how do I get back home?!”

“First you let Bro stitch up your arm.” When John shoots him a harassed glare, Dave shrugs. “Puppets, man. He’s fucking good at stitching and shit. And you can use a phone here, dumbass, we’re not gonna just stitch you up and shove you out the front door. For one thing, you’d probably try to keep my shades while you blasted off into the metaphorical sunset.”

John smiles. It’s shaky, but it’s there. Mission a-fucking-ccomplished. “Yeah. That makes sense.” He pauses. “Can I borrow a phone first?”

Dave’s phone background is one of his many ironic selfies. He maintains a perfectly straight face as he unlocks it and goes straight to the phone app before handing it over. “Knock yourself out, kid.”

Bro returns between one step and the next, a sewing kit tucked into his hand, and Dave exchanges a look with him.

Are we going to have a problem?

Not from John.

Bro grunts and starts setting up his needles while John is tapping in a phone number, slow and careful, as though worried he’ll forget the number halfway through and can’t afford to mess up. His arm is oozing blood still, and his shirt is smeared with both blood and Neosporin now. However he’s getting home, he’s probably gonna need to borrow a shirt before he goes out in front of people and gets an ambulance called on him. When Bro tilts his head at John’s arm, John isn’t paying enough attention to notice, intent on the phone ringing against his ear, so Dave nudges his arm onto the countertop, trying to play it off smoothly. John looks at him worriedly, before his face lights with comprehension and his whole body braces for the first stitch.

Someone answers on the other end of the phone line just as Bro starts stitching silently. Dave gives the kid props, he doesn't even need a bottle of vodka to keep from flinching at the pain. “D-d-lusus,” John catches himself. No, that was just…wow. Dave mouths ‘just say dad’ at the kid, and John flushes painfully. “Argh. Sorry Dad.”

Dave can hear the force of John’s dad’s response with ease; but then, he is standing all up in John’s personal space. He should probably move, but how else will he listen in?

“John. Where are you. This number has a Houston area code – is someone with you right now?”

“Yeah, someone’s with me, you could say that.” A stitch tugs at John’s skin and he twitches and bites back a yelp, one eye clearly twisted up in a weird half-grimace behind the shades. Wow, those shades are doing absolutely nothing at all on the concealment front. "Um. This is gonna sound pretty much impossible. Uh. I kind of, uh. I am in Houston.”

A long silence ensues. “John, stay where you are. I can trace this number to its location, I just need you to stay on the line. Are you injured?”

John blows out air through his nose. “Dad, I’m serious. I am in Houston. I have no idea how I got here, but apparently I managed it in just under a minute or so. I’m, uh. I’m with Flashstep and the Puppeteer.”

“John, I’m going to need a little more explanation than that,” the voice says flatly.

“When I landed – however I landed – I ended up kind of accidentally stabbing myself on this pile of shitty swords,” John goes on, kicking one leg absently. He yelps aloud and then claps his free hand belatedly over his mouth when a particularly deep stitch tugs at the edges of the sword wound. “So now I have to get stitches. But uh, other than that, I’m fine. Just reeeeally confused.”

“Password,” John’s guardian says at last. “I mean it John, if you’re in danger, I need the password.”

“I’m not giving you the password when I’m not in danger.” John rolls his eyes, proving that the shades have in fact begun to slide down the bridge of his nose and reveal his eyes anyway. No wonder the kid wears the goggles, nothing else stays attached to his face. “I’m just confused and kind of hungry and wondering how the heck I managed to cut a ten hour flight down to less than a minute without remembering anything about it. And also how I’m gonna get back.”

Another long silence occurs, during which Bro’s quick, neat stitch work ends and he ties off the knot with a nod before vanishing to hide his sewing kit again. Dave wordlessly hands John the Neosporin again, and the kid makes a face before starting to salve more onto the wound, head tilted to the side as he listens.

“You don’t have your wallet with you, or your phone. I have both here. Do you think you can return the same way you left?”

John hesitates, eyes flicking toward Dave, who just raises another pointed eyebrow. He doesn't even know what that look was about, but he's not going to let that ignorance show. Strider rule number one, never let them see you confused. A coolkid is always on top of his game, even when the game involves twelve different types of dice, people can teleport from one end of the map to the other, and the points don't matter. “I wouldn’t even have the first idea how to. I don’t even know if I did it, or if it was some kind of outside force. All I know is – uh, Flashstep and Puppeteer were just as surprised when I showed up as I was.”

“Preach it,” Dave says, slouching with his hands in his pockets.

“Have them set up a secure email.” John’s dad is suddenly all business, some of the urgency gone from his voice. He still sounds coldly furious, though, the barely restrained tension in his voice audible even to Dave. The guy sounded like a fucking douche – what, John didn’t even get a ‘glad you’re not dead or kidnapped’ spiel? “I don’t want you flying back to Washington out of uniform. I can see what flights run between Seattle and Houston and send you the ticket information.”

“Dad,” John begins to protest, pulling another hilarious face.

“No buts. Nothing is up for discussion until we get you home. Did you have plans with – your friend tomorrow?”

“Yeah. I’ll cancel th- no, I can’t. He’d notice the area code, too.”

“I’ll do my best to get you on a flight tonight. If we need to, you can send me your password and I’ll text him through your phone.” A pause, and the cold voice continues. “I’ll call you back in a few minutes. Please answer when I do.”

“I will.”

The phone clicks. John looks up, shoving the shades back up his nose when he realizes how far they’ve fallen. “I guess I’m flying the old fashioned way,” he says, a faint, forced smile on his face.

And –

Fuck.

Dave knows that weird, wistful smile, knows it too well for having only witnessed it one bizarre day nearly two years ago. Feels it like an ugly twist in his gut, a sickening lurch as though he’s misjudged the landing while crossing the rooftops. Hell, if he wouldn’t do anything to make that smile fuck right off, because it isn’t a smile at all. It's a question mark, like the kid doesn’t remember how to be happy.

So much for ‘i’m feeling much better now dave, you don’t need to worry so much i think i’m not so alone anymore.’ Load of bullshit. If he hadn’t overheard Asshole Dad mention a friend, Dave would be seriously doubting the existence of said friend at all. Apparently one good conversation with Dad of the Year and none of that mattered, because John looked just as lost and tired now as he had the day he punched a mugger in the face with a fistful of air and then turned to smile at Dave with a too-wide, rictus grin, more suited to a skeleton than a boy.

Dave does the same thing he did back then, when faced with that mockery of a smile. He takes the phone out of John’s hand and yanks him roughly into a hug, ignoring the kid’s flailing protests as he wraps his arms around his shoulders and holds on tight. “Shut up, John,” he says, clapping at a handful of John’s shirt, aware that he can feel the sticky damp of blood from the front of John’s shirt smearing onto his own. He could fucking care less at the moment. “Fuck your dad. You want to fly home yourself, then fucking fly home yourself. We can go all professional robber-chic and buy you a ski mask so no one can take your picture while you’re buzzing Nevada.”

“My dad would be pissed! And it would probably take me two days to get there, if I pushed it,” John protests, getting all squirmy. Dave just gets comfy, patting him on the back occasionally. That's the nice thing about having the ultimate poker face; shit like this doesn't even faze him. “Ka- my friend would definitely notice if I just mysteriously vanished or something over the weekend. I already made him really suspicious when I had to miss school on Thursday!”

“Yeah. But you still want to.”

John stills, and then, abruptly, Dave has an armful of heavy, quiet John. All the fight has gone out of him, and for a moment they’re both silent. “You know, I’m pretty sure that counts as shooshpapping,” John mutters, knocking his head on Dave’s shoulder. “Asshole. No one’s supposed to do that but my moirail. Which I have now. Fuck.”

Yeah, Dave has about zero context for any of this. Whaaat, so he's culturally insensitive - he has enough trouble maintaining all this Strider brand cool without worrying about weird trollmance quadrant shenanigans on top of that. “Contrary to whatever your troll buddy is telling you? Humans don’t follow troll quadrants,” Dave says, rolling his eyes. “Yeah, sometimes people get their hatemance on and everything, but seriously, I’m pretty sure serendipity is just some troll hormone thing. You’re a human. Guess what. If the shooshpapping works, it works. Whatever the hell shooshpapping is, anyway. Sounds like a troll made-up word, so that makes about as much sense as anything else about trolls.”

“Haha. I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works.” John shakes his head. “Why do you know me that well, anyway? How did you know I want to fly?”

“Aside from the fact that you practically gave me a play-by-play of your issues last time you were here? I’ve been talking to you for years now, dumbass. You always want to fly.” Dave lets go of the kid at last. You can only hug so much before it stops being either necessary or ironic and descends into the realm of the disgustingly sappy. “Seriously, this isn’t anything new. You were practically in tears last time because you wanted to zoom off during school hours and fly to your classes and take people for crazy tornado fun times instead of walking everywhere like the rest of us peons.”

John blushes so much his whole face looks stained the color of tea. “Shut up,” he says, picking at the stitches in his arm.

“We should wrap that up if you’re flying back,” Dave notes, turning to dig through the first aid bucket again.

“I haven’t said I’m flying back.” John makes a face, but it’s no longer plagued with the old, weary exhaustion; he looks alive again. Behold the power of Strider. “I still wish I knew what got me here. If it happened again mid-flight, who knows where I’d end up.”

“You don’t remember anything at all?” Dave yanks a roll of bandages out of the bucket and starts unrolling it. “Because it looked like you were pretty pissed off at Bro, and you got cut off before you could finish your assuredly epic-level death threat.”

John purses his lips as he glances at Bro’s closed bedroom door. Apparently, care and keeping of Heir has been left to Dave for the duration of his stay. Even Lil Cal has fucked off to parts unknown, which is vastly reassuring. The older Dave gets, the fucking creepier Bro's puppet of choice gets. He swears to any god listening that one day he will take that puppet and introduce it to the fucking blender.

“Yeah. Uh. Sorry about whole chat thing," John says, rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly. "I kind of did a flip off the metaphorical handle, didn’t I? I don't know why I got so angry.

“A full-on pirouette,” Dave agrees. “But to be fair, Bro was getting all weird and shit about this Midnight Crew thing.”

“That’s because they’re dangerous.”

Both he and John yell, because Bro’s voice doesn’t come from behind his bedroom door but from right the fuck behind them. The wind whips once before John settles down again, sending the bandages flying at the wall to bounce off the stovetop. The kid is fucking twitchy.

“Apology accepted by the way, kid,” Bro says, a tiny smirk in the corner of his mouth. “But hell. I’ll only say this one more time. You want my advice, you don’t go home. You call your guardian and tell him you’re moving somewhere else. Maybe Vancouver – Vancouver is still clear, and you’re still near your old turf. I wasn’t fucking kidding around; people die when the Crew gets pissed off. And after what just happened today? I think they’ll be very interested in you.”

John frowns and leans against the counter, crossing his free arm awkwardly over his chest while Dave commandeers his other arm to bandage it. “What the heck does that mean? Why would they be interested in me after today? I didn’t even fight them today. I’m probably going to miss patrol at this rate.” He sounds bitter, but Dave is too busy keeping steady pressure on the arm wound to clap him on the shoulder again.

Bro tilts his head to the side. “Because I just took a look at the kitchen cameras.”

Dave slaps his forehead. “You have the cameras on again?! I thought we said no more creepy puppet porn in the kitchen!” He should have known better after seeing the pile of smuppets once again taking up the kitchen sink, but he’d still held out hope for an alternative explanation.

“Ain’t porn, kid,” is all Bro says, which is a total lie. Dave knows. He's seen things, man. Terrible things. Things not meant to be witnessed by a sane man.

John rips his arm out of Dave’s grip, the bandage job only half finished, and he stares at Bro with wide-eyed horror, and, for the first time, genuine rage. “You have me on camera.”

“I have fucking all of us on camera at some point,” Bro says with a shrug. “And you’re going to want to see this, anyway. It’s pretty fucking enlightening.”

"No, just - no. This stops right now. You need to delete that, whatever you have on camera. This is not cool, okay?" John insists. His brown contact lenses seem to have fucking dissolved, because the blue is showing through and starting to look luminous again.

"Fine, I don't fucking need it," Bro says. "But you'll wanna watch it first. Come on, kiddies." With a wise-ass smirk he vanishes.

Dave catches John by the arm, and John gives him an irate glare, eyes all glowy and shit. "Come on. If he says he'll delete it, he will." This is a blatant lie, but Dave has a fucking spectacular poker face, as has been stated. Bro follows his own weird, puppet-freak whims, and only keeps his word about half the time. Usually when he doesn't, he only breaks his promises to some inscrutable end that ends up saving lives in an unfathomably badass fashion, so Dave's learned to let it just roll over him. Mostly. "Let's just get it over with. Then we can get you a new goddamn shirt or something, you look like fucking Carrie."

John grimaces, but his eyes power down as he tugs at the edge of his shirt and makes a face at the blood smeared down his front. "Oh, great. Yeah, I'd appreciate that. What a mess…"

And so peace is restored to the land. Dave is the Heir-whisperer. It is him. He walks without flashstepping toward Bro's unholy hellhole of a room, and John follows, the windy thing around him relatively calm but still present.

Bro's room is deceptively clean and free of puppets, and his bed, unlike Dave's is perfectly made, as though Bro is too cool for such lowly human functions as sleep. Dave knows this to be an ironic cover for the fact that his closet is fucking jam packed with creepy ass puppets and high quality swords. Instead, robot parts and gears litter the corners in piles, and a single battle puppet - not Lil Cal - lies out on the desk, its mechanical insides exposed. Bro is putting on a show of tinkering with the gears, but the four monitors on his desk are all tuned to one channel, a silent hint that he's more interested in the screens than the robots.

Dave and John crowd in behind Bro's chair, Dave keeping a good distance from the screen to hide just how very interested he is in getting a goddamn explanation for tonight. John just leans in, one hand clenched on top of the desk, oblivious to how close to a potentially deadly puppetkind specibus he's leaning. Seriously, Dave is gonna have to sweep his room for fucking sword traps and shit before he lets John anywhere near it; the kid just does not comprehend the many different ways this apartment is designed to fuck with the minds of the unwary.

Once they're both there, Bro absently reaches up and presses a button on his keyboard, and then pretends to go back to working on the puppet as the video starts.

On the tape, the kitchen is dark and cluttered with random shit (John is right, why do they have all this random-ass stuff everywhere?), the pile of smuppets in the sink silhouetted in the moonlight, which is creepy as fuck.

They watch about five minutes of the same scene before John gets antsy. True, Dave doesn't see the point of this either, but John shows his restlessness, shifting his weight from side to side, his frown deepening with each passing minute. How does this kid feel so damn much all the time? John opens his mouth, then snaps it shut, as though swallowing the urge to say something. It's bizarre, watching someone with so many tells in their face. And all that is just what Dave can see in the corner of his eyes, with most of his focus on the video feed.

Finally, something changes on screen. It doesn't really make sense, either. A whooshing feedback blasts through the speakers, loud enough to make even Dave wince, and then - John is on screen. He just magically appears out of the air two feet above the ground, one arm flying out to grab the edge of the kitchen counter. The other arm, trapped by the sling, ends up taking a sword to the forearm before John can yank it free, which is actually a pretty lucky coincidence - the angle of that sword could have fucked John's lungs up good.

Then Dave and Bro are in the kitchen, having flashstepped their way in, and Bro pauses the feed.

"What...the heck?" John says, looking nonplussed. "I just - showed up. I didn't even fly in through the window, or anything. Are you sure there isn't something wrong with the tape?"

"I have five cameras on that kitchen, kid. Same thing on all of them. No sign of tampering or distortion. Kudos, Heir, you've apparently mastered teleportation." Bro doesn't even bother with a slow clap; it's implied.

"I don't think you can call it 'mastered' if I have no idea how I did it," John says, still staring at the paused video feed. "Weeeird. So weeeird."

"Well, figure it the fuck out. Dave and I are still overdue for a nice long, heart to heart chat about how he knows you, and the only reason you're still in this apartment right now is because he's vouching for you. If you figure out how to do it again, feel fucking free."

"Vouching for - he didn't even say anything," John protests. Dave has to shake his head. Apparently a lot of the subtext has been going over John's head.

"Boy, sometimes you are as dumb as a sack of hammers," Bro says, shaking his head almost at the same moment Dave does, shrugging sarcastically. "Anyway, your guardian called."

John flinches, then looks confused, one hand going for the pocket where he'd put Dave's phone. "Wait, what? When?! I thought I had the ph-"

Bro holds up Dave's phone in his hand, and Dave bristles. John stops patting at his pockets, looking embarrassed. "He emailed over the flight number and shit," Bro says, smirking at both of them in his victory. "You head out at five in the morning. Crash on the couch or do fuck all in Dave's room, I don't care. I printed off the tickets for you."

He holds up a folded piece of paper in a gloved hand, a smug grin on his face as John snags the ticket. Then he lobs the cell phone at full speed toward Dave's head. Dave stops time and grabs it. "Nice selfies, btw, Dave," Bro finishes, swiveling in his chair to face the computer monitors and the puppet once more. "Classic irony. Truly vintage stuff, right there."

He has the tone in his voice that means Dave's slipped up in the great game of irony again. It's gone past vintage irony and straight into cringe-worthy. Fuck.

"Wait, that doesn't make any sense. What did you say - he would have asked for me if he called. There's no way he'd trust you guys with something like this. No offense," John says. He doesn't look apologetic, though; he's eyeing Bro warily, one hand still at his pocket where he'd kept the phone. He no doubt wonders how Bro got in and out of his guard so easily. John is smarter than your average non-Strider, but Dave could have told him there is no point in wondering - Bro's impossible speed and stealth remain a mystery even to Dave after all these years.

"None taken, kid. What can I say? I have my ways," Bro says, answering basically nothing at all. He pulls out a fucking welding torch and starts using it on the puppet without even putting on a safety mask over his shades. Sparks fly everywhere, and it's probably a side effect of Bro's eternal aura of cool that nothing catches fire.

"What does that mean? What did my dad say?!" John demands, taking a step forward.

Bro grunts. "Nothing much. Told me to mind my own fucking business, then had to go answer the door and deal with people. Probably afraid I'm gonna trample all over his precious single-parent territory. What can I say, I intimidate other parents with my fantastic guardianship skills. It's why they kicked Dave out of preschool - the other kids couldn't handle their jealousy over the fact that Dave got to come home with me everyday, kept trying to ditch their own parents to get some of this parental goodness."

John looks suspicious, but he folds up the ticket and stuffs it into his pocket after scanning it again. "Thank you for printing it, sir."

Bro's eyebrows could have raised the roof. "Sir? Dave, why the fuck don't you call me sir?"

"Because fuck you, that's why," Dave replies, giving him the middle finger. "Now delete the creepy kitchen video before I beat you to it and introduce the hard drive to my shitty swords."

"You could try, little brother. You wanna go? Because it sounds like someone's getting a little uppity." Dave catches the twitch of Bro' fingers that could mean anything from a puppet pile to a stack of shitty swords is about to appear out of thin air. He braces himself to stop time -

"I really would prefer if you destroyed that video," John interjects, before Bro can finish issuing the deathmatch challenge Dave can feel coming. "I'm sure you guys wouldn't leak it to the Internet or anything like that on purpose, but it's still a risk to have that kind of evidence lying around. And you two are out of costume on it, too."

He clearly thinks he's being reasonable and convincing with that last point; it probably has yet to hit him that Bro is wearing exactly the same kind of outfit he always wears in the field on patrol.

"...Fine. I'll erase every copy of that clip. Just for you, kid, because Dave likes you, and it's fucking precious that after eighteen years he's finally figured out this mysterious thing called friendship." Bro cracks his knuckles. "All I ask is that you hear me out about the Midnight Crew thing."

What.

"Dude. Okay. What. No. What the fuck," Dave demands. John just seems speechless, his mouth opening and shutting wordlessly, and Dave completely understands. He'd thought they'd put this whole MC farce behind them but apparently not. "Alright, yeah, John, just ignore him, we're leaving."

"Stop, Dave. Let the kid talk. Your massive secret friendship boner is just embarrassing," Bro drawls.

Wow. Shut down. Again. Dave feels his teeth grit, his cheeks flaring a bright red of both embarrassment and anger, and knows that even showing that much irritation is too much. In Bro's eyes, Dave just lost, no matter what he says or does afterward.

And maybe John had a point earlier, on Pesterchum. It's been building for years now, but Dave is just...tired. So tired of this fucking nonstop game Bro plays. Irony and self-control - the twin essences of the coolkid, the way of the Strider.

Yeah. Maybe it had been fun when Dave was a kid, and all he wanted to do was prove himself to his big brother. Lately, it just feels stifling. Annoying. Every time he has to remind himself not to express emotion, it's a pain in the goddamn ass.

Of course, there's absolutely no one he can talk to about this. Perks of being raised by a fucking isolationist. Bro would have done the Monroe Doctrine proud, and no, don't ask Dave how he knows what the Monroe Doctrine is. You come across some weird shit on the Internet, alright? Suffice to say, Striders are a fucking island, and Dave's spent so long avoiding normal social interaction, he can't remember how it works, if he even knew in the first place.

John and Bro have still been arguing while Dave seethes, lost in his own head. "It's not going to stop with blowing up random buildings," Bro is saying when Dave's brooding intermission comes to an end. "They'll go after you directly now that you've crossed them. And now that you're dicking around with teleportation, you'll jump right to the top of their most-wanted list."

"He already tried a grenade once already," John yells, flinging his hands up in the air. Dave is almost impressed by how much excess emotion the kid has to spare. Even at his most outraged Dave doesn't think he could feel that much. "I don't see how they're even going to find out about this whole Houston thing - I'll be back by tomorrow!"

"They know. They always know."

"If you can't be more explicit than that, there's no way you can convince me to leave Seattle," John says, shaking his head. "I have a duty to my city. I'm going back. I'm not running away," His expression goes still and solemn behind the shades, and his lip pouts out a bit, but the overall effect is pretty clear. "I appreciate" - the word practically scrapes over John's tongue with clear reluctance - "your advice. But that's enough. Once I get home, I'm in my territory. I'm not telling you what to do about Houston, am I?"

"...Touché. It's your ass, kid. Up to you how you want to risk it," Bro replies at last. He pushes his pointy shades up his nose, and they glint in the half light. "I already gave my two fucking cents to your dad. I'm just telling you. Let that troll kid know what he's up against, before he gets hurt. I'm sure you can take care of yourself, but he's probably not half as resilient."

"Why do you even care?" Dave bursts in. "Oh my god, Bro, and you call me embarrassing. You and this Crew thing, it's like a dog and a fucking bone. Aren't you supposed to be the chill one? Lay off."

"Please," John adds emphatically, nodding at Dave. Fuck yeah, solidarity.

Bro goes totally still. The kind of still that implies a truly harsh smackdown is about to be unleashed when they're strifing, and Dave tenses. Between John's (totally justified) anger, Dave's simmering rebellion, and Bro's incredibly idiotic decision to be a stubborn ass today, they're basically setting up for a three-man cage match, which is both awesome and amazingly stupid. Particularly since they're in the seat of Bro's power. It's like a puppet depot up in here.

Somehow, it doesn't all end in a free-for-all. "Yeah. I don't let shit rile me up. But I'm also not a total dick," Bro says, his tone actually dry with detectible sarcasm. His volume starts to increase, until it's louder than Dave has ever heard Bro speak before, and Dave can't help but stare as though Bro has started to grow a second head. "I raised a fucking kid, I'll have you know. Dave didn't just magically walk out of the sea fully formed in a cloud of seafoam and rainbows. Maybe your guardian is okay with letting a pair of kid heroes go up against an entire gang of dangerous motherfuckers, but I. Am. Not."

Dave's jaw drops.

Bro shakes his head and puts down the welding torch. He closes up the puppet's chest cavity and takes up his needle and thread. "Get outta my room, you punks. Go the fuck to sleep or something."

There's some weariness in his tone that brooks no argument. Dave is shaken, still trying to process the violent emotion that had suddenly emerged from Bro's monotone at the end of that rant. He - he can't. He touches John's shoulder instead, jerking his head toward the open door. He doesn't know what his face is doing, too much confusion and shock roiling around to contain it all, but whatever John sees is enough to get him to walk out with Dave.

They leave Bro alone, hunched over his desk, sewing quietly in the bluish light of the computer monitors.

-

"...Wait here," Dave says, putting out an arm to stop John from crossing the threshold into Dave's bedroom.

"What's up?" John says, standing awkwardly in his blood-smeared t-shirt and the reattached sling. Using his windy thing earlier seems to have dissolved his false-colored contact lenses or some shit, but even with the brilliant blue eyes exposed, the difference between John and Heir is obvious. John may be on the alert, stuck in an unfamiliar place under mysterious circumstances, but he does seem to trust Dave a little, at least, so he's lost some of the battle-ready aura and tension that followed him from the kitchen into Bro's room.

"Gotta disarm all this shit, man. Try to make this place safe for human habitation. There's some sacred law of hospitality about this kind of thing, all right?" That all cleared up, Dave walks into the room, fighting the urge to flashstep all over the fucking place and just clear up any potential traps that way. Bro knows about the flashstep - that's the whole fucking point - so most of the traps will be set to go off in places he least suspects it, places he'd only step if he happened to walk there normally rather than skipping over it in a time-stop.

So Dave does a careful, shuffling circuit of the room, hands stuffed into his pockets. He's painfully aware with each passing minute of how stupid he looks, circling his own room while nothing at all happens. He even opens his closet door and steps inside, and nothing happens.

Did someone abduct Bro and replace him with a normal person? Jesus Christ, Dave is about ready to believe that, even if he only just saw Bro two minutes ago. After that glimmer of actual emotion from his brother at the end of his argument with John, Dave doesn't know what the hell to think anymore. There isn't a single fucking trap in here. This ain't natural.

Trying to distract himself, he grabs a short-sleeved red shirt with the Iron Man symbol on it (everything is done in the service of irony, okay?) and tosses it to John. The wind catches it instead, which is - really fucking cool, all right, he said it - and John glances around the room once more with an appraising eye before stepping in, apparently put on his guard by Dave's residual wariness. Then John looks down at the shirt in his hands, and pauses, blinking at the shirt. "You know, I think I own this shirt, too!"

Dave shakes his head, going to his desk and shoving his latest taxidermy find, a four-eyed black cat, behind a pile of old vinyl records. Knowing John, he wears that shirt unironically, and Dave wants no part in that level of geekery.

He has also never been more aware of just how many dead animals he has lying around in various different states of preservation. He sees John's jaw drop as he inspects a Gila monster in a jar of formaldehyde, and he quickly kicks a stuffed platypus into the shadows under his desk before John can see it. "Anyway, mi casa, su casa, John," he says, hitching a hip on the corner of his desk. "Except, you know, don't go near Bro's puppet sex torture dungeon by yourself. There is evil there that does not sleep. Seriously. I've never seen that asshole sleep. Not even once."

"Haha, really?" John shakes his head. "You know, I don't think I've ever seen my dad asleep, either. Even when I wake him up to report like, head injuries and stuff, he's usually already sitting up and putting on a robe before I finish opening the door."

"Fucking guardians, man," Dave says, fervent. The best part is, John doesn't give him a look for letting that bit of emotion out; he just nods back in agreement. "Anyway. Yeah. I think there's another blanket in here somewhere. I've got the floor."

John actually tries to put up a fight. But Dave is pretty sure it's automatically a dick move if you make guests sleep on the floor, and any argument John tries to make is totally cancelled out by each wide yawn he lets out. It's barely nine, Central time, but despite John's protestations he looks completely beat. There's the fading edge of a bruise down the side of his face, presumably from that whole grenade incident he still refuses to acknowledge did a number on him, and though he claims to be able to work on four hours of sleep a night, Dave is willing to bet that however that teleportation thing worked it involved a fuck ton of energy. Space isn't exactly his forte, but he's pretty sure you can't break the laws of physics and catapult yourself halfway across the country without expending some massive amounts of energy.

Finally, John is half passed out in the bed, barely keeping one eye open. "Hey, Dave. Do you want to talk about you and your Bro? Because it definitely seems like you have some kind of beef with him, but he's ignoring you. Like, he just talks right over you sometimes. And he's really fucking obnoxious."

Dave locates his spare pair of shades in the drawer of his desk. They're dusty and really fucking ancient, but he slides them on, since John shows no sign of taking off his current pair, even with half his face mashed into a pillow. "No, not really. I'm sick of his fucking asshat rumpus tonight," Dave mutters. "He think he can do no wrong or some shit. Fuck him."

"Hear, hear," John agrees. Then he laughs, sounding halfway asleep. "You know, I'm glad you're just as big of a nerd in real life as on Pesterchum, Dave. We only ever really talked once before, and I kind of shoved all my issues at you at once. But you're still a total coolkid nerd."

What. Dave sprawls out on the floor, one leg still propped up with his knee bent as he stares at the blank ceiling. "I have no idea what you're talking about, John. Seriously, where do you come up with these bizarre ideas. What the fuck is a coolkid nerd supposed to be? An abomination of science?"

"You can pretend you're as cool as you want, Dave, but I know you quoted Lord of the Rings just then." John chuckles, before another yawn interrupts him.

Fuck. Well. "Fellowship is the shit. It gets a special pass and it in no way reflects on my coolkid gambit, John." Dave folds his arms behind his head.

"I wear super hero shirts, and you quote Lord of the Rings and rap Celine Dion. I'm just, you know. Saying it. For the record. Nerrrrd."

John is smirking, damn him. Dave can hear his smug tone. Oh, hell naw. "Irony, John. Irony," he says. "Don't make me come up there and instruct you on the exact difference between irony and being a total nerd. I'm sure I've given you this vital life lesson before, I don't want to repeat any material.

John snorts. "Yeah, yeah, Dave, okay. Whatever you say. You are the irony master, after all."

"Damn straight I am."

After a few minutes of silence, he thinks John has gone to sleep. The kid's breath rustles every piece of paper in the room, which can't be fucking normal, but after a while the windy thing settles down, and Dave nods to himself. He's kind of tired himself, but he still has to get up and -

"...Is Dave your real name?"

Holy crap John is still awake. Dave stays very still while his heart does a two-step, and thinks about how to answer.

"John is yours, isn't it?" Dave says at last. He doesn't really know how else to respond. Because yeah, of course Dave is his real name, but it would have been the smart thing to give a fake one when they met that first time. John might not even believe him if he confirmed it.

He's asked himself countless time why he just gave out his real name to some random depressed hero who just flew in unannounced from New York, but he can never really come up with a good answer. Nothing that makes sense, anyway. He doesn't know why, but he's always assumed John gave his real name, too. The kid is paranoid as fuck, but - Dave doesn't know.

Sometimes he says their internet brohood is transcendent. As stupid and corny as that sounds, maybe some part of him even believes that. Even when it might be dumb to give each other their real names and risk blowing their aliases, they both did.

"...G'night, Dave."

"...Yeah, sames."

-

An hour later, when John has sunk into a fitful doze, a second Dave walks into the room. "Just go," future-Dave tells current-Dave, shaking his head. He looks like he's sweating, which is really goddamn weird, but Dave has a system now. Future-him doesn't tell him anything about what's about to happen during his daily round two, except the life and death shit. After the whole shoving himself off a building incident, all Dave Striders past, present, and future must obey the law of mortality-threat disclosure. He will have order, goddammit. He has a fucking system.

"How far back?" Dave whispers, putting on the same pair of shoes future-Dave is wearing. He throws a few glances at John asleep on the bed, but other-Dave just shushes him and doesn't seem too concerned about waking up the unexpected guest. They've had these plans to go meet the BQ for a while now. And hey, this way there will still be a Dave around to keep Bro from kidnapping John for his own good or some shit.

"Only about four hours. It's a fucking shitshow, though. Take the good swords," future-Dave advises.

Dave does.

---

John can't really sleep. The air coming in through the window is hot and humid and unfamiliar, a good ten degrees warmer than back home in Washington, and he has to kick off both the sheets and the covers from Dave's bed before he can begin to doze off. Part of the problem - a huge part - is that this is the second night in a row he's missed his patrol in Seattle. The fact that he's stranded all the way down in Texas does nothing to assuage the rising tide of guilt eating at him, preventing him from relaxing enough to fall asleep.

He wonders if he could teleport himself back, right here and now. But...he just doesn't have the first clue how he did it in the first place! It's like there's a blank spot in his head between being pestered by Dave and his Bro and suddenly landing in their kitchen.

See, John is in Houston.

That still hasn’t really sunk in yet. But every time he turns around, he gets another reminder: the piles of dangerous junk lying everywhere, the sticky, hot smell of pollution drifting in through the hole in Dave’s wall, the unknown age of the pizza that Dave excavates for them to eat from a fridge full of shitty swords. Oh, and the fact that every time he looks outside, he sees Houston.

He feels like he should probably be freaking out a lot more. This is a mess. He’s stuck in a tiny apartment with two people who wave swords around for a living, and just because one is his Internet chum and the other is a relatively well-known hero doesn’t make him any safer with them than with any other strangers. Okay, Dave’s not really a stranger, but this is the first time John has met the guy in years, and anyway, that first meeting only lasted about a day before they went their separate ways.  

His dad calls one last time before John goes to sleep. Dave hands him the phone wordlessly and stares out the window while John has a muttered conference with his dad on the details of his flight tomorrow morning, once more blank-faced behind a pair of sunglasses he found somewhere. Which means, in a way, Dave is out of uniform; Flashstep doesn’t cover his face while he’s working. So now that both John and Dave have shades on, somehow, John has ended up the only one in disguise in an apartment full of three heroes. Flashstep and the Puppeteer are just a totally different type of hero from the kind John has been raised to be. They’re careless and John is pretty sure they’ve mentioned what may be their real last name a couple times so far, with no regard for his presence. It’s backwards and confusing and blehhhh.

He doesn’t understand how he can be tired so early, either. He runs a mental check when his eyes first start drooping over a slice of reheated pizza, but despite the fact that it’s only seven in the evening, Seattle time, he can barely think straight past the exhaustion. On a regular night, he wouldn’t even have started patrolling yet! Jeez! The cut on his arm has already started to heal and barely stings anymore, but his collar bone aches grumpily when he changes out of his gross blood-stained shirt and into one of Dave’s.

Using the wind for big things like tornados and stuff always tires him out a bit faster, and he can only assume that…whatever happened that landed him here in Dave’s apartment, it took even more out of him. He doesn’t want to call it teleportation. Teleportation isn’t even close to what the wind has been able to help John do before. The wind obeys his call, helps him fight, catches him when anyone else would just fall. It doesn’t mysteriously transplant him over two thousand miles out of his way in under two minutes.

You’re also strong, a niggling voice whispers in his head. You heal too fast. On a normal day, you barely need to sleep. Those aren’t windy things.

Okay, John’s power has never been restricted to just the wind. But being really resilient doesn’t have much to do with teleporting, either.

So what gives?

He supposes this could all still be an elaborate conspiracy by the Puppeteer, who was the only one to have access to the tapes before John and Dave viewed them. Bro is insanely fast, so fast that John can barely track his breathing when he moves around in a room, and could hypothetically have the technological skills to quickly alter the video while John was dealing with a giant stab wound in the kitchen. But why? What would be his motivation?

If all of this is some kind of trap, what’s the point? John can’t figure it out, and it’s goddamn frustrating.

All John remembers is being so pissed. A whole new level of pissed. Sooo pissed. Like, he’d been channeling the spirit of his inner-Karkat or something, only being that angry wasn’t so hilarious when you were the one feeling it. You were just…angry, and everything was awful, and it sucked. He doesn’t know how Karkat maintains that level of pure irritation all the time. John had had to just stop talking to Bro earlier, because – he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t let himself get that angry again. His dad has drilled into him that getting angry could get people hurt, with John’s level of strength and his abilities. While honestly, of all the people in the world, the Puppeteer could probably give as good as he got, John didn’t want to hurt anyone out of some irrational anger because that person was worried about his well-being.

Because even if at first it just seemed like Bro was being a dick? After his outburst earlier about raising Dave, John just feels bad. Bro’s default state seems to be stuck on ‘emotionless douchebag,’ but apparently being annoyingly persistent and taunting people and smirking is how he…shows brotherly concern?

Yeah, no, John doesn’t get it.  Maybe it’s a brother thing. He’s only ever had his dad, after all.

He doesn’t know how he’s going to get to sleep now, though. How can he be expected to sleep with all of this crazy stuff on his mind, in a strange place with people he barely knows?

-

…He apparently fell asleep. Uh. Well. Okay. That was easy.

John rolls over, the wind tugging at his hair but not trying to yank him up into the air like usual. He can’t tell if it’s because the air is heavy and sluggish with humidity, or because he himself is slow on the uptake, trying to make sense of the hovering pile of rainbow puppets that hangs over his head, supported by the wind.

“Dave?” he asks tentatively, reaching up to adjust the shades on his face. They won’t stay on properly over top of his glasses, but he draws the line at removing either pair. It’s going to be weird and attention-grabbing enough that John is flying back to Seattle without having legally flown down to Houston in the first place; no need to have his face exposed so everyone can see that John Egbert’s eyes have turned a bright blue. His tinted contact lenses are just – gone. No explanation. It’s too late to keep Dave and Bro from seeing his face and the real color of his eyes, but he wants to be as low key as possible at the airport, where there could be yet more cameras that could record his face.

Or maybe Bro’s paranoia is just contagious.

“Dave?” he repeats when he gets no reply.

“No,” Dave’s voice mumbles. “No Dave here. Whoever told you that was a lying liar who lies.” When John leans over the bed, holding both pairs of glasses up with a hand, he sees Dave half hidden under the bed, and half covered in more of the weird rainbow puppets. Seriously, do these things just generate out of thin air?

John looks up at the puppets above him, and then gestures with the wind, sending them toppling down in a pile on the floor.

Someone flickers through the air, in and out of the room before John can process who it is. Suddenly, the puppets rise up and fling themselves at Dave, bombarding him from all sides as he flails. “Augh!” Dave yells, and he must pause time right then, because the next second he’s standing over by the desk and the puppets are scattered in pieces with stuffing everywhere, like he sliced his way free. “Mother. Fucking. Puppet. Ass,” he chokes out, clearly struggling to suppress some intense emotion as he lets his head rest back against the wall. “Oh my god. Why. Why is this happening. So plush. Eurghhhhh.”

“Does this happen a lot?” John asks.

“You have no goddamn idea, John. My life is a puppet-themed hell.” Dave recollects himself, shoulders slumping out of a battle-ready stance as he sticks his hands in his pockets, as though he didn’t just have a minor episode over a bunch of relatively innocuous puppets.

Remembering a certain offhand comment about puppet porn, John decides not to think about it. Seriously. He’s not thinking about it. Ever. “Hey, what time is it?”

“What do I look like, a watch?” Dave says, his tone too flat for John to tell if he’s joking or not. “It’s like six in the morning. Normal people shouldn’t even be awake right now. This is obscene. Thanks, Bro. Thanks for the wakeup call!” He raises his voice a little on the last part, sarcasm giving the words bite, and John hears a grunt of acknowledgement from the kitchen. “Can’t even deal with him right now,” Dave mutters. Then he frowns at John. Or at least John thinks he’s frowning – his eyebrows furrow a bit, but John obviously can’t see all of his expression. “You managed to avoid a faceful of puppet ass, John? Oh my god. Teach me your ways. Right here, right now.”

John stands up, stretching carefully to avoid jolting his arm. “Were those puppets supposed to hit me, too? I guess the wind just caught them.”

“You don’t know how lucky you are, man.” Dave shakes his head. “I stop time and I still can’t evade these fucking things. Ugh. I feel violated. Learn from my mistakes, John. Do not ever piss off a carapacian dame and a puppet-obsessed maniac on the same night. I regret all of my life choices right now. So much regret.”

John blinks. “Wait, what? When did that happen? Was I asleep for that part or something?” Sure, he could see Bro maybe starting a fight in the middle of the night, but when did a carapacian enter into the equation? They’re really rare, aren’t they? John doesn’t think he’s ever met one in person.

“Or something,” Dave says, rubbing at his eyes behind his shades. “Come on, if we’re going to be functional at ass o’clock in the morning, I need way more AJ.”

“Uh, okay. Whatever you say, Dave.” Self-conscious and awkward in his borrowed shirt, John follows Dave out into the main room. After two more piles of things – a stack of robot parts and an entire table, which doesn’t really count as a pile, he supposes – ambush them, evaded by Dave and caught by John’s breezes, he starts to get that yes, this really is a regular thing. Dave looks grim but not surprised by the constant barrage.

John realizes, with a combination of wonder and dismay, that this might well be Bro’s equivalent of John and his dad’s morning t’ai chi routine. After that first disastrous puppet pile in the bedroom, Dave is flashstepping around flying cutlery and empty pizza boxes without missing a beat, while John lets the wind circulate around him in a constant shield to deflect anything that flies his way.

This is more than just the unfathomable whim of a cruel and distant brother. This is…training.

...Sooooo weeeeeird.

They somehow survive the journey to the kitchen, despite one flurry of swords that nearly took John’s eye out, and John sees that most of the piles of junk scattered around the room, including the shitty swords he cut himself on last night, have vanished, repurposed as part of the trap-riddled obstacle course. Dave goes into the pantry, heaves himself up onto the third shelf, and feels around in the shadows of the topmost shelf before a tiny smirk of triumph breaks through his blank face. He holds up a bottle of amber yellow liquid solemnly. “Fuck yeah.”

He jumps down to the ground, apple juice in hand, and the ceiling bursts open. Dave barely has time to look up, mouth parted in horror, as he is completely buried in puppets. John can only watch, startled, as puppets continue to pour down in wave after wave of rainbow goodness.

“John.” The voice comes from within the pile of puppets. One last puppet tumbles down from the trap door in the ceiling and bounds off the top of the Dave-pile.

“Yes Dave?”

“I need you to be my second. Bro just declared war on the sovereign nation of Dave Strider. It’s on.”

John raises an eyebrow. “I thought the puppet thing was normal?”

“That fucker stole my apple juice.” Dave emerges from the pile between one second and the next, leaving most of the puppets decapitated behind him. “The deathmatch commences now."

-

Apparently, in addition to doing hero work without masks and buying groceries while in costume, the Puppeteer and Flashstep engage in semi-regular rooftop duels, where anyone in one of the apartments on either side could easily look out and watch them go at it. Even as John anxiously scans the windows of the building next door to make sure the coast is clear, a woman with a small child opens up a window on level with their roof and yells, “You two gueros locos better not fuck up my window again!”

Bro salutes her with a sword.

Chingate!” With that she closes the window with a resounding slam and disappears.

John’s brain hurts.

Dave raises his swordkind, the corners of his mouth turned slightly downward in an amazing display of fury. “One rule, Bro. One. Do not. Fuck. With my apple juice.”

Bro tilts his head to the side. John looks at where Bro is staring, and sees one of the many puppets propped up on the edge of the air conditioning unit, the bottle of AJ enclosed in the embrace of its arms. Its wide blue eyes glimmer uncannily, its cheeks stretched in an unnatural grin. It freaks John right the fuck out, enough so that he unconsciously tugs more of the Houston morning air around him. Puppets like that didn’t belong anywhere but carnivals and horror movies. He recognizes the Puppeteer’s puppet of choice, Lil Cal, but it’s a lot more terrifying in person than in newspapers. It just…stares. Unblinking. Soulless. Ever-smiling.

Bro finally says, “Nut up or shut up, kid. Fight me or the AJ goes over the edge.” He raises a hand and Lil Cal twitches closer to the edge of the roof.

Dave stiffens. “You wouldn’t.”

“Last night just proved you need some schooling, little brother,” Bro says, shrugging. “If you weren’t so attached to fruit juice, I wouldn’t have to use this weakness against you. You should probably look into that.”

“You bastard. What did the apple juice ever do to you? Just give it back and no one has to get a fucking sword in their kidney.”

Bro raises a hand and curls his fingers in a ‘bring it on’ gesture. Dave obliges, crossing the yards between him and Bro in a matter of seconds. Then both men begin flickering and out of sight as they move too fast for John to follow, their swords flaring with reflected light in the rising sun. Neither of them take off their shades, either, which means they’re both doing this in their civilian attire. John doesn’t even bother to point that out.

This would be really, really cool and all, getting to watch two of the best heroes in the US in action, except that John doesn’t understand why any of this is happening, and these two are completely insane.

“Do we really have to do this right now? This whole thing seems like it could turn out to be completely pointless,” John calls, hands cupped around his mouth. He feels he should throw his opinion into the ring. “And I have to go to the airport eventually!”

“Kid, you can fly!” Bro shoots back,  slowing just long enough that John sees him kick out to trip Dave before the battle’s time-defying pace resumes. “You don’t need a fucking babysitter!”

He’s an asshat, but he does have a point. “Hey Dave, just yell if you need me to, I don’t know, avenge your death or something, I’m gonna go find something to eat.” He’s starving by this point – reheated pizza doesn’t exactly last long when you usually eat as much as three men per meal.

Dave nods before parrying another blow. Bro is practically invisible by this point, and it would look like Dave is just fighting by himself except for the occasional stray puppet or spark of steel on steel that gives Bro’s position away. All the while, Lil Cal looks on with shining eyes.

Yeah, as interesting as it is to watch the Puppeteer and Flashstep duke it out in person, John is 120% done with that creepy puppet.  He backs away from the duel, not really willing to turn his back on the scene when there are really sharp swords everywhere, and then descends the stairs back down to Dave’s apartment. He lets out a sigh of relief when he can’t feel Lil Cal’s eyes on him anymore. How does Dave stand that all the time? He wanders to the fridge and opens it, bracing the unstable pack of shitty swords with his shoulder as he hunts through the drawers for something edible.

...How do these two even survive?! There's a drawer full of something unmentionable that's gone fuzzy and green, and apart from that the entire fridge is taken up with empty apple juice bottles and sword specibi. This is unnatural; how can two people live with only a single three-day-old pizza to sustain them?! Shaking his head, John grabs a slice of pizza. It tastes like cardboard and mushrooms, but he coughs it down. He's still wallet-less, and he's really hoping Dave will finish up this deathmatch in time to direct John to the airport -

John stops. He had started to wander back towards Dave's room, thinking he might retrieve his old shirt, but on the way he sees that Bro's door is hanging open. A single puppet wedged between the door and the frame must have caused the door to slowly open rather than closing completely.

And that normally wouldn't have caught John's attention, except that he can quite clearly see, through the open door, that the video from last night is still up on Bro's monitor. As he does a slow, deliberate doubletake, swallowing a piece of pizza, he sees that it has been paused right when past-John has just mysteriously appeared over the sword pile.

The Puppeteer promised he'd delete that, John thinks vaguely. The wind starts to pick up around him, new gusts streaming in through the hole in Dave's wall and whipping around John in a protective circle as he storms into Bro's room. No traps go off or anything as he marches up to the desk and takes in all four monitors. Three have different angles of the kitchen from last night, with John in the center of the shot.

The fourth has a tiny popup that reads 'File Copy Complete."

Bro didn't erase the footage. He saved a copy.

For a long moment, John can only stand there, feeling the fury rise up inside him. Then, his chest explodes in pain.

He huddles forward over it, one hand clutching at his chest, but between the pain all he can think is he is going to punch The Puppeteer into next fucking week -

And then –

John’s ears pop, and he’s falling. He yelps, and closes both fists reflexively, and the wind catches him a foot above the Puppeteer’s head.

He’s back on the roof.

More precisely, he’s hovering seven feet above the roof, suspended mere inches from a really sharp, not-so-shitty katana.

“Dude. What.” Dave is somewhere under John’s feet, which is makes it awkward when John tries to turn and look at his face. With a twist of the wind John flips himself upright and eases himself down onto the roof. His legs feel kind of wobbly, but he lands alright. The sudden chest pain is gone, but he presses a hand to his sternum anyway, shaken. He'd been so angry that the pain barely registered, but the shock of appearing above the roof sucked the rage right out of him, along with the pain.

Just like it had earlier, when he'd teleported from his bedroom to these guys' apartment.

Well then.

“Sup?” John says weakly. “Uh. I think I might have done the teleport thingy again.”

“You know, I wouldn’t have guessed that, John, not with the way you just appeared out of bugfuck nowhere,” Dave says, facepalming with his free hand.

"Any idea what you did this time?" Bro asks, tucking his sword away across his back. Dave is still at the ready, but the Puppeteer walks away from him and John, striding to the AC unit by the edge of the roof. He rests Lil Cal on his shoulder, completely unconcerned about the fact that Dave still has his sword out and a total revenge face on.

John glares at the man. “You didn’t delete that video! I saw it on your computer still. You lied!”

“And that got you all righteously pissy, didn’t it,” Bro states. He flings the entire bottle of apple juice at Dave’s head. Dave catches it and takes a moment to stare at bottle before hugging it under one arm. “And then, you ended up all the way up here.”

Bro then goes silent. After a long minute, John gets it. “I got mad at you – again – and I – ohhh.”

“Except this time you came up here with Dave and saw where I was, first. And traveled a shorter distance. Probably helped you aim more accurately. So that’s one mystery solved. You’re fucking welcome, kiddos.” Bro raises his hands to some unheard applause, and then readjusts his hat on his head, slouching toward the stairwell.

"So now John fuels teleportation with his own rage? What next, you start photosynthesizing when you're feeling peachy?" Dave snarks, finally putting the sword away with clear reluctance.

“I said one mystery, you little shits. Do your own fucking homework, I’m done for the day.” And with that, Bro disappears.

John can feel the faintest rush of air as the Puppeteer vanishes back down into the apartment unseen. He and Dave exchange bewildered glances. Then John remembers – “Hey! Come back here! You still didn’t erase that video!”

-

They all end up back in Bro's room, somehow. John harasses the Puppeteer until he actually deletes the video in front of him, though John can't be sure there aren't still more copies saved to the hard drive. Then Dave gets into a renewed one-man argument about how the apple juice is out-of-bounds when it comes to 'being a huge fucking asshat,' while Bro blatantly ignores him and starting tinkering with a bright pink puppet that has scissors for hands. The only possible explanation for the combination is some kind of irony John can't even hope to fathom, especially not when a short bout of exhaustion hits him. He paces for a bit until the tiredness dies off. He's starting to think it's not just the concussion anymore - teleporting takes it out of a guy! But it's not nearly as bad as last night, when he'd passed out before the sky had even gone dark.

Having exhausted even his strange, tangent-based method of arguing and ranting, Dave finally subsides, taking off the ancient pair of shades and pressing the tips of his fingers against his eyes. "Fucking dick," he says halfheartedly, keeping his eyes shut. Then he shakes his head, and turns back to John. "You okay, EB?" he asks shortly, putting the shades back on.

John nods. "Yeah. Just still trying to wrap my head around all this. Sorry for interrupting your apple juice war."

"Dude. Bro clearly used you to cheat his way into a draw. I claim this one a victory in my name by default." Dave smirks.

"In your dreams, kid," Bro replies absently.

Dave just shrugs. "You're really not controlling this at all?" he asks, sticking his hands into his pockets. "Just hoppin' on the reality-warping train and hoping for the best?"

"I definitely didn't do it on purpose. I just got really mad. Actually, I really wanted to punch you in the face," John says, directing the accusatory tone at Bro, who ignores him. "And then - nothing." John scrunches up his face, but the seconds between getting angry and being on the roof again remain a stubborn void.

Bro folds his arms, leaning back as though to inspect his work, and then interrupts with, “And you didn’t feel anything? It’s just a blank?”

Just the opposite it's too much i can’t remember i can't i'm not allowed –

“Nothing,” John says, more forcefully than he intended to, and he can already see Dave's eyebrows rising like pale birds, Bro swiveling around in his chair until -

A phone rings. The ring tone is ‘Barracuda’ by Heart, and it seems to be emanating from Bro Strider’s back pocket. Bro hesitates, then flips the phone out and slides it onto speaker phone in one smooth motion. He then goes back to tinkering with his bizarre puppet project. “…’Sup. You’re on speaker.”

“Ambrose.” The feminine voice is smooth and warm and just slightly slurred on the ‘s,’ like a mug of hot chocolate with a good shot of cognac mixed in for taste. It is weirdly familiar, though the distortion from the phone is severe enough that John can’t place it.

Without looking, Bro reaches out and hangs up.

Dave raises an eyebrow. “Ambrose?”

“We don’t talk about that,” Bro grunts. “Must have been a wrong number -”

Barracuda plays again. This time Bro doesn’t put it on speaker phone, just puts the phone to his ear while he begins to solder a puppet joint with one hand. “I told you no, woman.”

“Put me back on speaker phone this instant, darling. This is a matter for your ward as well.” The woman on the other end of the phone speaks loudly enough that John can still hear here, even from here. But he has better ears than most. “And I do hate having to raise my voice.”

“Who says I still have a ward,” Bro says. His voice has gone flatter than usual, and he pulls open a drawer on the work desk to start tapping buttons on a heavy black machine. “I’m tracing this call, woman. In about five minutes, I will know exactly where to go to wreck your shit.”

“Speaker phone, there’s a dear,” the woman repeats, just sounding amused. Bro Strider huffs and sets the phone down on the table, hitting the speaker phone tab. “Thank you,” the woman says, her voice now reverberating slightly. “Dave, love, I know you’re there. It’s been too long.”

John feels Dave tense at his side. Outwardly, he’s still slumped against the wall with the practiced nonchalance both he and his brother favor, but his surprise is clear in the way his shoulders stiffen up. “Can’t say I know you, lady,” he says at last. “Random broads with phones, not my specialty.”

“No, you wouldn’t remember.” John can hear the smile in her voice. “You were perhaps three years old when I last saw you. After that, circumstances conspired against us meeting. I believe you would have been five when the trouble with the Crew began, and your guardian never quite trusted me again.”

And yeah, now John is paying attention. “You know the Midnight Crew?” he blurts out, earning himself a smooth-faced but probably irate stare from Bro.

The line is silent, buzzing for a good minute. “Is that -” the woman begins, voice shaky.

Bro cuts her off. “Not now, Lalonde. I’m still one wrong word away from cutting you off. For all I know, you could have been the one to tip them off in Georgia. Say what you want, then piss off before I hunt you down.”

Lalonde.

“Doctor Lalonde!” John yelps, leaning over the desk. He can’t help but ogle the phone with wide eyes, as though if he stares through the cheap plastic hard enough he’ll be able to see through to the lab coat-wrapped form of Rose Lalonde’s eccentric, terminally tipsy mother.

“What the fucking fuck,” Bro says flatly.

“John. I thought that sounded like you.” Doctor Rue Lalonde laughs a little. “I should have known you’d find your way to Dave eventually.”

“What,” Dave says.

“We haven’t heard from you in years! Is Rose doing alright?” John bounces on his heels, ready to laugh now that the mystery has been stripped away. He’d know Doctor Lalonde for nearly six years before she and Rose had moved abruptly to New York.

Then he realizes what she just said. “Wait, what do you mean, I’d find my way to -”

“You haven’t heard from Rose? In how long?” Doctor Lalonde interrupts, urgency slurring into her words. “A few days? Longer?”

John stops bouncing. He frowns at the phone. “Doctor Lalonde, I haven’t heard from Rose in – it must be years, now. First she stopped calling, and then she stopped writing. Maybe three years ago? ...You didn't know?”

“Three -” There is a long pause, and then the sound of someone crying out, and a glass shattering against something hard, as though Doctor Lalonde has thrown her habitual appletini against the wall. John flinches and Bro actually pushes him back from the table, as though just hearing the sound over the phone is somehow a threat. “She didn’t say why?” Doctor Lalonde demands, her slur suddenly gone.

John shakes his head before he remembers she can’t see him. “No, she just – stopped. I guess I thought she just maybe moved on with her life. I’m sure she made other friends who didn’t live across the continent from her, right? She probably got tired of trying to psychoanalyze me through letters.” He laughs, swallowing back old pain.

“I’m fairly certain that was not the reason, John,” Doctor Lalonde says, with an equally bitter laugh. “You see, I’m afraid the Midnight Crew caught up with us three years ago. I left Rose in New York to draw them off. I have not seen her since. It would seem that in my absence, the situation has…deteriorated."

“They found you?” Bro cuts in. He’s still fiddling with the puppet, but it’s obvious by now that he isn’t paying attention to it. “And you left her alone?”

“I don’t understand,” John says before Doctor Lalonde can reply. “You mean – has Rose been all by herself by three years? Who’s been watching her? Why were the Crew after you in the first place – what if they went after her again?!” He clenches a fist and can feel the wind starting to whip around his hand as his confusion simmers. He’d known Doctor Lalonde as a kind, if eccentric and most definitely alcoholic, guardian, despite Rose’s insistence on viewing her mother’s strangeness as deliberately passive-aggression directed against her.

But abandoning Rose for three whole years? That smacks of something truly unforgiveable.

“I’ve always trusted Rose to take care of herself,” Doctor Lalonde says, her voice slurring slightly again. There is a pause, and the clink of ice in a glass, and a throaty swallow audible through the speakers as she no doubt finishes mixing herself a new drink and tosses it back. “Though I worry now that I may have made a terrible mistake. As for why the Midnight Crew would seek us out – they sought Rose’s power. To harness it, or to destroy it, if they could not. Just as they sought Dave. I have been able to lead them a merry chase by pretending to still have Rose by my side while she has remained at work in New York, but recent events have shown that perhaps it would have been better to stay with Rose and fight a bloody war against the Crew than – than to have allowed this.

“Allowed what, Lalonde,” Bro demands, spinning the phone on the table to drag it closer to him. There are tiny lines visible between his brows, where the pointy shades don’t quite meet. “The hell is going on? You wouldn’t call this number unless it was a fucking emergency. What’s wrong with your kid?”

John can’t tell what his insides are doing. It feels like the bottom of his stomach has dropped out, like that one horrible moment a month ago when the explosion at the bank had ripped him free from the safety of the breeze and nearly sent him falling to his doom. He’s so lost; half of this conversation isn’t making sense, but he feels like he’s two seconds from being sick all over the nearest pile of weaponized puppets. All he understands, really, is that Rose is in some kind of trouble. “What’s wrong with Rose?” he says after Bro finishes, before realizing that he’s just repeated nearly what the Puppeteer had just said.

“…Tell me. Are you familiar with the hero Seer of Light?” Doctor Lalonde asks, sipping audibly again. “Forgive me, I need to be more drunk for this. If what I hypothesize is happening, has in fact happened, we are all in grave danger.”

“Seer of Light? I’ve heard of that one. She’s up New York City way,” Dave says, folding his arms across his chest, his red eyes glinting over the brim of his shades. “Shiiit. It’s this Rose chick, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Doctor Lalonde says.

It takes John a second.

Then he flips the fuck out.

“Wait, what?! Rose is a hero?” And yup, that’s it, he has absolutely no clue what to think now. His brain rams up against ‘Rose is a hero???’ and begins to flail uselessly, spitting out meaningless phrases like ‘how?’ and ‘how do?’

“Not the quickest on the uptake, are yah, kid,” Bro Strider says beyond the haze of John’s mental reboot. “Yeah, we know about Seer. What’s happened to her?”

“If the news reports I’m seeing are to be believed? She has gone full grimdark.” Doctor Lalonde says. “Just turn on any news channel, if you even have a television in your usual hellhole of an apartment. The broadcasters do not recognize her as Seer of Light without her costume, but I know my daughter’s face when she goes about blowing things up without a mask on.”

Bro Strider is gone between one blink and the next, just as John comes snapping back to reality with horror clenching in his gut. He looks at Dave, only to find the other hero halfway out of the room already. John dashes out after him, stopping behind the coach where Bro and Dave now stand. Bro flicks through the channels on the widescreen television hanging on the wall so fast the pictures are a blur. He stops on a prominent news station with a banner declaring a ‘breaking news’ bulletin in the corner. The rest of the screen is taken up by what appears to be a live video feed.

The camera is shaky and jolting, though the cameraman seems to be on a relatively clear street; the only problem is that the streets are almost empty, despite the fact that it should be almost eight in the morning in New York, and therefore the middle of the morning commute for one of the most crowded cities in the country. The streets should be absolutely packed into a gridlock. Instead, there is one car visible – and it has been flipped upside down, the wheels still spinning as it rests heavily on a crunched in chassis.

An explosion of dust bursts out over the street, blinding the camera with a film of greyish brown haze for a long moment as someone unseen, perhaps the cameraman himself, yells. John can’t tell if it’s a yell of pain or just shock.

And then John sees there is something moving in the dust. It looks like a shadow on the monitor, coiling and uncoiling sinuously before splitting into countless black tendrils that stab into the street, digging through the pavement with huge clouds of dust. The edges of the tentacles seem to burn with black fire, twining up toward the sky when they aren’t busy tearing chunks out of the sides of buildings.

Something shifts in the writhing mass, and John nearly falls to his knees. “Fuck, EB,” Dave swears, one arm under John’s before he can hit the ground.

But it’s Rose.

It’s Rose.

Maybe somewhere in his head, John has been denying it, unable to believe that Rose Lalonde with the sharp smiles, the slim fingers, the angled eyes and the silvery golden hair framing her tiny face could possibly be involved with anything related to hero work. Rose had always pandered to and tried to analyze John’s passion for heroes, but had never expressed interest in them herself, preferring to share details of the latest fantasy books she read or the newest knitting pattern she had attempted when they had hung out together in the park by their houses. The idea of Rose being a hero hadn’t felt quite real.

But he knows that face. He knows it.

And it’s breaking his heart at the same time it’s freaking him the fuck out.

Rose’s golden-pale skin is gone, eaten up by a greyish black tinge that’s just a few shades darker than troll grey. White-hot fire burns and oozes from her eyes, leaving them pupil-less and brimming with power. She looks like she’s wearing just leggings and a tight, skin-hugging top that might once have been the neoprene-and-Kevlar, pale yellow undershirt Seer of Light wears beneath her golden tunic in official press releases. Everything is painted with that dull grey stain. Her hair is more silver than blonde, and it tangles and floats in the air, unnervingly similar to the coiling motions of the black tendrils of grimdark surrounding her body.

But she’s still unmistakably Rose, even as she turns her head in a stiff, unnatural motion to stare at the cameraman – and grins with a mouth hollow and burning with white fire.

The camera feed cuts out. The anchorman in the newsroom appears on the screen, babbling something about losing another camera feed, before Bro shuts it off.

“Lalonde. You need to explain grimdark. Yesterday,” he states, holding up the cell phone. The call with Doctor Lalonde is still going.

“I can give you the short version if you wish, but trust me when I say we don’t have time for me to explain the multi-faceted nature of the Noble Circle of Horrorterrors,” the doctor says, her slur once again gone. "In essence, Rose has had mental contact with what you would think of as the Eldritch gods - the many-angled ones, the Outer Gods of the Furthest Ring, our Great Tentacled Tanglebuddies - for most of her life. She has always fought their influence. It would appear she has lost. They have taken over her body, driven her into grimdarkness, and if the reports are valid, have been using her to destroy parts of the city in what appears to be a summoning spirograph."

"Why does the summoning part sound really, really bad?" Dave mutters in John's ear.

“I called to ask a favor of you and Dave, Ambrose," Doctor Lalonde finishes. "The fact that John is already with you just saves me the trouble of attempting to contact Samuel as well.”

“What do you mean?” John asks, bracing himself on the couch. He still struggling to process what he just watched, and Doctor Lalonde’s words sound like white noise.

“I have no right to ask this of you. But I am asking. Please. Save my daughter.”

Can she be saved?” Bro retorts, bristling. “Lalonde, no offense, but your kid looks pretty fucking evil out there.”

“It is not her choice, I assure you,” Doctor Lalonde replies. She is silent for a long moment before beginning again, slowly, her words completely clear and unslurred. “Her power has always stemmed from two disparate sources. I studied it as well as I could until I was forced to leave, but could find no explanation for why Rose possesses two such radically different powers. She has always favored her talent with light magic over the whispers of the grimdark - it gave her nightmares while she slept, and so she suppressed the darkness constantly, too afraid to unleash it. I don’t know what may have happened to trigger this sudden descent into grimdark, but the last time something similar almost occurred, she was terrified.”

Doctor Lalonde stops, and she swallows loudly before continuing. “The grimdark possessed her body and left her powerless to control her actions, yet still able to see and feel everything she did. She screamed and cried constantly, begging me to stop her, because that was the only thing she could still control. I was able to free her only by isolating her in a sensory deprivation tank and remaining with her for weeks, soothing her. Eventually, she was able to take back control. There have been no further incidents until, apparently, last night, when news reports began to reach my location describing what could only be a grimdark event in Albany.”

“And now your kid is tearing up New York City, and you can’t get to her, can you?” Bro says, folding his arms. “Where are you, Lalonde? Are you trying to stop her? Or are you heading the other way.” His voice has gone low and dangerous.

Another long silence. “I am, in fact, on my way to New York as we speak, Ambrose. I know how this may look to you, but trust me when I say I had no choice but to leave my daughter. I trusted in her ability to fend for herself, and I have been able to convince the Midnight Crew she was relocated to Zimbabwe for the past three years. She has been safe, even when I could not be by her side. Now, however, she has quite obviously been exposed. The Crew will be attempting to capture her soon, once they think they have enough manpower to handle the grimdark.”

Can they handle that?” Bro asks. John blinks, and realizes that some of the latent anger must have left Bro; John hadn’t noticed just how quietly furious his tone had been as he spoke to Doctor Lalonde until after the fury abruptly dissipates.

“That remains to be seen.” Doctor Lalonde sniffs haughtily. “But even once I reach New York, I won’t be able to approach her. I have never witnessed the grimdark at such strength as it is demonstrating on the live feeds. Last time, it barely had the strength to kill Rose’s cat before she began to fight it from within; once she distracted the darkness from the inside, I was able to restrain her. I have no doubt that she will kill any who attempt to get close enough to restrain her, this time, and the grimdark is growing exponentially.

“That is why I need your help, all three of you. I know your powers. And John may be able to wake Rose up and get her fighting the grimdark from within. After that, all I ask of you is that you confine her with restraints of my own devising. Nothing more; I will take her to a secure location myself and watch over her until she recovers herself. Please, Ambrose.”

“How – how do you know my powers?” The room is doing wild loops around John, and he has to rest most of his weight on the back of the couch because this is – it’s too much. It’s all too much. The way Doctor Lalonde is talking, Rose has had these powers for years, probably longer than John knew her. And somehow, Doctor Lalonde knows about John’s powers too. Has probably known about his alias as Heir all these years. She had said she meant to contact John’s dad in order to ask John to come to New York, after all.

Did that mean John’s dad had been the one to break his cover? Without even telling John that ‘oh, yeah, the drunken family friend who used to live down the street knows exactly what you are, don’t worry about it’? Were they talking about the same Samuel Egbert who had drilled it into John’s head from age five that he could never, ever speak about his powers to anyone but him? Who had taught John everything he knew about maintaining a double life?

He can’t – he can’t even handle this right now. Dave has a hand on his shoulder and is saying something too him, a weird, low buzz underlying his voice, but John can only focus in on the conversation between Bro and Doctor Lalonde, almost hysterically giddy in anticipation of some new world-altering whammy.

“We don’t have time to go into details right now, John, I apologize. Suffice to say that I’m sorry that I haven’t spoken with you in so long; your father was as adamant as Ambrose that we maintain distance from each other’s wards once the Midnight Crew began to gain strength over the years.” Doctor Lalonde sighs. “Well, Ambrose?”

Bro stands utterly still, one hand thrust into his pocket, his eyes unreadable behind his shades. “I don’t control the kid, Lalonde,” he says at last, looking at Dave. “Up to you, kid. Feel like helping Lalonde fix her fucking mistakes?” The tinge of bitter anger has returned to his voice, and John wonders why the two adults have such contempt for each other – or at least, what happened that Bro seems to disdain Doctor Lalonde so much. He’s missing a whole lot of context for this, but it’s obvious that at some point the Lalondes and the Striders had known each other much the same way the Egberts used to know the Lalondes.

And it’s pretty fucking suspicious that all three families later ended up producing heroes in cities across the United States.

But he can’t focus on that right now, as downright freaky as the idea is. His mind scrambles to make sense of the flood of scattered information, but his first priority is already obvious.

He can’t go back to Washington now. Not when his oldest friend is being possessed by crazy shadow tentacles.

No, he needs to be in New York. And he needs to get there fast.

“I’m coming to help,” John says, interrupting whatever fresh argument Bro and Doctor Lalonde are trying to stir up, talking right over their acerbic barbs. “I don’t have any money on me, though, Doctor Lalonde, I’m sorry. Can you cover a flight to New York? Are they even letting air traffic go near the area?”

“Kid, you should think about this-” Bro starts to say, before, suddenly Dave cuts him off. “I’m going too,” Dave says, meeting John’s eyes when John turns to look at him startled. Dave winks a crimson eye, an uncharacteristic gesture for someone who seems to abjure expressing emotion, and John is struck by the feeling that he’s not looking at Dave, but at the Flashstep, cocksure and confident, the same coolkid mask he had worn the first day they met. “Can’t leave a lady all distressed and blowing up shit against her will, Bro. Definitely can’t leave my man Heir hanging. This field trip is gonna be ironic as fuck.”

Dave then raises his chin and meets Bro’s stare head on, as though this is some kind of weird power struggle between the two Striders – and for all John knows, it is. The way the media always plays it, the way Dave has never denied in their chatlogs, the Puppeteer takes the lead in their partnership, which has always made sense in the context of their older and younger brother dynamic. They've been clearly in the middle of some major power struggle since before John arrived, though Bro still has the advantage. Right now there’s nothing but disapproval in Bro’s blank stare, but Dave isn’t backing down.

Then, without any visible sign that John can see - “Fine. We’re in,” Bro says to the cell phone. “But I don’t fucking like this, Lalonde. If we pull your kid out of the fire, this is the last fucking chance you get from me. Clear?”

“Thank you, John, Dave,” Doctor Lalonde says quietly. “I still wish you didn’t suspect me of giving away your location last time, Ambrose – I assure you, I have never betrayed you. But I can’t argue this now.”

“So how do we get to New York?” John demands. He can feel a tug in the place where his sense of the wind lies, and a breeze starts to pick up in the room, even though he knows intellectually that flying to New York is as time-consuming a process as flying to Washington would have been. Never mind the fact that he somehow managed to cross nearly the same distance in a little under two minutes. He can't trust this new teleportation thing yet, not for something as important as this. “It’s something like a three hour flight in a plane, right? How soon could we get through airport security?”

“No need to worry about all that. I ordered the private jet to rendezvous at Hobby Airport the moment I realized I would need backup,” Doctor Lalonde says, her voice brisk and efficient. It's a startling change from her earlier slurring. “And with your powers, I have utter confidence in your abilities to sneak onto the flight strip. Why waste time pandering to airport security protocol when you're all in disguise anyway?" 

Bro raises an eyebrow above the line of his shades. “The private jet? How’d you get your hands on that?”

“You’d be surprised what you miss out on when you cut yourself off from those who’d wish to help you, Ambrose.”

“That’s not my name.”

“Yes it is, darling.” Now that they’ve agreed to help Rose, all of Doctor Lalonde’s slurring, chortling confidence seems to have returned, and she needles Bro as carelessly as though she hadn’t just a moment ago been begging the three of them to save her daughter. On the other hand, Bro hadn’t been complaining about her use of the name Ambrose all through the earlier conversation, either.

John decides he can’t be bothered to puzzle out what the hell is going on with these two. He just really can’t care about anything else anymore, not when Rose is in danger. “Private jet. Sneaking onto the runway. That’s the plan?” When Doctor Lalonde chirps a drunken affirmative John nods, feeling the last of his confusion get sucked away into the back of his mind. He’ll deal with the metric fuckton of weird and disturbing stuff he’s just heard later. For now, the mission-centered part of his brain kicks in, the part of him that focuses on the work each and every single night, and knows that nothing else is more important than the task at hand. The only thing standing between John and a mad dash for that waiting jet is –

“Dave, I don’t have my uniform with me,” John says, the realization smacking into him with the force of a freight train. “Agh, dammit, we do need disguises. Can I borrow something of yours? I can’t go out and fight in public with all those cameras they have on her without -”

“Don’t worry. I’ve got you covered, John,” Dave says. They leave Bro behind in the living room, still talking to Rue Lalonde.

Dave flashsteps to his closet and starts flinging things out with wild abandon, including a mummified cat and one or two of the same long-nosed puppets that seem to litter nearly every surface of the apartment. “Heh,” he says in some kind of dark triumph as he emerges from a corner of the closet and throws an entire bundle of clothing at John. “Try that on, man. We don’t have time to resew the whole thing, but I can stitch a quick fix on the plane. We’re nearly the same height. Ain’t your usual thing, but once you go Strider chic, you’ll never go back, man. You will be wearing suits all over Seattle. The bitches will fling themselves down at your feet. It’s hard exuding as much awesome as you’re going to, but don’t worry, I believe in you, John. I believe.”

John shakes his head and unfolds the crumpled clothing, looking it over as he strips off his own clothes and the borrowed red shirt. He mentally struggles to piece together how the new outfit works. He’s known, vaguely, that the Flashstep’s costumes are ridiculously elaborate, an ever-changing array of suits and trendy styles that make absolutely zero sense in a crime-fighting position. This looks as ridiculous as anything John has ever seen in internet forums. John’s just going to have to wing it. A Kevlar vest comes flying John’s way, and he catches it with the breeze before it hits him in the side of the face, slipping it on.

He pulls on the black pants first, stops halfway through, and stares at Dave in abject horror. “Oh my god, are these skinny jeans?!”

“Own it,” Dave deadpans, throwing him a middle finger.

“We’re not all built for skinny jeans!” John says, exasperated. They do not have time for this. “I need regular pants, Dave! Forget it, I’ll just wear my shorts -”

“Oh hell no.” Dave starts tearing through the closet again. “I’ll find you regular pants, don’t you dare try to mix your nerd cargo shorts with this work of genius.” He flings another pair of black pants at John, and while these appear to be an extremely high-quality pair of dress pants, at least they mostly fit when John tugs them on, though they’re still tight in the thigh. Just how skinny is Dave?!

Unable to waste brain power on the question, he starts frantically buttoning up the white, long-sleeved dress shirt and eyeing the bright red suspenders and the white suit jacket still lying on the bed. The suit jacket has a hood attached seamlessly rather than stopping at a collar, and tiny cloth loops that blend into the back where John’s supposes that sword hilts are meant to hang. “Dave, dude, why are your outfits so weird and complicated?”

“It’s ironic, okay. Just put it on.”

“I think I’m okay without the suit jacket -”

“Dude. Just. Dude. John. EB.” Dave leans out and stares at him from around the closet door, his face serious. “Wear it.”

John wears it. The shoulders are tight (because Dave is totally a skinny little shit, no matter what he says about John having too many muscles) but apart from that the clothes all fit. It feels totally different from wearing his Heir uniform, with not nearly enough Kevlar and neoprene involved for him to feel comfortable, and the lack of a grey and slate blue color scheme makes him blink in confusion when he glances in the mirror. His face feels totally naked, because Dave is so right, the shades aren’t gonna work. They’ll fall off the moment John tries to fly.  “Take these back for the airport,” John says, handing the shades over carefully when Dave emerges in full, bright crimson regalia. Jesus that’s a lot of red.

Dave snatches the sunglasses back too quickly, almost sighing with relief as he swaps out the old pair for the new. Clearly wandering around without them for the past night has been bugging him, which John would feel bad about if he didn’t have a million other problems clamoring for his attention – first and foremost, the issue of his oldest friend still rampaging through New York on a demon-possession high.

“Shades aren’t for you,” Dave says, tossing a handful of possibly shitty swords into a baseball bag and swinging it over his shoulder. “We’ll get you goggles or something along the way, you make them work.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it.”

“Is the fucking fashion show over?” Bro stands in the doorway and holy shit John is getting really sick of being startled every time Bro appears out of nowhere. He's used to being totally aware of the people around him at all times, sensitive to their movements thanks to the air that surrounds them, but apparently Bro is just that good.

“Yeah, we’re done,” John says, hesitating before kicking his cargo shorts under Dave’s bed. He has no idea if they’re coming back here; maybe Dave will forget about the shorts and discover them later on, and John will have some belated revenge for the skinny jeans. “Is Doctor Lalonde still on the phone?”

“No,” Bro says shortly. He throws the phone at John and vanishes. John catches it with a twist of air, startled by the abrupt throw, and then follows Dave out into the kitchen area, dialing his dad as he goes. His stomach flip-flops as the phone begins to ring.

Yeah, he has no idea how he’s going to explain any of this. Hell, John doesn’t even know what’s going on, and he knows his dad will say that flying in blind is the best and quickest way to get himself killed.

But he doesn’t have a choice. His dad is just going to have to understand – John can’t abandon Rose in her time of need.

Nor can he forget the image of the grimdark destroying the street, and possibly killing that poor cameraman. That, even more his old connection with Rose, is what is driving him to skip out on the flight back to Washington.

People are dying. Maybe New York City isn’t his city, but people are people. And with their resident hero out of commission due to grimdark possession, New York could probably use a temporary stand-in.

Or three.

The phone clicks in John’s ear, and he opens his eyes, determination setting his jaw as he begins to speak without hesitation.

“Dad? I’m sorry. I’m not coming home just yet. There’s something we need to do.”

---

Jade is dreaming again. Everything is black thorns and red vines and green fire, and a bright golden city that gleams in the light of an unfamiliar sun, its inhabitants carefree and oblivious to the horror raining down from above. She strains herself, running as fast as she can, but she can't outrun it. She never can. No, she needs Bec, she needs him, where is he when she needs him most -

"Waaagh!"

Jade wakes with a jolt, topples sideways off the lab stool, and lands on her butt. Her chin hits the edge of the table as she falls, and she rubs at the spot, grimacing as she sits upright. "Bec?" she calls, and for a single tense moment she is certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that what answers will not be her wolf anymore.

Bec flickers into existence, its body as sleek and pale as ever, and Jade sighs with relief, hooking fingers into its thick fur and drawing the wolf in close. It allows her to, and she takes comfort in the unnatural cool of its side. There is no pulse of a heartbeat in Bec, only the smooth whir of a functioning, stable nuclear fusion engine.

She doesn't know why Bec is a he in her dreams when it is an it in real life. She just knows that thinking about the dreams too hard makes her queasy. She rubs at a spot in her chest that feels sore until the imagined pain fades away, and then slaps Bec playfully on the flank, giggling. "Silly Bec! You're supposed to wake me up if I fall asleep in a weird place like that, remember? You know I hate dreams!"

Bec sniffs at her neck with a cold nose, and then sits back at attention without a reply. Not that she'd expected one, of course. Patting on top of the desk, Jade finds her glasses and pushes them back up on her nose, humming as Grandpa's lab comes back into focus. That's right - she'd been in the middle of analyzing the results from the latest round of tests she'd done on the Wandering Variable. She wonders exactly when the exhaustion caught up with her and she passed out on the table. Long enough ago that she dropped into REM sleep, at least.

"WV?" she calls, pressing the button on the side of her glasses that activates some of the wire frames' more eccentric features. She flicks on the sniper scope as usual, and then the quantum filter, an ad hoc program she only just invented herself on the flight up to Britain. A quick scan of the room lets the program adjust itself, until it registers the furniture and computers as relatively quantumly stable. By the time the fine-tuner finishes sifting through and ignoring stable objects, the only figure that is lit up like a star with quantum superposition is the Variable, who appears to be sitting on the stool next to the one she'd just fallen from, kicking legs that may or may not exist. At least he hasn't wandered off, then.

He still can't reply, but Jade talks as though he has. "Sorry about that! Using the missilekind must have taken more out of me than I thought! My arm is still a little sore." Pressing absently at her collar bone and feeling the bruise that has finished growing there, Jade yawns. Then she sniffs again, and catches a whiff of her own smell.

Uh oh. Oops. When was the last time she showered? Or did more than swap her clothes out for a new uniform from her sylladex pocket?

She winces, and casts a glance over the table. There is nothing there that is time sensitive anymore, she decides. She must have finished the finally battery of tests before passing out, because the more fragile samples are already stored in the fume hood, in case something goes wrong and they explode. That's good! She would have hated to have lost a hard-won sample just because she got tired!

"I think I'm going to have to shower reeeeally quick, though," Jade says, making a face in the Variable's general direction. "No peeking, mister!" With that ground rule laid down, Jade stows away her lab equipment, leaving some test tubes in the sink to clean later, and then strips off her gloves as she heads down a small side hallway. She has to consult the maps engraved in the walls a few times to reorient herself, but with her sense of space it's easy to feel out the difference between another research lab and the locker room. The water still works here, just as it had in the sink in the main lab, and Jade starts digging through her sylladex for shampoo and conditioner. Her hair really is getting kind of snarled; time to get some of the grime and gunk of the road out of it!

-

When Jade emerges in a cloud of steam fifteen minutes later, Bec is waiting outside by the row of lockers. She raises an eyebrow at it, but the wolf doesn't give any indication why it chose to leave the lab without Jade calling for it.

She automatically raises her alert level a few notches, just in case Bec senses something she doesn't, and then proceeds to towel her hair until it no longer streams water down the backs of her legs. Long hair can be pretty hard to deal with, especially hair as thick and crinkly as Jade's, but she really likes it this long! Oh well! Once it's mostly dry, she towels off the rest of her and then lets the towel drop. Picking the first costume her hand touches in the sylladex pocket, she steps into an slinky emerald green neoprene suit and zips it up the back by tugging on the zipper with her power.

She thinks she left her lab coat up in the lab, and it probably needs to be washed anyway, before it starts getting all discolored and gross. There probably isn't a laundry room down here in the sublevels, though; she'll need to venture back up to the main estate for that. Well, this is her first time in a house in more than a year - she should probably make the best of the amenities while she still can -

Bec growls and bursts into green flame.

She has no idea how it gets by the house's defensive arrays and sensors; she doesn't sense it in time, herself, because she just doesn't think to spread her spatial awareness out that wide until it is too late.

The explosion comes from above, and Jade barely has time to think WV! before the ceiling - and the collective debris of nearly four floors of mansion and foundation above it - come crashing down on her head.

She doesn't have time to grab her samples or the fancy lab equipment or even the white lab coat she left slung over the seat of the stool. Instead, trusting in the cold weight of Bec as he tackles her and the green fire swallows them both, she reaches out with everything in her to where she remembers the tiny outline of the Wandering Variable swinging his legs on a stool. Her mind fumbles, as she forces it to wrap a bubble around what feels like empty air, to clutch a fistful of space about five foot square to be safe and yank it at a diagonal through space.

They land hard in the field outside the front of the Harley residence under a clear, pale blue sky, the impact strong enough to send the breath whooshing out of Jade in a huff. Bec is unaffected by such things as breathing, and leaps at the first assailant before Jade has time to realize they are, in fact, surrounded. The grass is tall and green, and full of men and trolls in dark suits.

"Get offa my lawn!" Jade yells, forgetting the Variable's uncertain fate as she loads and hoists her modified pistols, raising them from within her strife sylladex to level them at the backs of the nearest troll's knees. She's not as good with a pistolkind as with long-range weaponry, but she counts at least fifteen unknown agents around her, in such close proximity that a rifle would only slow her down.

The first two shots of rubber bullets catch the troll square in the knees and they immediately fold forward, the troll letting out a shocked cry. Jade rolls to the side as a woman swings a quarterstaff at her, coming up with both pistols still cocked. The pistol kicks in her hand and the troll she hit first pitches forward onto his face, unconscious.

Her sense of space is almost completely overwhelmed as all of the assailants begin to move, almost all of them lunging toward her. Jade kicks out sideways and catches a female troll in the stomach with the ball of her foot, the ducks under another wild swing from the woman with the quarterstaff. Yelling, Jade teleports two feet up into the air and pistol-whips the woman in the temple. Her momentum carries her forward, and she lands on the woman's unconscious body with a thump.

She lurches back up onto her feet, the bare sole of her right foot crunching down on a sharp stone that distracts her for a split second. A blunt cudgel appears in the corner of her eye, and she whirls on her heel, bringing the pistol to bear -

Bec appears against a backdrop of galaxies and closes heavy jaws around the man's throat, tackling him to the ground. Unfazed, Jade coolly fires the pistol anyway, catching the orange-blooded troll that had been waiting behind the cudgel wielder smack in the middle of his chest. She rolls forward and puts a pistol away temporarily, rising to her feet with the orangeblood's Taser in hand. She fires it at the next man to come at her from the side, and he drops to the ground. Taser spent, she pulls out the pistol specibus again and loses herself in the fight.

She starts aiming for headshots, despite the risk of possible brain damage at this range. There are too many of them to pull her punches any more than she already has. As she spins and teleports between oncoming blows, she can see through brief glimpses that a good quarter of the Harley residence is in ruins, still smoking from the explosives these guys somehow snuck in to blow through the floor and reach the sublevels.

She can only assume that these are the same assholes who tried to fire a space-to-ground missile at the estate yesterday. She still wonders how they knew where to find her, but hey, she can wait on answers until after she's dealt with all twenty five thugs, total, that have been sent to blow up her goddamn house and ruin her experiment.

"And that one is for blowing up my good photonic crystal laser!" she spits, bringing the hilt of her pistol down on the back of a man's neck. As he falls forward she looks up, whirling to see where the next attack will be coming from.

She blinks as she realizes the field is full of unconscious bodies. Bec whuffles at her from where it sits on top of a troll a few yards away, and then lies down, at ease.

Oh. Well. I guess we took care of them all, Jade muses, still in a battle-haze as she stows the pistols away. Cool. She rolls her sore shoulder, but nothing feels strained. The bottoms of her feet are pretty torn up from the small chips of sharp rock that litter the ground, though, and when she gets an unimpeded view of the residence, she sticks out her tongue. Most of the easternmost wing has completely collapsed in on itself. She can see metal shield walls have shuttered down to cut off the intact portion of the manor from the gaping holes, but it's the principle of the thing, alright? They blew up her house!

"Straight to the nearest prison, okay, Bec?" Jade says, hands on her hips. "Do not pass Go. Blowing up Grandpa's house is the opposite of okay. Straight to the big house for these chuckleheads!"

Bec pants, a pale tongue lolling out of its mouth, and green lines expand outward from its back, stretching out in a rectangle that divides up into smaller, proportional rectangles that box in each unconscious assailant. All of them follow the golden ratio, as far as Jade can see, and after a flare of green fire the perfectly proportional series of rectangles vanishes, along with the bodies. Jade waits, bemused, for the wolf to reappear.

Then she remembers WV.

"Oh nooo!" she yelps, patting at her face and swatting herself before remembering she took her glasses off in the shower. No wonder that fight made her feel so dizzy! Jeez!

She pulls out the glasses from where she stored them in the sylladex and flips on the quantum filter again, slowly rotating in a circle even though her first instinct is to freak out and teleport-search the entire field in a grid formation, which just wouldn't work to find a person who doesn’t really exist half the time. The afterimage of Bec's mass teleportation takes a while to manually filter out, and Jade begins to think that either her hasty teleportation missed WV entirely, or she flung him too far in her hurry to get him to safety, and he's ended up in France or something -

A familiar buzzing shock jolts her elbow, as though she whacked her funny bone and the sensation got turned up to eleven. She exclaims with relief when the glasses' filter shows a tiny figure that barely comes up to her waist flicker in and out of stability by her side. WV is barely a cloud of atoms that can't quite form a real body, but she drops to her knees and tries to hug the space where he should be anyway, enduring the faint shocks whenever one of his super-charged particles is observed enough to collapse and brush against her own atoms.

Bec arrives a second later, minus about twenty five troll and human assailants, and Jade stands upright, putting her hands on her hips as she surveys the house again. After a few moments of speculatively staring at the damage, her spatial sense confirms that the sublevel they were working on earlier has completely collapsed in on itself, crushing the equipment and samples inside. Kind of a bummer. Darn.

She claps her hands together and grins. "Oh well! Looks like it's time for round two, WV! We're going to have to start from scratch in B-lab!"

-

It takes a while to locate B-lab's transportalizer. Grandpa's backup labs are much more difficult to find and unlock than his regular secret labs; the whole point is that if the first lab is compromised, the second will be ten times more secure. Which is smart, but also reeeally annoying when Jade is kind of in a time crunch, here. They can't afford to stay here much longer, not when they literally have missiles and unknown teams of assailants in black suits targeting them on purpose, but the next closest lab Jade can think of that might have all the equipment needed to perform the last tests on WV

Grandpa would probably scold her if he were here for getting so sidetracked from the instructions he gave her. But he also always told her to trust in her heart and do what feels right, and helping WV definitely feels like the right thing to do. Besides, she can clearly take whatever these bozos feel like throwing at her.

They finally find the transport pad hidden in a study on the fourth floor of the mansion, thankfully on the opposite side of the building from the demolished wing. WV goes down first, as before, and then Jade follows. She's worried about how having his molecules broken down and teleported by machine will affect the test results, if they even did the first time, but when she gets down to sublevel B the outline of WV shows no sign of distress.

Would she even be able to tell if he were in distress? She just has no way of knowing.

This time, she knows what she's looking for, though, which speeds up the process immensely. Between Bec's help and her own levitation abilities, Jade is able to rush headlong through repeats of the vital experiments she performed last night, running the Variable through the human-sized spectrometers and scanners that are essential to any good mad scientist hero's laboratory. The most difficult and time-consuming part is sampling some of WV's atoms directly, which involves waiting for the opportune moment, when Jade is able to observe one of his fingers directly by staring at the same spot for hours, and take a scraping from between stubby black claws to run through the analyzer.

She can't let herself fall asleep this time. Jade moves her stool away from the desk and sits in the middle of the room. She flips on the wifi-function of her glasses and starts surfing the web for a bit. She supposes that now would be a good time to send off another letter to her penpal, while she has nothing else to do!


-- gardenGnostic [GG] began pestering ghostyTrickster [GT] at 9:34:05 --
GG: hello john!
GG: sorry i haven't been able to write in a while - i got up to so many shenanigans these past few days! :DDD
GG: grandpa told me after i recalibrated some of the sensors for him, i should come see you right away, but i got really sidetracked. :P
GG: there was science, john! i couldn't resist the science!
GG: anyway, right now i'm trying to help out this guy i've been calling WV, and once i have these test results i think i'll be able to use my spacey powers to stabilize him!
GG: i already have an idea for how to do it, i just need to make sure he won't explode or something if i mess up~ :O
GG: also i've never tried using my powers this way before, but it can't be that hard, right?
GG: and Bec is here if i mess up!
GG: but after this I will definitely come visit you
GG: get ready - the Sharpshooter is headed your way! ;)
GG: oops! the carapace cultures are ready! gotta go!
GG: be safe john!
-- gardenGnostic [GG] began pestering ghostyTrickster [GT] at 9:43:12 --

Jade kicks off her stool and floats over to the beeping analyzer to spare her bandaged feet, snapping her glasses back into safety mode. After a few minutes spent reading over the printout of the results of the test, she grins. "Good news, WV!" she announces, spinning to face the empty space of countertop where the Variable has taken up residence. "I thiiiink I get what's going on with you! All of your quantum possibilities are firing at once, so we just need to narrow you down to your ideal self, the one you want to be observed as, and I should theoretically be able to collapse you down into one eigenstate." She droops a little as a thought occurs to her. "The only problem is, how are you going to tell me what you're supposed to look like? Oops…"

The cloud of quantum superposition leaves the counter top and makes for the computer monitor beside the analyzing unit. Jade had logged into it early, only to discover that this is, in fact, the infamous monitor 42 with the mansion's anti-missile launcher controls. Way to go, Grandpa, sticking the controls in the secondary lab…

With a spark and a violent whine, some of the WV's atoms brush up against the computer, and the screen flicks on. It doesn't display the login screen; instead, static fuzzes up the screen, occasionally lit up with streaks of green fire, like the kind Bec uses to get around. For a moment, Jade can half-see the form of a figure silhouetted against the distortion, as though she almost managed to observe WV head-on for the first time since he showed up in the back of her plane. She keeps her eyes open as long as she can, tearing up a little as she focuses on the minute form of a tiny carapacian.

The screen flares a bright white, and Jade can't stop the reflexive blink.

When she opens her eyes again, the WV can't be seen for a long moment while her glasses relocate him. He is back to being nothing more than a cloud of mostly air, his matter too unstable to register for long.

But on the screen, monitor 42 is analyzing something new. Jade approaches cautiously, careful not to walk into the middle of WV's personal bubble, because that would be sooo rude! The numbers and equations zoom by too quickly for Jade to catch them all, and she frowns as the coding for what appears to be ectobiological genetic markers flashes by.

And then the computer finishes processing whatever data WV fed into it, and a model appears on the screen. It is very basic and polygonal, the best representation of the data that the computer is able to produce. The figure is the size of a grade-schooler, with beetle-black carapace and a round head, blinking out of the screen with button-white eyes. It is swathed in faded greyish brown fabric, leaving only its spindly legs exposed.

"Is this you?" Jade asks, studying the data with renewed interest. Oh yes, this is exactly what she needs! All of the dimensions and details of WV's chemical makeup are here, the exact configuration of quantum states that the WV apparently considers his correct collapsed state. Jade plops down in the nearest stool and drags it closer, speed-reading through the lines of data as fast as she can. She can't afford to miss a single line, or she could mess up WV's entire vascular system.

Thankfully, the amount of data is...surprisingly short. Almost as though a lot of the most basic details of the Variable's body are clone-copies of an original genetic pattern. That would explain the ectobiological markers that show up everywhere - Jade doesn't know much about carapacians from the internet, but she does know they reproduce via cloning.

"You want to try this now? I bet we could get you stabilized and observed in time for lunch!" Jade says, rubbing her hands together with glee. "Wouldn't that be great?!"

There is really no way to tell if the violent tremor that runs through the cloud of atoms is an affirmative or a negation. But the WV doesn’t try to leave the room or anything when Jade waves it toward the center of the lab, or when she pulls down her lab goggles and puts on her Sharpshooter gloves. They help her focus her space powers too, which she’s going to need help with to pull of this kind of complex quantum manipulation.

Breathing in deeply, Jade raises her hands and frames the cloud of the Wandering Variable between the rectangle of her fingers. Her tongue slowly migrates out between her lips until it sticks out the side as she become engrossed in thought. Static electricity begins to arc between metal surfaces and computer monitors, buiding up in Jade's hair. She doesn't notice, too caught up in focusing on the WV in her mind's eye. Over in the corner, Bec whines in apprehension.

It isn't working. Jade bites down a bit, her tongue still stuck between her teeth, and frowns in concentration. She can feel exactly how she needs to do this, can see in her mind's eye how she means to nudge WV's particles just a little bit, isolate all the extra quantum states in space until all that's left is the basic being that is WV, not all the beings he could have been or not been.

Maybe - maybe she just needs to apply a little more power. She's been holding back, afraid of hurting the WV by accident, but - just a little more couldn't hurt. She pours on a little more power, and the floor begins to quake under her feet.

There is no warning. One moment, Jade is applying the barest minimum of pressure, trying and failing to push through a barrier that stubbornly refuses to let her through to the Variable's quantum possibility cloud. She's getting kind of frustrated, now; there's no logical reason why what she's doing just won't work. She has the skill and control and sheer power needed to pull this off - so what is she doing wrong? She grits her teeth and pushes -

Something gives, and a dark figure flickers into being across the lab from Jade.

At the same time, Jade's entire body explodes in pain, crushing pain that drops her. She lands hard on her knees but that's nothing compared to the pain of burning burning burning falling -

There is a loud pop as all the air is displaced from the room, and all of the contents of the lab, including the girl and the carapacian, vanish.

Bec follows its absent mistress a few moments later, unaffected by the massive explosion of green fire that radiates out from where Jade just stood, bursting upward through the floor of the mansion above and causing a second wave of destruction to rock the Harley estate.

The residence stands empty, the lower levels hollow, as though its contents have been scooped out with a spoon and deposited elsewhere. Just outside of Jade's range, a truck containing an array of spatial, temporal, and paradox sensors explodes in a flurry of activity, jolting the head Crew operative manning the outpost awake. By the time Clubs Deuce gets a handle on the situation, however, they have completely lost the trail of Sharpshooter.

-

Sydney, Australia

Oof.

Note to self: next time you want to stabilize a strange person into a single quantum state using only the power of your mind? Don't.

It feels like Jade's brain is about to burst out through the front of her skull. Groaning, she covers her face with her hands, unable to work up the motivation to open her eyes. The air temperature seems to have skyrocketed, and she can feel sunlight (burning) on her skin. So at the very least, whatever the heck just happened, it looks like she managed to blow through another roof. Grandpa would be so proud.

"Bec? WV?" she croaks at last, her throat dry and gritty. She opens her eyes and regrets it instantly; the setting sun is obscenely bright, and she shuts her eyes against the burn.

Wait. The setting sun?

She touches the side of her glasses, still unwilling to open her eyes again. "Computer, what time zone am I in?" The voice-activated responder does not reply, and Jade is forced to crack open her eyes again to see that the power level displayed in the corner of the frames is dead. Great - now how will she keep track of WV?

If he's even still alive. If whatever knocked Jade out hasn't done damage to his quantum state that can't be repaired.

A pair of white eyes appear over her head, tiny white lines underscoring them as they stare quizzically down at her. A second figure also appears, the more familiar, reassuring eyeless face of Bec. "Oh. Hey." Jade says, rubbing at her eyes one last time. "Bec, have you seen -"

She stops, and sits upright, nearly whacking Bec in the chin as she does so. She flips around onto her knees and stares at the short, shadowy figure kneeling next to Bec. "WV?" she whispers.

The carapacian nods wildly, flinging his arms around as he gestures in quick succession at himself, Jade, and the sky. It seems like some kind of sign language maybe, but Jade doesn't understand a word of it. Even when he moves his mouth a little - though not nearly enough for the amount of information he seems to be trying to convey - no sound comes out, and he seems to become frustrated by this. Jade can only stare, bemused and uncomprehending.

He hiccups in a last paroxysm of this desperate attempt at speech. For a moment, his whole body turns into bright green and white plasma, kind of like the greenish fire Bec uses to teleport sometimes. WV doesn't teleport anywhere, but he does seem shocked after he settles back into a normal black shell, patting at his body and filthy bandages as though to reassure himself he's still all there.

Oops. Jade gets the distinct feeling that the green fire might be her fault. But she can't really feel too guilty about it when holy cow, it actually worked! WV is (almost) totally stabilized!

Behold, the power of science!

"Ahaha, don't worry, I'm sure I can fix that!" Jade laughs, dragging the tiny carapacian into a headlock and giving him a noogie with her knuckles. He squirms and shakes his head in silent protest, but his whole body shakes with giggles that sound like strangled gasps . He hiccups again and is a burst of green flame for a second before solidifying. It doesn't burn, really, which Jade is really, really grateful for!

Now, all she has to do is figure out where she is. Tilting her head to the side, she tries her space powers. After this whole weird day, she really hopes she hasn't broken her powers or something -

Her eyes pop open, and she lets go of WV to grab the sides of her head in shock. "We're in Australia?! John is nowhere near Australia! Aggghhh!"

WV sits back and listens to the Witch's confused wailing as she tries to figure out how she crossed half a planet when her previous range has always been limited to a few hundred meters. He pats Bec hesitantly, and when the wolf merely rests its head on its paws, he decides that despite the scary shape of the wolf's head, they might be able to get along. After all, Bec hasn't tried to kill him all this past week.

The Witch may not be able to hear his words anymore, but honestly, WV's just happy to be alive again.

Everything else can wait.

-

A few hours later, a cloaked figure comes to a halt before the wreckage of the Harley estate in Britain. What little hadn't been destroyed in the explosion earlier in the day is now smoldering with green fire.

It had travelled here as quickly as possible, but it seems it still missed her by a good amount of time. Shaking its head, the figure begins to fly up into the air, lifted by bright red rocket shoes with yellow flames down the side. Not exactly the figure's sense of style, really, but it hasn’t yet figured out how to create rocket-based transport devices without the flames. It seems to be a multiversal constant, a fundamental property of paradox space, that all rocket shoes must be red with yellow flames.

Once it comes to a halt over top of the destroyed residence, the figure makes a noise that may or may not be a sigh.

The blast radius from Jade's takeover has left a mark scorched into the foundations of the house, easily visible from any eyes watching from above.

Some may have described the scorched shape as a Borjgali, a Georgian symbol of the sun, or as a spiral galaxy, with six arms curling in whorls of green fire and grey smoke.

The figure knows this to be the symbol of Space, and bows its head. It can no longer feel weariness or weakness in its body, but it still feels a kind of mental exhaustion within the parts of its brain that are still organic. It has always known this day would come.

Jade has become more than a simple manipulator of Space. From this moment on, they will never stop hunting her.

Which means, of course, that the figure above the Harley residence will simply have to guard her from afar.

It's about time it began to give these Crew ruffians a piece of its mind.

-

Somewhere in the continental United States...

Diamonds Droog adjusts the cuffs of her suit jacket with precision, tucking in a stray thread that she makes a mental note to remove at some later point. She has an open slot of time from 10:15 to 10:17 tomorrow morning, and if there is one thing she can always make time for, it is a stray thread. One must always look one's best, after all. If there is one thing she cannot abide, it is an ill-tailored suit.

She must always look impeccable, and she holds her subordinates up to the same standards, naturally. Hearts, Clubs, and their barbaric ruffians can flout uniform protocol all they like; when Diamonds is in charge of an operation, not a stitch may be out of place. The Midnight Crew has an image to maintain, and if Diamonds must be the only one to enforce that image, so be it.

As she strides through the corridors, the tail of her suit jacket fluttering slightly and the heels of her shoes clicking, the peons around her shrink back against the walls. The combination of her cue-stick strife specibus and her (admittedly) short temper inspire exactly the degree of awe and intimidation in her subordinates that she has found can shape an obedient, efficient crew out of a pack of otherwise lawless hooligans.

After ascending a flight of stairs, Diamonds finds herself on the tenth floor, dedicated to questionable accounting and stock manipulation. Not her division - she's more of the covert affairs and kidnapping cut, herself. No, this floor is part of the Felt's territory, and she bristles at the garish, pale green décor. Ever since the new big shot took over and merged the two gangs into one crew, she has been visually assaulted by this abominable hue on a regular basis. She has even taken to performing more field operations in person, rather than simply directing lackeys to do her will, solely to escape the sickly wash of green. Alas. Her struggle is real.

Speaking of these useless pawns. Just as Diamonds finishes bracing herself to pass through the crowded desks of human and troll thralls scribbling and typing away at their desks in the bullpen* that lies between her and the stairs to the eleventh floor (her final destination), a tiny man in a ghastly green suit scurries around the corner, his trim hat's pale purple color clashing offensively with everything else he's wearing, right down to the matching felt green bowtie.

He crashes into her right as she steps out into the main room, the stack of papers clutched in his arms flying everywhere and littering the repulsive green carpet with sheets of paper. Diamonds remains upright, barely jolted by such a weak impact, while the Felt operative topples backward and hits the ground.

Diamonds is about to smirk and sweep away, leaving the pathetic man to make his fawning apologies to her back, when the unthinkable occurs.

Her hat falls off.

The hair underneath, of course, is flawless, an elegant coif worthy of a 1930s debutante styled to survive being hidden under a hat for most of the day. But Diamonds must watch, frozen, as her equally elegant hat, the one specifically crafted to match this particular suit, floats to the floor, the brim bent at a strange angle as it comes to a stop.

"You bent my hat," she says hollowly, aware that her lips are parted in a most uncouth, gawking stare.

"O-oh! I'm sorry, sir - ma'am!" the Felt operative stutters, but that one slip up costs him any of Diamonds's remaining good will, such as it is. She extends her cue-stick to its full length with a flick her wrist, and winds up like a batter. "I didn't mean it-!" the Felt shrieks, scrambling to his feet and trying to back away from her with his hands raised beseechingly.

She brings the cue stick around with all the strength of a major league baseball player, and the cue-stick slams into the Felt man's ribs. He goes flying backwards and, with a crash, he crashes through the outside window. The force of the impact actually breaks not just the window glass but the window frame itself, huge chucks of the wall on either side flying out into open air along with shards of glass and the Felt operative himself. His scream of flailing panic slowly dies out in volume as he falls out of sight.

Still seething, Diamonds takes out a lighter and stoops to pick up her fallen hat. She sets it on fire and watches with an impassive expression until the last of the disgraced article of headgear burns away, and she lets the final smoldering piece fall to the ground before crushing out the embers with her heel. Then she places her spare hat on her head, and smiles. Perfect.

The balance of the universe thus restored and all due final respects paid to a fine piece of headwear, Diamonds adjusts her dapper hat and smirks at the horrified thralls, all of whom have looked up from their mindless paper-shuffling to gape at her and the new hole in the wall. "Relax. The fool is too lucky to let a little fall kill him," she says, collapsing her cue-stick with a brisk flick of her wrist and placing it back in the inside pocket of her suit jacket. Smoothing her suit jacket and brushing a fleck of green debris from her pants, she strides through the middle of the desks, away from the evidence of her wanton violence.

Though she presents a confident front for the peons - and, truthfully, is quite pleased herself with the outcome of that little encounter - she knows that when she reaches the eleventh floor she'll have to explain herself to the big man. Urgh. He doesn't approve of infighting between the Felt and the Crew's aces, and his disapproval can be...unpleasant. Clubs, of course, blindly obeys the restrictions, and probably has the best relationship with these felt green nightmares, but Clubs is a bumbling fool at the best of times. As much as it sticks in her craw that someone as useless as Clubs has a better record than her in any way, she can't help it. Sometimes it's like these Felt go out of their way to rouse her ire.

But hey. Diamonds is the bearer of good news for once. Or at the least, very promising news. Between her own spy network's latest intel, and the babbling reports she's been intercepting from Clubs out in the field, she's fairly certain the boss will cut her a little slack on the whole 'use of needless and excessive force against allies' front.

Still, she's apprehensive as she approaches the dark green door at the head of the stairs. Quite aside from being a repulsive shade of green, this door has always given her the heebie jeebies. Maybe it's the bizarre, strange carvings and unfamiliar words engraved in the stained green wood; maybe it's just the creepy aura of the big man bleeding through. Either way, Diamonds makes sure her gloves are firmly in place before rapping on the door with the back of her knuckles, affecting as much of a carefree demeanor as she can.

Oh, do come in, Droog. I've been expecting you for quite some time. I'm sure the business of punting poor Clover out of the building must have been a vitally important delay.

Oh, balls.

The door opens soundlessly, without even a decent creak to match its creepy aura. Schooling her expression into confident boredom, Diamonds straightens her tie and walks through the open door.

The room within is plush and richly decorated, and it is a testament to the boss's good taste that the only flaw Diamonds can find with the interior design is the abominable color scheme. There is a fire crackling in the hearth, though it does nothing to alleviate the dead cold of the air. Diamonds highly suspects the hearth is only for show, as the fire within is a bright green, and flickers out of existence every few seconds. There is a bowl of Swedish fish by the door and she fights the compulsion for all of five seconds before giving in, reaching out with greedy fingers to start shoveling the delectable treats into her outside pockets. She doesn't know how the Doctor always predicts correctly which candy to place by the door, given that every member of the Crew has a different unnatural predilection, but he has never failed to tempt her with these blasted things every time she thinks her visits will surprise him.

She's resigned to the fact that he'll already know exactly the news she comes to report. Her entire division of the Crew often feels more than a little redundant, given that any news she brings seems to be old news to the Doctor. He simpers and panders to her and assures her that her work is quite necessary. The way he's explained it, the one time he deigned to acknowledge her concerns about being replaced, he has some way of knowing (nearly) everything Diamonds knows. However, he requires Diamonds's work to ferret out the information in the first place, before he can pluck it from her mind and draw his own conclusions. Something about an "abnormally high level of Void background interference" in the air.

Sounds like a load o' bull to Diamonds, but then, so does most of the Felt's blathering about their temporal experiments. She doesn't much care; as long as she gets to keep doing what she good at and gets paid quite handsomely to do so, she's more than willing to put up with this all-knowing crap.

"Sir. I have something of significance to report," she says, still reluctantly pocketing the Swedish fish. She knows from experience she can fight the urge all she wants - by the end of this meeting, she will be scraping at the bottom of the bowl with her fingernails, hunting for the last morsels of artificially flavored treat. "Though of course, I am certain you are already aware of it."

Do not be petulant, Droog, not in front of the company. Your work is invaluable, as you well know. I am indeed aware of the goings-on in New York, but only because the media outlets are covering the explosion in Albany as we speak. My guest has just arrived to discuss it, in fact.

Diamonds controls her expression, but then she sees exactly who is lounging on a chaise lounge by the window, absorbed in tapping away on a slim fuchsia cell phone.

Diamonds knows that the only reason the Crew has been able to expand and profit as well as it has over the years since the corporate takeover is due to the Doctor's uncanny, illustrious connections with several major figures in the government and the justice system. But she had no idea the Doctor's connections in the upper echelons reached quite that high. It is one thing to have the Vice President in your boss's pocket, and quite another to find Her Imperious Condescension with her Grand Culling Fork leaning on the wall beside her.

This is...unnerving. She should have known about this. With a spy network as intricate and wide spread and well trained as her own, something as huge as this should not have slipped between the cracks.

When the undisputed economic and political powerhouse of the entire world shows no sign of looking up from her phone, completely engrossed in whatever is on the screen that involves so much tapping, Diamonds shakes off the unpleasant surprise and refocuses on the back of her employer's chair. The Doctor is facing away from her, looking over an intricate chessboard. He'd once called it a Mobius net, but to Diamonds it just looks like someone crumpled up a piece of paper and arranged it in a ring around an inner blue sphere.

He moves a single piece into position, so miniaturized to fit on the minute squares that she can't even identify it, though she thinks it may be black with lavender accents. Not your standard chess set, to say the least.

Is there anything I can assist you with, Droog? Something else appears to be on your mind, aside from the reappearance of the Seer in a reversed aspect.

Diamonds blinks. It seems strange that the Doctor hasn't just told her the news while pretending to couch it in all-knowing certainty, but if he really wants her to say it first, she can oblige. "It's - well. It's about the Heir in Seattle. A few hours ago the paradox sensors spiked, and his signature disappeared from Seattle. He is now in the greater Houston area, though as usual the Puppeteer's efforts make it difficult to pin down an exact location. Our agent's suspicions have been confirmed - the Heir is no mere wind-manipulator; he has begun to alter the fundamental laws of reality."

There is a pause, and then the Doctor swivels around in his chair. Diamonds folds her hands behind her back, the collapsed cue stick slipped up one sleeve just in case. No matter how often she tells herself that the smooth, unyielding surface of the Doctor's head must be a mask, an anonymous disguise, she can't quite believe it. It is perfectly spherical and pale as bone, and its lack of features leaves his expressions and tells a mystery. She can never read if he's upset or enraged or excited; he is simply, eternally, composed.

She does, however, detect a note of surprise when he speaks next, his words a crackle of white and lime green in her brain.

I suspected as much. Thanks to this universe's active attempts to stymie my foresight, however, I simply couldn't be sure. In a world populated by such over-powered life forms, after all, there have been more than a few false alarms over wind-users in the past. Thank you for informing me of the gap in my knowledge, Droog.

"I - you're welcome, sir," she replies, feeling a little as though the rug has been pulled out from under her. The Doctor has never admitted to ignorance before; even his confession about only being 'nearly' omniscient always rang hollow. "What step should we take next?"

The Doctor pulls open the drawer of his grandiose desk. Then, even as Diamonds observes, intrigued, he lifts up a false bottom to reveal several small chess pieces. He plucks out a bright blue figurine and begins to study the intricate chess board once more.

Clubs has also reported that he wishes to confirm the Witch's presence in Britain, as I am sure you are well aware. Combined with the temporal disturbances we confirmed around the Knight several years ago, it is quite safe to say that they are all active once more. There was a very real possibility that they would be born years apart, scattered throughout time and space. That they were born and have begun to reactivate within such a short period of time...is fortuitous.

"You sure 'bout that, Doc?" the Condesce says, the first words she has spoken since Diamonds entered the room. She doesn't look up from her phone though, and in fact puts the screen closer to her face as her deadly claws tap away faster and faster, the light of the game flashing across her reflective goggles until - "Oh, hell no, this fuckin' candy game is kickin' mah glubbin' ass. #fuckinbullshit #cullthismotherfucker"

Did - did she just say hashtags -

I wouldn't go down that road, Droog. Greater minds than yours have been broken attempting to comprehend the intricate, unfathomable nature of our good friend's chosen linguistic vernacular. And yes, my dear Condescension, it is excellent news indeed that all four have risen in such quick succession. They are already being drawn together - they can't help it.

"Hell yeah, fucking color bombs," the cultural figurehead of all trollkind mutters to herself, her untamed masses of fuchsia-tinged black hair twitching as she rolls over on the lounge seat, lying on her stomach with the phone resting in front of her as she continues to play Candy Crush. "Yeah, Doc, maybe lettin' a buncha super-powered lil shits team up ain't the best idea. NGL, I think we could still cull 'em afore they, yah know, rise up an' wreck our glubbin' shit. Jussayin'."

"Pull Clubs out of the field and reassign his agents to me, and I could give you the Heir's new location within days, Doctor," Diamonds adds, wanting to throw a metaphorical hat into the ring. Excitement clutches in her throat, and she wants to squirm with delight at this wonderful opportunity. Here is a chance to personally kidnap the four heroes that have been the object of the Crew's time for nearly as long as the Doctor has been in charge. Better still, with the Heir halfway across the country from Seattle, Hearts is going to look like a fucking idiot when he misses out on capturing the hero in person.

And maybe after they take care of these four miscreants, the Crew can finally get back to what it does best - delicious, elegant criminal works - instead of being constantly distracted by the Doctor's weird obsession with these kids.

Oh, no. One cannot simply rush the game, Droog. There is an order to these things. A proper sequence of events, however convoluted it may appear from your perspective. I'm afraid you lack the context to make any informed decisions about this matter just yet. Suffice to say that while your enthusiasm does not go unappreciated, now that we have confirmed the four, all active members of the Crew are to follow gradual escalation protocol. Tell Hearts to return to base before he attempts to go crashing about on an ill-advised rampage. Three explosions in under a week tells me he's getting far too worked up.

"...Of course. Shall I recall Clubs as well?" Diamonds asks, her shoulders slumping a little. "He recently requisitioned a low earth orbit-to-ground missile launch and sent an entire team of covert agents to confront the Witch. Both operations proved a waste of time and financial resources -"

"Bitch, I gotchu fuckin' covered," the Condesce interrupts. She is now playing with only one hand, using the palm of the other to rest her chin on. Her slim feet kick in the air absently. "M'rollin' in the big boonbucks, you feel me? #blingblingmothafuckas"

"Boonbucks?" Diamonds is thoroughly lost. She's never heard of such a thing before, and the hashtags have become rather distracting.

The troll holds up a sparkly, pink block in response. No really, it glitters all over with an opalescent hue, and Diamonds is immediately intrigued. She can't identify the mineral that makes up the majority of the block, but she can damn well extrapolate that the material must be quite rare and quite valuable.

Concentrated, compressed majyyks, utilized as units of arbitrary monetary value by a select oblivious few.

"So it's fake money," Diamonds says, disgusted. What is the point of fake money? Counterfeiting is yet another despised Felt division, and she holds no truck with it. She has earned a living throughout her life with good old-fashioned conspiracy, ransom, and espionage, and has never had to stoop so low as to printing her own cash to pay for her suits.

"It's glubbin' real money if dis bitch says so. DWI," the Condesce snaps, scratching behind a long horn at the horn bed buried in her hair. "You got anythin' else we needta get our heart to hearts on about, Doc? There'sa snippy lil basic bitch Imma have to cull if she gets any more uppity on my turf while I ain't around. #bitchezain'tshitttt"

Yes, your complaints about the young heiress do grow tiresome and unconstructive. By all means, I believe this meeting is adjourned. Droog, a moment of your time after our good friend takes her leave.

"Yeah, yeah, you got it, Doctor," Diamonds says, fingers tightening around the handle of her cue-stick as the fuchsia-blooded troll growls at her phone one last time and clicks off the screen, placing it within a pocket of her skin tight suit. She wraps a hand around the balance point of her 2x3dentkind and stands up.

She barely comes up to Diamonds's ribs.

Diamonds has to do a double-take, not sure what she's witnessing, and then fights the urge to step closer to the troll for comparison purposes when the Condesce makes for the back of the room. Diamonds is devastatingly tall of course, and her high heels simply elevate her further, but she'd expected the most infamous, long-lived troll in history to be a little more - well, imposing. But no, she's...she's...shrimpy.

Diamonds has never felt more ashamed of a mental pun in her entire life. It takes everything in her not to remove her hat and resign on the spot. And from the way the Doctor's head tilts toward her and an amused green chuckle crackles in her skull, he knows.

This is humiliating.

Instead, long, slim horns make up for in height what the rest of the Condesce's body lacks. It is more than a little off-putting. As Diamonds watches, the troll walks to the enormous green grandfather clock by the fireplace and pulls the front panel open. Whistling something that sounds suspiciously like 'Beez in the Trap,' the Condesce steps into the clock and - vanishes. Diamonds squints, trying to see into the clock because what, but after a moment the panel shuts itself with a series of mechanical clicks, and is still.

Well, it makes about as much sense as anything else in this damn room.

"What did you want to talk about, boss?" she asks, folding her arms across her chest, careful to arrange them so that the white diamond insignia on her lapel remains visible. "You got something for me to do?"

Oh, just two final matters I'd like to clear up. First and foremost, I wished to assure you that poor Clover survived the ten story flight you helped him to achieve, but he most graciously does not wish to press charges. A most fortuitous turn of events.

Diamonds just rolls her eyes and sighs internally.

DS: Second, though I do not wish you to see this as a reward for your earlier actions - I have an assignment for you. Something to get you out in the field. You are clearly growing restless if you have begun ejecting my agents out of windows during business hours over an admittedly very dapper hat and a shade of green that you find disagreeable.

Diamonds straightens up. "You've got my attention, boss."

Excellent. Now tell me - are you familiar with the name Spades Slick?

Chapter Text

For the first three seconds after the blast, Karkat can’t believe he’s still alive. His body feels numb, as though he got slammed by an icy cold wave of water rather than a concussive blast. He can taste the adrenaline running through his veins as a bitterness in his mouth, sharp and unpleasant, and even has the mental clarity to wish his powers didn’t let him taste chemicals in his bloodstream – it’s fucking nasty. He blinks his eyes, and gets about five seconds worth of a hazy view of the night sky overhead before the pain comes crashing down.

Fuu-uck!” he gasps, his hand fumbling as he clutches his side. He had been crouched at an angle to the flashlight bomb, and he thinks he remembers covering his head with his arms in the seconds between his realization and the detonation. His arms feel as though they’ve been scraped raw, and there is a throbbing ache in the side of his calf, but the most pressing pain emanates from the left side of his ribs. As his hands press against his side, he immediately regrets that decision; something metallic and sharp-edged is wedged up around between his ribs. He can’t tell how deep it goes.

Fuck.

Even around the pain that radiates through his torso, Karkat is aware of just how very fucked he is. The bomb hadn’t been powerful enough to kill him or throw him off the roof, obviously, but that’s part of the problem: he’s just been blown up on top of the police station in charge of most of Seattle, and the anti-terror unit could show up any fucking second and decide to arrest his ass for being at the scene of the crime.

As he rolls onto his stomach, letting loose a torrent of unimaginative swearing (yeah, let’s see you try to think up creative new insults when you’ve got shrapnel jabbing at your lungs, nubfucker), he gapes in silent pain again, throat working to swallow down a scream. He has to rest his forehead on the roof, closing his eyes and breathing in uneven spasms. The roof is cold, despite the recent goddamn explosion, and a piece of rock digs into his skin between his eyebrows. He can feel that his mask has survived the blast, but when he lists to one side, panting, one prosthetic horn does not quite come up even with the other. They’re both supposed to curve forward, past his profile, but if he can lean his forehead down to touch the ground, then – yeah, the left horn feels as though it has cracked all the way through, and the tip has broken off.

Shit. Hopefully he can do this before the cops arrive and see his false horns mutilated, because he’s not going anywhere until he heals this side wound. Fighting through the threat of unconsciousness, Karkat zones out, focusing on the pain beating through his blood until all he can feel and see is red.

The pain simultaneously grows distant, and intensifies; he is aware of every minute nuance of the damage that has been done to his body, but also better able to ignore it from this perspective. If these were just simple cuts, he could simply reverse the damage by drawing the blood back up to quickly scab over the wound and heal in a matter of seconds. Hey, power over blood – it has its perks.

But the raw rash running down his arms is a series of burns, running the gamut from first to second degree depending on what angle the arm had been facing the blast, with little flecks of shrapnel speckling his skin. And burns are tricky, to say the least. Gritting his teeth, Karkat urges blood to well up, washing out infection and forming long, thin strips of scabbing. It’s a quick fix – it’ll keep the burn from getting infected until he can rinse it off and treat it properly. He leaves smears of drying red blood behind on the roof when he hesitantly shifts his arms, but he can do no more than grimace at the marks, and trust that since he’s never had his blood drawn, the police won’t have a sample to match it to.

There’s a slice along the back of his calf, and he deals with that in seconds, sighing with relief as he knits the skin together and the pain instantly dies off. The arms still sting when he stretches the skin, but now he only has one major source of pain left to deal with before he can get the fuck out of here.

…The longer he leaves that fucker in there, the more likely the chance Karkat will fuck up again and twist his torso the wrong way, and end up with the shard of metal stabbing right through his lung. The only way this is going to heal is if - Yep. Fuck. No choice. The shrapnel’s gotta come out.

This is quite possibly the stupidest thing he has ever contemplated doing in a very short but rather busy life of contemplating myriad acts of stupidity. This may well make the top five, right up there with allowing Crabdad to choose him as a wriggler. Most people would argue that a grub lacks the sentience to know such things as right from wrong, or to protest a lusus choosing them. Karkat would say sentience is fucking overrated, and that past-Karkat should have taken one look at that fatass and wriggled in the other direction as fast as his tiny mutant nubs could carry him.

Before he can lose himself in another tangent and talk himself out of this latest act of stupidity, he just does it. Curling up on his right side, Karkat wraps a gloved hand around the blood-slicked shrapnel in his side and pulls and ohfuckohfuckohnublickingfuck why is past-Karkat such an idiot?!

Karkat chokes out a whining scream, slamming his other fist against the roof. Hissing out a breath, he finishes the job, probably ripping edges as he turns the entry wound into an exit wound. He brings the piece of shrapnel up to his face, unleashing the full force of his righteous glare upon the offending scrap of metal. It looks a lot smaller than it felt, and is absolutely coated in bright crimson blood. Throwing the metal to the side, offended by its impudence in daring to stab Karkat motherfucking Vantas, Karkat presses his hand right up against the open wound. His side is damp and warm with blood, but now there’s nothing in the wound preventing him from just closing it up.

There’s some muscle damage that will take longer to heal on its own, but Karkat reaches into the blood rapidly pulsing out of his veins and tugs it back into its proper place. The veins reattach and seal themselves up, and he knits together what skin he can before letting a scab coagulate over the area. Peeling away the tatted edges of his suit and the Kevlar lining, Karkat sits and props himself up against the wall of the stairwell, counting backward from ten in his head. By the time he does, the scab cracks and falls off, and all that’s left is blood-smeared grey skin where the stab wound used to be.

Well. Alright. Way to go, mutant powers, at long last you have justified just a tiny fraction of the life-threatening hassle and apprehension you have caused me every day of my life, he thinks. He only feels about half as bitter as usual. Shaking his head, Karkat stands carefully. He still feels shocky all over from the surprise and sheer impact of the explosion, but considering he just survived a bomb from three feet away, he’s feeling surprisingly chipper.

Note to self: never use the word ‘chipper’ in conjunction with one Karkat Vantas ever again. Ever. He’s making this a universal law. Seriously, he will personally ascend to Raging Fuckass levels of godhood and smite any dumbfucks who so much as think that word in his presence again.

Shuddering, Karkat gets his feet under him, bracing with both hands against the wall as he slowly slides up into an upright position. His left side aches a warning from the muscles, and then is quiet. The overwhelming pain has almost completely subsided, but he’s going to feel this one in the morning.

He cracks his neck from side to side, trying to work the kinks out of his system, and then scans the roof, taking in the damage. A dark blast pattern radiates out in a three foot wide circle from the spot where the flashlight had been set up. There’s no sign of the reflecting mirror or the note left by Hearts – they’ve either been incinerated or tossed off the roof entirely.

That much of the note was true, though. Hearts had said something about not having orders to kill Heir. With such a small blast and Heir’s skill with using the wind as a defense mechanism, Karkat is willing to bet he wouldn’t have been badly damaged at all. Heir certainly wouldn’t have been unlucky enough to take a wad of metal to the ribcage. No, this had been intended as a warning shot, and Karkat just happened to waltz up and stick his cartilage nub in where it didn’t belong.

Except of course, this is Hemogoblin’s new partner the Crew wanted to blow up. One could argue this is, in fact, exactly where he belongs. Especially since Heir is still missing in action after not one, but two, explosions.

For the first time since the explosion went off, Karkat is able to switch back over from survival mode into a more heroic mindset. Hemogoblin steps away from the wall, twisting his tattered arm guards absently until they mostly cover the scabby, blistering burned sections. He’s going to need to replace a lot of his costume after tonight, which is a pain, but for the most part the skintight Kevlar and neoprene did its job. This could have been a lot worse.

Now then. If Hearts and his phony lawyer took off just after the initial explosion Karkat witnessed, they’ve probably only been running for about fifteen minutes, now. The problem is, a gang as well-funded as the Midnight Crew seems to be probably had an escape vehicle waiting to pick them up, and they could have taken off in any direction in the ensuing confusion. By wasting time getting blown up, he may have lost the opportunity to pick up their trail at all.

But maybe he hasn’t completely fucked himself over.

Heir may have flown into that fight the other night from above, but Hemogoblin snuck in from behind, circling around until he found a good vantage point from which to back Heir up in the firefight. If he’s right about what he saw while he weaved his way through the maze of containers to catch the Crew off guard, he believes that Hearts will at least make a quick stop at Dock C before fucking off to parts unknown. At the very least, there might be some residual Crew members hanging around there he can interrogate.

It’s not much. But it’s better than nothing.

Hemogoblin hightails it for waterfront. If he remembers correctly, there’s a certain dock in the container port with some contents the police might have missed.

-

He doesn’t see the members of the Seattle bomb squad who flood onto the roof seconds after he begins loping across the rooftops.  He doesn’t look back as they spread out and search the roof for more explosive devices, and eventually locate a puddle of candy red blood, drying into a rusty, copper brown stain in the half-light of the moon.

He doesn’t think anything of it.

Why should he?

-

Most of the docks along the Seattle central waterfront are ferry terminals and cruise ship docks, the vestigial piers reclaimed for use as parks and boardwalks for tourists. But just to the south lies the container port yard, where most of the maritime trading in Seattle now occurs. As he approaches, the number of roofs he can travel across peter out, and Hemogoblin has to drop to the ground and sprint across the road, then scale the fence and neatly flip over the top into the container yard. He pays for the deft flip with a spasm of pain from his ribs when he lands hard on the other side, but he pushes through it, sticking to the shadows where the too-bright industrial lighting from overhead doesn’t quite reach.

He creeps through the rows, and knows when he sees a line of yellow police tape flapping in the slight breeze ahead that he’s at least in the general vicinity of the site of the showdown on Wednesday.

The line of tape has been cut.

Eyes narrowing, Hemogoblin rises up onto the balls of his feet, and continues down the row with more caution, listening carefully. The heavy, crunching tread of boots on gravel alerts him long before he sees the person round the corner, and he slips back into the narrow space between two containers like a sigh. Crouching in the shadows, he watches a cerulean-eyed troll stalk by the opening. The troll is in a black suit, which bodes very, very well. After one last disguise check – his false horn had nearly fallen off during the race to reach the docks earlier, and is still rather unsteady thanks to the crack running through it – he scales the towering stack of containers noiselessly, slithering on top of the stack and keeping his belly low against the roof of the container as he surveys the container yard from above.

And yeah, it’s still here. A squat, bulky container ship sits heavy by the loading dock beyond the rows of containers, its sides a rusty and nondescript maroon-brown mix, and the name at the prow just a string of letters and numbers in faded white paint, difficult to make out from this distance. More significant, to Hemogoblin at least, is the series of four containers that stand open in the harsh lighting, a few rows over from the clearing where the Crew had confronted Heir. Leaning to the side a little, he can see a black-clad figure standing guard, and the mysterious unlabeled crates within that had perked his interest the last time he passed through here.

He’d found this little setup while evading debris from the miniature tornado Heir whipped up Wednesday night. It had kind of slipped his mind afterward. Okay, fine, it was shoved violently to the side to make room for the extreme internal fangirling that ensued while he accepted Heir’s offer of partnership. Hey, he could either forget temporarily about the shipment of stolen goods that he’d assumed the police would find anyway, or he could squeal like a mewbeast in excitement and make himself look like a pancracked lunatic in front of Heir.

…He has his priorities, okay? And he really did have every reason to believe the cops who came to arrest the members of the Crew would at least bother to search the nearby shipping containers – isn’t that kind of investigation 101? But judging by the slightly scruffy black suits worn by the two trolls patrolling the rows and the female human guarding the open end of the large container, a wicked looking pistolkind in her hand, the police not only missed out on a few members of the Crew, they also forgot to check for and confiscate whatever stolen goods the Crew seem to be shipping out tonight. Sloppy.

But it may well pay off in the long run. Past-Hemogoblin’s forgetfulness means that current-Hemogoblin has an advantage he might otherwise not have. He may not have done it on purpose, but he can sure as hell work that angle if anyone tries to say otherwise. Clearly, he is a criminal activity predicting machine, and thanks to his innate talent for cunning, subtle manipulationand his associated degree in guilefoolery, he now has the Crew right where he wants them.

He searches the rows again, this time picking out the rumbling shape of a forklift as it returns from dumping off one of the suspicious containers on the deck of the squat shipping rig. He can’t identify who is driving it until it comes closer, at which point a human male leans out, signals at one of the patrolling Crew members, and trundles on to retrieve the next container. Hemogoblin growls under his breath.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like Hearts Boxcars is here. Hemogoblin is painfully aware of how much slower his method of transit is across the city; he still gets chills when he remembers how it felt to fly with Heir, how quickly the ground had sped by beneath them as the wind ushered them along. But for whatever reason, Heir isn’t patrolling tonight. (Hemogoblin has accepted this must be the case by now, though it still worries him – how badly would Heir have to be hurt to be off the job on a night like this?) And given Hemogoblin’s much slower rate of travel, Hearts Boxcars should have beaten him here in a vehicle.

Hemogoblin eases forward to peer over the edge of the container stack again, very aware of the empty air behind his back. He hadn’t known how reassuring it was to know Heir patrolled the skies until that assurance was gone.

Then he hears a distinct, loud rattling, and he slithers backward to the center of his perch, raising his head to watch as the front gate of the shipping yard creaks open, admitting a pitch black car. The vehicle has neither plates nor identifying car brands on it. It drives to the edge of the narrower container rows before purring to a stop. The driver emerges first, and the human nods in familiar greeting to the Crew woman who steps out from the container to meet him.

The second person to exit the vehicle is Hearts Boxcars.

Hemogoblin shouldn’t have beat them here on foot, even if he did haul serious ass to make it on time. They must have stopped along the way, or maybe lost time evading police traffic stops or traffic cams. Either way, it looks as though Hemogoblin’s hunch has paid off. At last, something happens this catastrophe-riddled night that actually manages to go right. Hemogoblin lets a slow smile creep across his face as he silently observes the hulking form of Hearts address the gang members who gather around him. 

"I want all of the goods outta here by dawn," Hearts is saying. "The boss wants us gone yesterday. And any damage to the goods I take outta your hides, got it?"

There is a chorus of "yessirs," and then the members of the Crew scatter, the guards helping the forklift driver to line up with one of the last containers.

So, the Crew is definitely leaving town, at least for now. Hemoglobin wonders if two encounters with Heir and being arrested were really enough of a turn off for them to completely give up, but it's not like he knows shit about how the inner workings of a criminal enterprise operate. Maybe they've decided Seattle is just too risky an investment, and have chosen to cut their loses.

Unfortunately for them, Hemogoblin takes exception to being blown up by a bunch of pansy-ass fuckwads. Maybe before he had hunted them down because they were particularly violent criminals who needed to be stopped; now he's more than a little pissed. And Karkat in a pissy mood doesn't let things go. If Hearts Boxcars thinks he can just sail out of this city without so much as a slap on the wrist, he had better think again.

Hemogoblin tracks the sentries one more time, memorizing their routes, and then lowers himself down the side of the containers to the ground.

Time to get to work.

He cultivates two blood sickles from his wrists, and finds that he has to adjust the angle of the one on his left wrist when the burns begin to prickle with pain. Swinging a few times to adjust to the change, Hemogoblin lopes down the row to where the first troll's route will cross his path. He presses himself into the space between two containers, a slightly wider passage than his last hiding place. He lounges against the side of the container, affecting carelessness, but keeping his luminescent eyes hooded so the slight glow won't give him away.

The troll strides by without looking at him. Hemogoblin simply steps out behind the sentry's back, leans back and plants a heel at the vulnerable base of the troll's skull. An "oof!" of pain escapes the sentry's mouth, but then Hemogoblin presses in close and wraps a hand over his mouth to muffle any warning shouts. There is no struggle from the troll, and abruptly he has an armful of sagging, unconscious dead weight to drag over into the shadows. He leaves the troll there and traces the maze of containers in his mind as he darts through the rows to intercept the second sentry.

This one causes more trouble. He'd been lucky to run into the green-blooded sentry first - the lower on the hemospectrum you go, as a general rule, the less stamina and strength a troll is capable of developing. In exchange, the warmer bloods tend to develop psychic abilities more often, and are more mentally stable and less susceptible to dementia.

But the second troll sentry is the cerulean from earlier, his eyes a dark enough blue for Hemogoblin to be wary. His abilities and training seem to have kept him on par with the fighting ability of most of the trolls Hemogoblin's fought and put in jail over the past few weeks, but he's still wary of challenging blues and above. If he tangles with them recklessly, he could easily spill more than a few drops of blood. Red eyes can be explained with contacts - candy red blood is a bit more of a stretch.

So when he locates the other sentry, he doesn't fuck around with the flashy kicks. He slinks in behind the blueblood and launches immediately into a chokehold, keeping his chin down to protect his windpipe and nose when the grubfucking dickweed tried to slam his head back into Hemogoblin's face. He keeps up the pressure on the artery running up the side of the troll's neck and his hand on the troll's mouth.

The troll bites him. Hemogoblin bites back a yelp of pain and tights his grip, clinging to the cerulean blood's back as he tries to slam up against a container. He's tall enough that Hemogoblin's feet scrabble at the gravel on the edge of his toes. Finally, still fighting and shoving against Hemogoblin's grip, the Crew member falls forward to his knees. This is taking too long, they're exposed in the middle of the row, but the blueblood still won't stop.

The teeth stay clamped on Hemogoblin's hand even when the troll's head lolls forward, which is naturally the most fan-fucking-tastically unpleasant sensation to ever inflict itself on his hand. Grimacing,  he peels the sentry's head back and pries his hand free, letting the blood pulse out and fill in the broken skin, easing the pressure on new bruises until his hand is unmarked again.

Somehow, he manages to drag the second sentry out of sight before anyone shows up. But his luck stops there. When he looks up out of the container he stuffs the unconscious body into, he has the unwanted pleasure of meeting the eyes of the driver from earlier, just as the man turns around the corner.

The man's mouth pops open and he shouts, "We have a hero over here!" Two pieces of metal slide out of his sleeves; a pair of knives fall into the driver's hands.

Shit shit shitfuckery. There goes his surprise advantage. Hemogoblin brings his sickles up on guard, sidestepping a little so he can check over his shoulder with the corner of his eye without looking away from his main opponent. The driver remains on guard as well, and there's something weird about that. Most of the Crew members are shoot first, ask questions later type thugs, in Hemogoblin's short experience; they seem to take after their rather violent boss in that respect.

So why does it feel like something is different about this one. Maybe it's the slightly higher quality of his suit, as though it is better tailored than the cheaper make most of the Crew members favor; maybe it’s the weary, calculating look in the man's eye as he simply waits for Hemogoblin to make the first move.

As much as Hemogoblin doesn't want to run into some kind of trap, he can't wait around here forever. He's not letting this prick distract him while Hearts gets away. He grits his teeth and prepares to jump forward and to the side, to throw the driver off -

Hearts Boxcars himself rounds the corner behind the driver. "And what do we have here?" he says, walking up alongside the driver, eyeing Hemogoblin with a face that's a little worse for the wear since the showdown on Wednesday. "Great. You again."

Hemogoblin tenses up, and starts changing his game plan right the fuck now. He'd really hoped to whittle away the Midnight Crew in the area until he could focus all of his effort on Hearts alone; the man is too skilled a boxer for Hemogoblin to take him lightly.

"I can handle this one, sir," the driver says. To Hemogoblin's surprise, the man appears to be gritting his teeth, and he glances at Hearts impatiently.

The larger man fails to notice the irritation radiating off his underling in waves. "It ain't just the one. Where there's one of these bozos, there's two. Trust me, I'm not makin' the same mistake twice," Hearts grunts, eyeing the sky. "You can't underestimate these two lugs."

Hemogoblin doesn't let his relief show. If Hearts thinks Heir is in the sky to back him up, that means the Crew isn't responsible for the Heir's disappearance tonight. He can use that.

But he doesn't have Heir at his back, and he doesn't think much of his odds against both Hearts and a second man, going head to head. Instead, Hemogoblin smiles knowingly, raises his sickles - and darts back into the shadows.

He doesn't risk looking back, even when he hears shouts and the scramble of shoes on gravel behind him. He flings himself down the first narrow intersection he can find, and then the next, trying to lose Hearts's line of sight long enough to climb a container.

The first chance he gets, he takes it. One foot slips on the way up, and he just barely manages to swing his legs on top of the container before the driver squeezes through the passageway, panting. Hemogoblin allows himself a small smile; it looks like Hearts is just too bulky to shove his way through the tiny openings between containers and give proper chase. Good. Hemogoblin would prefer a one on one.

Hemogoblin tenses, ready to hook his legs over the edge and grab the driver from above, but the man swears and starts easing back out the way he came, too far away for Hemogoblin to reach.

He'll have to head them off again, before they reach the container ship. Who knows how many Crew members are manning the ship itself? No, he has to knock Hearts out before the nookstain absconds from Seattle and gets away with arson, theft, and two attempts at blowing up law-abiding heroes.

Seriously, fuck this guy. Hemogoblin is ready to vomit fury all over this guy and his fruity asshole shenanigans.

Descending from the container roof, Hemogoblin takes advantage of his slim build to keep evading the two men who are now searching the gaps between containers in earnest as they hurry through the main rows. Hearts and the driver meet up again before he can drop the second man, and he silently fumes as they stalk out toward the two remaining containers of contraband.

When he draws closer, he realizes their furious, whispered conversation is more of an argument. He lurks in the shadows nearby, easing his feet over the gravel to prevent the same crunch that keeps giving away the Crew's location.

"You need to go, sir," the driver is saying, his knives still held in a practiced grip. "It is my task to see you out of the city before dawn."

"And I'm tellin' yah, I leave when I leave. I ain't runnin' from these two little shits," Hearts snaps, impatiently waving the forklift into position. "I gave 'em more than enough warning. If they want to try this again, I'm gonna show them you don't mess with the Midnight Crew!"

"You can't," the driver insists, looking both anxious about contradicting his superior - at least, Hemogoblin assumes so - and yet irritated. "If you will not board that vessel of your own volition, I am to forcibly assist you. My lady Droog insists."

Dissent in the ranks? Hemogoblin snickers, kneeling in the gravel behind a container to observe.

"You think you can make me, you pompous deliveryboy?" Hearts says in a low voice. He reaches out with a thick hand and grabs the driver by the collar, yanking the shorter man upward until he's barely balanced touching the ground. "I'd like to see you try. You think Droog can tell me what to do?!"

The driver just looks at him. "He would know," he says, quietly. "If you disobey him in this, he'll know. He always knows. And he wants the children alive. He wants you out of the field, and Lady Droog would rather not see what happens when he finally gets mad. And sir? He. Would. Know."

The air is tight with some tension Hemogoblin can't name, confused by who exactly this he could be. Then Hearts releases the man and loosens his own shirt, grunting and glancing around shiftily so that Hemogoblin catches sight of his face. He looks, Hemogoblin thinks, as though he's ready to shit bricks of solid fear. His ruddy face has gone pale and slick with sweat, and he looks ill.

"...Fine. Fine," is all Hearts says, and then he whirls on the forklift operator. "Hurry that up, yah dunce! What, do you have butterfingers?! We gotta schedule to keep!"

Well. That was...enlightening. Hemogoblin files this "he" and the name Droog away to wonder about later - right now, he has to focus on recapturing Hearts. Unfortunately, the next second, Hearts storms off toward the ship, stomping alongside the forklift, accompanied by the female guard with the pistols. It looks as though the driver has somehow won the argument. The driver himself scans the containers around him before striding back to the vehicle he escorted Hearts to the dockyard in. He flips away his knifekind and adjusts his suit jacket before entering. The car engines starts a moment later, and the driver veers back out of the container rows, heading back to the front gates. Apparently he still has some business in the city to deal with.

As long as that business doesn't involve blowing people and buildings up like a certain fucking maniac, he is officially less of a priority to Hemogoblin than said fucking maniac, who is currently heading for the ocean.

Fucking fuck fucker. He has to get ahead of Hearts before the gangster can surround himself with whatever backup is waiting for him on the ship. This would be so much easier if Heir really was here - Hemogoblin is painfully aware of just how much more time he wastes as he is forced to duck and weave between containers to avoid the pistolkind range of that female guard.

He doesn't make it in time. By the time he finds a vantage point near the old, barnacle-infested, unrepaired dock, Hearts Boxcars is already waving down another black suited-troll from the deck of the ship, who lowers the gangway and stomps down to listen to Hearts's whispered instructions.

Stealth isn't going to help him much anymore. Nevertheless, Hemogoblin waits until the woman with the pistols begins to scan the containers down the row from his location before he recklessly sprints out into the open. The troll from the ship gives a warning shout, but Hemogoblin is already kicking her legs out from under the woman before she can aim at him. He slams down on her wrist with a foot and twists to pin her other arm, ruthlessly slamming his palm into her chin when she tries to stand up.

When he rises, sickles growing from his wrists once more as he squares off against the forklift driver and the troll, he sees Hearts already has both feet on the gangway, striding up toward the ship. "Hey!" Hemogoblin shouts, and then he proceeds to (possibly, maybe, perhaps) overreact a tiny amount. "Get the fuck back down here, you nookwhiffing shithead!"

And wow, it's probably the massively inappropriate language that actually provokes Hearts into turning around, both eyebrows nearly disappearing into his hairline with mild surprise. "Wow. Got a mouth on yah, don't you, kid?" Hearts shakes his head. "Yeah. Nope." And on that note Hearts stomps up the gangway, disregarding Hemogoblin completely. "Keep him busy, boys."

Oh my fucking god, did he just get shot down by a fucking criminal dick with a heart fetish? Tell me that did not just happen. The forklift driver removes a fucking spear from within the driver's compartment, and the greenblooded troll from the ship draws a single wickedly sharp, curved bladekind from his side. Both of them come at Hemogoblin at the same time, and he loses track of Hearts's progress as he dodges their wild stabs.

Neither fighter is particularly skilled, not compared to Hemogoblin and his sickles, but they take up time, and Hemogoblin chafes at the delay because it's exactly what Hearts wants. By the time Hemogoblin brings the last Crew member to his knees and knocks the man unconscious with a boot to the temple, the gangway has already been drawn up, and the Crew's ship has begun to pull away from the dock. Hearts is going to get away.

Or maybe not, Hemogoblin thinks, spying a rope that trails down the side of the ship. Yeah, with enough of a running start, he could reach it. Probably.

Time to find out.

Fuck. He's going for it. Hemogoblin jumps over the fallen Crew member and runs as fast as his legs can carry him, the muscles in his side flaring with pain as he races along the edge of the dock. When he reaches the end, he leaps up and forward, and catches the rope trailing off the side of the ship with one hand. He goes spinning in circles around it, tangling the line around his fist and banging against the side of the ship hard before coming to a stop. With a grunt, he untangles himself and begins to drag himself up the side of the ship hand over hand, the muscles in his arms straining as the burn scabs crack. The ship continues to pull out into the middle of the water as he slowly makes progress.

The rope trembles menacingly, and Hemogoblin nearly loses his grip. He wraps his hand again before he looks up.

All the adrenaline dies away, and a stone lodges itself in his stomach as he looks up the last few yards at Hearts Boxcars's square face. "Well, well," the man says, leaning over the side. "Real cute, kid. I give you points for persistence, a'ight? But this is the end of your little adventure." He raises a wickedly sharp knife, one he had failed to reveal last time, and Hemogoblin clenches his jaw. The specibus must be borrowed, because it's clumsy in Hearts's hands, but he can still saw away at the rope with ease, causing more vibrations to run through the rope and jostle Hemogoblin.

"You're not going to get away with this," Hemogoblin says, and it’s the most pathetic, clichéd stock phrase to ever crawl out of his mouth and die. Frankly, after a horrible line like that, he deserves to get cut down.

Hearts pretends to think this over. "Nah, I think I will. Looks like Heir decided not to show up, after all," he calls down, wearing a smug grin that just makes Hemogoblin want to rip the man's entire ugly face off and feed it to him. "Shame. Give him my regards, will yah?"

Hearts cuts the dragging line with a deft stroke of the knife, and then Karkat is plummeting toward the water. He barely has time to shout out in surprise and suck in a breath of air before he runs out of air to fall through.

He lands in the water with a hard splash. The momentum of his fall carries him down further than he expects, and when he waves a hand through the water above his head, he fails to find the surface of the bay. For a moment raw panic floods him, and his heart seizes up. It's dark and cold and he can't see which way is up. For all he knows, he could be frantically paddling in the wrong direction, going down instead of up, and he can't breathe -

Because his fucking costume is covering up the edges of his fucking mutant gills.

Jesus bumblefucking Christ, if Karkat dies because he made this goddamn suit too tight, he is going to shit on everything that moves. The left side of his suit is already fucked thanks to the shrapnel, so he tears at the fabric on that side first, ripping right up to where the candy red slits of gills cut their way across his upper ribcage. He gulps down nasty port water. It tastes like he's filtering solid pollution as it works its way through his system, but the resulting influx of oxygen in his bloodstream is far too welcome for him to care.

The suit is already fucked anyway. He cuts a new hole in the other side to let his other gills help take up the strain, and he blinks his eyelids rapidly, wishing he had the second set of eyelids that help true aquatic trolls see underwater. With the ability to breathe underwater thus reestablished, he can think a little more clearly, and stops panicking like a scared little wriggler.

Yeah, he has gills. He doesn't like to talk about them. They're yet more proof that he's the kind of mutant that's so fucking bizarre, it makes you question just what kind of illegal mind-altering drugs the mothergrub who mixed his gene slurry had to have been on at the time. Usually by the time a troll dips below indigo on the hemospectrum, the gills are vestigial and barely function, and by the time you hit olivebloods they don't develop at all. Somehow, Karkat has gills and the kind of internal vascular system that can filter oxygen from water, but he missed out on the webbing between fingers, the elaborate ear-fins, and, oh yeah, any one of the fucking blood colors that would have saved him a lifetime of living in fear of being culled.

What the fuck ever. Karkat shakes his head and begins kicking his way back to the surface of the water. He's a slow-ass swimmer, despite the gills, and by the time he makes up for all the time he lost flailing around drowning like a dumbass and breaks the surface of the water, his heart is sinking. He treads water, slamming a fist angrily and futilely against the rolling surface of a wave that overtakes him.

Hearts's ship is already halfway out of the port, kicking up waves in its wake that buffet Karkat and drive him back towards the dock.

There's no way he'll ever catch up before they hit open water.

As though the universe can't bear to let this momentous fucking failure end on such a devastating note, his cracked fake horn falls off a second later. The splash of water right in his eye just about sums up the general mood of his entire existence, and he spits foul port water out of his mouth, ignoring the horn as it vanishes into the depths.

Karkat is forced to watch as the Midnight Crew ship vanishes into the night.

Wow. Fuck this night. Fuck everything about this night. He's going the fuck home. Waterlogged and with half his costume shredded, Karkat swims for shore.

---

She carves the old symbol into the base earth of the city. The fleshlings have done their own work of cutting into the base earth and riddling it with tunnels, and she must waste precious time sealing off the pipes of filth-ridden water and draining power from cut wires that spit blue sparks. At one point she delves down to form the inner corner of an epicycloid curve, and finds to her distaste an entire metal tube of mewling humans speeding along beneath the earth. She loses her patience and gestures sharply. As one, her thorns reach down and scoop beneath the underground train.

She rips it out. It is longer than she expects, and the street crumbles and caves in along an entire block as the sectioned train is torn up through the pavement. One section of collapsed road intersects with the Grand Spirograph, and black, incensed fury consumes her in a wave of dark fire.

When the rage of the tanglehorde clears from her eyes, the train has been flung through the nearest building, lodging there with the bottom torn up by thorns. Blood and twisted metal hang down above the street, and screams echo within the tiny metal trap.

They are worth no more effort than that. Still crackling with rage, she returns to her work, carefully summoning a new carving spell to trace over the marred section of the Gate.

Everything must be perfect. They can afford no such flaws in the design. There are, after all, still rules that must be obeyed, covenants that must be fulfilled.

It does not help that the Noblest Gods have not been forced to make use of such a Gate in so many an eon. This is an elaborate work, and despite their many glorious, intertwined minds, a shared sentience beyond anything conceived of by mere singling quicklives, it remains...difficult to craft the old, hated symbol of the Spirograph, even in the service of the Eldest Gods. Destroying gates has always been a far simpler task for one such as she.

On a second flyover of the city, observing her work and noting the sections still left to be carved and consecrated, she sees it. The abomination. The wings are the wrong shape, more insectoid than cosmic, and the enormous statue bears a thorny crown and twin, slender horns that no angel ever bore, but the tangle within reacts with old hatred nonetheless. Screeching unintelligibly, she raises both hands and unleashes a wave of dark fire. It shreds through the coppery metal as though through flesh, and the wings are sheared away from the solitary metal form that the fleshcreatures have seen fit to erect in their harbor. Then, almost as an afterthought, she lands on the statue's shoulder and, with grimdark-laced hands, rips its head from its shoulders, tossing that too down into the muddy waters below.

Something tattered and pathetic in the corner of her mind thinks that this is a suitable ironic gesture, and then subsides into broken, ever weakening struggles.

Having thus satisfactorily defaced the Statue of Liberty and Equality in the name of both her mindrending Gods and that mysterious mistress of paradox space called irony, she smiles down at the ships fleeing from the tiny sub-island that served as base for the abomination, and turns to float above the city.

The butterfly wings of the statue topple over at last, sinking into the mud and kicking up a massive wave of displaced water that tosses the fleeing ferries and swamps some of the roads on the main island. She does not mind the rising waters, even as they begin to trickle into curves of the Gate. She prefers a colddamp canvas for this glorious work, anyway, and the water will not interfere as metal or earth would.

And so it goes.

-

In a space that is not, between one world and the Void, there is Rose.

She thinks there will always be Rose,  even when the thought of the name 'Lalonde' enrages her, even when all that is left of her is a sliver of pale light, a battered and brine-pickled husk that must watch as the grimdark swallows the world.

Sometimes she can feel the tentacles creep and crawl into what little of her own mind remains, and she must feebly shove them away, batter at probing thorns with lacerated hands. It hurts, it hurts, and she is so tired. Sometimes she thinks she has been tired her whole life, never sleeping, with the whispers of the Void ringing in her ears all those endless nights. And now she can only observe, feeling old down to her bones, as her body is used to create the Gate. Once the outline is finished being carved, it must be consecrated and opened, but now that Rose has given her consent, that consecration will only be a matter of minutes, rather than the hours that it would have taken up if they'd had to consecrate it the old fashioned way, with death and torture and sacrifice.

It isn't hard to extrapolate where such a grimdark construction will lead. Already the scent of cold and dark and brine hangs heavy in the air, so thick Rose can taste blood when she swallows. This will be a Gate to the Outer Ring. She has no idea of the distance, both in light years and across paradox space, that must be bridged in order to create such a portal, but the swelling tangle satiating itself upon her mind seems unquestioningly confident the summoning will succeed.

However, in the part of her that can still think, can still analyze, can still See, Rose has an inkling of a plan. And she has already set it into motion. Because the Horrorterrors may like to believe that they are absolute, but she herself has ignored and refuted their murmured urgings almost since she was born. She will not fall prey to this false dichotomy.

If they wish to believe the Horde is infallible, let them toddle along in their delusions. Rose is still Rose, and she will not let them win.

Perhaps it would be easier to give in and become one with the embrace at last.

When has Rose ever done what is easy?

And so, under the guide of drifting aimlessly through the tide, she paddles her way, slowly but surely, toward the pattern that occupies the center of the tangle, the loops and points and curves of the Gate.

The many-angled ones are just such - many angled, tangled and thorny and messy, with no order, the embodiment of chaos and death made sentient. She can see even now how the tentacles and stickers of the tangle clutch and writhe around the edges of the spirograph, and then are just as quickly pulled away. For whatever reason, the smooth order of the Gate is anathema to the Horrorterrors; they make use of it simply because they seem to have no other choice. Rose cannot comprehend all of the massive, overwhelming intelligence that controls the tangle, but she can see well enough how the Gods must fight their inner urge to tangle in order to keep the pattern of the Gate pure. Otherwise, the Gate will not open.

It is no more than a stray thought, a fledgling idea that she pours herself into. She masks it with blood and salt, and then marks it with a single beacon of light before setting it loose on the tide that swills and corrodes in tangles around the spirograph.

Just a simple thought. Just a tiny urge. As easy as breathing.

̾̽ ̏d̈́ͣo͊͑̈́͗͑̓̋̑ͮi̋͒̅̽̓̒̈́̍t̓ͮͦ let go break it alter it tangle it make it ours let it join the tanglehorde the embrace of all our wonderful t͑̿̂a̓nͬͨ̈̆ͪg̈́ͤ̏leͥ̈́ͥbͫͫ͌̏̏ͪũ̅ͤͬd͒ͫd͂͌͆̓̚iͦ͌ͩ̅̒̓ͩeͬ̄̅̔̇̇s̆͂͐ͣ͛̚ why deny it just ̏d̈́ͣo͊͑̈́͗͑̓̋̑ͮi̋͒̅̽̓̒̈́̍t̓ͮͦ

Rose smiles and falls away from the spirograph. She cannot let the tangle notice her near here, in case it realizes she and that subtle, slippery thought are one and the same.

That is the beauty of this plan. It demands nothing of the tangle that the Horrorterror does not already wish to do, the most insidious, corrupting kind of thought. It is the same method of gentle suggestion and tantalizing whispermurmur the Gods have used to entice and manipulate Rose her entire life. In hindsight, it is easy to see where they encouraged her alcoholism and fed her fury with her mother, to create that perfect moment of despair in which they could take over her body.

Surely turnabout is only fair play?

break the pattern bring chaos bring disorder after all how can we be wrong HǑ̈́W̌̄̑̈́̚C̊͗͒͗ͣ͐ͤͬA̋N ̓͆̈ͮ͒̈̚Wͥ̄̈̿Eͪ͆ͭͯͯͩ B͒͒͑Ĕͥͥ͒ͮ̚W̓ͣ̈́ͦ̒R̔̌Ǒ̂̆ͯNͤ̈̽̌́ͤ̋̈́Ḡͬ̓̌

The pattern shines, order in chaos, a symbol balanced above the churning sea. The tentacles draw forward and abate, reach out to tear, then restrain themselves -

be free be C͐͊͛͐̍ͪ̅H͐ͩ̽̾̎͛ͣ͒Aͫ̍͑̒̈ͯ͐ͯO̽ͭ̈̈̎̈́ͮͫŠ̆̌ͣ͛̽̎ tear tend disorder disaligndistortdisturbdeviate D͂̔ͭ̍̓E͋̅F͋͛̔͌̂ͣ̒̽ͥȮ̊ͭͭ͌͗Rͧ͊͊͑M̊̍̄̓

And then, with a shudder that rocks her mind and sends her spinning into the dark, the tentacles surge forward and embrace the spirograph. There is a keen of hungry, grim triumph as thorns wrap themselves around the curves of the Gate's image, and the bitter, distant pain of acid floods the waters of the deepdark.

As Rose watches, that perfect, unsullied pattern begins to melt and sag, dripping into the sea.

The tangle does not appear to recognize what horror it has wrought upon the Gate. It only follows its most primal instinct, after all, to bring chaos to order - why should that register in the hive mind as a breach, a failure? This is natural. This is acceptable.

Within moments, the same overwhelming force that tore the Seer of Light to shreds has also altered and distorted the Horde's only hope at a successful summoning into a warped version of its former self. The great spirograph lists to the side, slimy and scummy with brine and smears of grim dark.

Checkmate, Rose whispers to the Void, a soft sound audible only to herself.

She has no idea what such a damaged Gate will do once the unwitting Horrorterror has finished recreating the broken pattern in the streets of New York City. She would lay money on it all exploding rather disastrously, and she is well aware that she has condemned not just the island but any remaining inhabitants to almost certain death. At the very least, when the tangle realizes its failure, and the cause, it will turn upon what remains of Rose and finish the job of annihilating her individual identity. She will be Rose no more.

But she thinks that this sacrifice is well worth the price. If she had let the Gate be completed, the Horrorterrors would have flooded the world in their true forms, and more than just New York City would have burned.

Yes, this is...an acceptable outcome. The best possible future that she can See, in the dim pale light of her broken mind.

Rose closes her eyes, and lets herself drift away. She is so very tired, and now that she has done all she can, all she can do now is await the end.

-

She tears and carves with gleeful abandon. The perfect order of the Gate no longer seems quite so urgent a priority. She is so close to completing her goal, white fire drooling from her mouth as she lashes out with great vines of power. More and more often, she accidentally crushes the edges of stray buildings in her violent haste, but she simply knocks the debris out of her way and continues on.

When a tiny human bearing a camera rushes across her path, trying to conceal its pitiful form behind a fallen vehicle, she smiles and clenches her fist, shrieking with wild laughter as the camera explodes with dark fire in the man's hands. She does not even stop to watch if he burns with it. She floats upward, baring her teeth at the looming dark clouds of the sky.

She is so gloriously, gloriously close, and all her inhibitions are gone. This is so much fun!!!

(be free be C͐͊͛͐̍ͪ̅H͐ͩ̽̾̎͛ͣ͒Aͫ̍͑̒̈ͯ͐ͯO̽ͭ̈̈̎̈́ͮͫŠ̆̌ͣ͛̽̎ tear tend disorder disaligndistortdisturbdeviate D͂̔ͭ̍̓E͋̅F͋͛̔͌̂ͣ̒̽ͥȮ̊ͭͭ͌͗Rͧ͊͊͑M̊̍̄̓)

And oh, she does. Does she ever. These pathetic fleshlings will never know what hit them when her work is done.

She fails to notice how her careful carvings begin to deteriorate and warp, the lines trailing off at loose ends and fading out as she begins to hack and tear at the earth indiscriminately. All she notices is an old and familiar hunger, the ever-present urge to D͋̓̎E̚S̓̓͌T̑ͥRͫ͆̎O̿͒̾̆Ẏͥ͌̇͑̑͊ ͦ̂͆ͧ, to F̏̆ͯ̒̚̚Eͦ̽Aͦ̎̏̍ͫS͐͆ͥͪT͛͑̏̾, to Iͧ̓̿͐N͒͆ͦ̐ͤ̐ͪF̍ͯ̓̄ͩͥͫE̎ͨ̎̆ͭ̔̅SͦT͒.

The urge, in short, to ta͊̅͋͑̌n̈́̇ͫgͩ̐le͊͊.

Reaching out with all the tentacles at her disposal, she hurries to finish her work on the Gate. Hurry! For once the work is done, the Many may feast! They can clear the useless fleshy creatures away, and the great F̑ͨ̒Lͦͦͯͮ̔̌ͮͥÓ̇O̓ͩ̐̌̌͐̅ͯ̚D̐̈́ͯI̒̈́̎͂N̑ͧG̊ͣ̚ may begin, free of the inconsequential mortal beings that paradox space holds so dear.

Unheard, unnoticed, a shred of a voice sighs into the grimdark waters with a an unseen smirk.

(checkmate, motherfuckers)

She has no idea that the Seer has already won.

---

Sneaking onto the runway at Hobby Airport is easy. I mean, Dave and his Bro, they’re basically the equivalent of the most badass ninjas ever. He’s only worried about John for a second; he turns around to face the fence they’d just hopped, expecting to see John failing every stealth check known to man, only to realize the other hero has disappeared entirely. He looks up and sees John hovering overhead, his face obscured behind the cheapass black rimmed swim goggles they had picked up from a sports store and a black scarf that had drawn the weirdest looks because hello, they're in Houston in the bugfuck middle of spring. No one in their right mind is rocking a scarf at this point.

The kid is so much of a goof out of uniform, it’s easy for Dave to forget he’s just as competent at the hero thing as anyone.

John lands and they all three run the rest of the way to the sleek, almost military-style jet idling illegally on the runway with the engines running. Bro seems to know where he's going, which is the only reason Dave actually trusts that this is the right private jet.

Once they’re up the gangway and inside, the pilot and copilot eye them through the open door of the front compartment before nodding and closing up the outside door as well, preparing for takeoff. “We should reach our destination in a little under two hours,” a troll informs them hurriedly as she walks by, striding through the most luxurious interior of a plane Dave has ever seen. Seriously, when Lalonde said private jet, she hadn’t been kidding. This place is decked the fuck out. “Please be seated for takeoff and landing. If you require anything, call me.” The troll disappears into the back and buckles herself in.

Apparently, they aren’t dicking around. The next second the plane jolts and starts rolling along under Dave’s feet. Shaking himself, he sees John aiming for the window seat by a large television screen. Bro has vanished, though how he’s managed it in such a confined space is a total mystery. Probably off to call the elder Lalonde again. For someone who claims to hate the dame so much, Bro sure has a lot to say to her, considering how tight-lipped and stoic as fuck the guy usually is.

Still. None of this had been in Bro’s plan. Dave had stared down Bro until he agreed they were going on this hella awesome rescue mission, not the other way around. Dave doesn’t think he’s ever disagreed with Bro like that and won – well, ever. Dave’s heart squeezes with elation, and he has to sit on the urge to throw a because damn. Damn. He is the one and only reason he’s here. And he is all for this new state of affairs. He is the Secretary of this State. Fuck yeah.

Of course, now they’re flying off to confront one of John’s old friends who is apparently possessed by tentacle monsters because some lady who calls Bro ‘Ambrose’ of all fucking things has asked them to. There is so much pure, unadulterated ‘what the actual fuck’ going on in that sentence than Dave doesn’t even know where to start.

Well, it doesn’t look like Bro is willing to be interrogated at the moment. John is probably an easier target anyway. Dave sprawls into a seat across from John, just as the jet takes off and he would have fallen over anyway, timing it so smoothly it looks like the last little jolt shoving him back and down into the seat is all part of the plan. Awesome.

He waits.

John stares out the window.

He waits.

John appears to have decided that the clouds slowly appearing through the window are the greatest thing since man first invented apple juice. Which is literally impossible, because no one can ever top that crowning moment of achievement. Ever.

“John.”

John blinks, looking startled, as though he were so engrossed in the sky outside the window that he hadn’t noticed Dave sit down. Eh. Doesn’t matter. Dave’s smooth moves aren’t for an audience – they’re a one-man ritualistic offering to irony, goddess that she is.

“Dave,” he says in reply, a faint smile flickering across his face before he shuts down again, with an intense, far off gaze that hones in on the sky outside the window. It’s not quite the weariness that makes Dave want to hug the sadness out of the kid, but it’s only a few shades off from the mask that he’s seen John wear when he’s trying to hide that fatigue in front of a crowd. The kid has his hands folded up in his laps and he’s sitting straight up like he's sitting before an audience, making no effort to make himself comfy for the two hour flight.

“Something fascinating out there?” Dave asks. “I mean seriously man, how can you bear to look away from the face of a Strider? This is some Bernini-quality anatomy here and you’d rather cloud-watch?"

John bursts out into laughter, and immediately tries to choke it back, snerking behind a hand he claps over his face. "Oh my god, Dave, where do you even get this stuff from?" he laughs. "

"Sorry John, this is 100% homegrown Strider, my man. All original material, all the time." Dave slouches in his seat, letting his legs stretch out into the aisle. "Totally au naturel. Now come on, John. Talk to me about this Rose chick or something. Do the conversation thing.” He wants to stop doing the majority of the talking now. John has really good ears. Eventually he has to notice something is up.

“Sorry, Dave,” John says as though on automatic, tugging his wandering eyes away from the clouds. “Ah, what do you want to know? Because honestly if we should be asking anybody around here questions, we should be asking your brother or Doctor Lalonde. I don’t even understand half of what was going on in there. I didn’t even know Rose had powers, or that she was Seer of Light all this time.”

Interesting, but not unexpected.  Dave had kind of already figured John didn’t know about little Lalonde running around playing hero after the kid nearly collapsed in shock on their shitty sofa. “All those years running around being adorable little friendderps and holding hands, and you never once suspected she could grow space tentacles? She never realized you float when you’re winning at video games?”

John flushes. Dave wishes he could count it as a point to him, but he's long since realized that playing the game against someone who isn’t a Strider, and therefore isn’t even trying to pretend they don’t have feelings all the damn time, renders the game kind of moot. “I do not float, man. Do I?” John flips into earnest anxiety, searching Dave's eyes with a worried expression. Doesn’t he get whiplash, changing his expression that dramatically every two seconds? Dave hadn’t noticed it as much yesterday, but damn, is John easy to read. “Dude, I play video games with – people who don’t know, I can’t have been floating all that time or they would have noticed.”

“Chill, John, you only did it the once.” Dave allows himself a victory smile when John splutters out another protest. “I’m fucking kidding, bro. We haven't even done a proper video game faceoff, how the fuck would I know about your floating tendencies in the long term." Dave begins tapping out a beat with his foot. Between John's sudden arrival and last night's exhausting shenanigans, he hasn't had time to work on his sick beats in almost twelve hours. He's getting antsy. "But seriously, neither of you knew about the other?”

John pulls a face and leans his head against the window, tangling his fingers together. “I – look, it's called a secret identity for a reason, you know. My dad had been teaching me to keep my powers a secret from everyone since I was, like, five years old. He discouraged me from getting friends all through elementary school because he was afraid I’d forget and want to show off in front of other kids.” John shakes his head, looking confused. “But now it turns out that Doctor Lalonde knew all along, I guess? She and Rose moved into town in the third grade, and I just – wanted to be friends with someone, finally. And my dad said it was alright if it was Rose."

Dave raises an eyebrow at that. "Really? Damn. I mean, obviously they were in some serious cahoots, right? Mom Lalonde clearly knew all along about you, and who else would give her the lowdown?"

John nods, frowning. "I didn’t even question why some girl from out of town was a safe choice for a friend. But you're right - I think maybe my dad and Doctor Lalonde knew each other even before the Lalondes moved in. Knew about the two of us, and trusted each other enough to discuss that information, even if they never talked about it where we could hear."

Dave scans the plane, but there's still no sign of Bro. Like that's unusual. "Bro, too," he adds in an undertone, even though he's resigned to the fact that Bro can probably hear him anyway. The man is fucking psychic or something. "Or at least, he and Lalonde go way back. I mean, fucking Ambrose? No wonder he tried to bury that one."

"He talked to my dad, too." John folds his arms over his chest, then grimaces, tugging at the collar of his borrowed suit jacket. He opens his mouth, but Dave beats him to it with a raised eyebrow and a slight smirk. John shuts his mouth and goes red again, pouting. Heheh. No one complains about borrowed Strider swag, not while Dave's here to taunt them about it. "And Dad wouldn't talk about it when I asked him what it was all about. Said it wasn't safe to discuss anything over the phone." John huffs. "They all have a lot of explaining to do. But I don't think we can bug them about it right now. We have to focus on saving Rose."

Dave remains silent when John gets his thinking face on, and starts drumming on the armrest with his fingers, running through the beat for Poker Face.

...Shut up. It's not even ironic at this point. It's a sick, sick addiction that will drive him, alone and unloved, to an early grave. At least maybe he'll have John to give a kickass eulogy, even if Bro will probably show up fifteen minutes late on a shitty skateboard with Starbucks -

John leans his head against the back of his seat and starts talking again, interrupting one of the most depressingly funereal tangents Dave has ever gone on. "Anyway. Me and Rose just spent the next six years being best friends, apparently never once letting it slip that we were both…different.” His face falls even more. “And I definitely never knew about this grimdark thing. I mean, Rose used to talk about her cat – I think she called him Jaspers. But she always told me he died when she was 4 years old. She was four the last time this grimdark thing happened? I mean…that’s horrible. I can’t even imagine being possessed and losing control of my body that way. For a little kid – god.”

John trails off, and then he’s looking out the window again, a little crease of worry between his eyebrows. And yeah, okay, that kind of had been a conversation killer. Dave is very careful not to think about how it would feel to have your body possessed, to be forced to march along to someone else’s commands, merrily  wearing your meatsuit as they drive you to an early grave, damning you and everyone around you, while all you can do is scream inside and watch as you - you - you -

(you -)

Yeah, he’s not thinking about this. He’s forgetting it ever happened at all. He’s –

-

When Dave comes too, the plane is at a really weird angle, and it takes him a few blinks before he realizes someone is shaking his shoulder gently. If it had been Bro, he'd just have shoved Dave out of the seat entirely without a word. “Hey, Dave, are you still zoned out?” John asks, leaning over in his seat with a worried expression behind his clear goggles.

Dave grunts in response, mind slowly kicking back into gear, just in time to feel every bone in his body creak. Chrriiiiist. Had he really just passed the fuck out while sitting upright like that? He feels like he’s been to the fifth dimension and back, and whatever he met there kicked his ass ten ways to Sunday. Seriously, if sleeping upright leave him feeling like he has fucking osteoporosis, he’s sticking to horizontal siestas from now on. He can still feel the headache from earlier edging in, because tapping your fingers isn't exactly a work of musical genius. He needs his turntables like he needs air, but oh fuck, look who decided to go on a cross-country road trip to rescue some broad from tentacle monsters. He couldn't even bring any sick beats - his iPod got wasted last night when Bro had torn him a new one for keeping his pesterchumhood with Heir a secret. Way to plan ahead, Strider.

Then he looks out the window and realizes why they’re all leaning at a funky angle, and why he’s half slipping out of his seat. “We here already?” he asks, not wiping at his bleary eyes until John glances out the window himself, giving him a second to recover his composure. Naps always knock him for a loop.

“Yeah, we are,” John says, his voice grim as he turns back to the window. “And you might want to see this.”

Dave surreptitiously hooks a leg around the edge of the seat to keep from slipping any further, feeling like a stealthy genius, and puts his face to the window.

New York City looks...a little worse for the wear. For one thing, enormous black thunderclouds tinged with sickly green and bruise purple have swollen up overhead, taking up the entire sky. Their plane is looping in a wide circle around the worst of it, aiming for a small runway to the northwest of the swirling vortex. Every so often, a crackle of thorny black lightning rises up from the city itself, and another building bites the dust. Shit, there isn't even going to be a city left by the time this chick is through with it.

He whistles. “Wow. She really did a number on the skyline, didn’t she?” He narrows his eyes and frowns, squinting at the tiny figure out in the harbor. “What the fuck did she do to the Statue of Liberty and Equality? I mean, aside from the head." He wonders if grimdark monsters have a sense of irony, because it so, 10/10, well done tentacle dudes. Classic. "It’s different, I can tell, I just can’t put my finger on it…”

John cranes his neck to the side to get a better angle. “It was those troll wings they sometimes pupate with. Looks like she cut them off. I wonder why.”

“Tentacle monsters, man. Truly, their whimsy is inscrutable to us mere mortals.” Dave sits back a little, clenching his jaw against the edge of a throbbing headache. He refuses to raise his hands and rub at his temples in front of witnesses. “Maybe they just don’t like angels.”

"Yeah, maybe," John murmurs.

-

When they disembark at the Newark airport, as close to the chaos in Manhattan as the pilot is willing to land, a woman who can only be Doctor Rue Lalonde is waiting for them on the runway.  The storm from the island sends gusting winds flying everywhere, kicking up the doctor's pristine white lab coat and fluttering the edges of her military, high necked fuchsia dress. She raises a flask in one hand and tosses back a good shot of unidentified alcohol even as Bro disappears from the gangway and reappears before her, arms folded.

A stray breeze slams into Dave sideways when he's halfway down the walkway, and he has to brace himself as discreetly as possible by grabbing the hand rail, his hair flying in his face. Fuck everything.

Abruptly, everything goes still. Rue Lalonde's hair settles down into messy blonde, bobbed curls, and a soft smile spreads across her face, aimed behind Dave. He turns his head slightly to see that John has exited the plane, one hand raised in a tight fist as he frowns up at the sky. The wind lashes one last time, then wraps around him and settles.

So, the windy thing has mundane applications as well. Kick ass.

Dave slouches down the rest of the stairs with more finesse. Need to make a good first impression on elder Lalonde.

Well. First impression that Dave can remember. Shit, this lady probably saw him in diapers or some shit. Bro has some serious explaining to do.

"Mom Lalonde," is all Dave says, sticking his hands in his pockets. That earns him a startled, though pleased smile, which is - really fucking weird. Yeah. He takes a small step back and refrains from letting his very fucking weirded-out expression show.

John stops next to Dave, folding his arms. He looks solemn, almost stern. "Doctor Lalonde," he says evenly.

"Dave. John." The doctor hesitates, then smiles again. "Or it's Heir at the moment, yes? It's been too long, both of you."

"Not long enough," Bro mutters. "Can we hurry this up, Lalonde? Eventually your kid is going to get tired of restricting herself to one little island. Unless you've figured out why the fuck she's so fixated on it in the first place?"

Rue's gaze lingers on Dave and John for a long moment. Long enough for it to get awkward. Dave bristles, his shoulders hunching reflexively under the sustained scrutiny. John breaks first, though. "Doctor Lalonde, I'm not gonna lie. I'm pretty mad at you right now, and when this is over, one way or another, I'm coming to see you. You have some explaining to do about how you justified abandoning Rose like you did."

You fuckin' tell her, John. Dave nods slightly. He doesn't even know this Rose chick, and he can still see that elder Lalonde fucked up somewhere along the line. Seriously, when your kid ends up possessed by raving tentacles gods from beyond the stars, something is seriously fucked about how you raised them. Or failed to raise them, as the case may be. Hell, Bro might be a shitty example of guardianhood, but at least he's always, you know. Been there.

Doctor Lalonde flinches, closing her eyes. "Yes, we do owe you children some answers, don't we?"

"Speak for yourself," Bro says.

"But not now." The doctor shakes her head and opens her eyes. "The Horrorterrors will not leave the city. I did not realize why, at first, when they'd already proven capable of devastating a straight line between here and Albany, but it's clear they have some design on the city. Literally." She reaches into her pocket with the hand not occupied with a flask and holds up a photograph. "This is the last image of the city a helicopter crew was able to obtain before being shot down. Ambrose, I'm certain you recognize the pattern?"

Dave picks out the pattern immediately, though he doesn't really know what to call it. Half of the overhead view of the city is full of looping curves and rounded triangles, like a huge-ass stylized flower or a star. It is elegant, precise, and ominously familiar, causing a sickening lurch in Dave's gut that he can't explain, all of it carved straight through to the earth below without a care for buildings or roads that get in the way.

The other half looks like a preschooler looked at that elegant, spiraling star, and began to fingerpaint the same design using broken fingers and a very sketchy definition of straight lines. Several ends trail off into the water without connecting properly to the rest of the design, and a large, wriggling line cuts right through the middle, at a right angle with the rest of the shape.

Overall, it's a pretty shitty design.

"What, did they drink a liquor store before they started?" Bro snarks. "No wait, that's something you would do, Lalonde."

The doctor ignores him, putting away the picture. She smiles with a distinct aura of pride. "No. I believe Rose is still fighting. If they're trying to complete a perfect spirograph, they have failed miserably. The Horrorterror's movements have grown more and more erratic over the past two hours, and they have made no effort to correct the gratuitous mistakes being made to the other half of the pattern. Rose has outwitted them, somehow. And I trust in her. Whatever the many-angled ones intended with this pattern, it will inevitably fail."

"They're not going to be happy about that, are they?" John interrupts. "Whatever the heck this thing does, when it doesn't work, they'll know who to blame."

"No," Doctor Lalonde admits. "They won't be pleased at all. Which is why it would be best for all involved if you three can help Rose before they try to activate that thing." She pats a large, grey container sitting at her side, and slides open a keyboard attached to the side. She keys in a code and the container beeps. The top opens up with the whoosh of air entering a vacuum, to reveal a pair of metal bands encased in foam.

"And what do these do?" Dave asks. "Do we walk up to Miss Evil Congeniality over there and offer her the latest spring trend in accessories?"

Doctor Lalonde hiccups, and drinks from her flask again before she answers. Seriously, this woman must have the liver of a fucking Russian sailor to still be coherent after drinking all morning long. "These are restraints of my own design," she slurs afterward, leaning a little heavily on the container. "They are imbued with several elements that have proven efficacious in suppressing the whispers of the Furthest Ring in the past. Rose has taken medication with the same properties to assist her in meditation all her life, though I should have anticipated that she might stop taking it in my absence. All you really need to do, in essence, is get close enough to attach these. However, the problem is the approach. The Horrorterror will fight you every step of the way, unless you can reach Rose somehow and have her assist you from within."

Bro has the cuffs in his hand between one second and the next. He stares at them hard behind his shades, before raising his head to stare at Doctor Lalonde. "...A'ight," is all he says.

Doctor Lalonde facepalms. "Just say it, Ambrose, I know how you think. I know what you're going to say."

"Fine, woman. Just how do cuffs imbued with the essence of nothingness help suppress 'emissaries of the Void?'"

"That title is a common misconception, one I would be happy to explain to you at our leisure after Roseis no longer wreaking havoc on New York," Rue snaps. "You may not care about her wellbeing after all these years, but she is still ou-"

"Okay, okay, fuck, Lalonde, we're going." Bro raises both hands as though to ward off the doctor's ire.

John, meanwhile, has one eye scrunched up, clearly thinking hard. "How do you imbue something with nothi-"

"Not enough time." Doctor Lalonde snags the cuffs from Bro's hands and holds them out to John. Dave blinks. Did - did she just steal something from Bro? Did Bro...let her? Or was she really that fast?! Because holy shit. "Rose is likely to let you get closest, Heir," she says. "She barely knew Dave as a child, and her memories of you are more recent, and more positive. Just remember - it has to be both restraints. One will weaken the grimdark significantly, but the two is the only thing that can shut the Horrorterrors down long enough to get her to an isolation tank."

"So. If this half-assed, really vague plan works, where exactly are we taking Little Miss Sunshine?" Dave asks. "Do we just drag the ticking time bomb out and toss her on the private jet?" Seriously, why does he have to ask all the important questions, here?"

"I thought I'd fly Rose out if she can't move afterward," John admits, shrugging as he stuffs the restraints in the inner pockets of his costume. Those pockets are never going to be the same. Dave can see seams tearing from here. Urghh.

"Fuck, just for that, you get to carry her, little bro," Bro adds.

"That is a good question," Doctor Lalonde says. She looks almost...approving? Huh. "I have recently enlisted a new friend who will drive a safe van for you to transport Rose in. She delivered a letter to Rose at my request that may have...helped trigger this incident. She was only the Messenger, but she has insisted on serving as your Personal Motorist on your way out of the city as a way of restoring her honor."

Oh man. John and Bro's expressions don't change - like Bro's expression really ever changes, anyway - but Dave recognizes the emphasis on those capitalized letters. "She a carapacian?"

Doctor Lalonde outright grins at that. "Very perceptive of you," she murmurs. "Yes, PM is a pale carapace, and has proven very reliable thus far. Her priority will be on escorting you three and Rose out of the city. Is that all?"

"Yeah." John opens the palm of one hand, and a whistling wind begins to pick up around him as he yanks up the bright white hood of the suit jacket. Every trace of that goofy kid from Pesterchum is gone, and even in red, black, and white instead of grey and blue, this is Heir. "Let's go."

-

Heir flies them to New York City. It's a fucking weird experience, and Dave doesn’t like it. Yeah, he basically trusts Heir not to drop them or anything like that, but the winds kicked up by Rose's rampage fight Heir at every turn, which makes everything kind of wobbly and really fucking nerve-wracking when you're flying three thousand feet in the air, just below the leading edge of a pitch black thunder cloud. Seriously, flying from the grey cloud cover over Newark to the grimdark storm over Manhattan and Brooklyn is like crossing into the Twilight Zone or some shit.

Heir keeps flying them lower and lower, closer to street level as they draw nearer to the purplish, thorny lightning that occasionally lights up over Central Park. The western half of New York City falls under the messy, preschool half of the design, and it looks like the Horrorterror is still hard at work carving its messed up spiro-thing into the Upper East Side and the waterway between that and Astoria. Midtown is a fucking wreck when Heir has them touch down on Fifth Avenue. The people apparently had time to clear out, because there aren't that many bodies lying around, but there are more than a few smoking, overturned cars here and there with splatters of - yeah, that's blood. Dave has to look away. Blood isn't his thing, okay? Unless it's, like, the righteously spilled blood of his enemies. Jeez.

Bro has been taking this whole flying-thing like a fucking champ, jaw clamped shut and katana at the ready the entire time Heir insisted it was the quickest way to reach Manhattan, and while Dave needs to wipe sweaty palms on his pants, Bro looks as chill as ice cubes. Dave just can't match the guy in terms of net coolness. He's fucking inscrutable, even as he flips off his shades to reveal a pair of sicknasty orange-yellow eyes. That's Dave's cue, so he loses his shades as well. It's so fucking dark under the cloud cover, being outside doesn't even make his eyes water as he adjusts. Oh my god, he relocating to fucking Canada or something, this is so much better than running around Houston in the sun with his eyes aching all the damn time.

"Alright, you guys. What's the game plan?" Heir asks, studying the dark tentacles of power that eat their way up to the sky in the distance. "Doctor Lalonde seems pretty sure these grimdark things are going to try to kill us, even if I do manage to get through to Rose. Should we just try to distract her from finishing that spirograph -"

"Yeah, no. As fun as relying on the power of heart sounds, I think I'll pass." Lil Cal wraps itself over Bro's shoulder, and Dave shivers against his will. Fucking fuck, he'd hoped Bro had left that puppet asshole back at the apartment. Out of all of Bro's puppetkind, Lil Cal has won the prize for 'most likely to come to life in the middle of the night and stab the shit out of adorable, unsuspecting little brothers' every year since Dave came up with the award. "You can talk at her all you want, kid. I'm going in for an all-out beatdown. Cuff her if you can, but I'm not standing around while you try talking to someone who might now be there anymore."

"Doctor Lalonde thinks she's in there," Heir argues. "And she knows more about this than we do."

Bro shakes his head. "We can't dick around, kid. People have been dying out here."

"You think I don't know that?!" Heir yells. Then his face goes pale, and he grabs at his chest and oh my fuck it's finally happened. Bro has given John a rage heart attack. "Will you just stop -" he wheezes out, as Dave flashsteps to his side, internally freaking the fuck out because what do you do when a hero has a heart attack? Dave's first aid training does not extend to rage aneurysm and that kind of bullshit.

Then Heir vanishes, just as Dave's about to grab his shoulder and try to snap him out of it.

What.

He pops up again right in front of Bro's face, eyes gleaming blue and one fist raised. "You dick!"

Bro catches the fist and tosses Heir over his shoulder. The wind catches the kid before he hits the ground and Heir stays hovering on his back for a moment before landing on his feet, rubbing at his chest with a weird expression. "Seriously, can you stop doing that? How do you keep pissing me off so much that - that happens?"

Bro smirks. "It's a talent. Now, stay angry, kid. Your little party trick will come in handy."

"Why do we always choose the path of most asshattery?" Dave demands, throwing both his hands up. "Oh my fucking god, Bro. Bro. Seriously. You couldn't just say to the guy, hey? You know what would be good? If you remember that when you Hulk out you start teleporting and shit. And. You know. That would be a useful skillset to have. Can we just communicate like sane people for once in our lives? And not give people rage heart attacks? Just, you know. A fucking suggestion."

"No," Bro says bluntly.

Well then. "Oh my god, fuck all this," Dave mutters to himself, and then he flashsteps down the street, racing around piles of vehicles and shattered pavement.

He can't even handle these raging asshole shenanigans anymore. Cannot. Even.

He's crunching over a block of broken glass when his keen Strider-senses notice Heir has caught up. The other hero is flying ten feet above the ground on the other side of the street, soaring right over all the masses of debris Horror-Rose has kicked up, and he nods when Dave catches his eye. He looks drawn and pale, possibly from the recent ragefest, but also determined. Bro is nowhere in sight, and right now, that's exactly how Dave likes it.

The most unnerving part is the silence. Aside from the faint rustle of Heir's breezes and the sound of Dave's own buzzing, raspy breath echoing from the collar on his throat, there's no sound; even as Dave darts across glass shards and jumps the wide crevasses the grimdark has carved into the road, he doesn't make much sound as he moves. He's not on Bro's level, but he's as stealthy as he needs to be.

But you'd expect with a giant tentacle monster in the body of a teenage girl rampaging around the city, there'd be more noise - eldritch chants, the screams of innocent victims, a really badass soundtrack. Instead, there is the silence, and every so often, the faint rumble of thunder overhead that sounds, in the back of Dave's mind, a little like the ocean.

To be honest, it makes him feel a little sick. The closer they get to the dark tentacles arcing out over the park, the more the pressure in the air rises, pressing in against his skull, as though they're underwater. It doesn’t make any sense, but hell, does anything about this trip make sense?

They're about on level with the Metropolitan Museum of Art when the writhing grimdark overhead shudders to a halt. Dave freezes in place, ready for an attack.

Without any sound or warning, the entire clump of tangled thorns in the sky lashes out, stabbing into a building up ahead. It appears that the Horrorterror in little Lalonde has taken offence against the Guggenheim, as the tangle of grimdark proceeds to rip at the swollen roof and curved walls of the building, with bolts of dark thorns and white fire firing off at random. Jesus Christ, is not even art sacred anymore? What next, the Louvre?

"Shit. Flashstep, hey. Shit. Dave?!"

Dave snaps out of it. What a time to zone out. Heir lands next to him, staring at the Guggenheim with horror. "Yeah?" Dave says, wanting to smack himself. "Sucks, man. I never even got to visit that place. NYC is kind of out of my jurisdiction, but hey, I at least thought I'd try to drop by at some point. See all the pictures and shit."

"Dave, that's not what I'm talking about. Can you hear that?" Heir is starting to float again, his whole body going tense.

It's contagious - Dave is starting to freak out now, too. "Hear what?" he asks, his skin crawling as he tries to hear anything over the crunch of tentacles slamming into rock.

"P̒̾Uͪ̾̋N͑ͨ͋Ÿ́ L̂͋̓Î͆͋ͣT̆T̓L̒Eͤ F͆ͭ̍̒̆̔LË͐̔ŠH̅ĽĪ͊NĜͬ̽̊̽̓̈́S͗͊͛͋͂͗"

And oh fuck he heard that shit shit shit -

Dave claps his hands over his ears, but it doesn't do shit. That voice pierces into his brain, an absolute whisper that bursts into dark thorns behind his eyes. He's thought he'd had headaches before, but they're nothing compared to the ice picks being drilling into his skull with every word that broken, cold voice speaks.

Beside him, Heir winces, but then recovers. Fuck, how can he stand hearing this godawful noise? It seems like it's barely affecting him.

"Dave, I hear screams," Heir says. "I think there are still people in there!"

Well, fuck.

"We have to get them out!" Heir shoots forward, flying right at the grimdark thorns. Yeah, that's Dave's cue to move. He rips his hands away from his ears - it's not helping anyway - and runs after Heir, just barely able to keep up with flashsteps. As they get closer, he starts to hear multiple high-pitched screams, something separate from the constant white noise of the grimdark muttering in his head.

Oh hell, it's kids. Evil-Rose has a bunch of kids pinned down in that museum.

"HM͂̅̚M͌͌M?̅ ̽̐W̌̆̽͊ͥ̒HE̿R͋́E͆͂ͧͪ̐́̂ D̂̈I̐̾̌̓̓D͗̑ͦͪ̚ Y͊Ȏ͛̽̃̈́̀̃Uͪ͂̀ͨ̇͗͐ G͆̉ͮ͗̀Oͣ?͌  ͦW͒̈́͋͛ͯO͑̋̌Nͥ̽̓'̑T̂̓ ̍̓Y͂͒̂O͆͗ͩ̀U̽̏͐̿͑ CO͗̂͛M͛̔ͥE͆ B̓̒͐AͫC̆̉̃̐̏K̅ͫ̊ Ả̔ṄͯͣD ̐̋B͗̃͆E  M̀͐Y̒̍ ̍F̉ ̄̀̽͐̚̚Rͫ̎̽̈́̚  I͛̿̅  ͆̍ͧ͗ͭ̉E͋  ͮͤ͌N͌  D̔  ̏̓͑̏S̒?ͩ"There is an unearthly shriek of rage (finally!) and the thorns explode outward, tearing the whole roof off the building in one go. Dave has nearly caught up, and Heir is already on level with the grimdark tangle, darting to get between it and the interior of the museum in a flurry of wind. Dave can only assume he's trying to distract the Horrorterror from the kids, wherever they ended up -

Later, he can't say what made him stop and look to the side as he comes up next to the Guggenheim. A lot of this time travel shit is full of weird coincidences and happenstance like that, and it annoys the hell out of him. All he knows is that he looks to the side for the briefest moment, and catches a flare of crimson from the corner of his eye. He stops and looks again properly.

A future-Dave lurks in the shadows between one building and the next. And he's really recent too, because his outfit is basically the same as Dave's right now, without even any damage or tears or anything. His upper lip looks messy with blood.

Oh. Great. Now he's going to have to deal with goddamn fuckass time shenanigans in the middle of a goddamn crisis? It's like Christmas came early. "What now?" he hisses at other-him.

Other-Dave holds up ten fingers. "Go. Like, right now, bro. Ten minutes, send them out the back door along East 88th and tell them to go around on Madison Avenue. Do not fuck around, do not pass Go, just - go."

The problem with time travel is, this all means that Dave has to obey, even though future-him is the shittiest explainer ever. He is actually ashamed that he is going to be that uninformative in ten minutes from now. "Sorry, Heir," he mutters, and then he brute-forces his way into his time powers, narrowing his mental focus down from stop to reverse.

As always, there is a brief moment of inexplicable, overwhelming pain, as his throat seizes up and he gasps for air that can't reach his lungs, a white-hot line of pain running through his throat right beneath the collar.

In that moment, he sees the figures moving behind future-him, a group of tiny little midgets running through the alley and taking off away from the grimdark disaster.

Hang on. Wait. Hold the fucking phone. They aren't midgets -

Oh, so he's going back to -

-

- rescue the little shits!

That thought finished, Dave checks his surroundings, trying to orient himself. He's come out ten minutes ago in the same place he left from, but the museum before him is no longer in ruins; several windows are shattered, but the roof and everything else is still in tact. As he takes a measuring glance behind him at the park, he can see that the grimdark tangle is still in the distance, working its way across the park's reservoir. Without Heir's influence, the wind is at gale-force again, and Dave has to blink and shield his eyes when he gets a faceful of dust and debris. Fucking fuck. Shaking his head, he runs for the front door of the Guggenheim. Time to get the kids out of the fucking line of fire.

The front doors are gone. He spies them lying on the floor in the center of the lobby as he rushes in. He's flashstepping to wring the most movement out of every second that he can, but this museum is huge. Scanning up the levels of ramps visible from the lobby, he grimaces and cups his hands around his mouth. "Hey! Kids! Small human beings! Yo! I am here. You could in fact say that I am here to save you!"

Nobody answers. Dave is painfully aware that if he has to spend the next eight minutes searching the entire museum for wherever these little shits have been hiding through the entire attack, he's going to be cutting this escape pretty damn close. The evil-Rose is gonna lay down some unholy wrath on this place in five minutes, at the least.

He has the small measure of security in that he has already witnessed the children successfully escaping behind his future self. But that doesn't really help him right now.

He starts running up the ramp, the collar around his neck heating up steadily as he is forced to continue to shout. Fuck, he hates yelling. "Come on, you have to get out of here! Fuck, do you not have adult supervision or something? You have to come downstairs, we're going out into the street on the side - I know you're in here! "

"Who are you?" a voice demands. It isn't a little kid's voice either. Up ahead, a woman in thick glasses peers out of an exhibit hall.

"The asshole who's here to save you, obviously." Dave skids to a stop in front of the hall. At first he can't see the kids - then he's sees that they're all huddled up against an inner wall, underneath a bunch of tables that look as though they've been dragged from all over to form the shelter. He rounds on the teacher. "Look. Lady. The great big evil - uh, thing is coming to tear this building apart. In like. Two minutes. So we really need to hurry this up and get the shrimps out of here."

"The streets have been too dangerous!" she protests. "Most of the bridges to the mainland are too damaged for my students to cross."

"Well, fuck me sideways, lady -"

"Language!"

"Holy titty Christ we are not arguing about this right now. This is the opposite of what we're arguing about." Dave grits his teeth. The timer he has counting down in his mind isn't looking too promising. "I mean it, there's not going to be a building here really soon, so however dangerous the streets are, you have to risk it. Alright, so can we go now?"

"I suppose -" the teacher begins shakily.

She never gets a chance to finish.

With an enormous thunderclap, grimdark tentacles smash through the glass ceiling of the lobby. Dave shoves the teacher forward, away from the ramp that runs in a spiral around the interior lobby as glass and tentacles rain down. Then, in a rush, the tentacles rip back up, missing Dave by mere feet that he flashsteps just in time, taking part of the exhibit hall's roof with it. Suddenly, with the upper floors and roof torn away, he can see the sky above, the heavy thunder clouds now centered over the museum. He can see the grimdark cluster as it slowly descends to hover above the gaping hole in the roof.

And for the first time since they arrived in New York, Dave sees the thing inside Rose Lalonde, face-to-face. It is far worse than it appeared on the grainy video footage. The thorny tentacles have grown so thick over the past few hours that her form can barely be distinguished from the grimdark wrapped around her. White fire bleeds from her eyes, but there is something behind the blaze, something bloody and dark and writhing and aware -

"P̒̾Uͪ̾̋N͑ͨ͋Ÿ́͛̿ L̂͋̓Î͆͋ͣT̆T̓L̒Eͤ F͆ͭ̍̒̆̔LË͐̔ŠH̅ĽĪ͊NĜͬ̽̊̽̓̈́S͗͊͛͋͂͗" she says, smiling with an open mouth and bared teeth. The pain is unbelievable, even worse the second time around, perhaps because this time Dave is actually part of the group she's speaking directly too, rather than just overhearing the words from a distance. He feels blood start oozing out of his nose.

He already knows she's going to speak once more, and then begin ripping the building apart in earnest.

They need to be gone. Now. And they can't go down the interior ramp.

"Emergency stairwell. Now. Right the fuck now," he rasps. He yanks time to a stop and grabs the teacher.

As tenta-Rose lifts a hand, sickly purple light gathering in her palm, he has the teacher at the back wall, by the students. The children are all screaming, have been screaming all through the destruction to be honest, the noise that drew Heir's attention earlier/now.

Thank god they're at the back of the hall. Thank any god listening they're all huddled right next to the emergency stairwell. Between each time stop he grabs as many kids as he can carry, yanks them out from under the tables, and starts throwing them down the stairwell.

Hey, Bro threw him down the stairs all the time as a kid. Kids are resilient, right?

Okay, yeah, he probably shouldn't have thrown them. Oops. Too late. "Go go go, lady," he yells grabbing the teacher by the shoulder and pushing her into the stairwell, too. Most of the kids are running down the stairs already - thank god, they're little shits, but they're little shits with self-preservation instincts - and Dave grabs three who are sitting around crying and carries them down himself.

From above, he hears a brain-shattering voice."Hͯ̾̅̍M͂̅̏̚M͌͌͒ͫM?̅̏̂ ̽̐W̌̆̽͊ͥ̒HͭE̿R͋́E͆͂ͧͪ̐́̂ D̂̈I̐̾̌̓̓D͗̑ͦͪ̚ Y͊Ȏ͛̽̃̈́̀̃Uͪ͂̀ͨ̇͗͐ G͆̉ͮ͗̀Oͣ?͌  ͦW͒̈́͋͛ͯO͑̋̌Nͥ̽̓'̑T̂̓ ̍̓Y͂͒̂O͆͗ͩ̀U̽̏͐̿͑ CO͗̂͛M͛̔ͥE͆ B̓̒͐AͫC̆̉̃̐̏K̅ͫ̊ Ả̔ṄͯͣD ̐̋B͗̃͆E  M̀͐Y̒̍ ̍F̉ ̄̀̽͐̚̚Rͫ̎̽̈́̚  I͛̿̅  ͆̍ͧ͗ͭ̉E͋  ͮͤ͌N͌  D̔  ̏̓͑̏S̒?ͩ"

He nearly drops a kid, but no one is watching so it doesn't count. All he can think is 'five, four, three, two, fuck -'

This time, the eldritch shriek of rage blasts his eardrums, and he barely flashsteps to the ground floor before he collapses forward, clawing at his ears. He drops the kids, but this time they don't have all that far to fall. The roar stops echoing in his brain after an eternity that, according to his internal clock, is really only about three seconds. Holy fuck, he's not sure how much more of this grimdark bullshit he can take. When he wipes at his face with the back of his sleeve, he can feel even more blood gushing out his nose, a proper nose bleed. He probably looks like hell warmed over between his creepy red eyes and the new face paint.

When he looks up, fifteen small children and a frightened teacher stare at him, wide eyed. One of the little girls he had to drag downstairs is still kneeling next to him, tugging on his arm. "You're Flashstep, aren't you?" she says in what she probably intends to be a whisper, but echoes in the stairwell. "Are you okay, Mr Flashstep?"

"...Been worse," he manages, grabbing the railing and dragging himself upright. Thirty seconds. Heir is probably already flying at that thing alone, and Dave still has to give his past-self the cue to go back in time. Fuck, no wonder he was so pissy with himself earlier - he can travel through time at will and yet somehow he's always racing against the clock. "Okay, everybody, out we go." He yanks open the emergency exit door. "Down 88th and then turn on Madison Avenue. Do not stop. Seriously, just don't. Do not. Not even once," he orders the teacher.

She nods at him, picking up two of the slow kids from earlier with a grim expression. "Good luck," she says.

"...Thanks."

He doesn't even know her name.

"Come on, kids. Stay with your buddies," she whisper-yells, waving all the little kids out the door before running after them. Dave flashsteps out the door and watches them all race in a straggling line away from the grimdark zone. Then he turns around and waves a hand at past-Dave, who is just now running past the entry way to this side road. That must be what got his attention before, because past-him does a double take and stops, frowning at him.

"What now?" Past-him demands, and jeez, why are all of his different time-selves so pissy all the time. Oh right, because they're always in the middle of a crisis. That's why he generally doesn't get into arguments with himself - he's clear-headed enough even in the middle of these stupid shenanigans to realize it's just a shitty situation for everyone involved.

Anyway. He flashes other-him ten fingers to indicate ten minutes, and tells himself, "Go. Like, right now, bro. Ten minutes, send them out the back door along East 88th and tell them to go around on Madison Avenue. Do not fuck around, do not pass Go, just - go."

Past him glances up at something - Heir in the sky, probably, and mutters under his breath before vanishing.

Yeah. Finally, all caught up on the time loop. Speaking of Heir, Dave should probably -

"ͨ̈́O͌ͭHͯ?̊͋̏ͥ̅̽ Wͬ̏̽̿̌̂̂H̄A̅͆T̽ͦͧ̿ ȊS͗ ͩͯTͦ̓̂ͥH̊ͫIS̑ͩͬͥͥ?̐"

Oh shit. Dave gasps, his eyes watering with the sudden pain. He yanks out the sword he put away to carry the kids and stumbles a bit as he flashsteps forward.

Then he looks up into the sky and realizes grimdark Rose is staring right at him.

He meets those white hot eyes for too long.

͂̂͗(͂ͬdav̏ͭeͬ)

Dave yells hoarsely, and falls to his knees. All thoughts of keeping his fucking guard up, keeping his grip on his sword, maintaining his decorum, everything Bro has ever drilled into his head, flies out the goddamn window.

̍͂(̐̅̋̊ǒͫ̅h ̐̇̔̿ͥ̄da̎vͪͪeͭ, o͋̑̚u̽̉rͬ̃͑ͦ̊ oͫ̓̽t̅͆h͋̎̒͒ẽ̊ṙͭͪ̃̃̽ L͛̑̈́͋̌͋ÎT̔̾T̒͊̍L̉̍̓̈ͧE̽̇͛̓̎̈ͯ́̌ ̃̀D̓̍̑̂̎̓͐R̍Eͨͫ̒͑Ä̋M͛ͪ̚Ȅ̓̒Rͥͦ́)

Because this is worse, this is so much worse, this is the difference between a whisper and a shout, between a burst of thorns and an explosion of tearing, gnawing darkness behind his eyes.

Between hearing the sound of a girl's voice imbued with the horrors of the Furthest Ring, and hearing his own voice sound the same way.

(ḯt̏̓͋ͪ h͌ͪ͂aͣ͊ͮ͊ͫŝ͒ͫ ͑ͧ̈́͐̿b̅e͊̓̒̑eͤ͑n̓̅̇̒ͥ͒̐͌ ̓͗͆̔t̽ͯ͑̆o͌͛̍͑̽ͮo̍̐̋ l̄o͐̚n͆ͤg̈́̑)

"No!" he chokes out, ripping his gaze away from the mocking white eyes above. He draws his second sword and raises it, getting up on one foot and one knee in a half-assed guarding stance. It's not real, it can't be real, he won't let it be real.

He dodges the first tentacle of grimdark power that stabs at him, while the grimdark above laughs and laughs. He cuts into the tentacle with a slice of his sword, a clumsy swing that barely connects. Dark purple blood pours out, and the Horrorterror wails.

The shriek of pain is distracting enough that Dave never sees the second thorn coming. It stabs out from the slice he made in the first tentacle rather than from the main body above, and stabs at him.

And he -

He can't move in time.


---

Heir has had no time to observe the grimdark's powers in action. He has seen it committing random acts of gratuitous building demolition and tearing up the streets, but he hasn't seen it fight anyone. So he's basically flying in with no background knowledge, no real plan on how to fight this thing, and no guarantee that the wind will even be able to protect him throughout the fight.

The wind is...balking. It's reluctant to listen to him. The only instinct it appears to want him to follow through is the instinct to get the hell out of New York. And the breezes that aren't urging him to fly in the other direction are the ones that are somehow...hostile. John can smell sea water and blood in the air, thick enough that he can almost taste the flavor on his tongue. The grimdark is more than something possessing Rose - it feels like it's slowly permeating the air, like evil humidity.

If they get out of this mess alive, he is using that metaphor in front of Dave. Evil humidity is something Dave would get a kick out of, right? Right.

Focus.

The screams have died down by the time Heir flies between the transformed Rose and the museum, and he doesn't want to think about what that means. "Rose! Rose, listen to me!" he yells.

To his relief, the cluster of grimdark tentacles opens up, and the thorns stabbing down into the museum pause in their violent outburst. Rose's angular features are greyed and framed by dead-looking hair, but it is still Rose's face that tilts to the side, studying him, maybe even recognizing him?

Lizard-quick, the face jerks to the side, an unnaturally twisted smile parting Rose's face. It's - horrifying. ""ͨ̈́O͌ͭH?̊͋̏ ̑͗͋Wͬ̏̽̿̌H̄A̅T̽ͦͧ̿ IS͗ ͩͯ̿TH̊İS̑ͩ?̐" the Horrorterror says, the sound of its voice grating and cold in John's ears. Dave had almost collapsed the first time they heard Rose speak, and Heir has no idea why - it's unpleasant, but it's not debilitating. Whatever has gone wrong, he just hopes the other hero can still fight. Bro is nowhere to be seen, but even between Heir and Flashstep, he is pretty sure they can handle this grimdark thing long enough to get the cuffs on it, even if Rose...can't answer Heir right now.

Heir is cautiously optimistic, right up until the Horrorterror stabs Dave.

A tentacle lances out – but it doesn’t come at Heir, which is what he’d anticipated, is what he’d directed the winds to defend against. Instead, it stabs down and to the right, and Heir whirls to see that Dave has ended up on a sidestreet below, next to the caved-in museum. The other hero is crouched on his knees, clutching at his head, and barely manages to dodge the first strike by falling sideways and slicing with his sword, nicking the tentacle. “Dave!” Heir yells, but the other hero doesn’t respond even to that name. Heir can just barely make out the blood pouring out of the other hero’s nose.

And the sight of Dave bleeding from the nose makes Heir’s skin crawl because it means something is wrong. He can’t tell what it is, but it triggers every internal alarm he has. Why is the grimdark affecting Dave like this and not Heir?

He brings down a blade of his own, a slicing gust of wind that he directs with his good arm, and hammers all of its force down like a hammer on the section of the thorny tentacle next to him, trying to distract it from Dave. He wishes he had Casey – hell, any hammer would do, or even something with a real blade.

He hacks the tentacle in two just as Dave lets out a yell of pain that ends in a choked gurgle, and the grimdark laughs.

Then Heir starts to freak the fuck out.

The only explanation he can give for the rookie mistake he makes next is that he’s still not used to working in tandem with another hero. He and Hemogoblin have only really worked together once, and those hadn’t been the best circumstances either, but at least then it had been Heir who was hurt, not his partner. Now, instead of keeping his eye on the grimdark tangle right in front of his face, he looks down. “Shit! Dave!” He can’t tell how bad the damage is from up here; all he can see is the bright, arterial splatter of blood that has painted its way up the wall, and that Dave is gone. The tentacle Heir cut hits the ground with a thud, a secondary thorn having jammed itself into the wall opposite where Dave had been. It too is speckled with blood.

Heir is not prepared for the gut-wrenching fear that hits him at that moment. Dave is gone.

He is also really not prepared for the giant evil space tentacle that slams into him from behind while he’s distracted.

Reeeally should have seen that one coming, he thinks gloomily as the wind wraps around him and stops his uncontrolled arc. He flips himself around to face Rose again properly. The winds defending his body caught that blow before it could actually hit him, but the wicked point on the thorn that writhes in the air where he’d been hovering means the Horrorterror fully intended to catch him in the center of his back. That would have been a cripple or a kill shot if just a little more force had overpowered his shields.

And if it’s trying to kill Heir, where exactly did it hit Dave?

“Rose!” he tries again. “Rose, please! I know you’re in there!” All the while Heir begins to desperately plumb the depths of his connection to the wind, drawing every scrap of moving air in the area to his side. Between the hostile, grimdark humidity soaking into the air and his own thrumming adrenaline, he strains to keep the restless winds from launching into a full-blown tornado and spinning out of his control.

“YOͬ̎U͛͐̊͐͗ͤ̊ TR̍͌̾̍̇ŪͭͯL̎Y̾ ̈T̅̅̽H͐ͤINK̔͐͛ Yͯ̒̓͛ͤǑ̏̔̇̒̎U͒̓ C͑Ā̏N͊͋ͭ̇̾ S͒̐ͯT̾͒̌Ŏ͂P̏͆ US͊ͩ? ͋̔” Rose’s twisted voice cuts through the rising howl of the wind. The Horrorterror smiles, mouth gaping and cavernous with more of the white, sickly fire that bleeds out from its eyes. “Sͤ̿Ḧ͑E̊̎ ͥ̈́CȀN̏ͩN̓O̐̈́̈́ͬ̋Tͥ͒ ̇̅̏̈́ H͋̊E̎ǍR̾ YͤO̿̍̓U.”

“I think she can!” he fires back, spreading his hands wide. “I think Rose is still fighting you in there.”

“R͂͌͊O͂͐̑ͪͬS͂Ėͯ I͌Sͥ̒ͬ̄ D͂ͬȆ̅͒̚AͭD̈́̄̈̓. W̓̾̂E͆̓ K̏͌Iͦͦͭ̌̌̒L̈́L̔͊̇̿E͒͊D ̋̾͛̈HͧͥÊ͑͋͒͐̓R̂ͬ͐.” Still smiling beatifically, the Horrorterror raises its hand and begins charging some new purple spell in the palm of its hand. The crackling energy writhes with worms and thorns.

No. No. “You’re lying!”

Heir loses control of the wind in that brief moment of disbelief, and the breeze slams into the grimdark tangle at a hundred and fifty miles an hour.

It knocks the tangle back maybe a foot. The Horrorterror just laughs and stabs tentacles directly down into the ground below, anchoring itself. This thing can take a beating. “W̓E̒̄̿ D̄͛̄̌O͐ͫ ͨ̈́N̿ȌͪTͣ̿̓͒ N͆͌̋̈́͒̒EED̊̋̌̈́̑̍ͬ ̆̿̓̎T̑O̊ ̅̚L̍͋IE̓̇͐ͣ̚ ͬŴ̎H̆EͤN̓̊̔͆̚̚ ̋Tͭͪ̆H͑͋̏̾̄͆Ë́͋ T̄̅͋̓͊̔RͥU̓͐ͪ̒TḦ ͌̌͒C͋̊͐A̋USÉ̓ͭ̈̚S̍̔͂ YO͆Ű͌̅ͥ͗ͬ̈ S̐ͯ͗̊̋O͛ ̏͌̌̈MͤUͧ̏ͫ̾C̍̒͊̆͋H MͦͩO͐ͥRE̓̋ͮ̎͒̍ D͛ͯȈ͑̋͗Sͧ̅̓T͛R͊͐͑̄͋ͬES͋Sͦ,̑̍ ͗HͬͥEI̅̐R,͗” it taunts.

It knows his name. His heroic alias, anyway. “And how would you know my name unless she’s still in there? I know Rose – she’s been psychoanalyzing the heck out of every hero in the US since I first met her! That’s not something a crazy space alien would know, that’s Rose!”

The Horrorterror has replaced Rose’s eyes with streaming white trails of energy. It still, amazingly, manages to give the impression that it is rolling its eyes. It flicks a hand at him, and three whips of grimdark power lash out at Heir at once. “͛̊ͬY̒̌O̿͐̌U͂̈ͯ̑ A̓RͮĚ j͂̄͆̒ͧ͆o̒hń̚ iͧ̃s̓͋͑̂ th͐ͭͬà͐ẗ ͂͊͑͊y̆̈́̋̄̋̑oͫ̍͛̑u W͌̓͛͛̿R͋̊Ȯ͊̑ͯN͂͐̓ͯG͐.”

He barely hears it. With all the distortion in evil-Rose’s voice, it’s hard enough trying to understand when the Horrorterror is shouting, let alone the faint whisper between the words. Heir shoots up into the sky, dangerously close to the underside of the thunder clouds, and the tentacles arc up with him. God, is he lucky there’s no natural lightning in the storm. Spinning, he lets himself drop. The tentacles curve down to stab at him, but he already has a clear shot at the main tentacles. Miming the act of grabbing a handle, Heir throws his physical body into the swing as well to help him focus as he whips a gust of wind around like an ax, narrowing his focus as much as he can so all of that force has to funnel into a point like a real blade.

The wind cuts through all three tentacles, spewing dull purple blood across the debris on the street below. John’s collarbone screams. He’s been ignoring it all this time, minimizing his movements on that side, and now he feels every damn hairline fracture that grenade explosion left in the bone. Gasping, he stuffs his hand into the jacket as a makeshift sling, trying to give it a quick break from the strain. He doesn’t know if he can pull off a maneuver like that again.

Only after he’s taken care of that does he fully realize what he just heard.

Not Heir. John. “Rose!” John calls back, hope squeezing his heart as he begins to duck and weave between the secondary thorns that erupt from the severed tentacles. He guides sharp slices of the wind with his free arm, but the throbbing pain distracts him more than he likes. “Rose, was that you?”

“S͌͋͂͌̚̚H͊͊E̓ͪ͊̇͋ I͂S j̅õh͐n̓ ̇̍̽̒̌̒͛plͬͯ͒ea͒ͫ͗ͤ̈͒se͐ ̋ͤ̓͆s͒͋̅̈́̇̒t͂͌͂op̐̊ ͥͯ͊̿ͦ͂m̌̈́e G̑̋̓ͥͦͭOͯ̓N̓Ë́̈́ͯ”

The Horrorterror grimaces. The tentacles chasing John falter as the grimdark tangle wrapped around Rose’s slim frame huddles in on itself.

That is definitely Rose. And however she’s managed to start talking, the Horrorterror doesn’t like it. Which means, obviously, that John wants her to keep doing it. He has no idea where Bro has fucked off to, and Dave is presumably out of commission. As far as he can see, he has to distract the Horrorterror and cuff Rose, all by himself.

Heir may not be able to do this. But John can, because Doctor Lalonde was right - John is the one Rose knew. Still knows, even now, after all these years. “I can hear you, Rose! I’m right here!”

“YOͥ͗̔̏̚U͒̇̋̽ ͨ̍HEA͆͑͋R͂ͧ̈́͐ ̊Nͤͦ̄O̿̏̓T̾ͨͯͯHͯ̋IN̋͒ͮ̏̎͐Ğ̒̔̽.̈̏͐ͫ ” Two purple spheres of lightning launch from within the tangle, and John drops beneath them.

Then he realizes they’re still following him, turning much more quickly than the tentacles could. The spell squirms like a bundle of iridescent worms as he narrowly ducks one that aims for his face. He heads up again, trying to get the advantage of height, but he can’t help that he’s limited by the murky cloud cover. He doesn’t even want to know how saturated with grimdark the air inside the thunder storm would be. One sphere vanishes into the clouds when he turns sharply, and he drops again. He’s keeping an eye on the Horrorterror, but she doesn’t seem to be giving chase herself.

By this time he’s over buildings rather than the street, and he rounds the corner of the ninth floor of a building as tightly as he can, his arm skimming across the glass as he uses the wind to hug the curve. He knows he succeeds when the sphere can’t turn tightly enough, and slams into the corner instead in its haste to reach him by the quickest route possible. The sphere explodes against the side of the building. Cracks of dull purple eat their way up the windows before, with a twist, everything explodes outward. The wind whirls most of the resulting shrapnel away.

At least now he knows that works.  John touches down on the ground, eyes on the sky, and feels the crackling hum of the second explosive spell as it rockets down through the clouds to divebomb him. At the last second, he jumps to the side, and the spell collides with the pavement, shattering the road.

He rolls back up onto his feet, hands raised for another round, but to his confusion tenta-Rose hasn’t followed him. From what little he can tell amidst the cocoon of grimdark thorns, she isn’t even looking at him. Instead, the tentacles that propel her are dragging her over the wreckage of the Guggenheim and onto Madison Avenue. John rises up into the air, scanning the road for what could possibly have grabbed her attention. “Rose!” he shouts, and the whole tangle shudders to a staggering halt. John slowly approaches the tangle again, wind at the ready, but no more orbs of purple explody worms are forthcoming.

Suck it, Dave’s Bro! Suck on the power of friendship!

Then he hears what the Horrorterror is muttering to itself, and he tenses up again. “͊̊͆Ŵ͋̓Eͦ̌ MͩA̒͒Y̅ N̒̒O̅̍̓̑͊̓̍͛T̓ B̆͆ͭȆ A̾̈́͐ͨ͒̊BͮLEͨ͑̂ ̽ TÕ͑ͬͯ͊ͩͥ̚̚ ͊C͗Oͥ̂MP̽̆͐L̍ͬ̋̇ͬE͊T̂ͩͭ͛̔̄Ė̚ T͆̽̂͋H̐E̔ Wͣ̍ͤͪ̽͐̚O͑̓Rͤ͐̄K͒ ̈́i͒ c̒̐̅͐͋aͦn̋'̎t s̋t̒ͯoͯ̀̊p̍̀ t̀̅h͐ͮ̓eͩ̇m  ̒W̐ITͩ̿H̅ T͐̔̓̎͊͒̂Ḧ̚ȈS ̒̌̿̅V͂͛̚E̊S̍ͥ̑͛Sͥ̍ELͩ̊ͪ̊͋ͪ” the grimdark rattles out, even its quiet mutter a grating shriek to John’s keen ears. He distinguishes Rose’s short exclamation from the mangled growl of the tangle, and his blood runs cold.

“Come on, Rose! You can do this! You can fight them off! You’ve done it before!” He doesn’t mention how long ago that incident must have been. It wouldn’t help his case. And besides, Rose is already doing great! The Horrorterror is totally distracted, and if John can just edge a few yards closer, he can try to restrain one of her arms.

"TͤHANKͥͮ̆ͩͩFU̿LLͧ͐̊Y,̅ ͗̒ͮ̿̄W̏̍Ĕ̍̈́̚ iveͦ̇̌̋͑ ẗ̉̋͑ͭ̄r̍̐̂̄iè̑̒͛d̐ A͑LW͐̊͆̓̈́̿̊͑̓AẎS̄̂͋̋ͮ̓ Ȟͮ̌̑A͐̒VE.̅.̓.̏O͂͑ͣͯ̊̏̑PT̍I͋ͥ̇̓̎Oͮ̔̋̇N̏S̐̿̔͐̚”

Wait, what the heck is that supposed to mean?

The Horrorterror roars, with a piercing note within the rumble of thunder that shatters what few intact windows remain on the buildings around them. Three more tentacles lance out from the main tangle, aimed not at John, but at the rooftop of the nearby building –

It’s only then that he sees Bro Strider. In the seconds before the tentacles crash into the roof where the Puppeteer is standing, John realizes who is slung over Bro’s shoulder.

Dave is okay. Well, he’s not moving, and there’s an awful lot of blood painting the back of the Puppeteer’s white polo, but Dave hasn’t just vanished into thin air – he’s still here.

An iron band around John’s lungs falls away, and he feels like he can breathe again.

Of course, now the Horrorterror, for whatever reason, has decided to fixate on the other two heroes, and John is pretty sure even someone as skilled as the Puppeteer is probably gonna be slower while hauling around the dead weight of a teenager. When the Puppeteer leaps into the air, letting the tentacles slam into the roof where he’d been standing, John catches up to him (and yeah, if John can see Bro moving, he has definitely slowed down) and waves his arms frantically. “I can carry him,” he yells over the continued, rolling roar of the sea that echoes out of Rose’s mouth.

All he gets is a stolid nod, and then suddenly Bro throws Dave’s (please be unconscious) body right at him and draws a katana in his freed hand. John dives forward, yanking his injured arm free of the suit jacket, and catches Dave under the armpits, the other hero’s weight barely jolting him. In fact, even if Bro doesn’t have John’s weird extra strength, should carrying Dave have slowed him down that much? Gritting his teeth, John decides to set Dave down somewhere in the park, away from all the falling buildings and debris the Horrorterror keeps blowing everywhere.

“U͆͂̂͐͒R̍̍͌̎ͪ̓͂̍͋G͋͌ͭ̈́H͗ͧ!”

He realizes he’s been operating under a misconception when Rose roars up to meet him, closing the distance between John and the tangle in seconds with a lurch of unsteady tentacles. Even when John sees Bro slice off a huge chunk of the main tentacles supporting the Horrorterror, she doesn’t turn away from John. He pours on the speed and makes a break for the park. She is definitely chasing him in earnest now, not even bothering with the spells or tentacles as they speed toward the park.

She hadn’t changed her course just to target Bro and Dave at random. It isn’t like she somehow lost interest in John after his words began to reach Rose and weaken the grimdark’s control.

She’s targeting Dave.

It finally clicks. For whatever reason, now that Rose is able to speak, the Horrorterror doesn’t think it can finish its mission – and it considers Dave the next best ‘vessel.’

Naturally, all this revelation does is piss John right off. Karkat is probably a bad influence on him. He finds that he doesn’t much care at the moment. “Rose, call this thing off! Please!” he calls, but there is no response. If anything, the Horrorterror picks up the pace, howling with rage. John is pushing just how fast the wind can go with all this humidity in the air, and that gaping maw of white fire seems to be splitting Rose's face in two.

And yeah, John loses his shit. He does a full on pirouette off the standard metaphorical handle. Dave and Karkat would probably both be proud. “Fuck no! Get out of both my friends, you fucking fuck!” John yells. Evil Rose just puts on an extra burst of speed and lunges with hands and thorns scrabbling at Dave’s feet.

And oh shit, his body is wracked with pain as John tips right over that boiling point and –

- he pops out in the air almost half a mile away from where he started. As he watches at a distance, dazed and breathing hard, the Horrorterror lurches to a halt over the park reservoir. For a brief, terrifying moment, he doesn’t know if he’s still got Dave – shit, shit, John barely knows how this teleporting things works, can he even bring other people along for the ride? But then he realizes he’s still got a grip on Dave, gripping the other hero in a bear hug so hard it’s probably not safe for Dave’s upper rib cage.

He takes a few deep, sucking breathes, trying to collect himself. He ducks behind a building, landing within an office that has been scraped clean by a stray tentacle, and leans Dave forward against the overturned desk. He takes advantage of the brief moment to check exactly where Dave is injured.

It’s not difficult to figure out. Dave’s head lolls to the side, both red eyes shut, and John can see that the other hero’s neck and shoulder are a fucking wreck. That metal collar Dave’s always wearing is gone, and there’s a red band of soon-to-be bruises ringing his neck where it must have snapped off. John can hear the faint, raspy wheeze of Dave’s breathing, so at least his trachea hasn’t collapsed. Someone – the Puppeteer, obviously – has wadded up bright blue fabric the color of Lil Cal’s shirt and tied it down with a larger strip of cloth to stem the blood that still sluggishly pours out from the tear at the side of Dave’s throat. The thorn must have just barely clipped Dave on the neck and shoulder rather than punching through either, but it still managed to scrape right up against his carotid, if the amount of blood is anything to go by. John is willing to bet that if that metal collar hadn’t been there, a lot more damage could have been done.

More worrying is the blood still trickling out of Dave’s nose, and the fact that Dave is still unconscious. Objectively, John knows that a little nosebleed pales in comparison to the gaping wound on the side of Dave’s neck. But it – it’s just too familiar, and that familiarity is horrifying because John has never seen Dave’s nose bleed before.

“FOŮ̃N̏̇Dͣ̓ͨͥ́̑ Y̊͗̊ͬ̇̓Oͯ͂̍Uͥ̎̀́̔̾̄͗”

Shit. John turns to see grimdark Rose hovering outside the office, grinning madly. “Fͪ̏ͣ͗̂ͮͫ̈́̓Oͨ̔Ů̃ͫͨͦ̒̿͑N̏̇ͭ̓̉Dͣ̓ͨͥ́̑ ͧ̾̔̅̈̈ͦͥ̓Y̊͗̊ͬ̇̓̒Oͯ͂̍ͫ͊̑̂ͪUͥ̎̀́̔̾̄͗~~~” it sings, almost bursting John’s eardrums.

“No!” he replies, grabbing Dave under the arms again. This time, it’s almost like he walks right into the anger, welcoming the pain as he teleports three buildings down, onto the same roof he’d seen Bro last. The Horrorterror shrieks in rage behind them, and Dave’s whole body jerks, more blood trickling out of his nose.

Yeah, Dave can’t afford to lose much more blood like this. John lays Dave down and turns to face the grimdark tangle as it claws its way up into the sky and screeches at him, flinging itself in their direction. “Rose! Try to keep her still, just for a few seconds!” he calls over the rising wind.

He tries not to let it discourage him that he hasn’t heard Rose in…quite a while. She can do it! This is Rose we’re talking about! No creepy void-tentacle-many-angled bag of dicks is going to beat her!

John just has to get close enough to the center of the tangle before he can start to help Rose fight back in earnest. Sucking in a breath of sea-salt air, he launches himself at the tangle and begins to beat it back away from Dave with swathes of air. "Hey! Pay attention to me! I'm the one you're fighting, here!" he shouts when the grimdark tangle attempts to break away and swarm underneath him in a mass of tentacles.

Apparently, while he's not making much of a dent in the ever expanding array of tentacles that encase Rose's possessed body, he does eventually succeed in pissing off an eldritch abomination enough that it screams in outrage as he forces down the street again, and a flurry of thorny tentacles shoot John all at once.

Uh. He probably could have thought this plan through a little better. Welp, he starts weaving through the fray, slicing when he can get his good arm free to manipulate the air.

He misses the exact moment the Horrorterror decides to change its tactics, which was...probably the point. It was trying to distract him, and it succeeded. The wild barrage of thorny vines stops, and John is left twisting in the air. He keeps his head low as he rolls upright, expecting an attack to surprise him from behind, but he's perplexed to see he is now alone in the air.

He turns to see the Horrorterror peeling off away from him, yanking itself between buildings and using its tentacles to throw itself bodily at the office where John left Dave. “No!” John yells, flinging blades of wind ahead of him in an attempt to cut the grimdark and catch its attention again.

Mid-leap, the Horrorterror flinches back, shrieking, before it's even a few hundred feet from Dave. Adjusting for the abrupt halt, John flips backwards and slams both fists down on the tentacles over Rose’s head. It screeches and crawls backwards, wavering on its tentacles, and John sees that someone has cut a wide, bloody purple gouge through nearly all of the tentacles that had been reaching for Dave.

Bro Strider leans at a cocky angle against the edge of the hole in the office wall, a shirtless Lil Cal sitting on his shoulder. He has put the katana away already, and is inspecting his nails without a care in the world. “Bitch, please,” he drawls absently. “You should just listen to the kid and stand still. Go after my lil bro and I’ll fry you like fucking calamari.”

“M͗̚E̒͐W͐̌̄Lͥ͛I̍N̆̓̑͑G̅̑̐̍̚ L͑̍̾̇Å̄N̑̅̔̔D͆̍ͦ ̓̏͒͐͛͗DW̒Ȇͦ̓ͥLL̽̍̓̇̂Ê͗RͪͫS!" the Horrorterror shrieks.

“That’s hemoracist!” John yells back. He thinks maybe the relief is making him a little hysterical, if that's the best comeback he can think of. “So! Rude!” He raises his hands up and slams down another hammer of air down on top of the Horrorterror's head. It's a testament to how much the grimdark has been distracted that rather than anchoring itself and withstanding the blow, it topples over sideways, crashing into the building opposite.

John presses his advantage and flies after it, winding up to throw a punch as he flies at the Horrorterror's face.

Er. On second thought. Maybe he doesn't want to punch Rose in the face. It's still her face, after all. Instead, he skids to a halt before the hollow in the thorns where Rose's possessed body sits, clutching at its head with grimdark claws. He grabs her by the shoulders instead. "Give Rose back, you alien racists!" he yells at her face, shaking her hard.

Thorns surge inward to meet him, but the gamble pays off. For a brief moment, the eyes staring back at him don’t writhe with worms and tangles behind the white fire, it’s just a familiar, probing gaze –

And all the tentacles arcing in to stab him freeze in place. Crowing in triumph, John slaps a cuff down on Rose’s outstretched wrist and feels it click shut and lock into place.

Unfortunately, he only manages the one restraint before it’s the Horrorterror’s turn to lose its shit. “N̔̒̊ͧ̄̽Oͮ!” it shrieks, and a pair of tentacles wrap around John, crushing in tight until he can’t even slip a breeze between them and his skin to ease the pressure. There’s nothing left of Rose in those eyes, just an absolute, multifarious rage.

Oh, fuck. He’s fucked.

“NO!” someone else screams. John’s ears have grown so used to the ringing shrieks of the grimdark that Rose’s high, thin voice, gone hoarse with pain, sounds distant and far off.

But it’s Rose who looks back at him.

“Rose,” John says, grinning. He can’t help it.

Instead of tearing him apart, the grimdark tosses him aside. Rose’s hoarse shout can barely travel through the thick air. So yeah, he’s still getting thrown around, but who cares! Rose did it this time! That's awesome! John catches himself with ease, the wind stirring with new energy as his joy leaks through.

“̔̔̆Ẃ̾Ë̾ͦ͆͐͊ͯ̔ W͗͑̚IL̋̽ͪL ͤK̿I͋ͬ̆̎LL̂̍̆͗ͨͣ̍ Aͥ̎L̔̓͛̈́̆̎L̔ͬ̌̽̍ Oͯ̽F ͂ͬͭͣ̽Yͯ̈ŌU͛̓̾ͥͣ!!!” Rose bellows, and oops, no, that’s not Rose anymore. Dammit! The Horrorterror stumbles along like a drunkard, slamming into a building facefirst at one point (which is hilarious and really shouldn't be, but whatever), but still making its way towards Dave again. Darn!

“Give ‘em hell, Rose!” John yells, pelting after her. He catches up, and he knows the grimdark must be so very distracted from the inner turmoil Rose is stirring up because it doesn’t even glance his direction. It’s too desperate to reach Dave and ditch Rose’s internal rebellion to consider him a threat. “You are a strong independent woman who does not pander to insane murder-alien shenanigans!”

"jȯ͊ͩ̽h̓̽̊̈́̑n̈̓̈́.ͨ̇̅ͣ jo̓ͪ̿h̾̇ͫnͪ͆. STOP ME," Rose gasps again, wrenching her face sideways to look at him, pain wrinkling her forehead. "DON'T LET ME REACH DAVE."

"You got it!" John slides in close and buffets the Horrorterror in the side, knocking support tentacles out from under it and driving it steadily to the side, back toward Central Park.

"̇͑͑͆g͗̽eͨͭt ͋Aͫ͂W͆̔A͋ͮY̍͆͑ͫͥ!" He thinks it's still Rose talking, though the distortion has returned. He doesn't heed the warning in time, and a tentacle snags the wrist of his bad arm, bringing him to a painful halt. John brings his other hand around to stab at the offending vine.

The tentacle moves first, yanking his arm back and up.

There is a sharp pop as his arm dislocates.

"Fuuuuaaaaghhhh!" John swallows down the rest of the scream, hissing through his nose. All of the pain in his collarbone and shoulder has begun to meld together into a white-hot agony centered on his upper left side. He can't panic, he can't panic, he chants to himself, focusing on a short blade of air that slices through the tentacle before he rips the section curled around his wrist off. His left arms hangs at a horrific angle, twisted completely out of joint. It's not as bad as it feels; he just needs maybe ten spare seconds and he can pop the shoulder right back into place. This isn't a crisis. Not yet.

He hears the last few reassurances in his dad's voice. It helps a little.

"joHN."

He meets Rose's eyes, and tries to grin for her. The grimdark has frozen up once more. "You've got this, Rose!" he says, probing at his shoulder in the brief interlude Rose seems to have won.

"I'm sorry John," Rose says, panting. "I require your assistance.  I can't move, you see. But you - you would be able to. And once you get me loose - I believe I can take it from there." She grins, looking half feral, then shudders in pain as the tentacles of grimdark all ripple at once.

John frowns. "Rose, I don't understand -"

"And I can't explain the process right now." Rose holds out a shaking hand, the one that's not cuffed. He hadn't seen in the heat of battle, but the gloves of her transformed costume have been singed through to reveal her grey, burned palms. That Horrorterror threw out some serious fire power. "This restraint helps. Hurry up and get the other one finished, and then get inside my mind."

"What?! How? Why?" John protests. He has to let go of his shoulder and hover closer to Rose; the dislocated shoulder can wait. He digs into his inside pocket with the good arm and slots the second restraint onto Rose's arm.

"Now then. I intend to settle this once and for all. Just get me out of this damned corner, John." Rose raises a hand that shakes a little, her color almost peachy. John goes cross eyed looking at it, opening his mouth to explain that no, their plan actually involves restraining the Horrorterror and then getting the hell out of Dodge.

She taps him on the forehead before he gets the words out. To his relief, the sparks that result are not sickly purple but a feeble, greyish gold. Not exactly good, but not likely to kill him either.

Or so he thinks, before his eyes roll back in his skull and both he and Rose begin to topple to the ground, two hundred feet below.

Like mother, like daughter, John thinks to himself, blacking out. Neither of them can be assed to explain things properly the first time around. Jeez.

-

John thinks, dimly, that he can hear the ocean. The scent of blood and salt permeates the - is that air? It feels more like sludge, as though the air has finally surpassed Houston and achieved 100% humidity, thus winning all of Dave's shitty awards. Everything is pitch dark, and there is a distinct lack of pain in his shoulder and collarbone.

This indicates that Shenanigans with a capital S are occurring. Blinking and squinting in the darkness, he attempts to regain his bearings. This proves difficult; the darkness does not abate no matter which way he turns, and all he can really distinguish with his hearing is that somewhere, far below him, an ocean rumbles with the tide. And, if he tilts his ear down and listens carefully, underneath it all he can make out a low murmur, an arrhythmic chant, one that repeats, screeches, and then repeats again, as though being played on a broken record player.

(̒̔̆dͥĭ̋ͭso̔rͬ̿d̄͊̆̽͂eͣ͑ͫř̇̈̒̊diͧͩͯs͗͗̈aĺ̐̒͐̄̚ign͊̄d͑̽̍̓̔î̊͂ͨstͨͬ̓͋̋ͮ̂o̾r͗̆̓͑td̓̍͒̿i͑̄ͤ̾stͯͬuͬͤ͊ͪrͥͧ̍̐bd͛ev̄͛̋̐̿͛̂ia͒̓ͬ̐ͩtedͩ̆͌ͬ̎efǒ̈̅̍r͆ͣmdͥĭ̋ͭso̔rͬ̿d̄͊̆̽͂eͣ͑ͫř̇̈̒̊diͧͩͯs͗͗̈aĺ̐̒͐̄̚ign͊̄d͑̽̍̓̔î̊͂ͨstͨͬ̓͋̋ͮ̂o̾r͗̆̓͑td̓̍͒i͑̄ͤstͯͬuͬͤ͊ͪrͥͧ̍̐bd͛ev̄͛̋̐̿͛̂ia͒̓ͬ̐ͩtedͩ̆͌ͬ̎efǒ̈̅̍r͆ͣm-)͒̂̅̅

With that super creepy soundtrack muttering in his ear, John decides to descend. Rose had said something about him getting inside her mind to help her out with - something? She hadn't exactly been very clear.

Well, the solution is obviously to find her.

This is easier said than done, and for a long minute John flounders in the dark, hearing the ocean grow steadily louder beneath him as he casts about for a light. When he gets close enough to feel the spray kicked up by the roiling waves, a cold drop of water hits his face. It burns, and he wipes at the spot frantically with the back of his sleeve. The spot continues to burn, and he has to rip off the end of his sleeve and toss it away when that begins to burn as well. He can't see the sleeve as it drops into the ocean, but he can imagine what would happen when it hit the surface of the waves.

The entire ocean is full of burning acid.

And this is what has invaded Rose's mind?

He is struck momentarily by the horrific certainty that this dark expanse of cold water goes on forever, endless and churning and eternal. John shakes himself and flies up a bit to get out of range of the acidic spray. He doesn't question how he can fly in Rose's mind; the explanation will probably involve either psychology or magic, and he'd rather Rose explain it herself than he try his hand at her arts.

He floats forward for a while. He doesn't dare turn away from that single direction - he's probably already hopelessly lost, and he'd rather not end up going in circles on top of that. His best hope for getting out of here is to find Rose and help with her plan for - for whatever the heck the new plan is.

He wanders long enough to start worrying about his and Rose's body. They had kind of been in the middle of falling from a pretty good distance when he passed out. All he can really do at this point is hope that the Puppeteer left Dave's side long enough to maybe catch them both. ...Yeah, Bro is kind of a dick, but John doesn't think he'd let them fall to their doom. Hopefully.

(john. john. over here, john.)

He's so caught up in these musings, he nearly misses Rose's thready whisper. The harsh murmur of (̒̔̆dĭ̋so̔rͬ̿d̄͊̆̽͂eř̇̈̒̊diͧͩͯs͗͗̈aĺ̐̒͐̄̚ign͊̄d͑̽̍̓̔î̊͂ͨstͨͬ̓͋̋ͮ̂o̾r͗̆̓͑td̓̍͒̿i͑̄ͤ̾stͯͬuͬͤ͊ͪrͥͧbd͛ev̄͛̋̐̿͛̂ia͒̓ͬ̐ͩte) sounds...really, creepily similar to Rose's distorted voice earlier, so it almost blends into and obscures her voice.

(john, i swear, if you absent-mindedly wander right past my location in the middle of this unmitigated disaster, i will unleash such fresh vengeance upon you, there will not be enough of you left for a funeral.)

Oh. He heard that one. "Rose? Where are you? I can't see a thing!" he whisper-shouts, still not entirely sure just where the Horrorterror might be hanging out. The cuffs are supposed to suppress it enough for Rose to keep control, but the grimdark is still here.

There is a long pause, and he stops dead, afraid he actually did manage to float right by Rose and miss her completely. (yes, i suppose it would be rather impenetrably dark to one unused to dealing with the darkness of the Furthest Ring) Rose whispers at last. (i am directly to your right. you will know me when you see me.)

John turns slowly, staring helplessly out into the endless field of black. It all looks exactly the same. "Wher -" A flash of light catches his attention. Well, more like it blinds him and he has to bite back a yelp of pain. After so long in the dark, the tiny, flickering beacon that appears on the indistinct horizon feels like staring into the sun.

(oops. please make haste, john.)

"Not exactly the most reassuring thing to say, Rose," John hisses, flying over as quickly as he can in the thick air. "What exactly is the game plan here? Because I didn't sign up for an adventure to the center of your mind this morning, and I'm flying blind here."

The light eventually resolves itself, directly in front of him, yes, but also below him, closer to where he thinks the surface of the ocean lies. He begins to descend, cautious. The last thing he wants is to get caught in a wave of grimdark acid.

(if you could help me out of here, i would be greatly obliged.) The flickering, pale, faded outline of Rose Lalonde rests her head on a tiny lantern, her pale purple eyes gleaming in the reflected light. The rest of her trails off into the dark ocean. The faint light of the lantern doesn't even penetrate the grimdark submerging the her body.

John hesitates, then shakes himself vigorously. This is Rose! He puts out both hands and a pair of transparent hands clasp his back. It burns for a moment with the acid Rose has been lying in, but he grits his teeth and tightens his grip on her. "Don't worry, Rose. I won't let you go. What do you need me to do?"

Rose smiles. Maybe. It's hard to tell when most of her face is kind of...smudged and see through. (i would greatly appreciate a lift. once I am free of this grimdark pit, i have a bone to pick with the Honorable Horrorterror who dares presume to take over my mind.)

"It's as easy as that?" John asks.

Rose raises a single elegant eyebrow. Seriously, all of his friends seem to have this mysterious eyebrow thing down. When John tries it, both his eyebrows go up at once. Karkat, Dave, and Rose can all manage it. Maybe it's like how all of them ramble when they talk - John must really have a type when it comes to his friends!

Focusss!

(easy for you, john. The lion's share of the hard work rests with me, this time around. this is my mess. and I assure you, i intend to clean it up.)

John nods, and yanks Rose upward out of the acid sea. There's a surprisingly amount of resistance, and he looks down to see tendrils of grimdark clinging to her ankles. His whole body jerks downward as the ocean tries to swallow her up again. "Oh no, you don't!" John snaps. He feels Rose's nails dig into his wrists as he drags them both up. With a sound like suction cups popping loose, the miniature tentacles release Rose's lower half. John isn't expecting it, and they both fly up with the recoil, which he is totally okay with. The further they get Rose from that gross stuff, the better.

"You okay, Rose?" he asks, once they're hovering a safe distance above the ocean.

She squeezes his hand, smiling. He realizes, suddenly, that he can suddenly see a lot better. The darkness still continues on in every direction, but -

"Are you glowing?"

(it has been far too long since someone shed some light on this situation. i fully intend to do so posthaste.) It is very reassuring that Rose's mental whisper can still sound as dry and snarky as her usual tone, even after all this time. Meanwhile, the pale yellow light that fills in her outline slowly begins to ripen to a warm, goldenrod hue, and the light illuminates more and more of the darkness. (it will notice me and arrive soon, actually. right about -)

̅̿͆ͦ̒ͥ̓̌ͥ̒̓Gͯ͌̈́̔͑ET̈̔ ͌O̔U̅͗ͯ̌̿̈́͆̎T̈ ̈́̈́̋͐̓̓ͤȌ̋̾͑̊̏Fͩͦͣ̐ O͂U̎͗̿̾̌̿̂̐̽Rͪͤ̑͂̑ ̈M̆Ĭͫ͑̂N͋D͒̐!

(- now) Rose finishes.

And then the Horrorterror looms out of the dark.

It is an incomprehensible being. His mind tries to comprehend it anyway, and he suspects those two irreconcilable concepts could drive people mad when they look upon the many-angled ones.  Most of the impressions he gets, before he has to tear his eyes away, his brain burning as though splattered with more acid, is that of a tangled bundle of intertwined tentacles, with multiple gaping, beak-like mouths that drool inky black ooze and dull purple blood. It is larger than the space they are in, larger than the endless ocean, and rises up before them until all John can see is the writhing mass of thorns that make up the bulk of the Horrorterror.

Rose is unaffected by the sheer scale of the monster. She drops John's hand and floats forward under her own power. All the while, she shines with brighter and brighter light.

(how dare you. HOW DARE YOU) she says, her voice quiet and cold as it echoes throughout the darkness. The Horrorterror stutters to a halt, its massive tentacles actually drawing back away from the aura of light Rose is putting out.

John doesn't blame the Horrorterror one bit. Once Rose is truly riled up, she's a force to be reckoned with.

It's been three years since he last spoke with Rose Lalonde, and before today he never knew she was a hero, never knew she was the Seer of Light, with all the powers he's read about in the newspaper reports. And yet, he still instinctively knows exactly what is about to happen. He grins so hard, his lips feel like they're going to crack.

Because today, the Horrorterrors made the worst mistake possible.

They pissed off Rose Lalonde.

And now -

(this is MY MIND. MINE.) Rose spreads her palms outward, floating upward as two white-hot stars light up in each hand. She is no longer a fragile, immaterial outline, worn thin by the acidic grimdark tide. She is supersaturated, burning so bright John can see every thorn lining the Horrorterror's chaotic tentacles, the diminishing flow of the ocean tide below, and the stars that gleam in the night sky overhead. (GET YOU HENCE. YOU HAVE MY PERMISSION TO DWELL HERE NO MORE.)

Ṅ̈̓̋̏͂̐̆ͦO̍ͩ!̽͌  The Horrorterror writhes, shrinking back from the light. It almost looks like it is draining away in an attempt to escape, down into the dwindling ocean below.

No wonder it had to keep Rose submerged in that ocean. Now that she's free, it doesn’t stand a chance.

Rose sniffs, and combines the two lights in her hands into one that she cradles before her chest, a miniature sun. (ALLOW ME TO PUT THIS AS BLUNTLY AND CLICHÉLY AS I CAN. AFTER WHAT YOU HAVE PUT MY CITY THROUGH TODAY, I HAVE EARNED THIS LINE.)

She pauses for dramatic effect. John approves. Seriously, this is some excellent heroic monologue execution. Comic book writers could learn a lesson or three from Rose Lalonde.

(LET THERE BE LIGHT)

John closes his eyes just in time. The radiating light still burns through his eyelids, lighting everything up until there is nowhere left to hide. When he blinks his eyes open at last, seeing afterimages everywhere he looks, the Horrorterror is gone. Rose continues to burn like a torch, surveying the evaporating ocean beneath them. John hovers up alongside her and touches her shoulder gently. She meets his eyes, and smiles. "Your thoughts, John Egbert?" she asks, and her voice is no longer a half-heard whisper in the dark.

"That was basically the most awesome thing I've seen all year," John tells her, meaning every word. "Seriously, I'm pretty sure nothing is going to top that."

Rose shakes her head, her smile rueful and quiet before it falters entirely. "People have died, John. My city is in ruins at my hands, by the will of an abomination I allowed into my mind." She closes her eyes, the light dimming slightly. "I am not sure you're quite justified in praising me for anything I have done on this day."

"I don't believe that," John says. He folds his arms over his chest, then thinks better of it and just hugs Rose. She's skin and bones and golden light, and her forearms are too sharp when she hugs him back. Yeah, he doesn't care what Doctor Lalonde's excuses are, she is getting a very stern lecture when they get Rose to safety. "Yeah, people are dead, and let's face it, the clean up bill for New York is gonna be awful. But come on, And you're not allowed to think for a second this is your fault. I'm pretty sure at some point in every hero's life they have to deal with a super-powered dark side. It's like, a universal law or something."

Rose snorts into choking, inelegant laughter, shaking so hard as she tries to repress the laugh that John nearly takes a forehead to his chin. "I will do my best to take your view on the subject into account, then, John," she says bemusedly, releasing him. "You are, after all, the resident expert on heroism. Now then. Let's get you back into your own skull, shall we?"

"That would be awesome," John says. "I - uh, not that your brain isn't cool when you're not all possessed by evil and all that, but the last time I checked, we were kind of falling to our deaths. So. We should probably wake up soon. And not die."

"Oh, of course," Rose agrees, that snarky smirk back in its rightful place as she raises a hand to tap on John's forehead. "Thank you, my old friend."

He might have imagined that last part. It's the faintest whisper, and then he's occupied with blacking out -

-

John wakes up flat on his back.

Bro Strider is hunkered to one side, leaning over John, and he raises an eyebrow when John mumbles something incoherent. "Welcome back to the land of the living, kid," is all the Puppeteer says. "Should I be concerned? Any new fresh hell on the way?"

"...Magic," John manages by way of explanation, sitting upright and regretting it immediately. Out here, his shoulder is still dislocated and ow ow ow -

Bro's eyebrow goes a little higher; then he shrugs and leans over the limp form of Rose Lalonde lying to John's right. "Is Dave alright?" John asks, twisting around and trying to figure out where they are. It looks like they're on a roof - seriously, what is it with Striders and roofs? - and they're all huddled by an air conditioning unit. Dave is propped up against the unit itself, his head still hanging forward and unmoving.

Bro grunts. "The bleeding stopped. Kid's down for the count, though. Sleepin' like a baby."

"You're a fuckin' liar, Bro," Dave says, his words slurred. He has his shades on again as he raises his chin by way of greeting, revealing the collar once again on his throat. It is battered and twisted, and John could swear he sees what looks like exposed wiring along the right side, where someone has reconnected the ends of the wires in a shitty patch job. He wonders what exactly the collar does that someone - presumably Bro - bothered to fix it in the middle of a battlezone. "John. Fuck. Man. Next time you say we go on a road trip to fight your evil temporarily possessed best friend - no. Just. No. Not even once. I am so in charge of our honeymoon, I swear to god, EB, fight me, you are forbidden from ever choosing a destination ever again."

There's something really weird about Dave's voice. John has noticed sometimes he can hear a faint buzz under all Dave's long, rambling tangents, but he's only really been listening to the guy speak out loud for a prolonged period of time for the past night and day. Now, at the end of sentences, his voice will trail off and drop to a whisper, or his voice will crack and shoot up a register.

Then John is ready to slap himself on the forehead. Dave still has a massive makeshift bandage sopping up blood on the side of his throat - of course he's going to have trouble speaking after taking a tentacle to the carotid and having his own collar nearly crush his trachea. Urgh. John is an asshole.

"I surrender all future vacation planning to you, Dave," John says, rolling his eyes as he flops back on the roof. "Are you okay? What happened to you?"

Dave is silent for a long moment. "Hell if I know," he says at last, his voice outright crackling with the strain. "One minute I'm rescuing the shrimps from the museum, the next tenta-Rose is all over me. What can I say. Even tentacle aliens can't get enough of my sick fires. They are just lining up to bask in the presence of my righteous bod."

"Oh, good! You got them out!" John sighs with relief. In the insanity of trying survive the Horrorterror, he hadn't had any opportunity to even see if the children he heard inside the Guggenheim had made it out safely. "Um. Bro? I'd ask Dave, but - can you get my shoulder? I don't want to fuck it up from this angle -"

Pain shoots through his shoulder as the joint and bone are shoved back into place and John kicks with one foot as he yelps, caught completely unawares. "Oh my god, couldn't you wait until, like, the count of three or something first! Agh!" he growls at Bro, who simply continues to hold John's shoulder in plae until, with a pop, the pain subsides, leaving only the aching soreness of strained muscles and his extremely aggravated collar bone. John wouldn't be surprised if the break has worsened significantly after that dislocation, which means even more time in the sling than he'd anticipated. Gross.

The Puppeteer just shrugs, and slouches over to Rose again. "Deal with it, kid. I don't molly-coddle."

Dave and John look at each other and say "Such a dick," at the same time.

"Adorable," Bro says, smirking.

Yeah, John is just going to quit while he's ahead before he starting rage-teleporting all over the place. Clearly this is a battle that cannot be won.

Rose bolts upright a second later. "I require a waste receptacle," she says, gasping. The grey grimdark taint has vanished from her skin, though her clothes are still dyed black, and her hair sticks to her forehead in sweaty, strawberry blond streaks. If she weren't pale and going kind of greenish at the edges, she'd look almost normal.

Bro produces a trash can. John seriously needs to learn how the elder Strider can move so fast. "Your receptacle, Little Lalonde," he says, straight-faced as he holds it out for her.

"Oh, thank you. A moment, please." Rose swallows rapidly, leaning over the trash can. "Oh, this is going to be unpleas -"

She begins to retch and vomit into the trashcan. The vomit is black and smells like blood, which is just, wow, the most disturbing thing John can imagine coming out of someone's stomach.

"Just let it all out," Bro says sagely, patting Rose awkwardly on the back. "Get that shit outta your system, kiddo." After a choking wave of black ooze, he actually starts gingerly grabbing strands of Rose's hair and pulling them out of her face, using his fingers like tweezers with an expression of utmost intensity.

"Oh my god, Bro being motherly. I've seen it all. That's it. I'm going blind. There is literally nothing else worth seeing in the world," Dave babbles. "Pinch me or something, John."

Yeah, this whole situation is just really fucking weird. John scoots over next to Rose too, and takes over from Bro. He's seriously concerned judging from the expression behind the Puppeteer's shades that the older man is about to give himself an aneurysm. He almost looks...concerned.

"We do not speak of this," Bro says, with the voice of a man prepared to enforce his words with a really sharp, pointy object.

John shakes his head wildly. "Nope," he agrees.

"I wish I had my camera. That was fucking priceless," Dave continues. "I think I actually feel a tear welling up. Finally, I have witnessed the mythological Bro Strider in parent-mode. Glorious."

"Kid, the only reason I'm not kicking your ass is because you're delirious from blood loss," Bro says wearily, pinching at the bridge of his nose. "Seriously. When we get home. Such an ass-kicking."

John just shakes his head again, and focuses on Rose. "How much of that gunk is in your system?" he wonders, bracing Rose's shoulders with an arm as a final retch wracks her too-thin frame. When is the last time she ate?

"I believe that is all of it," Rose replies, wiping at her mouth and grimacing as she shoves the trash can full of grimdark vomit away from her lap. "Good lord. It tastes as though I've been swilling seawater, alcohol, and liquid evil. How...fitting."

ͬh̍̽̔ē̔̍h͒e̽͋͌h̋ͦ͆ͯ...ha̿͂͗̈͆̏...fͫ̔o̒̋͐͑̋ͮő̂ͥl̊̇̆̒͊ͥs͗͌

Everyone freezes.

It's Bro who finally says it. "Little Lalonde. Is your goddamn evil upchuck talking, or has Dave's unbelievable capacity for dumbassery finally driven me into insanity?"

"I heard it too," John says quietly. He offers Rose an arm and she takes it, and they both crawl backward, getting some distance between them and the trash can.

͊ͤ͗̏a̎̈́t ͪͤle̎a̾̾s̅͑̍̆̒t̊̅̎ ͨWͭE̐ ẅ́̂͌̓oͣu̎̈̋̈l̄d̅̅̋̒ h͊̔̇a͐̓͂ͦv̂̆̊̽̚eͭ͂̌͑̃ͧ̑ k̽i̔ll̓̐e̋̐̊ͭd ̽yͧo͑̿uͣͩ ̔͐͌͗̽quǐckͥl̊yͤ̈͆͂ͤ  the tangle says, longingly.

"Well. No, it's not vomit, Puppeteer," Rose says, still eyeing the can with a practiced, analytical gaze. "Technically, it is a portion of the Horrorterror tangle that controlled large sections of my nervous system, ejected from my body by a cleansing spell. And I'm afraid that one portion is just as much a part of the hivemind as a full tangle."

"Oh, fan-fucking-tastic," Bro says, as Lil Cal crawls its way up his arm and onto his shoulder in jointed movements.

ẁ̿e̎ͨ̽ͤ͋͑ wͭ͛̌̿̄̓̋̍oͯ͂u͊ͯl͂ͭdͯͯ͊ al̚l ̏̏͑h̋̒̆̇àv̍̔̎ͪ̿e͛ͮ̏ b͋eĕ̿̊n̆ ̒̌T̔̅Aͪ̿ͣN̈́̈́͑Ǧ͗͊ͨͥL̎͐̒EB̒ͣ̍̈́UD̎͋͌͛̌D͒ͥĪES̅ foͦ̋rͯevͥ̋̂ͪe͆r ȧ̊ͫͨnd̔ͩ̆ Eͫ̅̅V͆͗̑̑͆ͨE̎̽̑Ȑ̆̎ͥ̑̎̋̈͌. The pleading tone of the grimdark tangle is lost as it growls hoarsely on the word 'tanglebuddies.' Dave hiccups, and John tears his watchful gaze away from the fragment of Horrorterror long enough to see a new streak of blood working its way out of Dave's nose. Oh no.

"I think you're just a sore loser. Loser," John shoots back, just trying to make it stop talking. Not his best work, but hey, he's had a long day. "Rose kicked your ass."

The grimdark begins to creep up the edges of the trashcan, and John tenses up, gathering in a breeze in case the tendril proves capable of more than just talking. n͑ͦ̈o̊ͮwͪ̿̑̌ͪͯ͊ ȳͮ̈́̑͐̑oú ͋͑͊̾͆wͬ̈ͬͥillͣ̌ͮͤ ͑a̅l͛l ͗Ŝ̾̿Ǘ͊̏FFE͒̐Rͦ.  ͭͦͦD̅Oͭ̾N͆̇͆ͣ̅̾'T͂ ͐ͩ͐Y͊O͛̐̑Uͦ͑̍ K̆̎͒͗N̑ͨ̈ͥO̽̊̂̾Ẅ́?̎̔̎̚ ̊̓ͥ̒̄HE̾̄̄ ̇ís̍ c͗̈ͨ̇ôͯmin͋g̿ͣ͋...ȍ̂ͦr͋̇ ̐͒m͒a̍̓̈ͩ̏͊̆̇y̏̓͛ͫ̈̌b̆̎e͗ͬͪ͐...HE̐̅ is͗ ͗̒̔ͦ̚̚al͂r̈ͭea͌d̚y͂ HERE.

The Horrorterror breaks down into mind-shattering giggles, and John winces, covering his ears. It just keeps laughing and laughing, until finally -

"That is quite enough of that," Rose interjects. She snaps a finger and a spark of light appears above her hand. She shoves it into the trash can and grimaces as she holds it there in the middle of the writhing black tendril. A whine grows in pitch until, with an audible VWOMPH the trash can disintegrates in a burst of light. There is no trace of the grimdark tendril left as Rose delicately wipes her hand on the gravel of the roof. "It feels good to be able to do that again," she says, sighing contentedly.

"Awesome." Bro whips a cell phone out of his pocket and hits speed dial, hitching a hip on the edge of the air conditioner by Dave's head. The puppet has already disappeared. "Siddown, kids, I'm calling the getaway driver. You three all look like shit, and I sure as hell ain't carrying you."

John doesn't have the strength to argue. Heck, he doesn't even know what he'd be arguing about at this point. He's really tired, that must be why he's stopped making sense. He leans back against the AC unit with Dave. Rose joins them a second later, staring off into the distance with an expression of intense thought on her face. Knowing Rose, John thinks blearily, she'll have figured out a working hypothesis for what the fragment of Horrorterror meant by all that bizarre chatter at the end, that stuff about a 'he' and 'suffering.' Rose is good at making sense of things.

Yeah. Important things.

He feels, vaguely, a heavy weight land on each shoulder as Dave and Rose slump against him. But by then, he's already halfway asleep himself, and he can't do more than let his head fall back to rest against the air conditioner.

It really has been a long day. They still have to get Rose to Doctor Lalonde, and at some point, John has to figure out exactly when he's going to be able to fly home to Seattle. He's been gone for almost a full twenty four hours at this point, and if nothing else Karkat is probably going to notice he's gone, soon.

He'll worry about all that later, though.

For now, he thinks he's earned some rest.

---

"We left the plane in England!" Jade sobs, hugging WV, nearly choking him out in her distraction. "Oh noooo!"

They have relocated to sit inside the Sydney Opera House, which is currently unoccupied aside from a janitor who walks by the entrance to the main concert hall every few minutes to check on the distraught hero and make sure the hall is still in one piece. He knows better than to confront crying girls who look like they could floor him with their pinky finger. Jade and Bec between them have teleported all of the contents of the lab onto the stage, and Bec lies beside an uprooted spectrometer, silent and unconcerned in sleep mode, while Jade lounges in the audience seats and pouts over the loss of her nuclear biplane.

To be fair, it was a really awesome plane.

Having indulged herself for a good five minutes, Jade sits upright, a half strangled WV still tucked in a chokehold. "Well, we'll just have to keep going without it," she sniffs, patting the tiny carapacian on the head.

Unfortunately, he has had quite of this manhandling, apparently. When she goes to give him a noogie, he flails at her with both hands, irate exclamations escaping his throat. He manages to push off and land on his butt on the floor, and then he scurries off, his loud bursts of noise and the occasional crackle of green space-altering radiation echoing in the excellent acoustics.

"Oh no! Wait, Mr. V, don't run away!" Jade calls, zapping after him. She lands in front of him in at the top of the stairs running up to the back of the room, and clasps her hands together before kneeling. "I promise I'll stop! I didn't mean to piss you off!"

He squeaks irately, then smacks his own head with his fists in frustration, probably at his inability to speak. Jade can't tell if it was her kind-of unorthodox method of stabilizing him in time and space or if he had some kind of preexisting damage to his vocal cords that has caused this muteness, but it's clear the Variable hates it.

"I mean it," she adds, pleading. "Please don't run away yet - I still haven't figured out your green thingy!"

WV hunches in on himself, spreading his claws before his face as though inspecting each finger carefully. From this close up, Jade can see the edges of wide scars that wrap along his claws. There's a matching triangle of scar tissue that cuts along the side of his smooth face, just barely missing his right eye, and she can see more markings on his legs. They look like old burns, but the shiny scars blend in so well with his already gleaming black carapace that it's hard to see them from a distance. She wonders what could cause such widespread scarring.

Shaking his head vigorously, WV lowers his hands and clacks them together, then flings himself at her. His head rams into her chest as he hugs her.

I guess that means I'm forgiven! Jade thinks cheerfully, hugging him right back and just barely refraining from giving him another noogie. It would be mean to keep doing it when it clearly bothers him so much, and she can't abide the thought of being mean to the little guy; he's just so adorable!

She does wonder about his hands, though. Sometimes, usually after he goes all green plasma like Bec, he looks at his claws as though he'd like to cut them off, an old and weary fear creasing his face.

There's something up there, something weird, but WV can't talk, and if he's using a carapacian sign language it's not working because Jade doesn't understand it. It's all so frustrating. Ever since that impossible teleport from Britain to Australia, her head has been pounding in her skull.

Jade snaps her fingers. "Ohhhh! I know what we need, WV!"

He tilts his head at her quizzically.

"Food! It's lunch time! That's why we're both so grumpy and blah!" She picks him up as she stands, and he crawls onto her back obligingly, sitting on her shoulders like they're playing chicken. His carapace is too light and hollow for Jade to even feel like there's any weight there, and for a scary moment she has to look up and see WV's white eyes blinking down at her before she can believe he hasn't just disappeared again, vanished back into quantum superposition. Wouldn't that suck!

For a moment, she looks up at the lab equipment spread out on the stage of the opera house, and then she shrugs. "Into the sylladex with you all!" She opens up the pocket dimension and teleports onto the stage, WV squeaking and grabbing at her hair as she does, and then she begins to shovel delicate lab equipment into the sylladex. Nothing has ever come out of the sylladex pocket damaged or anything, so hopefully the breakable stuff won't be hurt either! Jade doesn't even understand half of what her space powers can do, and she's the one using them!

WV hops down off her shoulders and begins digging through the last of the equipment while she's shoving the larger pieces into the sylladex, nearly falling on his face as he digs through the pile of random lab stuff and emerges with a tiny squeak of triumph. In his hands he clutches a long tan metric ruler, and he gives it a few experimental swings and stabs before he trots over to her side. Apparently if Jade is a riflekind expert, WV likes rulers! How cute!

Once all her lab crap is stowed away, she stretches her arms and plants her hands on her hips. "Well, I don't know anything about Sydney. I guess we can just wander around until we find some place with lunch stuff. We're out of here, Bec!"

The wolf looks up from where it has sprawled out on its belly, and sniffs at her.

"That means he's ready to go!" she tells WV, chipper. She spies the janitor passing by the open door at the back of the theater and waves. "Goodbye, nice janitor man! We're going now!"

"Finally!" The man bursts into wrenching sobs. Jade has no idea what that could all be about.

They beam out in a wave of Bec's green fire. Left to his own devices, the janitor staggers over to the stage and weeps over the huge indents left in the wood by the hard impact of several thousand pounds of lab equipment. He has absolutely no way of explaining the damage to his supervisors, and expects to be fired over this incident within hours.

-

They end up at a small café on Knox Street, a really tiny place with short tables and stools instead of chairs that are pretty much the perfect size for WV's legs! Jade is the perfect host. It is her. The food selection is kind of tiny too, but she's sure it will still taste delicious. They sit outside in the afternoon sun, and it's so warm it's almost like home.

Jade orders avocado on toast, curious, and then a giant-ass chocolate milkshake because heck yeah, milkshakes. Best thing invented by mankind. She doesn't know how she survived the first seventeen years of her life without trying one. WV frets over the menu as the waiter stares, fascinated, at the carapacian, and then finally WV starts stabbing at what he wants while Jade repeats the order aloud. She's really confused when WV starts flipping the fuck out and demanding five cans of TaB soda by holding up five claws emphatically, but hey, Jade has money to burn. If TaB is WV's thing and he hasn't been able to drink it in who knows how long, who is she to deny the poor deprived little guy.

The first sip of that milkshake is like having liquid, chocolatey happiness dancing on her tongue. Jade hums happily and proceeds to drain the glass. The resulting brain freeze is sooo worth it.

Her reaction, however, is nothing compared to WV's literal tears of joy when the waiter sets a tray of five soda cans before him. He doesn't even wait to pull open the tab; he just chomps down with glinting black teeth and swallows the chunk of aluminum whole before chugging the entire can's worth of soda in seconds. He nearly falls off his stool with excitement.

Whooo, boy. This is going to be one hell of a sugar rush when he's through gorging himself. Jade sits back and watches, fascinated, as WV loses his adorable shit over a pretty average soda brand. Soon he's tossing back two at a time, and she admires his ability to coordinate the flow of two different torn-open soda cans into one mouth. It's pretty impressive. The poor TaB never stood a chance against WV's onslaught. Her toast arrives in the middle of this sodasscre, and she munches on it. It is, indeed, delicious.

After nearly ten minutes of extreme soda drinking (there should be a game show for that or something, because WV would win hands down), the carapacian slows his pace, savoring the tenth can the waiter has brought over for him. After the last of the soda glugs down his throat, WV slams the can itself down his gullet, swallowing the metal can whole. This seems to be the end of the ritual, because he doesn't eat the rest of the cans, just that one.

All in all, it's pretty hilarious. Jade doesn't think she's ever seen anyone get that worked up over soda.

"So, I've been thinking," Jade says at last, as WV slows down the insane pace of his TaB consumption. "I intended to fly over to Washington to see John right after we finished up in the lab. I really need to knock some manners into that guy. So. Despite this detour, we could, theoretically, just catch a regular-people plane across the Pacific. It's too far for me to hop it straight from here to Seattle, even with islands along the way."

She doesn't mention the fact that it had been a further jump from Britain to Australia. She has no idea how that worked, and no way is she betting their lives on her uncertain new ability to cross half the world in seconds. Even with Bec helping, she'd be anxious about that kind of risk. The last thing they'd want is to end up stranded in the middle of the ocean.

Besides. Er. She has another idea.

"Or," she says slowly, tapping her fingers together as a grin spread across her face. "We could, you know. Go on a quick tour of South America, first. Reeeally quick."

Bec, as usual, has no response beyond wagging its tail. WV appears to consider the idea, and at last shrugs.

She'll take that as a total yes. Awesome! One last road trip with her oldest companion and her new best friend, and then she can finally meet John! This is going to be great! "Ready, WV?"

"Aaand, we're off!" Jade says, closing her eyes. In her mind's eyes, Jade begins to plan the series of teleporting hops they will need to make to cross the Southern Pacific Ocean, and after a few seconds, twists the space around her and makes the first jump.

-

Cerro Azul, Chile

They touch down at around 35°39.0′S, 70°45.64′W, judging by Jade's internal GPS.

Jade realizes her mistake when this lands them almost right on top of an active volcano.

Clouds of ashy smoke billow out into the air above a tall, snowy peak, and a moment later the ground rattles and jumps beneath Jade's feet. She waves her arms wildly and manages to keep her balance, but WV falls backward, tripping over a tree root when he tries to regain his footing, and she has to catch him. Bec appears to be unaffected by the shaking of the ground, not even a single hair in its pelt trembling in the ashy breeze. Bec is weird like that.

"Wow! That looks like a doozy!" Jade exclaims, as another earthquake rocks the ground beneath them. With this much tectonic activity, the volcano that rears up into the sky above them must be thissss close to erupting! This probably isn't the safest place to be right now!

But, she thinks, switching out her travelling clothes for her hero outfit of the day, first she has to make sure any and all civilians get away too! How sucky would it be if she just took off and left anyone too close to the volcano behind to die? The answer is very sucky, thank you very much. Now clad in her hero-mode lab coat (the difference between this coat and her science work coat is pretty much zero. They are the same coat. Science is hero-work too!), Sharpshooter pulls on her gloves and spread out her awareness of the surrounding area.

She soon feels the movement and mass of a small village around the other side of the capricious volcano, but she needs to get closer if she wants to be able to sense more detail than that. "Come on, WV, we can't hang around here," she says, holding out her hand to the carapacian. He takes it, and she whistles for Bec to follow as she warps into a clear space in the center of the town.

It is about as chaotic as one would expect a town in the blast zone of a huge-ass volcano would be in such circumstances. Screams fill the air, particularly those of the small children who cling to their parents. The poor kids probably don't understand why literally everyone in town is rushing around piling carts with all their worldly belongings and high-tailing it down the dirt road out of town. As Sharpshooter watches, a slim troll woman dips down to scoop up a wailing little girl and begins to drag her family's cart behind her with a single hand, her human husband bearing two little boys on each hip as he follows grimly at her side.

And yeah, there are a good nine hundred people here. Sharpshooter lets go of WV's tiny claws and whirls around in trepidation, taking in all the movement with a keen eye. Even if she wants to just teleport everyone out of here, that's a lot of matter that would have to be shifted, and a lot of these people wouldn't be willing to stop moving in the middle of a disaster, even if they'd be safer for it. It has baffled Sharpshooter since she first started interacting with large groups of people on a regular basis, how stupid the combination of large crowds and imminent danger can make people. It seems to be a universal quality.

For a silly moment, she considers having Bec help her teleport the entire volcano and its contents into the sea. As fun as that would be, though, it wouldn't do anything about the simmering underground caldera full of magma that would then be exposed when it was previously contained under the weight of an entire mountain.

Darn! The science involved would have been so interesting! What to do now?

Oh well. If she can get one person's attention, she can use them to help her figure out how best to interact with the community at large. They don't have a lot of time, though; the earth continues to rumble and heave every few minutes, and the tremors seem stronger on this section of earth than where she'd landed. "Stay right by me, okay WV?" she says urgently. The carapacian nods vigorously and clutches at the tail end of her lab coat as she jogs over to the nearest house, tripping and catching herself as she goes every time the ground shudders. The man at work outside has gone grey with age, his face a mask of lines and wrinkles. He barely spares the arrival of a strange girl in a lab coat more than a second's glance before he begins throwing things onto the back of a rickety cart. Two domesticated llamas are already hitched to the front.

Sharpshooter clears her throat. "Excuse me, sir? You guys seem to be having some trouble. Do you need any help?"

The elderly gentleman shoots her a harassed look, tossing a chicken in a small cage onto the back of his cart. “No entiendo una palabra de lo que dices, niña loca!" He continues to mutter as he hurries back into the house, while Jade blinks after him.

Okay, that's weird, usually her automatic translator would have - oh! Right. Sharpshooter removes her universal translator collar from her sylladex, where she'd placed it while at work in Grandpa's lab. It's gotten a lot of use over the past year or so, as she's crisscrossed the globe! It really comes in handy. She knows a lot of French, Latin, Greek, Russian, and Chinese, but that was all she'd had time to master over the years in between all her training to be a crime fighter. She's still working on the Spanish module, and she doesn't want to mess around with her questionable speaking skills in the middle of what appears to be a volcanic eruption.

Once it's on and operational, locked around her neck above her vocal cords, she grins at the old man when he emerges from the house with a stack of canned goods and tries again. "Sorry! What seems to be the problem? Why is everyone running around?" This time, her words have an echo, as the translator analyzes her verbal sounds and translates them into Spanish.

The look he gives her now is even more unimpressed than the first. This guy just seems to be 120% done today! Jeez! “El maldito gigante volcán va a entrar en erupción, niña tonta!"

Yeah, and okay, Sharpshooter understood that one. She does suppose that having your village be right downhill from an erupting volcano might put a damper on one's mood, but there's no reason for him to be ruuude! Silly girl, my ass!

"Well, I'm here to help out now!" she tells him. "Sharpshooter is on the job! Natural disasters, giant robots, and weird mutant monster attacks are my heroic specialty! Just tell me where you need me!"

The old man throws up his hands, and turns to yell in her face. “No tengo tiempo para sus preguntas. Tengo que sacar a mi familia a un lugar seguro!"

Sharpshooter pouts, folding her arms over her dark green catsuit. So he won't help her until his family is safe? That...makes sense, she guesses. "Too easy. Coming right up, mister shouty face!" She analyzes the house and the people taking up space within the house using her spatial sense, and then nods to Bec. "Here boy! Can you take these guys to a safe place?"

The white wolf looks away from the smoldering volcano for the first time since they've arrived and teleports himself next to the house. “Oh, dios míos, ¿qué es ese monstruo! Mantenga ese infierno-perro lejos de mí!" the old man yelps, stumbling away from the wolf, who comes up to his waist and completely ignores his silly shenanigans.

"That's Becquerel! It's my trusty dog sidekick!" Sharpshooter chirps, grinning at the horrified look on the man's face. "Watch! Bec? Rescue!" She snaps her fingers.

Bec erupts into green fire. The old man shrieks and falls to his knees as the house vanishes in a wave of crackling green flames. All that remains is a smooth patch of dirt and a single confused chicken that Jade must have overlooked. Oops.

Unfortunately, she probably should have explained what Bec was doing better, because she thinks she kind of freaked the fuck out of this poor guy! "It's okay, mister! Bec took them to the other side of thaaaat mountain!" Sharpshooter tells him, pointing at a mountain far off in the distance, in the opposite direction of the active volcano. Even as she does, Bec reappears, tail wagging. "See! And now that they're safe, you can help me get everyone in the village to listen!" She beams at him.

He just stares up at her.

This is taking too long. There's something swelling on the edge of Sharpshooter's senses, a massive upwelling of magma that continues to press against the thin layer of rock between the volcano's interior and the open air. Any second now, that rock layer could crack, and all the pressure will explode outward. She grabs the man and shakes him. "Snap out of it, dummy! You have to help me get everyone else out of here, too! Pull! Yourself! Together!" She punctuates each word with a slap.

Naturally, he obliges, his eyes widening as he nods. Then she loses his attention again, his gaze drifting to the side, and she nearly facepalms until she sees who he's looking at.

The old man holds out his hands to WV. "Yo - Yo no puedo creerlo. Un caparazón! No había pensado en ver a uno en mi vida!"

Uh. Okay. At least he's not in shock over his family vanishing before his eyes anymore, even if he is looking at Mister Variable as though he's the second coming. "Yeah, me and WV here are bbfsies! And we're totally here to save you guys, so you should really help me out here and focus. Right, V?" she asks, turning to smile down at WV.

The carapacian salutes her and trills an incomprehensible reply as he waves his skinny arms and his new ruler specibus above his head. He really does do that a lot, and Sharpshooter has no idea what it means. Oh well.

She notices what happens next from the corner of her eye. It isn't a strange movement that normally would have triggered her defense protocols, so it takes her a while to notice. No, it's the absence of movement. This entire time, they've been surrounded and buffeted by the furious rush of an entire village racing to flee before the onslaught of a volcanic eruption. Suddenly, all that motion and activity has ceased, even as the ground rumbles ever more furiously beneath them.

The hairs of the back of her neck prickling, Sharpshooter slowly looks around at the village.

Everyone has stopped. Everyone. As one, they have all turned towards the small group standing before the empty spot where the old man's house used to sit.

But they aren't looking at her. They're looking at WV.

“Alabe los dioses dieciséis!" the old man says, reverent as he bows his head.

WV just looks up at her and shrugs. Apparently, he doesn't get what's going on, either. The only thing Sharpshooter is getting out of this is that apparently, carapacians are a really big deal? Maybe? Uh. No, she's mostly just confused. She shrugs back.

Because at least now, everyone is paying attention. And heck, that's all she wanted in the first place. Cupping her hands around her mouth, she shouts, "Oooookay, everybody! Now that I have your attention -" She hesitates, sees that only a few people have really turned to listen to her, and adds, "- I come in the service of the carapacian you see before you, as his voice and as his ally!"

There we go. WV glowers at her, tugging hard on her coat, but she ignores him and maintains a brilliant, too-wide smile as the villagers turn their eyes on her. Heck yes. She has this one in the bag. She is the loyal acolyte of WV. It is her.

"We are here to help transport you to safety. We have already begun with this man's family!" She gestures grandly to the place where the house used to be. After a pause, WV spreads his arms and gestures toward it as well, and a low murmur of awe emerges from the crowd more than a few heads nodding. WV puffs up visibly, not understanding the weird awe but certainly happy about it.

Sharpshooter claps her hands together to get their attention one last time. "All we ask is that you stay very, very still," she instructs, beginning to spread out her senses. Now that everyone has stopped, gathering in a huge crowd with WV as the focal point, she can get a grip on everyone's mass much more accurately. They just have to maintain this for a few more seconds. "Bec! Can you target everyone while I push us?" she asks, mind racing.

The wolf huffs at her, as though to ask how she could ever doubt it. As long as Bec can keep these people's mass and position locked down for her, Sharpshooter will be able to teleport everyone as far as they need to go. It's how they manage most mass transports. Sometimes Bec provides the raw power when they need to move a single heavy object, but the wolf is really good at linking targets, too!

"Alright then -" Sharpshooter begins.

That's when the volcano explodes. The burst shatters the air, as the ground below rocks continuously and refuses to stop. Sharpshooter looks up, and can see without her scope that enormous chunks of rock are flying everywhere, while rich red lava shoots forth in explosive waves.

The order and stillness caused by WV's weird aura of celebrity breaks down as everyone screams, toppling to the ground as the earthquakes. People begin to scramble to their feet, clutching at their neighbors, but shit shit no she can't let them move, fuck it, they're doing this live -

She reaches out her hands and tugs.

She realizes too late that she can't feel the guiding influence of Bec's sensors, that there is nothing linking the targets together so she can ensure she's grabbing everyone.

It's too late. She yanks them all sideways, everyone she can cradle in her mind, and they land hard in a mountainside clearing tens of miles away from the erupting volcano.

The effort drains her, and Sharpshooter sinks onto her knees, panting. Bec appears a moment later, and she scowls at it. It is oblivious, and curls up on the ground beside her, unconcerned. WV sits up from where he landed, rubbing his head with both hands as bright green light flickers through his carapace before settling down.

Heart sinking, Sharpshooter reaches out to check the damage. How many people did she miss? How many bodies of mass did she accidentally drop on the way here because Bec failed to help her target them as one? Soon the people will begin to shriek and cry, cursing her for forgetting their loved ones in the shuffle, and she'll have failed them -

Her eyes fly open, and her heart stops for a long second. She can't really believe what she's feeling.

They're all here.

All eight hundred seventy three villagers are clustered around her in a wide spiral, shaking themselves off and practically collapsing into relieved embraces. A few shake their heads and point over at the volcano on the horizon as it puffs and erupts in the distance. "Mi esposa! Mis hijos! Mis llamas!" the old man cries, flinging his arms around his family, including the two very bored-looking llamas, still hitched to their cart.

She didn't miss anyone.

This should be impossible.

But then again, she muses, throwing her head back and laughing, soaking in the relief and happiness that fills the air, so was that strange trip to Australia all the way from Britain. Maybe her powers are still growing, in ways even Grandpa hadn't predicted!

She doesn't even care. Everyone is alright!

Amidst the frantic celebration and cries of relief, the old man breaks away from his family and takes Sharpshooter's hand. “Gracias, Francotiradora," he says, pressing his palms to hers. “Le debemos nuestras vidas. Pero usted también abandonó todo nuestros hogares a ser destruidos por el volcán."

Oops. She'd known she'd forgotten something. "I - uh, sorry. I think it's too late now. I didn't even think about your houses! I get kind of forgetful when there's a volcano exploding over my head."

He appears to think about this for a long moment, and then shrugs. “Sí. Yo comprendo."

Besides, it's too late now, Jade thinks, ruefully watching as debris from the volcanic eruption begins to reach the point on the slope far off in the distance where the village sits. But what really matters is that she got everyone out alive - buildings can be replaced. She sits down on the ground to watch the explosion from a distance, watching with interest as pyroclastic clouds of hot gas and rock flow down the sides of the volcano. If the villagers had still been standing on that mountainside when those flows hit, they're have died in the rapid flow of 1,830 °F heated debris.

But they hadn't, because Jade had been there to help. A warm glow fills her belly at the thought. Sometimes, these incidents are the brightest moments she can think of - times when she arrives at a place purely by accident, and manages to save good people. It's the most fortuitous, hopeful kind of event, and it warms her inside and out.

After a few moments of sitting back and watching the villagers celebrate, Jade rolls her shoulders and sits up, stretching with a yawn. "Alright. Our work here is done," she tells WV, patting the little guy on the head. "Way to work the crowd, WV! My man!"

WV covers his face with his hands, blushing adorably. Jade just laughs and gets to her feet, brushing the dirt and ash from her catsuit and the tails of her lab coat. "Gotta run, mister," she tells the elderly man cheerfully, adjusting her glasses on her nose. "There's a guy I gotta go see. He owes me soooo many pesterchats! I can't just let him get away with ignoring me anymore. I'm glad you guys are alright."

The old man hesitates, looking at WV for a brief moment before focusing on Jade. “Buena suerte, Francotiradora. Alabado seas, Caparazón vagabundo. Espero que usted encuentre el niño que busca, y es posible que ambos levantarse.” The old man bows his head to WV again, and smiles hesitantly at Jade.

Even with the universal translator, Jade doesn't really understand the context of half of what the old man is saying. But she gets that he's wishing her luck, and so she smiles and shakes his hand in reply. "Glad we could help. Good luck with the relocation!"

WV grabs her hand before she even turns to offer it, and she smiles. He smiles back. Bec whuffles and lurches upright, at the ready, and Jade forgives the wolf in that moment for letting her handle the mass teleport on her own. Bec always knows what's best.

"Let's go, guys. Let's get this show on the road," Jade says, grinning.

All three vanish into thin air.

Heck yes.

-

Diamonds Droog detests the rain. One of her more loyal, trusted retainers holds a black umbrella over her head while she slowly types out a message on her phone, but that does not prevent the damp in the air from slowly undoing all that a regimen of hot curling irons, bobby pins, and hair spray worked so hard to achieve to keep her kinky black hair in a controlled chignon at the nape of her neck.

Britain, she thinks darkly, and then shakes her head. While the state of her hair is rapidly deteriorating, she has no more time to dwell on it. The intel coming out of New York City over the past hour has been most...enlightening. Official news reports remain as muddled and inaccurate as ever, but her little couriers have a little more context to work with than your average, fumbling reporter. She sent them in forewarned that they were dealing with children of extreme interest to the boss, and all but five have reported in thus far. Not a bad turnover rate.

All of her couriers have confirmed the presence of Flashstep and the Puppeteer, also known as the despicably elusive Brothers Strider, but only two have correctly offered speculation on the identity of the third hero to confront Dark Star and take her down.

To be fair, she did not share some of her more privileged information with them; none of them knew that Heir had been recently relocated to Houston. But only two of her birds managed to connect a flying hero in goggles with the Heir recently giving Hearts hell in Seattle? Clearly, she will have to put the rest of her couriers through their paces. They're getting sloppy, and Diamonds shall not abide sloppy work.

She reserves a private grimace for the name 'Dark Star.' Really, does the American media juggernaut have nothing better to do than creating sugary early morning talk shows and giving new superpowered beings ridiculously dramatic, inelegant nicknames? Surely they have more significant news to report, like the actual death toll from the villain's rampage, or the current price of wheat in Canada, or the recurrent political instability in the Novaya Ukraine?

When she finishes checking and rechecking the spelling and grammar of her electronic missive to the Doctor - it would not do to send anything less than a perfectly crafted message to the boss, after all - she breaks the disposable device in half and tosses it into a nearby trash can. The Doctor is always quite adamant that members of the Crew who travel abroad to Europe or Asia must follow the strictest security protocols. While the Midnight Crew may be slowly gaining infamy in the Americas, they are little more than a blip on Eurasia's radar, a faint whisper in the ears of the foreign black markets to which they provide selective goods, and that is just the way the boss likes it.  They have never even made the international news, despite numerous intrepid crime reporters' attempts at writing exposés of the Crews activities. One of Diamonds's more tedious ongoing missions in life is the solemn duty of hunting down such detectives and ending their investigations rather abruptly - and permanently.

Unfortunately, her fellow Crew suit members do not make that task easy. Honestly, she swears, she is surrounded by dumb chumps. Jack Noir is easily the most competent out of any of them, and that's only because she's never seen or heard from the man in her life, and, in fact, for the record she would like to express personal doubt that he even exists as more than a figment of the Doctor's imagination, a horror story that lower ranking Crew gossip about when work is slow.

Hearts may be good for blowing things up and other brute force jobs like robbing banks and running stolen goods in and out of the country, but he's useless for more elaborate and subtle schemes. And then -

Oh, dear god. And then there's - urgh! She doesn't even want to think the name!

Diamonds shivers in her heavy, furred coat. Clubs.

And what's worse is, Clubs Deuce is the troll she has come to meet today. It is, in fact, his fault that she is currently standing on a London street enduring an unfathomably foggy spring day, her hair slowly springing outward into uncontrolled chaos as she waits on the arrival of the dimmest member of the Crew ever to make suit status.

"Oh! Diamonds! It's you!"

Balls. Speak of the hopeless little devil, and he shall appear, tripping over the too-long hems of his suit pants as he races across the busy street. Clubs Deuce is panting and waving, the tiny black club symbol on his lapel stitched haphazardly with large stitches that Diamonds can see from a mile away because he used grey thread.

She swallows back tears of righteous fury. She had learned years ago that yelling at Clubs did nothing to improve the situation. Nothing improves the situation. The situation with Clubs is beyond improvement, and may in fact function as a kind of black hole into which all hope of self-improvement is sucked and never seen again on this earth by sane men.

The problem with Clubs is not even that he is stupid, exactly. He certainly seems to understand orders, and he follows them through to the letter. He even, on rare and celebrated occasions, has demonstrated a single-minded talent for completing missions that no one else in the Crew ever deemed possible. But Diamonds prefers to assign the success of those missions to sheer dumb luck. The fact is, Clubs can take even the simplest of tasks and transform them into world-spanning missions that manage to end in impenetrably dull failures.

He is earnest. He is good-natured. And he is entirely unsuited to a life of crime. Diamonds is baffled on a daily basis by the short troll's very existence, and finds his strange, chipper enthusiasm for criminal activity to be completely at odds with a troll whose personality would be far better suited to work as a bumbling children's show host, earnestly teaching toddlers their ABCs.

Which is why, when he stumbles up to her, beaming with nubby teeth and squinting his dull brown eyes to peer up at her from under rounded, three-pronged horns, she can only heave a sigh laden with the resigned despair of those long oppressed by the fools that surround them. His suit is ill-fitting and cheap, and now drenched by the curtains of rain he just raced through without an umbrella to protect him. Clubs is not an inch over five feet tall, even including his stumpy horns, and Diamonds is forced to conclude that the universe laughed and laughed and choked on its laughter and died alone and unloved when it decided to make Clubs Deuce and Her Imperious Condescension herself almost the exact same height.

"How are you doing, Diamonds?" Clubs asks, bouncing up and down on his toes with unnatural good cheer. "What brings you to London, sir?"

"Ma'am," Diamonds corrects wearily. This is an old exercise in futility, but she lives in the hope that one day the lesson will sink in.

"Ma'am," Clubs says agreeably, though she knows he will forget the correction within moments. Clubs isn't offensive on purpose; he just truly is that absent-minded. "You just missed out on all the fun! Sharpshooter was here, but now she's in Australia! I was just on my way to the airport in hot pursuit! We're not sure how she got there, but I think maybe she's the Witch! Do you think so, Diamonds?" He gazes up at her earnestly, the genuine curiosity in his eyes just plain pitiful.

Oh, do not be perverse. Not the troll version of pitiful. She feels nothing but good, condescending, non-romantic human pity, thank you very much.

Diamonds rolls her eyes. "There is absolutely no doubt in the boss's mind that the child you have been wasting all of our foreign affairs weapons budget on is indeed the Witch. While I wish I could order you to cease making a nuisance of yourself, I have long since resigned myself to the fact that you are physically incapable of such a feat. And the boss...wishes you to continue to pursue the girl."

Clubs's eyes go wide. "Really?! You really mean it, sir?!" He clicks his heels together.

She must repeat: he clicks his heels together.

Diamonds just wants to cry at this point. But Clubs would only offer up a sodden handkerchief and politely ask what was bothering her, and the cycle of madness would continue.

If only he weren't so damn genuine! This would all be so much easier to bear if Clubs set out to antagonize her on purpose!

"Y-es," Diamonds grits out, rubbing at her temples with her fingers. She can already feel the customary Clubs-type migraine developing behind her eyes. "You are to travel to South America, which is where you would know she has already reappeared if you thought to check the memo updates for once in your short little life."

He doesn't even react to the cheap shot about his height, a last ditch effort by Diamonds to provoke some kind of negative reaction from the troll. "Sorry about that, Diamonds!" is all he exclaims, fiddling with his hat nervously. "If you say so!"

Show some backbone! she wants to shriek to the heavens. All she does is pinch the bridge of her nose and shake her head slowly. "In addition, the Doctor has altered your mission parameters. You are to take the girl alive and as functionally unharmed as possible, and bring her back to headquarters without delay," Diamonds rattles off. Her loyal retainer surreptitiously offers her a gun, but she shakes her head. The retainer is loyal, but he is new, and not yet familiar with the intricate dance involved in dealing with a mob of cultish lunatics and damned idiots on a daily basis.

Still, she appreciates any courier who keeps spare specibi on hand and knows when to offer them. Ten out of ten execution, Marlowe. You may yet be promoted from umbrella-holder to suit-ironer. Not many reach that level of trust in Diamonds's eyes.

"And are you going to help me, Diamonds?!" Clubs chirps. "Oh good! We haven't been able to work together in so long, sir!"

"Never again," Diamonds says vehemently, fighting the sudden painful flashbacks that threaten to overwhelm her. Oh, she remembers her last shared mission with Clubs, alright. She's still in therapy for the post-traumatic stress she developed due to the event. "And ma'am. Ma'am."

"Oh. What a shame, ma'am! Well, I suppose I should tell my guys we're heading to South America instead, before they all get on the plane and show up in Australia!" Clubs whips off the abomination of a hat Diamonds has been carefully ignoring for the sake of her already-bleeding eyeballs, and replaces it with something...that defies logic. Clubs's obsession with bizarre, elaborate headgear continues to baffle. This one appears to have been knitted out of a rainbow of coarse yarn thread, and comes to a haphazard point nearly a foot above where his horns end. "Do you think the boss will mind if I take the giant robot?"

Dignity. She must. Maintain. Her dignity. Even if everyone else in the world around her insists on unrelenting foolishness. She will maintain the dignity and reputation of the Midnight Crew single-handedly, if she must. "I am certain that the good Doctor will continue to fund your pointless exercises in tomfoolery until the day I die," she says, sighing heavily and staring off into the middle distance. "He seems to believe you obtain useful results, even if they are not necessarily the results you were sent out to achieve, in the traditional sense."

"That's great, Diamonds! What are you going to be doing, then? You didn't need to come all the way out here just to see me!" He beams at her. Clearly nothing would make him happier in this world than for Diamonds to replace her personality with that of an insipid, simpering little twit and tell him that yes, because they are just such wonderful friendcolleagues, she did come all the way to Britain just to see him.

Thankfully, she does not pander to the whim of buffoons. "No. I didn't. I have business of my own in Cairo. It was simply quicker to ensure you received your new orders in person than to trust in your dubious mastery of the group memo. Good day, Clubs."

"O-oh! Yes! Don't worry, Diamonds, I'll bring the Witch back in no time! You and the boss will be so proud of me!" Clubs exclaims. "Have fun in Cairo!"

Fun, he says. Well, yes, hunting down possible witnesses and beating the living shit out of them until they talk is rather fun, she supposes. But she understands that not everyone considers such extracurriculars fun. "Yes. Fun," she agrees, smiling slowly. She even condescends to wave back when the tiny troll rushes off down the street, waving a farewell. Several raggedy Crew members intercept him and usher him into a waiting taxi. Clubs's men often act more as handlers than underlings. They try to control the situation until Clubs's innate incompetence renders their efforts moot. Poor souls.

"Come, Marlowe," Diamonds says as the taxi disappears in the grey fog. "I have no desire to fly out of the same airport as that fool."

"Yes, ma'am," the umbrella-holder replies. He maintains an unerringly steady grip on the umbrella all the way to the waiting black Porsche and holds it as Diamonds folds herself into the car - her legs are long enough that this is a delicate process if she wishes to keep from brushing her pants against the wet side of the car. "Shall I readminister the tranquilizers to our guest?" he offers, bowing slightly with a glance at the unconscious body laid out in the cramped back seat of the car.

Diamonds twists in her seat and raising an appraising eyebrow at the unconscious man. She peels back his eyelid with a fingernail and inspects his pupil. "Oh, I believe he should be alright until we reach -"

A phone rings, and she reaches into her pocket without looking, drawing out her next disposable phone. She answers, nodding at Marlowe to enter the driver's side, as she prepares to trace the call and hunt down the unknown caller. "However did you get this number, darling? I'm very curious. Not many can contact me so easily with such a secure phone," she drawls.

I know all of your numbers, Droog. It is one of the perks of being almost omniscient. I do thank you for obliging me by utilizing disposable devices while abroad.

Diamonds stiffens and sits upright, heart thumping at the unexpected shock. "Boss. I wasn't expecting you to call so soon."

She hadn't been expecting a call at all. The boss prefers emails filled with lines of impossible to read white text when he can't hold meetings in person. She'd anticipated an email in response to her recent report when she reached Cairo, and no sooner. This is...unusual.

And unfortunately, she knows exactly why it's happening. Wincing, she yanks the black sheet of cloth back down over the unconscious man's scarred, slack face, trying and failing to think of anything other than his presence in the back seat of her car. If she doesn't think about it, maybe the Doctor won't -

A valiant effort, Droog. But I knew about your little kidnapping attempt hours before you set it into motion. I only allowed you to take our good friend Stitch all the way to London because I require his services there, and by transporting him across the Atlantic in the cargo hold you saved on air fare.

Diamonds feels sweat drip down the side of her face. She laughs shakily, one leg jittering a little with nervousness. Damn her compulsions! The last thing she'd wanted was to antagonize the Doctor again, but how could she resist? "Please, sir. He's already done such excellent work on repairing some of my favorite suits. He is...indispensable. A remarkable talent. He is wasted in that foul green basement."

Be that as it may, I do have plans for our good friend Stitch. However much you may wish it, you cannot have your own personal entropy-reversing tailor, Droog. Simply be thankful that I take you three and your compulsions into account when I have Clover balance the books for the monthly budget review.

To be placed on the same level as Hearts and Clubs - you three, indeed! - is humiliating. Diamonds worries at her lip, head bent in shame. "I - yes, sir. I shall release him to your custody."

Oh, just drop him off at the train station on your way to the secondary airport. He has places to go when he recovers from the chemically-assisted kidnapping. Thank you so much for your cooperation, Droog.

"Yeah - yes, sir," Diamonds says. "Of course, Boss."

Do have fun in Cairo. You are correct that it is a good starting point to initiate your search. I won't spoil the surprise of where you'll have to seek out Spades next!

He hangs up on her.

Ass.

"Standsted airport, ma'am?" Marlowe asks, putting the car into gear. He has patiently waited for her call to end, picking up on the sensitive nature of the call. Another checkmark for you, Mr. Marlowe. Diamonds might not even have to whip out the cue stick today.

"Yes, Marlowe," Diamonds replies, eyeing the man in the backseat with wistful disgust. It truly was foolish of her to take him. But what can she say? Once she set him to work sewing some good quality suits instead of those felt green duds, he perked right up! A little kidnapping that hardly hurt anyone!

But she dares not disobey a direct order from the Doctor. He would know. He always knows.

It is a shame. Stitch is a truly excellent tailor, even if he is a member of the Felt.

"Stop by the first train station you see," Diamonds orders, folding her legs and switching the disposable phone over to the latest private Scofflaws memo her couriers are using to pool their nonstop flood of information. "It hardly matters which, it will be the correct station no matter where we drop off Stitch. Infuriating, isn't it?"

"May I ask how that is possible, ma'am?" Marlowe asks, timid, as he begins to maneuver through traffic.

"No." Diamonds begins texting out rapid directions to her couriers in Australia, who all need to be repositioned in more advantageous stations now that the country has lost its priority status. Running an international spy network is a complex business, and Diamonds is pleased to say that hers is one of the best in the world.

The fact that so much of the Doctor's activities slip beneath her radar remains infuriating. The man is inscrutable.

Hopefully, she will have a better time of it hunting down this Spades Slick character. He first came to the attention of her network when he began probing into Crew affairs several years ago, but has since dropped off the radar entirely.

He is, however, a carapacian. And carapacians are rare enough that he cannot hide from Diamonds forever. Once she spread out her couriers, seeking news of carapacians with unusual scars, more than a few reports had begun to trickle in from Egypt. So she will begin there.

And, apparently, end up flying elsewhere in her search. She grimaces, remembering the Doctor's offhand, smirking comment about Cairo only serving as a starting point. Whatever carapacian her spies noted in Egypt, the news is clearly out of date.

No matter. She has worked with less, before, and still completed the objective promptly and with grace.

Oh yes. She will find this Spades Slick, no matter where he hides.

And she will make him rue the day he crossed the Midnight Crew.

Chapter Text

It's a little after three in the morning when Karkat admits that the night has been a total shambles. He stops a few random muggings on his way back to the base camp in the library, keeping to the shadows so no one can get a good look at his fucked up costume and see the candy-red flush to his exposed gills, but aside from that he just heads straight back and changes out into his regular clothes in the circulation room.

He fucked up. His shitty temper ripped right through Hemogoblin's cool, controlled persona, and he fucking blew it because he's an impulsive, stupid shit when he's angry. Note to self, apparently being blown up turns Karkat into a rage-blinded worthless little fucksponge. He'll make sure to avoid that in the future. By the time he collapses onto the back seat of the late night bus rolling back out to Maple Valley, he's worked himself into enough of a shame-frenzy that he has to stuff his hands into his hoodie pocket to keep from slapping at his head with his fists like a goddamn thirteen-year-old troll on a ragebender. The regular night bus driver already probably thinks Karkat's some kind of teenage drug dealer who commutes to the city to do shady shit every night, no need to make him think Karkat's completely pancracked on top of that.

His mood deteriorates further when his phone gets a signal again after the bus drops him off five miles from his house. He thumbs through both the text messages and the Pesterchum app with the faint, stupid hope that John will be awake for some reason and available to talk at four am. Even if he couldn't tell John any details about why he feels so fucking shitty, it would be good to just talk. But John hasn't said a word since EB: i'm sorry i caused you and my dad so much trouble! i'm going to be volunteering most of tomorrow to make up for how little i can do with this collarbone, so i might not see you until sunday. good night karkat! and great, now all Karkat's managed to do is remind himself that he probably won't see John all day today, either. What does that little shit think he's doing, anyway, working with a royally fucked-up arm? What, does the community center use slave labor or something these days?

Karkat has the distinct feeling that he's being irrational again. He crawls over the fence into his backyard and scales the wall to his bedroom window to avoid walking by Crabdad, and dumps his backpack full of ragged neoprene and Kevlar on the ground. He's probably going to have to burn the ruined uniform or something - he can't just throw that kind of thing away in the trash for some crazy dumpster diver to find, not now that it has his blood crusted all down the side. Resigning himself to idiotic bonfire shenanigans, Karkat strips down to his shirt and boxers and buries himself in the recooperacoon.

All he wants to do is sleep. Unfortunately, his brain is a perverse, unreasonable little shitstain that decides that this moment. Right now. This very moment. Would be the very best moment to replay every single mistake he made trying to recapture Hearts Boxcars.

Groaning, Karkat gives in and pummels the back of his head with a frustrated fist, faceplanting in the sopor slime. He breathes out through his nose and tiny, sluggish bubbles form in the sopor. His face burns with a shamed, cringing flush, and he struggles to just put it out of mind. If he keeps harping on about his mistakes like his brain automatically wants to, he won't get any sleep at all.

Around seven in the morning, after a few fitful snatches of sleep here and there, he gives up. The insomnia isn’t going away any time soon, and his body has become so adjusted to staying up late and waking up early for school that his fuckass brain probably thinks right now is the prime time for the end of a sleep cycle he never got to have. He's tired enough that the exact details of the chase down at the dock is an unpleasant blur that he can skim over mentally.

It's a really shitty victory, but he'll take any success at this point, not matter how pathetic. Suck it, Karkat's brain.

He showers off the sopor and puts on his four-years old Batman shirt, a pair of sweatpants gone grey from being washed too many times, and a tired hoodie that's two sizes too large for him instead of the usual one size. He stills feels awful and claustrophobic and irritable, and fuck his day job, they can go without his superior managing skills for one day. He tramples downstairs and into the kitchen, not caring that Crabdad rises with an ear-piercing shriek from its pile at the sound of the commotion. There is exactly one thing that can possibly alleviate this mood right now, and it's buried in the back of his thermal hull. Crabdad scuttles in with a serious of obnoxiously loud, curious clicks, and Karkat grabs the last tray of iced roe and winds up, one eye twitching as he flings the tray. It smacks the lusus in the middle of its face hard enough to crack the plastic tray. Crabdad just squeals with ecstasy, racing off with its prize in one claw.

Good. Karkat has no intention of sharing the next food item he pulls out of the freezer. He hid it underneath a package of frozen corn, the one thing in the household Crabdad is basically guaranteed to abjure with all the disgust in its fatass shell. He pries off the plastic cover protecting the delicate confection within. Crabdad has no idea that this pie right here is the true prize of the hour.

This fucker has two solid inches of fluffy white merengue, flaky crust that still looks fresh after being horded in a freezer for weeks, and a thick filling of chocolate fudge. Tiny chocolate sprinkles cover the merengue topping, and Karkat has it on good authority that the fudge contains not just chocolate chips but solid chunks of Hershey's chocolate and the crumbs of broken Oreos, duly sacrificed in the name of crafting the single most disgustingly unhealthy pie in the history of piekind.

"I call her 'The Chocapocalypse,'" John had said reverently, eyeing the pie embodiment of joy and happiness for all man and trollkind with the all of the awe and respect owed to a truly godly pie. "Please don't tell my dad."

It’s not John himself, but it's a really fucking close second, okay.

And he is going to sit on this couch.

And eat it.

Curling up into a ball of misery and fury on the couch with a blanket wrapped around him to complete his lazy day shame costume, Karkat settles in for a day of watching some godawful rom-coms and eating his feelings. He has spent the past year and half in intensive training to get into trim fighting shape, and fuck the haters he has earned this goddamn pie.

After the first bite, he regrets none of his decisions. None of them. This pie is fucking glorious. Licking at merengue that sticks to the corner of his mouth, Karkat digs between the cushions of the couch for the remote and turns the television on. Before he puts on a movie, he sits back to devour more of this pie, scooping up forkfuls of filling and merengue that barely fit between his jaws. Maybe John isn't as oblivious as Karkat occasionally curses him for being, he muses woozily as the chocolate buzz begins to set in. Because this pie tastes like a shooshpapping mixed with chocolate ambrosia, and Karkat hadn't even realized you could moirail long-distance through pie. Truly, John is a thoughtful and considerate palemate.

He's so lost in a haze of chocolate that he's content to sit there listening to the news for a few minutes, rolling his eyes and muttering under his breath as the usual news blurb about the situation in Novaya Ukraine (shitty as per fucking usual) lingers on the screen. They have new aerial shots of the white sheen of toxic chemicals that apparently now covers the entire southern half of the old Ukraine, which, alright, is pretty fucking interesting, even if no one can seem to give a straight answer as to what the panwasted fuck the stuff is, but other than that they just report that eighty percent of the international task force sent in have officially been recovered.

They say recovered, but Karkat has frequented some of the creepier parts of the internet, and he's seen photos of what happened to some of the soldiers they sent in to stop the genocide, the ones who came back wrong. A lot of the time, what they claim 'recovered' isn't really human afterward. Whatever those grubfucking assholes did to create this toxic pollution in Eastern Europe three years ago, Karkat's just glad the entire oligarchy turned up dead so no one could recreate it. This planet is a fucking shitsack of a world sometimes.

Yeah, this is just getting him irritated again. He scrapes at the bottom of the tin in a section where he's demolished the majority of the pie and begins to reach for the remote again.

"...And we're bringing you the latest on the destruction in New York City, where we have just received word that three as-yet unidentified heroes appear to be confronting the villainess. Experts believe two to be Flashstep and the Puppeteer, heroes normally based out of Houston, but the third remains anonymous -"

Karkat chokes on his mouthful of pie and wastes a good minute not dying, unable to take his eyes off the screen as he jabs at the volume button.

It may be go-the-fuck-back-to-sleep o’clock on a Saturday here in Seattle, but in New York it’s almost noon. Of course, he can’t tell that from the video they’re playing because the sky has gone murky and purplish with heavy, low-hanging thunder clouds, to the point that it almost looks like night again. He checks the scrolling banner across the bottom of the screen to make sure, but yeah, the new crew is definitely claiming this is a live feed from New York City. Even as he watches, the source of the darkness, a cluster of pitch-black and sulky purple thorns tangled around a female human body, races across the screen, in hot pursuit of a tiny blur of crimson and white, shattering the sides of buildings as she slams through them to reach the fleeing figure.

When another camera view from a helicopter pops up, with a closer view of the two people flying away from the roaring tangle of thorns, Karkat is glad he's too distracted to take another bite of pie, because - because, seriously, what the actual ever-loving fucking fuck is he looking at here?! He cannot possibly be witnessing this miserable excuse for a hallucination!

That’s Heir.

The hero is in some bizarre red outfit, his goggles have black frames instead of the usual pale yellow, and there's no sign of Heir's signature warhammer. But no other hero in the states has that kind of control over the wind, darting through the air like he’s part of the breeze himself rather than just riding it. Karkat's obsession with Heir borders on the unnatural, and he knows that's Heir.

Jesus fucking Christ, he thinks distantly, no wonder Friday night had been fucking insane for Hemogoblin; Heir just somehow manages to show up halfway across the country with the Puppeteer and Flashstep to take on this crazy chick? How had Heir even known to be there?! Is there some kind of heroic grapevine Hemogoblin hasn’t signed up for yet? A mass fruity asshole rumpus memo they neglected to sign him up for? Hemogoblin had thought they were meant to be partners now, but Heir apparently feels free to drop off the face of the earth and hightail it to New York overnight without so much as a ‘fuck you very much.’

Seriously, what the actual blithering fuck?!

Karkat is so very, very torn because on one hand, the Hemogoblin part of his brain is pissed off beyond comprehension because three heroes decided to team up without even giving him a heads up. On the other hand, OH MY GOD HEIR HAS TEAMED UP WITH FLASHSTEP AND PUPPETEER.

It takes about two seconds for the nerd half to win out over the pissed half and suddenly Karkat keens loudly, setting a skree in response from Crabdad, and rolls off the couch, squirming forward with the blanket still wrapped around his legs to get closer to the TV. The pie somehow lands unharmed on the floor as he presses up close to the television and whips out his phone, breathing unevenly as he starts frantically texting John because holy shit that kid needs to stop this volunteering bullshit right now.

-- carcinoGeneticist [CG] began pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 8:13:01 --
CG: JOHN
CG: OH mY F UCKING goD JOHN GET YOUR ASS ON THE COMPUTER OR THE PHONE RIGHT NOW
CG: I AM HAIVNG A FUCKING CRIS SE
CG: I CAN'T EVEN FUCKING TYPE ANYMORE FOR THE LOVE OF TROLL JESUS
CG: IF YOU MISS OUT ON THIS INCOMPREHENSIBLE PILE OF EPIC CURRENTLY GOING DOWN IN NEW YORK YOU WILL NEVER FORGIVE YOUR SELF AND I'LL HAVE TO LIVE WITH YOUR GUILT-RIDDEN ASS FOR THE REST OF OUR LIVES
CG: DBONSANV DSF DID HEIR JUST TELEPORT UFCKING FUCK THE FUCK IS GOING ON
CG: JOHN, TURN ON YOUR FUCKING TELEVISION I'M GOING CRY LEGITIMATE TEARS HERE AND YOU ARE MISSING IT
CG: THIS IS IT THE WORLD HAS JUSTIFIED ITS EXISTENCE. WELL DONE WORLD. YOU HAVE MY PERMISSION TO CONTINUE EXISTING. MY UNGODLY RAGE HAS BEEN FOREVER ASSUAGED.
CG: THAT WAS A FUCKING JOKE JOHN
CG: OH OF ALL THE TIMES FOR YOU TO GO COMPLETELY OFF THE FUCKING GRID
CG: SHIT I SET THE TV TO RECORD. IT'S OKAY, I HAVE YOU COVERED
CG: I AM THE FUCKING KICKASS MOIRAIL, IT IS ME, BLAH BLAH BLAH, YOU CAN PAY ME BACK LATER
CG: I'M HAVING A GODDAMN ANEURYSM FROM THE AWESOME OVER HERE JOHN YOU ARE GOING TO OWE ME THE MOTHER OF ALL PILES WHEN THIS IS OVER BECAUSE I WILL CRASH SO HARD AFTER THIS AND YOU'RE NOT HERE YOU FUCKING DUMBASS
-- carcinoGeneticist [CG] ceased pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 8:19:20 --

By the time the news crews have relocated where Heir appeared and begun tracking the fight in earnest again, Karkat is literally rolling on the floor, the blanket getting more and more tangled around his body as he stares at the television screen from as many different angles as possible. Flashstep has apparently been out of the game for a while now, and the purple-and-black villainess, who the media reports keep referring to 'by the working name of Dark Star, until an official alias is announced,' uses that to her advantage, targeting the unconscious hero deliberately whenever Heir and the occasional flicker of the Puppeteer get close enough to take a slice at her. The villainess's shrieks are weirdly distorted, to the point that Karkat can't understand a word she's saying, and neither can the reporters, apparently. It's clear from some shots that Heir is trying to talk back, daringly moving in close to the wickedly sharp tentacles of darkness that writhe around Dark Star, but it's just as hard to hear his shouts with the poor quality of the video feed's audio.

Heir gets in a good shot, nearly toppling the tangle of thorns and tentacles over on its side. The villain must be getting tired or something, because her movements are getting progressively sloppy and slow.

Or at least Karkat thinks so, until, in a single liquid movement, a tendril of darkness wraps around Heir's arm and wrenches it backwards. Heir cuts himself free a moment later, but his arm hangs at a horrifying angle when he floats up where the helicopter cam can see him.

Karkat is so fucking emotionally invested by this point, his eyes are bugging halfway out of his skull, and he tears at the hair around his hornbed frantically. Oh my nubbing fuck, how he is expected to handle this kind of intense action sequence?! It's starting to hit him that he could very well be watching Heir be seriously injured any second now. That this is a villain who means business.

Aishgaosdnf, he is not okay, dammit!

CG: JOHN I AM HAVING AN EMOTION OKAY I AM HAVING A LOT OF EMOTIONS OVER HERE
CG: THIS IS UNA-FUCKING-CEPTABLE AND I BLAME YOU FOR THIS
CG: YOU ARE GETTING SUCH A GODDAMN LECTURE ON WHEN IT IS AN APPROPRIATE TIME TO LEAVE ME ALONE TO HANDLE THIS KIND OF SHIT BY MYSELF WHILE YOU'RE OFF FROLICKING AND PLANTING DAISIES AND SAVING THE HOMELESS LIKE A DUMB CANDYFUCK AT THE COMMUNITY CENTER
CG: HERE'S A GIANT FUCKING HINT THE ANSWER IS NEVER. IT IS NEVER AN APPROPRIATE TIME FOR THOSE THINGS. EVER.

The next part is blurred when the helicopter has to veer out of the way of a building, and the news channel has to switch to the godawful footage being broadcast by some lunatic filming on his camera phone from within the Met. Karkat is enraged by the lack of quality, and is aware that he has begun make a high-pitched whining noise in the back of his throat. Crabdad, who has joined him by the television for some reason and yet is somehow not being an annoying piece of shit about it, is making a similar sound, trilling occasionally and screeching at intervals. Karkat can't even bring himself to care.

The noise in Karkat's throat cuts off with a strangled gurgle as Heir and Dark Star freeze in place. The camera zooms in a little, but it's just too far away to see exactly what's going on, and Karkat is scratching at his skull now in frustration -

Abruptly, the darkness vanishes. Almost all of it - the clouds above remain, and the severed limbs the Puppeteer and Heir have been hacking off continue to lie in the streets, but the writhing tangle immediately surrounding the villainess, as well as the longer tendrils reaching up to the sky and down toward the ground, flicker out of existence as though they were never there.

The two figures hovering where the black thorns used to be fall to the ground, which doesn't make sense because one of them is Heir, and the only reason he'd fall, ever, is if he was unconscious or worse or -

Both falling bodies disappear. The phone cameraman, coughing and hacking on dust off-screen, frantically scans the area, and finally finds them again. The Puppeteer is crouched on the street with the two under his arms, one a girl in black and purple, the other Heir, who is still not moving. He stares at the camera behind his trademark pointy shades, and then disappears in a blur of movement. The news station fumbles for the next five minutes as both the phone camera and the helicopter above somehow manage to completely lose track of the heroes and the villainess.

It takes ten minutes before Karkat is willing to admit that maybe, just maybe, that's it. That's all the closure he's getting, and by closure he means fuck all. His stomach is clamped down, and the noise he's making may not be at a frequency audible to human or trollkind.

There’s absolutely no way for him to find out if Heir even survived, or if the hero fell because he was dead – not unless Heir shows up on patrol whenever he returns to Seattle. If he didn’t survive the fight, Karkat may never know, and the thought terrifies him, leaves him cold.

"IT CAN'T END LIKE THAT! NO. NO!" he screams. Crabdad shrieks back and pats him in what is no doubt intended as a reassuring slap on the back with a meaty claw, which naturally has the exact opposite effect on Karkat. "UNACCEPTABLE!"

-

After almost two hours spent frantically skipping between news channels, trying to suck the last drops of excitement out of a few different camera angles, Karkat has to admit defeat. It's noon, and he's probably starving. He says probably because he's still too worked up to feel anything but knots in his stomach. There is a brief moment of excitement that makes him drop a fledgling peanut butter and grubsauce sandwich flat on the ground when Karkat skrees and Karkat has to race back to the television. He's just in time to watch as channel 5 news plays the traffic cam footage from the road alongside Central Park, as four figures, two of them supported by the Puppeteer and Heir, all pile into one unmarked, nondescript van. They take off just ahead of the emergency crews, and after several minutes of absolutely appalling street racing technique they drive into an area where the traffic cams have been destroyed by Dark Star's rampage, and vanish for good. It's time stamped at two hours ago, and there's been nothing since then.

To Karkat's unending disgust, the news proceeds to dissolve into a frenzied free-for-all as reporters and hero researchers all scramble to analyze the fight and toss their opinion in the ring as to what the fuck had just gone down in New York. Karkat has to turn the television off after the fourth person speculating as to whether the ‘mysterious flying hero’ is a new member of the Houston team – obviously it’s Heir, come on, asshats! Are they fucking blind? This is just driving him batshit up the fucking belfrey.

Now he's just pissy, coming down off the high of watching the fight scene live on the television, and a little more of his righteous irritation is starting up in the Hemogoblin half of his brain. Maybe not irritation so much as disappointment - but Karkat does disappointment like an enraged, pissy crab anyway, so there's effectively no difference. He's heard the 'crabby' pun enough from John (oh karkat don't be karabby :))) I SWEAR TO GOD JOHN I WILL RAIN VENGEANCE UPON YOU LIKE THE FURY OF 1000 SUNS. totes crabby ;)) that it no longer even bothers him. The unfortunate side effects of being raised by an insane, idiotic crab lusus - the puns flow like water, and after a while they wear away at your rageglands until you lose the ability to get truly angry about it.

Making a new sandwich and stuffing the remains of the last one in Crabdad's gaping maw, Karkat sits down to have lunch at around one. He checks his phone and frowns. He wonders if John even knows about the massive showdown that just went down - Karkat is nerding out massively, and while John is weirdly neutral about the Heir of Breath, he's a total geek for Flashstep, and Karkat can't imagine the fact that Flashstep apparently took one to the throat before the fight even really got started will stop John from voraciously hunting down every second of Flashstep footage available.

Still. John usually has his phone on him at the center, even though he can only spare a moment to answer during his lunch break, but there's been nothing at all from him since last night. And as Karkat slowly munches on his sandwich, mourning the unspeakably glorious chocolate pie that had been devoured by Crabdad in his hours of distraction, he can't fight the feeling, deep in his gut, that something is wrong.

In hindsight, something has felt off since Friday, when John’s Dad had called Karkat’s home phone and asked, his nervousness concealed behind a jovial front, if John had gone to Karkat’s house, as though Karkat hadn’t literally just dropped John off in front of his house and watched him walk inside. Yeah, that had been a little strange, and Karkat had flipped his shit really embarrassingly in front of John's dad for a while. But then John had texted Karkat around midnight to tell him he was fine, but wouldn’t be able to make it to anything all day Saturday, wanting to make up for his inability to work to full capacity. Not an unusual turn of events; this soup kitchen where John works has a fuckload of emergencies every so often due to low funding or some shit. But Karkat is irate, still wondering what kind of fuckpuppets would make a man work with a broken collarbone doing whatever the hell John actually does for these people on a regular basis.

Whatever. He'll give John until four, and by then the kid will probably emerge from his goddamn volunteering coma and realize just what he's been missing out on. Then Karkat will swoop in with his five hours of recorded news reports and ten tabs of YouTube videos to save the day. This is a fucking flawless plan.

No doubt this sense of wrongness is just Karkat's troll hindbrain getting all hormonal and bitchy again, pining for a moirail that can't be there every moment of the goddamn globefucking day.

Yeah. Right.

-

Five in the afternoon rolls around.

Karkat's rage has been steadily growing over the past few hours. Though he is aware that crashing around the house slamming cupboard doors and doing laundry with the kind of violence usually reserved for war arenas or troll football accomplishes nothing more than to aggravate Crabdad into near hysterics and piss Karkat off further, he can't seem to stop himself.

John's volunteering generally ends at four, and he's home by four thirty, sooner if his dad picks him up, and in the meanwhile he'd be texting Karkat all the while. There is still no sign of him on Pesterchum, and on a day in which apparently the entire continental United States (or at least New York, the rational part of him whispers) has decided to go batshit insane, Karkat is Not Happy.

He finally snaps - not like that ever takes very long to happen. He picks up one of the dishes he's emptying from the dishwasher and launches it into the cupboard hard enough to crack it, and then whips his phone out of his pocket to dial John's number. He gets diddly fucking squat, and snarls when John's recorded voice chirps out the answering machine's message before hanging up. He tries the home number.

When no one fucking answers that, he forces himself to list all the logical reasons why both John and his usually reliable custodian would both have gone radio silent, again. It doesn’t work, and by the time he’s out of the respite block he can barely put his phone down long enough to struggle into real clothes that aren't three fucking years old and falling apart at the seams, trying John on the Pesterchum chat app one last desperate time. His claws are almost too jittery to hit the keys, and his head throbs in time with his heartbeat. These are all probably symptoms of some kind of godawful troll disease slowly killing him from the inside out, but he can't even be assed to care anymore.

-- carcinoGeneticist [CG] began pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 17:25:11 --
CG: JOHN
CG: JOHN YOU ASS IT’S BEEN ALMOST 24 HOURS SINCE I LAST HEARD FROM YOU
CG: AND LET ME BE CLEAR ONE PISSANT TEXT MESSAGE OVER THE COURSE OF 24 HOURS IS A PRETTY SHIT RATIO
CG: YOUR DAD HAS STOPPED ANSWERING THE HOME PHONE TOO I SEE OH THAT’S JUST FUCKING FANTASTIC YES THAT IS EXACTLY THE KIND OF RESPONSE THAT REASSURES ME THAT THE TWO OF YOU ARE STILL FUNCTIONING, BIOLOGICALLY VIABLE SPECIMENS OF THE HUMAN RACE
CG: JESUS FUCK JOHN IF THIS IS SOME KIND OF JOKE IT STOPPED BEING FUNNY APPROXIMATELY TWO SECONDS AFTER YOU GOT IT STUCK IN YOUR THINKPAN THAT IT WOULD BE FUNNY
CG: YOUR SENSE OF HUMOR IS AN INSULT TO THE VERY CONCEPT OF HUMOR AT THE BEST OF TIMES BUT CONGRATULATIONS YOU HAVE OUTDONE YOURSELF I WOULD APPLAUD YOU IF I WEREN’T BUSY NOT FREAKING THE FUCK OUT
CG: I’M COMING OVER TO YOUR GODDAMN HOUSE JOHN I SWEAR TO GOD IT BETTER STILL BE STANDING
CG: IF YOU’RE THERE PREPARE YOURSELF FOR THE IMPENDING ARRIVAL OF MY RAGE-AVALANCHE
CG: IF YOU’RE NOT THERE PREPARE YOURSELF FOR THE IMPENDING ARRIVAL OF SAID RAGE-AVALANCHE ANYWAY BECAUSE I WILL HUNT YOU DOWN TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH AND DRAG YOU BACK HOME BY YOUR PITIFUL EARS AND UNLEASH TRUE UNADULTERATED FURY UPON YOUR PUNY INCOMMUNICADO ASS
-- carcinoGeneticist [CG] ceased pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 17:32:43 --

He receives absolutely no response. Karkat runs out of the house, then power walks to John’s house, refusing to let any prying neighbors see him distressed and racing off to John's house, again. He has a goddamn reputation to maintain, for Chrissakes, no matter how determined his moirail is to completely ruin him.

-

Several minutes after Karkat leaves the house, the news station switches back over to the local news.

He isn’t there to hear the heated discussion of the Midnight Crew’s escape from lockup.

He doesn’t hear about the new evidence and blood samples detectives found on the top of the police station.

He doesn’t think anything of it at all.

-

The Egbert’s car is parked in the driveway, which is both totally normal and really worrying. The only good reason Karkat has for Dad Egbert not answering the home phone is because he got called into an emergency at his work place; but the car is here, which means Mr. Egbert should definitely be on the premises. Hesitating, Karkat scuffs his foot and ducks back behind a tree, calling the landline one last time in the hopes that maybe Mr. Egbert had just been unable to reach the phone in time.

This time, he gets a busy tone. Someone is at home, thank god. Karkat jogs the rest of the way up to the front door and knocks with more force than he usually allows himself too, shifting his weight restlessly from foot to foot as he resists the urge to kick the door in.

He can hear a faint murmur of voices from within, which means whoever’s using the phone is at the line right there in the front hallway. A low growl rumbles in the back of Karkat’s throat, the annoyance aggravating his already pretty fucking phenomenal temper to true form. Come on, all he needs is for John to open the door with that dopey, apologetic grin, and Karkat will give him the strongly-worded lecture of the century on how one does not blow off one’s troll moirail for an entire day without extensive prior notice, and then they can get back to their regularly scheduled Saturday afternoon activities.

Karkat is so far gone in his vindictive fantasy that the sound of the door swinging open surprises him. He gets his mouth halfway open, teeth bared, before he sees that Mr. Egbert has opened the door, not John.

Karkat has never seen Dad Egbert anything less than totally put together; the man cycles through any number of respectable, perfectly ironed and starched white suits combined with a completely proper and very nice hat no matter what day of the week it is, and he never has a speck of dirt or food on them even after he’s spent an entire evening baking assorted delectable confections. Even the night before, the man still had his button-up shirt on, though his hair had been ruffled.

So it’s like a sharp punch to the trachea when Mr. Egbert appears with his white suit jacket missing, the usually pristine undershirt wrinkled as though slept in, his face haggard and – holy shit is he unshaven shit fucking fucker fuck something’s wrong, John is hurt, John is sick, fuck, that’s the only reason why Mr. Egbert would look like today is the end of the fucking world –

John steps out from behind Samuel Egbert, and Karkat can't stop the howl of pure fury that rips out of his throat as he reaches out with a hand and yanks John into a hug.

“Ahaha-ow, uh, hey Karkat!” John laughs, and Karkat feels a hand pat him awkwardly on the back. “What’s up?”

Karkat is too relieved and infuriated to answer. He eases his grip on John after that quick ‘ow’ and looks the dumbass over at arm’s length, teeth gritted as he takes in the still-present sling and the way John has to arch his shoulder a little to keep it at a comfortable angle. John can look as chipper as he fucking wants when he smiles at Karkat; he’s still got purple-black bruises under his brown eyes.

For an instant, Karkat feels disoriented, as though something about this picture is even more skewed than the obvious fact that his moirail is exhausted and injured and as dumb as a sack of hammers. But he looks again, and it’s just John – dopey, confused John who is totally fine with Karkat giving him a thorough inspection with his claws clamped around John’s arms to keep him still.

“You are absolutely forbidden from doing anything. Just. Anything at all. Why are you even moving?!” Karkat demands, pushing his way into the house without looking Samuel Egbert’s direction. Yeah, he made himself look like a complete overprotective maniac yesterday, and today’s not exactly shaping up to give a much better impression. Too fucking bad. “What the fuck could those idiots have you doing with a broken arm that’s so strenuous that you can’t text me all day?”

John looks confused, and then shifty, and Karkat knows the next words out of this kid’s mouth are going to be complete and utter bullshit. Not outright lies, but John has this thing where if he thinks the answer will hurt someone, he’ll tone his words down so much that the answer turns on a diagonal and become unrecognizable. “And none of this ‘my arm isn’t all that broken, Karkat, and I only lifted like a couple thousand pounds worth of bullshit at work today’ dipshittery, John, I swear to god,” Karkat adds before John can even get started.

John blushes, abashed. Good. As he should be, Karkat thinks with a sniff of triumph as he ushers John toward the stairs. The front door creaks closed behind them, but John’s dad doesn’t say a word about the Karkat Invasion, just walks down the hall to his office with heavy footsteps while Karkat glowers up the stairs at John’s back, half-braced in case the kid collapsed or something unfathomably horrifying like that. “I left my phone at home again,” John says sheepishly. “Which was really stupid after I did the exact same thing after school yesterday, too. I haven’t even had time to sit down and look through all your messages. Don’t tell me, don’t tell me – I’m dumb. Soooo dumb.”

“That is, in fact, the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” Karkat snaps, but some of the anger is already leaking out of him. Great, now he can’t even maintain a proper rage in John’s presence anymore; he’s getting all…leaky. Bleh. “Goddammit, John, sometimes I wonder how you wander around all day without me and still manage to survive. Seriously, where would you be without me? You probably totally missed out on New York, right?”

By the time they reach John’s room, Karkat’s tone has gone all gruff and weird, and he’s smiling a little as he shoves John around gently to start maneuvering around the kid’s messy bedroom. Weirdly enough, half the stuff on John’s desk is turned upside down, and his covers are piled up at the bottom of his bed, topped with half the laundry from the basket by the closet. Amazing. Even more chaos than usual. Who even knows what thats all about. Karkat just takes advantage of the half-made pile and yanks the bedclothes and laundry onto the floor. He concedes for John’s injured sake that they need more soft things, but he also starts tossing textbooks onto his own side. He has an image to maintain, after all. He is a fucking badass, okay, he needs more pointy objects in his piles.

“New York?” John says, startled. He goes to grab a pillow from the head of his bed but Karkat flails at him with a glare until the human lets him take care of it. As though Karkat expects an injured moirail to overstress himself by lifting pillows and shit. What does John think Karkat is, a totally insensitive asshat? Honestly.

John has another weird look on his face when Karkat looks up, a cross between confusion and faint recognition. “Oh, right,” he says, laughing uncertainly. “Something went on over there, right? Wow! Talk about some shenanigans, am I right?”

Karkat glares at John and grabs him by the collar of his shirt, shifting him bodily until he’s lined up so Karkat can shove him backward into the pile without feeling guilty. “You’ve got absolutely no fucking idea what I’m talking about, do you?” Karkat says in disgust, rolling his eyes.

John looks almost anxious as he gives a halfhearted laugh, eyeing Karkat with trepidation. “Uh…”

Karkat flings up his hands. “There was a giant fucking showdown between three heroes and some batshit crazy lady that took out half the nookchafing city!” he yells, stomping over to the desk. “It’s basically the greatest, most epic thing to ever happen this entire bugfucking year, and you missed it, John!” He’s left his laptop at home with all of his saved YouTube searches, but he can remember most of the better quality links. He drags John’s computer across to the pile, the wires stretching to accommodate the move, and starts typing rapidly after John hurriedly logins in and closes all his waiting Pesterchum windows. Karkat’s block of solid grey text fill up pretty much the entire screen, but Karkat catches a flash of red and pale orange, and maybe even purple text before John closes out of the program. He doesn’t think anything much of it.

“I mean, Heir was there. Heir was in New York City!” He is babbling by this point, some of his disbelief and irritation at John’s unmatched capacity for obliviousness wiped out by the remaining emotions from earlier. He pulls up the phone camera feed – the quality is shit, but it also managed to get a more continuous stream of the entire fight than the helicopter, which had to keep fleeing and cutting out when the raging battle in the sky drew too close. The video already has a million views and counting; major heroic showdowns always get massive amounts of attention. “I mean, how?! How did he even know to be there? That’s halfway across the country from where we are!”

“Wait, wha – how do you know it was Heir?” John leans forward as Karkat perches on the edge of the pile, balancing his injured arm on his knee with a faint huff. Without looking, Karkat reaches behind him into the pile and withdraws another pillow. He lifts up John’s arm gently and sets the pillow underneath without a word. “Uh, th-thanks Karkat,” John stammers out. Dope.

“Because I have a serious problem. It’s an addiction. You should probably hold an intervention for my own good, except don’t you fucking dare Egbert, there is nothing wrong with me.” Karkat sweeps the shitty quality video for when the Puppeteer first shows up, and then Heir a moment later. “Shit. Looks like this one doesn’t start until after Flashstep gets his shit wrecked. I know you’re a massive fanboy over that guy, but he only lasted like ten minutes, tops.”

“They got that on video?!” John says, genuine concern spreading across his face. Yeah, the news that Seattle’s resident hero has up and skipped out to New York barely fazes the kid, but oh fuck, Flashstep is in trouble? Crisis mode. Fuck, John has weirdass priorities.

“Not very well,” Karkat concedes as they watch the chaos unfold onscreen. “No one really noticed they’d showed up until after this maniac started tearing up the Guggenheim. And by the time they ID’d everyone, Flashstep was already out of the equation.”

The balance of the pile shifts a little too far forward, threatening to smoosh over to one side as John peers intently at the screen, his eyes glinting in the artificial light as he watches the fight. It’s less intense for Karkat this time around, but his bloodpusher still seizes in a dull panic when Dark Star and Heir, for whatever reason, fall together out of the sky, despite the fact that he knows the Puppeteer will be there to catch them. He shudders and leans into John’s side, trying to shove the morbid thoughts out of his thinkpan.

John shifts a bit, then sits back when the video cuts off, scrubbing at his face with a hand. When Karkat takes a better look at him, he can see John is exhausted, a faint twinge of pain tightening the corners of his eyes. “Were you seriously working all the fucklong day?” Karkat asks, kicking the mouse away from John’s hand when the kid goes to click on another video. “You do know that the goddamn arm will just keep bothering you if you don’t let it rest for once. Seriously, tell your job to fuck right off next week. You’re a volunteer, they can’t fire you. You’re going to hurt yourself more than you’re helping anyone at this rate.”

“…Look, maybe you’re right, Karkat,” John says, one hand still pressed to the side of his head. Karkat wonders if John even realizes how tired and utterly fucking pitiful he looks like that. “But I already had to miss some…days over this stupid arm thing. I just hate that my routine is all messed up because of a stupid injury.”

“Too fucking bad. It’s only been like, three days. It’s going to get worse before it gets better, you dumb shit.” Karkat logs off the computer over John’s protests. “No, look at you, this is the most exciting thing to happen since the Scourge Sisters broke up and had a fucking blackrom free-for-all through downtown Chicago, and you can barely keep your eyes open.”

John mumbles something that sounds suspiciously like “But I have work tonight,” which is just patently ridiculous, unless he’s talking about homework or something idiotically Egbertian like that. Karkat pushes John backward out of his hunched over crouch and mashes the kid’s face into a pillow. John growls at him halfheartedly, but he keeps his face turned into the pillow, his eyes slow to blink and heavy in the light of the desk lamp. Karkat probably should have just made the pile on the bed, but the computer wouldn’t have reached them at all, then. Whatever.

Karkat makes himself comfortable, avoiding John’s broken collarbone but tucking his head against the hollow of the opposite shoulder, patting at John’s face with a hand. “Yeah?” Karkat mutters. He makes sure to keep the rising, clicking purr at the back of his throat muted. How fucking embarrassing would it be if he broke out into full-on palerumbles after five fucking minutes in a pile? Christ, learn some self-control, Karkat. “No, I don’t fucking think so. No work for you. Congratulations. I, your lord and master and moirail, fucking forbid you from anything even remotely related to work. Not even work’s creepy human-incest cousin, volunteering. Can’t do it.”

John squirms and an elbow catches Karkat in the side. Little shit. Karkat waits with the patience of a goddamn saint while John figures out how he wants to adjust himself, until abruptly said patience runs out because who are we kidding, the Karkat equivalent of patience is basically just a slowly increasing rage gambit. He paps at John’s face again and wraps an arm around his waist until the kid has no choice but to lie still and fucking relax.

Karkat honestly can’t believe he’s the one doing the calming for once in this relationship. The universe is probably slowly feeding itself into a supermassive black hole in a suicidal attempt to end this backwards land madness.

“Just go the fuck to sleep,” Karkat mumbles, sticking his nose into John’s hair. John even smells off, like exhaustion and ozone and bizarrely like the ocean, but underneath that is the usual chlorine and baked goods and shampoo and human sweat smell that is John, and that’s fine. That’s fan-fucking-tastic.

-

By amazing (and by amazing he means disgustingly exasperating) coincidence, Karkat’s emergency ‘wake the fuck up you lazy shit you’re missing hero work’ alarm and Samuel Egbert’s hesitant knock on the door occur within seconds of each other. “MNAGH,” Karkat says coherently, narrowly avoiding being hit by John’s nose as he ducks his head to tear his phone from his pocket and crush beneath his heel. “Dad?” John says blearily, rubbing at the spot on his left temple that means he has a headache. “What’s up?”

“Ah. Karkat still in there with you, son?” John’s dad asks, and holy fuck how can he sound so fucking cheerful and upbeat when he and Karkat’s alarm are literally the devil incarnate right now. No one who isn’t working for some angel of double-death could possibly sound that chipper while waking Karkat up from a really fucking not-stressful cuddlenap, the first real sleep he’s gotten in days. Seriously, pretty much everything on this planet stresses Karkat out, and now this? In the middle of embarrassingly soppy palecuddles?

It’s official. The universe wants to murder Karkat Vantas slowly, with feeling.

The lamp is still on, though its dim yellow light may as well now be the equivalent of the white-hot intensity of the sun to Karkat’s sore eyes. Sleeping with the temporary contacts in and his glasses still on – the worst fucking idea. The worst. He finally manages to jab the alarm off, sees that they’ve only been asleep for about four hours, and raises his arm to fling the phone at John’s wall, teeth bared in a snarl. John catches him around the elbow before he can follow through, papping blindly at Karkat’s face with his eyes squinting. John’s glasses fell off at some point, and without them his face looks much younger.

And Karkat’s heart stops because he’s still half asleep and a younger john is walking down the corridor and he won’t listen, he won’t turn around, there’s blood dripping from the walls but john won’t stop -

“Uh, yeah, Karkat’s still here,” John calls back, fumbling through the blankets and pillows and comic books until he relocates his glasses and shoves them onto his nose. That breaks through Karkat’s moment of piercing horror, and Karkat starts breathing again, a little shaky. What the actual fuck?

“I see.” Samuel Egbert’s voice is totally neutral through the buffer of the door. “Is he staying overnight, then?”

“I don’t -” John breaks off and looks at Karkat, biting the corner of his lip. “Um. Karkat?”

Karkat takes a moment to answer, still thrown by whatever fucked up image just flashed through his mind. He can only imagine that his face has gone deathly pale, but hopefully John is still too disoriented to notice Karkat just nearly had some kind of horrorstroke. Has his thinkpan finally, officially cracked? Where the fuck had that come from?

There’s also the fact that he’s very aware that Heir is probably still not in town. Hemogoblin would be a pretty pisspoor hero if he didn’t patrol tonight to cover the slack from the other hero’s impromptu field trip, even despite the lingering fury over Hearts Boxcars’s escape. He can’t let his emotions overrun him as a hero. Last night made that pretty fucking clear. He flipped the fuck out in true Karkat-class and look at what it had gotten him – several lungfuls of absolutely foul bay water filtered through his shitty, still-irritated gills, and fuck-all to show for it. And emotions include the overwhelming desire to stay with John, to take just one night off. He shakes his head. “Nah. Crabdad is probably flipping his shit right now,” Karkat says, hoping John doesn’t probe any further than that. There’s absolutely no reason for Crabdad to flip out – more than usual, anyway – if Karkat stays with John, but he’s still too woozy with the aborted nap to think up a concrete excuse to bail.

Disappointment flickers across John’s face before he smiles and scratches at the back of his head. “Aw. Okay. Should probably not make the poor guy worry. You only have a few weeks left with him, right?”

Karkat can feel an old migraine approaching. “It’s an it, John, not a he. It’s just a lusus. It worries when I so much as close the fridge door the wrong way, or leave the window cracked open at night, or if I fail to organize my rom-coms in order of the box’s color rather than actor or title, both of which would actually make goddamn sense, because it’s fucking senile.”

“Yeah, but he still cares about you,” John says, yawning so widely his jaw cracks. He gets to his feet and stretches, and Karkat reluctantly does the same, stuffing his satanic phone back into his pocket. “You’re his kid! You should definitely spend some of his last few weeks together!”

John just has this thing he does where he overpersonalizes lusii. He doesn’t get that custodians can cycle through anywhere from five to ten wrigglers, depending on their lifespan, and thus there is no permanent emotional bond as there is between human parental units and their spawn. It is most likely a human thing, since their ancestral system is so much more direct and immediately accessible, as opposed to the incestuous slurry and centuries-spanning gene maps that link trolls. Karkat has resigned himself to it. Shaking his head, he steps around the abandoned computer and heads for the door. “Yeah, yeah, okay, John, I’ll pander to the fatass crab for what little time I have left to put up with it before I’m free at last.”

“That’s good. And we can get together and do something awesome tomorrow afternoon, okay, Karkat?” John promises as they stumble to the front door. “Like go to the park! The weather should be nice enough for the park, right?”

“You always think the weather is nice enough for the park. It could be negative fifty fucking degrees outside and we could piss ice in the open air and you’d still think there was a nice breeze going,” Karkat says.

John pouts at him, his eyes still all bruised with exhaustion and his shoulder hunched up. Fuck.

“Yes, fine, we can go to the park.”

Yeah, he’s having a harder and harder time telling John no.

-

Karkat goes to work that night, and he doesn’t think about what he saw when John’s glasses came off.

He doesn’t try to remember what he dreamed about during few fitful bursts of restless sleep he got in the ‘coon early Friday morning, what he saw in those last few confused moments of sleep after that nap in the evening.

He absolutely does not see flashes of the same images painted across the backs of his eyelids as he rides home at three in the morning, rainbows of blood streaking down the walls of the bus when he blinks and he jerks his head up, startling the nursing student who always sits across from him. It takes a moment to reassure himself that he’s awake, he’s fine, but fuck no, he’s not going to sleep well tonight, either. There’s a cold sweat breaking out along his skin that makes him tug down his sleeves and pat at his face surreptitiously with the inside of his sweater hood, to obscure any unnatural red tint that might seep through his skin.

He’d rather it just think of it as a new bout of insomnia. At least insomnia, he knows how to handle. He’s been handling his sleepless paranoia his whole life.

The dream, he can’t handle. He can’t.

-

Karkat dreams –

He stands in the center of a cavernous hallway, his eyes sliding over the words painted on the walls. He wants desperately to be able to read what they say, but he isn’t allowed to focus on them, his gaze drawn back toward the door at the end of the hall no matter how many times he tries to jerk his head toward the painted words.

He doesn’t feel time pass, but after a moment he is convinced, with that utter certainty that stems from the illogic of dreams, that a millennia has gone by. The hallway is unchanged because everything here is sealed in against the threat of the vacuum of space. The construct is no longer in space, of course, but the filtering and preservation systems run steadily on and on. Even the bright color of the painted words remains unchanged. Motes of dust are sucked into air recycling units before they have a chance to form more than the lightest layer of dull grey on the floor. When Karkat tries to move his feet, he sees that he has left no footprint in the dust.

At the end of the hallway, there is a resounding clang. The door dents under a single blow, and then another, and another. Finally, the vacuum seal gives, and the door crashes open, fresh air blowing through the hallway for the first time in centuries.

John walks in.

(This makes perfect sense at the time, though later Karkat will be utterly baffled. Seriously, what the hell is the context of this dream?)

John has a giant, oddly shaped lime green hammer in his hand, but it vanishes a second later as he looks around the hallway, his face quizzical. Karkat is baffled, unable to place exactly what is so strange about his moirail until John wanders down the hallway and walks by Karkat as though he isn’t even there.

This John doesn’t even reach Karkat’s chin. He can’t be more than thirteen years old.

And his eyes are bright, clear blue.

Karkat can’t move to touch John, and he is absolutely certain even if Karkat could speak, John wouldn’t be able to hear him. There’s a sense of inevitability and Karkat is resigned to the fact that all he can do is watch.

That becomes a problem when John stops, considering the painted words on the wall with his head tilted to the side. He traces one of the grafitti’d phrases, underlining it with his finger, and then shrugs. He clearly doesn’t understand what the words say.

Karkat, able to focus on and read the words for the first time, can understand. It’s messy and the paint dried in smeared splotches, but it’s pretty basic Alternian script, and he doesn’t understand why John, who’s in AP Alternian Language this year, can’t read it.

you’re gonna die motherfucker

Karkat goes cold. John keeps one hand on the wall as he steps around fallen computer equipment and piles of broken dolls, horns, and machine parts. Gradually, more of the writing on the wall comes into focus as John walks away, out of Karkat’s reach, and each message frightens Karkat more and more, until all he wants to do is grab John and shake him and fling him back out the door he came in, because at least out there he’d be safe.

YOU REALLY DON’T WANNA DO THIS MOTHERFUCKER

if you keep going you're not gonna like what you see

TURN BACK RIGHT THE MOTHERFUCK NOW

:o(

:o)

what are you MOTHERFUCKIN’ BLIND?

John, John look at me, Karkat screams internally. His oblivious moirail keeps walking away, his shoulders tiny and his thirteen-year-old frame skinny as a leaf, and he looks so, so fragile, even more frighteningly fragile than current-John with his battered arms and constant exhaustion.

He’s walking right into a trap.

Karkat can’t move.

As John passes over the mantel into the vast inner computer lab, he turns back, blinking over his shoulder, and hope jolts through Karkat with the thought that maybe one of his mental screams somehow caught John’s attention.

Blood trickles out of John’s nose, a thick red line that trails down over his mouth and drips off his chin. John stumbles and raises a hand to touch his forehead as he shakes his head, dazed, making no move to wipe at the blood.

Don’t go don’t go it’s going to kill you don’t go

When John raises his head, he closes his eyes and starts walking again, his sneakers squeaking too-loud in the echoing, hollow space beyond the hallway. Soon he’s out of sight, and Karkat still can’t move, can’t chase down his moirail and drag him back to safety. He’s absolutely certain, with a sickening knot in his stomach, that John is not coming back from this.

The words painted in an arch over the doorway slide into focus.

he’s gonna tear you apart

HONK

honk

:o(

From the room beyond, a monstrous roar rattles the entire structure, and the sound of claws scraping against metal pierces into Karkat's ears until they bleed.

And John screams, and screams, and screams -

-

Karkat wakes up.

He doesn't sleep again that week, though if he asked himself, he couldn't really remember why.

He just remembers there was so much blood.

---

The isolation tank is an exercise in futility.

Perhaps it worked once before, in Rose’s youth, to soothe her after that grimdark breakdown she can barely recall. But the grimdark event in her childhood had been no more than a fleeting moment of horror; like being pushed down by a wave on the beach, she had experienced a brief moment of breathless loss of control. Now that she is no longer a child – now that she has endured hours drowning slowly in that endless, crushing sea – there is no palliative balm to be found by lying in a lightless, soundless tank of salt water. There is no change in the darkness when she opens her eyes or when she closes them, and the earplugs she wears to keep the salt water out of her ears renders her incapable of breaking the silence even with her own voice. The skin temperature warmth of both the water and the air around her renders the desired meditative state impossible; all she can focus on is sucking in breath after breath through her nose, half-anticipating that each breath will bring the scent of bloodbrine. How can she be expected to relax and meditate the last of the grimdark from her mind when every breath, every blink, sends her flashing back to that place where her mind had trailed off into the dark spaces between the stars?

She lies within the tanks for four hours, and only then does she concede that remaining within the tank may in fact be damaging her further rather than healing her. It is a difficult to admit such weakness, even to herself, but Rose has always prided herself on her ability to objectively analyze the psyches of those around her. She is painfully aware that she has already failed to apply this clarity of vision to herself thrice before. She failed to admit that her drinking was a problem; she failed to admit that she could no longer distinguish her own thoughts from the whispersong of the Horrorterrors; and finally, she failed to admit that she hated her mother for what she had done, until all three failures came crashing to a head.

Thus, as experience has proven, when Rose represses things, people die. She cannot afford to lose sight of herself again.

Once she has established that remaining in the isolation tank will only promote the encroachment of unpleasant memories and breath-stealing panic attacks that wring her heart and leave her hard-pressed to maintain her composure, she reaches out, trembling, to feel for a wall that she is no longer certain will be there. Perhaps she was never in the tank; perhaps she is still in that icy, grimdark sea with nothing to cling to but the tangle that burrows its way into the back of her skull, licking at her eyes and wrapping around her throat and –

Her fingers hit the smooth interior of the tank, and she is shaking in earnest now as she twists her body so that both hands press against the wall, fumbling and sliding along the smooth surface until she finds the panic button and mashes it down with the palm of her hand.

She is not sure if that last flash of panic had been simply her imagination, or a true hallucination. She makes a firm mental note to monitor any further such mental slips closely.

She must not lose sight of herself again.

When the lid clicks open and folds back, letting light spill into the tank, Rose feels tears sting at her eyes. She blinks them away before they can fall, and gasps for breath as she sits up and gets her feet beneath her, her movements sluggish in the dense, Epsom salt-laden water.

There is no one to greet her or assist her as she clumsily hoists herself out of the tank, water sloshing as she levers her legs over the rim. Monitor me only if you wish to be killed by me, she had told her mother, unable to look at Rue Lalonde’s face for fear that the surging hatred would clear a new channel for the grimdark. I am not a child, mother. I do not want your eyes upon me.

A crude warning, perhaps, but a necessary one. When the white carapacian calling herself the Personal Motorist had escorted them to the rendezvous in Newark, the sight of her mother’s angular frame and tailored white lab coat had caused such pain and fury to swell in her chest that she had been forced to bury her face in John’s shoulder as she clenched her teeth against something unspeakable. John, the same adorably naïve sweetheart that he always has been, even after three years of Rose thoroughly neglecting their friendship, had just hugged her again and asked if she was alright before frantically retracting the question. He is well aware that she is not alright.

And then, of course, John had been forced to leave. His elucidation of the situation had been jumbled and full of John’s usual chattering tangents that occur whenever he confuses himself and continues to babble regardless, expecting Rose to keep up with his wild, mutable chain of thought. She has, naturally, gleaned that John is Heir of Breath, a hero based in Seattle whom she has psychoanalyzed in passing to spend the time in years past. (That much seems almost obvious, in retrospect, and Rose is not entirely sure how she failed to recognize John behind a pair of goggles and mask for all these years. Perhaps the same way John never knew the Seer for Rose when she waltzed about in broad daylight with no more than a thin mask.) However, John himself seems uncertain of what sequence of events could have caused him to arrive without reason in Houston, somehow meet up with Flashstep and the Puppeteer, and then convince the other two heroes to join him in a race to meet Rose in New York. The journey to Houston alone should have taken John hours, but he is quite clear when he says that it took him mere seconds.

She will simply have to pester him on the subject posthaste, once she has retrieved a new laptop. Her old computer no doubt still resides at the Lalonde mansion, if it managed to escape the explosion of power that had occurred when the tangle took over Rose’s body. She never had a cell phone, had not seen the need to purchase one while trapped alone in her house with no one but the Noblest Gods for company. Somewhere along the line, Rose had convinced herself that there was no point in communicating with old friends and colleagues, and slowly reinforced the isolation of the manse through her own lack of action. She could have reinstated the postal service to the mansion; she could have used any number of social media websites to reach out to John, despite not knowing his chumhandle.

Now, she can only wonder if the grimdark had already begun to seep, cold and subtle, into her skull as early as three years ago, directing her with subconscious urges to cut herself off from those like John and Kanaya who might have been able to ease her psychological distress. She will obtain a cell phone now, in addition to a new computer, even if she must submit to her mother’s disdainful scrutiny to do so. If there is even the slightest chance the Horrors of the Furthest Ring intentionally pushed Rose to isolate herself, she will do everything in her power to prevent repeating those mistakes.

She will not lose sight of herself again.

The air of the isolation room is unpleasantly cool against her bare flesh, and Rose shivers as she collects herself, sitting on the edge of the tank for a long moment to adjust to the dim light of overhead lamp. She plucks the ear plugs from her ears, and relishes the sound of her own panicky breathing. That is most likely a bad sign, and she makes another mental note of her symptoms. She must be vigilant.

There is a small shower in a corner of the room, with towels and a bundle of white garments folded up on a table to one side, the void restraints lying on top of the clothing. Stepping carefully with wet feet, Rose strides to the shower and twists the knob until steam rises off the hot water pouring out of the showerhead in thick waves. It burns her skin when she steps under the stream, hot enough to hurt, but it is neither the sticky, sharp burn of acid, nor the icy shock of dark water, and thus infinitely preferable to any other temperature. She rinses her hair with white vinegar from an ostentatious porcelain jar that rests next to the shower, perservering through the unpleasant smell and sensation in the name of removing the excess salt from her hair.

Then she is faced with the hospital gown that is all her mother has left for Rose to wear. Clearly, her mother’s design in providing these garish, shapeless white garments is to provoke a reaction from Rose. She can practically hear the taunt underlying the gentle suggestion in her mother’s voice even now – let’s try to change our perspective a little, dear, perhaps something a bit brighter will improve your mood and help with that little anger problem, hmm?

In retaliation, Rose pulls on the clothing without protest, not letting even a fraction of her distaste curl the corners of her lips. She folds the heavy white cloth over her chest and buttons it up the side of her leg and across the diagonal cut of the collar. For a patient’s gown it bears a remarkable resemblance to the angled jaunt and flare of her mother’s usual abominable dresses; just another gauntlet thrown down in the ongoing cold war between mother and daughter. The sleeves hang baggy and ill-fitting on Rose’s shoulders, and she takes deliberate, vicious delight in ripping off a strip from the gown’s hem to use as a makeshift belt around her waist.

The only problem is the very white, very fluffy slippers that sit on the floor. White or no, they are precisely the kind of luxurious slippers that Rose thinks would feel exceedingly comfortable right now. Her mother most likely knows that these slippers would appeal to Rose, and placed them here as yet another deliberate ploy. Unlike the hospital gown, which is something Rose would never wear even in her darkest hour, and was obviously meant to provoke her ire, these slippers pose the opposite kind of trap: they are intended to sooth, a peace offering of the most sickeningly refined brand of passive-aggression: here, my lovely girl, you can at least have these; you like them, don’t you? I knew you would. They look very…cozy.

Rose does not put the slippers on.

Rose stares at the cuffs for several minutes, weighing her options. Her mother is adamant that the entire laboratory complex is thoroughly shielded with her personalized Void technology – “to ward off the wandering eyes of certain undesirable malefactors, my dear” – and that shielding provides some measure of ambient protection against the grimdark. Even now, Rose can feel how the ever-present awareness of the Horrorterrors that resides in the back of her mind, much weaker ever since she threw off the tangle’s grip, is now suppressed completely, so that the only thing she can sense is her own mind.

But until she can meditate properly and shore up her shattered mental defenses, she cannot take the risk. She clamps the restraints onto each wrist. Anything that assists her in maintaining her individual sense of self and warding off the assimilation of the grimdark is desirable at this point.

Combing her fingers through her hair, she does not look in the mirror. Her mother and her lackeys have failed to provide any of Rose’s customary supplies anyway. Her face feels uncomfortably exposed as Rose goes out into the hall. Still barefoot, the intolerably appealing slippers hooked on the fingers of one hand to discard in the first waste receptacle she finds, she pads down the hallway and begins her scouting run.

She wants to know exactly what work could possibly have so damningly vital as to have driven Rue Lalonde to leave Rose without a word, without a note, for over three years.

She is intensely curious.

-

Rue Lalonde has three doctorates. Rose knows her credentials by heart, because on the occasion of her mother's birthday - oh, five years ago? How time flies - Rose had the certificates declaring the three degrees rewritten in Japanese calligraphy, framed in garish, bright orange frames and hung like family portraits over the hearth in the living room. It had been a glorious reposte in what had, at the time, felt like an endless but mentally stimulating war between Lalondes. And Rose therefore recalls quite clearly that Rue's degrees are in astroparticle physics, unorthodox physical cosmology, and quantum mechanics.

Thus far, Rose has investigated an inorganic chemical lab, a room that reeked of burning plastic in which a troll used robotic controls to engrave grooves on a magnified computer chip, and a fully operational surgical theater, empty at the moment but with an array of surgical tools lined up neatly on a rolling tray, apparently left over from the last major surgery. None of these disciplines lie within Rue Lalonde's purview.

This, then, is more than just her mother's new personal lab. This is a fully operational research facility, spanning more than a few thaumaturgic/alchemical fields and almost every branch of the sciences that Rose can imagine.

Rose has to sit for a long moment in the hallway, her legs crossed in a meditative fold as she leans her head back against the wall. When she has regained her self-control, she is able to acknowledge the fact that her mother has a life of her own, a successful one in fact, and that it is a life that has no open slot for a daughter to fill.

This epiphany simply wearies Rose. It is strenuous work to loathe and love and grieve for someone for three years, not knowing if they are alive or dead, and more arduous still to maintain that level of hatred after having the rage multiplied a thousandfold in a hivemind and weaponized by ravening eldritch abominations. No, Rose thinks she can look upon the face of her mother, now. The brief hours spent in the sensory deprivation tank did that much good, it would seem.

The clicking, rapid patter of feet on tile rouses Rose from her contemplation. She raises her eyes to see a familiar carapacian trotting down the corridor, the floppy grey hood of her neutral carapacian garb bouncing with each step.

PM: Oh! Hello Seer! You are awake!

PM: I'm glad!

"Personal Motorist," Rose says, smiling faintly. She, John, and Flashstep had all dipped in and out of slumber during the discreet egress from New York City, but Rose remembers the first few moments when the Puppeteer had bodily tossed the three of them into the back seat, informed them that 'seatbelts are for fucking pansies,' and then promptly buckled himself up in the passenger's seat and told PM to 'put the pedal to the metal.'

PM had, unfortunately, obliged. The first five minutes of the drive had been five minutes of high octane terror as the carapacian floored it, taking every turn on two wheels, barreling over any pile of debris that she couldn't avoid, soaring over an abandoned police road block by using the chassis of an overturned truck as a ramp, and executing one particularly flawless handbrake turn that had sent all three teenagers flying against the opposite side of the vehicle, screaming as the van skidded sideways for nearly fifteen feet. All the while PM had hunched over the steering wheel with her elbows out, squinting out from under the brim of her hood as she sought out the next most dangerous method of exiting the city.

John, still the most able-bodied person in the vehicle other than the smirking Puppeteer, had then taken matters into his own hands and forcibly buckled Dave and Rose in, just in time for PM to catch sight of approaching news crews and evade them with a violent bootlegger turn in order to peel off in the opposite direction.

It had been...an experience.

PM: Oh, no, Seer. I am not a Personal Motorist anymore!

PM: I am a Protégé M-Mediator! That is my usual title these days. Being a Motorist was a temporary designation.

"Ah. Of course. My apologies, Protégé Mediator," Rose says, rising to her feet. Rose herself is of average height, but the pale carapacian barely reaches her sternum, tilting her head back to look up at Rose with beady black eyes, her claws clacking together in the nonverbal portion of carapacian telepalogue.

PM: I wanted to seek your audience to apologize in person, Seer.

PM: It was I who delivered the Doctor's missive to you. And then I saw that when you opened it, a terrible thing happened! An awful thing!

PM: I was just so happy to be a Parcel Mistress again, I didn't realize you would be hurt! Please forgive me, Seer.

By the end of her apology, PM's face has fallen, and she clasps her claws together in jumbled shame. Rose shakes her head, somehow contorting her lips into an expression of forgiveness, when her instinct at the moment is to suppress all emotion until she can meditate in earnest. PM does not deserve to suffer undue guilt; Rose knows that there are only three beings responsible for her loss of control, and one of them is in fact an ageless, tentacled hivemind seeking nothing less than the entropic death and assimilation of all life in the universe. "Do not blame yourself for what happened, please. You have said yourself that you were only the messenger - you could not possibly have known what the letter contained, or that my reaction would be so...uncouth. There is no need for youto apologize."

The carapacian perks up visibly, her eyes crinkling in a genuine, whole-hearted smile.

PM: Thank you, Seer!

PM: You are quite right of course. It would have violated the sacred precepts of the M A I L for me to have read the letter before I delivered it.

PM: But I still wish that I could have spared you all that pain. If you ever require any assistance from a humble Protégé, please do not hesitate to ask! I would be happy to help!

"Thank you, PM. I appreciate that." Rose sees no need to turn down the offer. She is in the heart of her mother's domain, and she intends to accumulate every tactical advantage she can to preempt any unpleasant notions Rue Lalonde may get into her head concerning Rose's future. "At the moment, I seek a computer with external internet access. I wish to reconnect with a few dear friends who I owe...more than I can say, and the last computer I located seemed to be engaged in nurturing a fledgling artificial intelligence with only restricted access to the laboratory intranet. Would you be able to aid and abet me in this endeavor?"

The Mediator goes entirely still, as a dreamy, almost manic grin crosses her face.

PM: Oooooh! You wish to send...messages.

PM: Oh, yessss. Follow me!

From within her grey wrappings, the Protégé Mediator withdraws a battered, faded navy cap. She places it lovingly upon her head, and then points dramatically down the hallway before taking off at a quick trot. Rose follows her more sedately, unable to keep her forced smile from graduating into true amusement. It is hard not to be cheered in the face of such genuine, endearing enthusiasm. Rose is not certain what PM is training to mediate, but her Parcel Mistress roots are most evident.

-

The laboratory truly is a maze. In Rose's short wanderings she made sure to keep track of what turns she took so she could at least keep the isolation room a fixed point in her mind, but without PM guiding her she has no doubt she would have become hopelessly lost in the endless span of labs and offices. The fact that the complex is at least three stories tall, and delves who knows how far down into the earth, means that Rose could easily have ended up in another building in the complex entirely before finding herself in the computer café. PM presents the open doorway to Rose with a flourish of her claws, and Rose steps in to find herself in what appears to be a computer café. More than that, this is an outside room, with windows that actually open up on a view of the lake and forest beside the compound, and the moon rising above in the night sky. It is a refreshing change from the windowless, closed in anonymity of the articifially-lit hallways.

It is night, and yet Rose feels no need to meditate. For the first time in years, it seems, the Horrorterrors are so stymied by the Void restraints that they cannot reach out, not even to brush at her mind and lick at her sanity. It is...a welcome change.

Rose strides to the nearest desk and lifts the computer monitor, messing with the wires until she can haul it down onto the floor with a huff, setting up her new base of operations on the ground behind the desk. She sits ramrod straight with the desk pressed up against her back, a reassurance that she has something solid at her back, and boots up the computer. “Thank you, PM,” she murmurs, watching the faint glow of the computer screen avidly. Unlike the artificial intelligence's incubator, the internet connection is unfiltered, though she suspects not unmonitored, and she is able to download the Pesterchum application in minutes. “Yes, this will serve well.”

The carapacian claps her hands together in delight, sitting down opposite Rose with a thump.

PM: Wonderful!

PM: May I ask who you are trying to message?

“You may indeed ask me such a thing,” Rose says, unable to resist. “Are you going to?”

PM just blinks at her quizzically, hands faltering.

PM: ?????

Rose takes pity on the carapacian. She doesn’t know how well admittedly trifling word play translates when one of the conversants makes use of a primarily telepathic dialogue system. “I am attempting to contact an old friend of mine, and a slightly newer friend who I have similarly neglected in recent months. You met John earlier – he wore a most magnificent pair of swim goggles.”

PM: Ohhhhhh. The Heir!

The Mediator nods sagely. Then she frowns, little furrowing cracks appearing between her eyes, and taps at her chin with a claw.

PM: That makes sense.

PM: It is good to stay in touch with your friends, Seer! Communication is very important!

PM: If the Heir was here, though, why didn’t he just stay? You al– friends are much stronger together than they are apart!

Rose raises an eyebrow. “Words of wisdom, PM, but I'm afraid John has an alias to maintain in Seattle,” she says, smoothly concealing the rest of her surprise. Could it be that PM here knows more about what happened this morning than she lets on? Perhaps, if Rose cannot pry candid answers from her mother, she can probe PM’s knowledge base and see how much the carapace knows. It could, after, all have simply been an offhand comment, a pithy truism, and no more, but for that slip of the tongue. You all? “You may remain if you wish, but I will most likely be occupied with mending my rather derelict relationships for the foreseeable future. There’s no need for you stay with me if you have other business to attend to.”

Almost immediately PM springs up, claws clenched before her chest in excitement. Her eyes fill with far-off awe and respect, and she is clearly enraptured by something Rose can’t see.

PM: I should go see where my teacher is.

PM: You should meet her, Seer! She is very Wise! How do you say – she is my ‘idol’!

“That sounds lovely, Mediator,” Rose says politely, but her attention is now being drawn back to the Pesterchum app as she finishes logging in to her account. There is a single name in her chumroll, and instead of being greyed out as Rose had half-hoped it would be, it is currently lit up in jade green. Kanaya is online, then. Rose hesitates, the cursor hovering over the name.

She has not been good to Kanaya. Perhaps, with John, her neglect has been more prolonged, but Rose is hideously aware that Kanaya has been forced to witness Rose’s descent into willing alcoholism, to watch Rose slowly wear away at herself until nothing remained. The very thought of rereading the endless pesterlogs of green text begging her to see reason, fruitlessly offering personal assistance through any recovery process Rose desired, makes Rose cringe.

Truly, she is a coward.

A thin, clicking hand touches her arm. Rose jolts with surprise as PM thumps her heartily on the shoulder.

PM: Don’t worry!

PM: I am sure everything will be alright! I have faith in you!

Then, without waiting for a reply, PM scurries away.

Despite the encouragement, when the Mediator patters her way out the door, her telepathic hums of delight still echoing in Rose’s mind, Rose closes her eyes and shifts her cursor to type ectoBiologist in the ‘Find New Chum!’ search engine rather than open a window to pester Kanaya. Strange, that; she would have thought John’s tendency to use ghostyTrickster for literally every forum and video game account he’d made in their middle school years would have at least prevailed until the release of Pesterchum a few years ago. Perhaps he changed it at some point.

The fact that she is not acquainted with something as simple as the circumstances surrounding John’s new handle is simply another stone to weigh heavy on her chest.

At least with John, unlike Kanaya, Rose has the advantage that the hardest part is over. John has seen her at her rope's end, and still been willing to take her hand and lead her away from the brink. He had told her his chumhandle frantically as he boarded the jet to rush home; when she had wondered aloud if he even wanted to truly hear from her, he had just knocked his forehead against hers, saying “Roooooose!” with a laugh.

Ah, the friendship rituals of the demonstrative wild Egbert. He hasn’t changed a bit, except in all the ways that he has.

She pushes through the last of her reservations and adds ectoBiologist to her chumroll. When the chat window pops up, she goes to type immediately. No matter what John may claim, she owes him a true apology, and a long overdue chat, and she is determined to fulfill that obligation. She owes him more than an apology in fact, but John is not in the habit of taking life debts seriously. He’s too good natured.


-- tentacleTherapist [TT] began pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 20:14:05 --
TT: John, I

Rose stops. The pink letters taunt her from the screen, and she feels bile rise up in the back of her throat. Pressing a hand to her mouth, she leans over the trash bin under the computer desk and rides out the empty spasms. She still has not eaten anything today, and nothing comes up but pinkish saliva, but the dry heaves wrench at her stomach painfully until eventually she is able to calm herself.

Well. Scratch that, then. Her first order of business will have to be the creation of a new chumhandle.

She does not know what she was thinking when she chose a handle like – that, all those years ago. She remembers queasily that she has used some variation of tentacleTherapist for all of her fanfiction and forum accounts over the years. Perhaps she had chosen it as a humorous, even tongue-in-cheek reference to the grimdark creatures she meditated away every night, in itself a most metaphorical brand of tentacle therapy; perhaps she had simply wanted to give them the metaphorical middle finger.

Whatever the case, the sardonic handle no longer amuses her. It just turns her stomach.

She chooses a hasty new handle, and restarts the chat window. There is no doubt John will have noticed her slip, but she can do nothing about that now. With luck, he will understand, and let it pass without comment.

-- thoughtfulThaumaturge [TT] began pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 20:16:23 –
TT: John.
TT: Allow me to begin again.
TT: Nothing I say can truly mitigate the wrong I did to you.
TT: When my mother disappeared three years ago, she removed the house from all postal listings and municipal records. As far as the mail was concerned, my home became a nonentity.
TT: I could have remedied this situation any number of ways. I could have purchased a discreet post box. I could have relisted us in the records. I could have sought out your handle on any number of our old forums or contacted you on here.
TT: I did not.
TT: I chose to let our friendship cut off with no explanation, no farewell, no attempt to revive it.
TT: I can only apologize, and assure you that it was no fault of your own. It was no mistake of yours that spurred this cessation of communication. Not in any way. I can in fact think of no logical reason to have isolated myself the way I did.
TT: This regrettably leaves only the illogical reason. The grimdark one.
TT: I tried to style myself a Seer of Light. And yet I failed to see how, slowly, the Noblest Gods encouraged me to cease communication with anyone who could have interfered in their grip on me.
TT: Naturally, I understand if you do not wish to revive our old camaraderie after I failed so unequivocally in holding up my end of the accord.
-- ectoBiologist [EB] has joined the chat! --
EB: hey rose!
EB: whoa, no, it’s okay rose i swear, i get it.
EB: i’m just glad that you’re alive! i mean for a while back then i thought maybe you got hurt or something and that’s why you stopped answering. which would have sucked.
EB: i even made my dad try to get in touch with your mom one time, but all your guys’ numbers had been cancelled.
TT: I am not surprised, I’m afraid. If the house did not run on alternative, self-sustaining energy resources, no doubt she would have cancelled the electricity service as well. My mother has much to answer for.
EB: seeeriously! :(

At least in the realm of exposing her mother's faults, Rose is on familiar ground.

EB: she claimed it was because the midnight crew found you guys, but then she didn't explain why that bunch of thugs would be looking for you in the first place!
EB: she just said 'they want her power just like they wanted dave's' and none of it makes any sense rose! bleeeehhhh!
EB: i'm home now and trying to get answers from my dad, but he's being really weird about it
TT: I see. It would appear you possess considerably more information about the situation than I do. What ever would a widespread criminal enterprise do with a time-stopping hero and a girl with access to all the power of the Horrorterrors of the Furthest Ring?
TT: Oh wait.
EB: yeah, that's not a very reassuring thought either...
EB: did you know your mom knew dave's bro when we were little? apparently you guys knew the striders for like three years before the crew attacking them
EB: i guess he thought maybe your mom caused the attack? or that she accidentally gave their location away? idk no one will just explain what happened!
TT: I see. The plot thickens.
TT: So from what you have pieced together, essentially, my mother and the Puppeteer knew each other, during a period in both my and young Dave's lives in which we would have little to no recollection of the event.
TT: However, my mother no doubt single-handedly caused a falling out between the two, somehow involving this Midnight Crew, under suspicious enough circumstances that the Puppeteer continues to mistrust her. She has a unique talent for that sort of thing.
TT: After which we eventually ended up in Seattle in time to meet you, John, yet another child who would grow up with a hero complex and rather unique powers.
TT: Does that summary seem to cover it all?
EB: yeah actually, that makes a lot more sense when you say it like that!
EB: oh, and the puppeteer gets really stupid about the midnight crew.
EB: it's basically how this whole mess started. :P he seriously pissed me off telling me to run away instead of confronting them, even though they're blowing up buildings in my city! he's super paranoid about it.
EB: i get that they're dangerous, yeah, but he really suggested i should just give up without even trying
EB: and that's how we found out i rage-teleport
EB: which, um. yeah, i guess - i'm sorry i never mentioned the whole hero thing? what exactly am i supposed to say?
TT: Oh, no need to worry yourself, John. As you can imagine, bringing up the fact that you possess unnatural reality-altering power and intend to use it to run around the city in a mask is hardly the way to set the tone of a potential friendship. I obviously sympathize. There was no reason to trust each other with such dangerous information when we were children, but the point is moot now.
EB: whew! thanks for being cool with it. we're both heroes, anyway, and i guess i just worry this will still make you a target. but then when i think about it apparently we're all targets anyway, so the worry is getting kind of dumb and redundant.

Rose opens up the Cetus internet browser and keeps her chat window with John visible to one side of the screen as she begins to search 'Midnight Crew' in Google. A crude method of obtaining information, clogged with the detritus of pandering, insipid news stations, but Rose has connections she can contact once she has a better understanding of the subject. Assuming they haven't forgotten her in the months she's spent a drunken wastrel, she will begin to research these Crew in earnest when she is no longer using a device no doubt monitored by her mother. No need to let Rue Lalonde know all of Rose's secrets.

Though Rose fully intends to familiarize herself with some of Rue's secrets. Her mother has much to answer for.

TT: Well, I shall attempt to draw out my mother's side of the story, though she will no doubt persist in this stonewalling that seems to characterize our guardians at the moment.
TT: But it is useless to speculate without further data. As intriguing as this is, let us put it aside for now. How have you been in my absence, John? I expect to have a complete psychological workup by the end of our session, naturally. Spill.
EB: haha, oh, wow. uh.

There is radio silence on John's end, long enough that Rose's quick glance at a police scanner transcript potentially related to Crew activity in Los Angeles transitions into a full-on analysis before she realizes John has been silent for nearly two minutes. Shaking her head, she hesitates and bites her lip before continuing the conversation.

TT: Unless, of course, you do not feel comfortable engaging with me as your unofficial psychotherapist anymore.

At the bottom of the chat window, the prompt command reads 'ectoBiologist is typing…' for another long minute, and Rose can imagine John on the other end, flailing and randomly backspacing as he fumbles for the words to let her down gently. She is surprised by how heavy the resignation feels in her chest; her pseudo-analysis of John's psyche has always been in jest, to watch John squirm and frantically deny all her accusations in good fun, but it had also been also one of the ways in which they genuinely communicated. The thought that she may have lost the right to that aspect of their friendship permanently by putting such insurmountable distance between them hurts more than she expects it to.

EB: no way! i just don't really know where to start.
EB: except i guess with total honesty! yeah! because if i know all about your secret grimdark unintentionally crazy, uh.
EB: i guess you deserve to know about my total mental breakdown?
TT: ...Come again?
EB: fuck
EB: i knew telling you about this would be a bad idea!
TT: Calm down, John. 'Mental breakdown' is simply an incredibly nonspecific term with no formal definition that could correlate with any number of extreme psychological stressors or events. I simply wish you to elucidate more specifically on the subject.
EB: no, i can tell i freaked you out! you always use way more weird words when you're freaked out! agh!
TT: John, breathe.
TT: Please tell me what happened. If you have experienced significant psychological distress, I wish to understand. Not for the sake of my curiosity, but because you are, and always have been, my friend, and now I am greatly concerned about you.
TT: Your silence would only worry me further.

She is making use of unsophisticated measures again, but John responds better to honesty and forthrightness than to subtler tactics. It is simply the kind of person he is.

EB: basically it was I guess two years ago? hadn't heard from you in about a year at that point, and i thought i was getting used to it
EB: and then i just
EB: school was hard. not like the classes were hard or anything, just that i would go in everyday and have to sit there for like six hours and there was no one to talk to.
EB: and then slowly everything started to seem like a huge federal fucking issue. like i couldn't work up the energy to really care for a while, and every time i went to class it felt like the ceiling was crushing down on me, until i almost just threw up in class one time because i was just so
EB: miserable
TT: Oh, John.
EB: and the work at night kind of made up for it, but then that started feeling really hard too! :/ i just kept thinking about how it was because i had the work i had no time for friends? and so that kind of felt like being trapped, too, even though i really like being able to help people all the time and get out in the fresh air! so after a while, i started to think it was just kind of hopeless, like no matter if i was flying or with friends i would still just couldn't win.
EB: we figured out later it was kind of this depression thing in my head, but at the time it was like everything was a great big ball of dumb and blah and i got so tired of being tired.
EB: and that's when i ran away to houston!

...And that is just enough of a plot twist to break Rose out of her stunned silence. Because, come again? That...that made no sense. John must have skipped over something rather significant, because why else would he aim for such a random destination?

TT: What.
TT: John, what on earth would possess you to go to Houston?
EB: i know, right? :P
EB: idk, i just kind of took off flying. my dad totally chewed me out for it later, but i had my goggles on and everything, i wasn't that stupid.
EB: and i considered flying to new york and checking out your house, but i had kind of resigned myself to thinking you'd want nothing to do to me? i figured you had other friends by then.
EB: so when i just started veering south i didn't really think about it, and then i ran out of energy by the time i hit colorado, so i started walking a bit until i could make it the rest of the way to houston.
EB: i totally punched out this criminal without realizing dave was like right there.
TT: And obviously, you two both being enterprising young heroes, you then proceeded to bond by arguing over jurisdiction?
EB: uh, no
EB: i kind of started crying all over him.
EB: it was embarrassing, and then i had to punch out the car-jacker again because he woke up while i was being all weird and depressed
TT: I see. I will admit, I did not see that one coming.
EB: well neither did i, and dave didn't get it either because striders aren't really all that big on emotions and things. but then we just kind of talked for a bit.
EB: and i started to feel a lot better! i guess i just really needed to get that stuff off my chest with someone who knew about the hero thing, too, someone who wasn't my dad. i mean dad means well, and he tries really hard, but he's also the one who trained me to be a hero, and i was being all weird and pissy about that too. dave was just this unbiased second party and that helped a lot.
EB: and even after i felt okay enough to come home, we kept talking a lot through pesterchum!

Rose feels a pang of jealousy, jealousy she does not deserve to feel. She buries it.

TT: I am sorry, John. I'm sorry that I was not there to help you through this. That my abrupt absence no doubt helped trigger what sounds like a significant depressive episode.
TT: I shall have to speak with Dave as well. It would appear I owe him my thanks for being there for you when I could not be.
TT: I am glad you found someone, John.
EB: agh, no rose, that's not how i meant it! you're always gonna be my first choice of psychoanalyst! dave goes on a lot of tangents about rapping and apple juice and weird mixed metaphors a lot, so it's mostly just that he's a lot of fun to talk to!
EB: and it's really probably not your fault, i'm sure of it! depression apparently has a lot of brain chemistry stuff too, so if it wasn't that it might just as well have gotten kicked off by something else entirely.
EB: and now i have a hero partner here in seattle and a friend at school, too. that seems to have helped a lot. and now you're back! :D
EB: so everything is fine! between all of us, we can tooootally handle the midnight crew no matter what bro says! right, rose?

Rose can only stare at the screen. She thinks her eyes may be too wet, but she cannot take her fingers off the keys to wipe it away.

Has John always sounded so...fragile?

She knows well that he tends to skim over darker emotions, downplaying anger and sadness in favor of maintaining an unfathomably cheerful disposition with flashes of sarcasm and over-dramatic groans of annoyance that can be easily dismissed as jokes. She'd teased him about said defense mechanism more than once in their childhood. But this is - there is a note of almost desperation in the blue words on the screen. As though behind them John is one wrong word away from shattering.

And Rose cannot fight the feeling that her actions played more than a little part in driving him to this precarious state.

TT: Yes, John.
TT: Trust me. Now that I am aware that supposedly this Crew poses such a strangely targeted threat to us, I am most interested in assisting you in taking them down for good.
TT: I may not be at my best at the moment, but rest assured I am more than capable of researching these hooligans most thoroughly until I am assured of my control.
EB: horray! i knew i could count on you, rose! this is going to be awesome!

She tells him what he needs to hear. It also happens to be the truth, but she neglects to mention that she does not know when, if ever, she will have true control ever again. The worst case scenario is that she remains confined to the Void wards for the rest of her life, if she cannot reconstruct her mental shields properly.

And that possibility, no matter how horrifying, is more likely than Rose likes to think. She has never suffered such a complete incursion of grimdark before. It is possible that next time the Horrorterrors sing to her, she will give in even more quickly than before, made susceptible by her first descent into darkness.

John does not need to know such things. Not now, not when their relationship is still balanced on the knife's edge of both their sanities.

The door of the café is open, and that is how Rose hears the tell-tale clack of a too-familiar stride clicking against the tile floor of the hallway. It has been three years, but she still knows her mother by that confident stride. Time to bring her discussion with John to an end, then. She wishes she had more time to process this new revelation about her oldest friend, but there is no way her mother would ever pass up a chance to mock Rose at a time like this, and she does not want John caught in the crossfire.

TT: My mother approaches.
TT: It would appear that the opportunity to interrogate her is at hand. I trust you will be well if I leave you for the moment?
EB: yeah, totally, rose!
EB: just, uh
EB: message me later, okay? :)

Rose closes her eyes and rides out the guilt that clutches and claws at her heart. Oh yes. John has a right to be cautious about believing that she will contact him again. She deserves every modicum of distrust after what she put him through.

TT: I shall. It is a promise.
TT: Shall I swear it on my family name? Perhaps not - I am not overly partial to being a Lalonde at the moment. But maybe upon my light magic? Whatever would reassure you, John. I have no intention of falling into that state of isolation again.
EB: oh man, rose, i think you've been reading too much over-dramatic wizardfic again!
EB: don't worry, i believe you! we can maybe even start a memo with dave and see what he can get from bro! it'll be awesome! i think you two would like each other? or maybe just start arguing and then never shut up, i can't decide which.
EB: talk to you soon!
TT: Farewell.
-- ectoBiologist [EB] has left the chat! --
-- thoughfulThaumaturge [TT] ceased pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 20:42:12 --

The footsteps in the corridor have come to a halt, and Rose can hear the low murmur of her mother's voice, and the sound of another person answering. Rue is not alone then, but once she has finished that conversation, she will no doubt come to bother Rose.

Well. If her privacy is almost at an end, she has nothing left to lose. She doubleclicks Kanaya's chumhandle and the window pops up.

-- thoughtfulThaumaturge [TT] began pestering grimAuxiliatrix [GA] at 20:44:53 --
TT: Kanaya.
TT: I do not have much time.
TT: I apologize. That was a lie. I promised that I would not lose sight of myself, that I would not lie to myself anymore. That I would not allow my mistakes this past year repeat themselves. And so I find I cannot lie and tell you that I do not have much time.
TT: I have a choice. I have always had a choice, and it took an unspeakable transgression for me to realize that I had made the wrong ones.
TT: I am ashamed, Kanaya. Sometimes I do not know whether there is an end to the offences I have committed against the two people I cared for the most, let alone what I allowed to be wrought in New York.
TT: No doubt you have seen the news, and understand why I left our last conversation so abruptly. Suffice to say that every light casts a shadow, and my shadows falls longer than most, to the point that certain Horrors find it a most accommodating channel to work their ends. And because I did not guard myself, because I did not listen to yours or my own better judgment, perhaps thousands have died or been maimed. Millions are going to be homeless, at least.
TT: And so when I tell you I do not have much time, I do so because I am a coward, and I shrink from facing the consequences of what I have done.
TT: I would understand quite well if you did not wish to hear from me again.
TT: But I have seen what occurs when I fail to adequately communicate with those other than the Horrors at the edge of my mind.
TT: And if nothing else, you deserve better. You deserve whatever closure or apology or revenge you require.
TT: I wronged you by dragging you into this. Perhaps more so than I have wronged anyone else.
TT: …
TT: Goodbye, Kanaya.

Feeling sick to her stomach, ready to throw up again but repressing the urge vigorously, Rose closes her eyes and peers through the desk behind her with a different type of sight. Her eyes sting with pain, and the sight itself resolves slowly into focus, but it comes nonetheless, and she is able to see through to the auras of the people who have just entered the room.

With a mental recoil, she recognizes the inherent lack that is her mother, the unsettling void rimmed by the faint haze of alcohol, the only real impression Rose has ever been able to perceive of Rue Lalonde with her magic. It plays a significant role in rendering Rue Lalonde so gallingly inscrutable in her whims: the doctor strides about in her alcohol aura and knows that Rose will never see through to the woman within, a perpetual advantage in their ongoing strife.

Beside Rue is the crackling, ticking pulse of Flashstep, the boy John had called ‘Dave’ without a care for confidentiality or secret identities. To be fair, Dave himself had seemed equally unconcerned. And Rose knows well enough thanks to the slight curiosity imparted to her by her youthful association with John, a major hero fanboy, that neither Flashstep nor the Puppeteer seem to care that they fight crime with their faces totally exposed.

She does not, however, sense the Puppeteer. Strange – when the elder brother had announced abruptly that he intended to have ‘goddamn words’ with Rue, he had seemed equally adamant that Dave not ‘dick around’ and hang around Rue unless –

Rose stills, twitching, and directs her extra sight forward.

Bro Strider is hunkered down right in front of her, leaning over the top of her borrowed computer monitor with his arms folded on the edge, unreadable behind dark sunglasses. She hadn’t even felt him enter the room, a remarkable feat in and of itself, but now that she can see him, she doesn’t know how he managed to conceal himself. If Dave is a strangely familiar, steady pulse of life, marred by the occasional skip where the beats don’t quite match up, the Puppeteer is a bright, intensely warm flare, fluttering along at nearly twice the tempo.

Rose suspects this blaze is just as much an obscuration as her mother’s unsettling vacuum. She can see -nothing past the flare, can discern no details of Bro’s emotional state, his power levels, or his future intent. Even in the glow of his soul, the Puppeteer remains enigmatic and emotionless, the epitome of the impassive coolkid.

Too quick to see or stop, a gloved finger stabs out and flicks Rose in the center of her forehead, just short of bruising strength. Startled, Rose’s second sight destabilizes, and she comes back to herself. “Got a wandering eye there, little Lalonde,” the man grunts.

He has called her that before. Immediately after her breakdown, Rose had been too shaken and exhausted to register it. Now, with her wits mostly restored, she stiffens, biting back a furious snarl. Her emotions remain too volatile for her to trust them.

When the rage clears away, Rose can see that the Puppeteer is watching her intently. His body language is subtle enough to be nigh unreadable, but she can see the slight tension in his hands, the way they angle toward the sword he hides beneath his shirt, along his spine. Oh yes, he caught her moment of blind fury, and he is prepared to counter it.

Rose is not offended. She is…reassured. Even as the rage fades, it gives way to something almost like gratitude. “Thank you,” she tells him simply, honestly.

The man’s eyes widen fractionally behind their concealing frames and he tilts his head to the side. “Nothin’ to thank me for, kid,” he mutters, and then he’s gone. When Rose logs off the computer and rises to her feet, dusting off her skirt and resting more of her weight than usual on the support of the desk, she sees the Puppeteer has wandered to one of the wide glass windows that line the computer café, staring out at the thick forest beyond.

Point to Rose, then. But her smile dies before it can really begin when her mother hitches a hip on the edge of another computer desk, studying Rose with her usual contemptuous, critical stare, the corner of her mouth quirked in a perpetual smirk. Mother always knows best, after all. “Rosie,” she begins, folding her arms elegantly around her ribs, tapping long, manicured nails unsuited to a scientist who does real work against her coat. “I’m surprised, darling. I thought you’d need more of a rest after all that excitement earlier. Are you sure you’re feeling quite recovered?”

Rose wonders, with the vague weariness of having dealt with this simpering tone for a lifetime, whether Rue Lalonde was born with a unique talent for being this condescending, or if it was an art she had personally learned from the trolls’ great Condesce in some twisted, patronizing apprenticeship. “Quite recovered, Mother dearest,” she replies sweetly, the effect ruined by low, hoarse scratching of a throat shredded by the screechsongs of the Furthest Circle. She perseveres. The key to holding one’s own against Rue Lalonde in verbal strife is to never show weakness. This is, Rose finds, the key to holding one’s own in most any situation in life, really. “You couldn’t tell? It’s like you hardly even know me.” Rose slides smoothly into her next play before her mother can reply, turning to smile graciously at Dave. “Flashstep. A pleasure to meet you again, with both of us in a better frame of mind.”

“Fuck, why do we even pretend our names are a secret anymore. Why is that even a thing. Seriously, is there anyone in this room who doesn’t know my name by now?” Dave says, monotone, with any real irritation he might feel hidden behind too-large shades. “Like fuck man, I need to start handing out business cards or something. Business cards with some kickass calligraphy for my name and alias. Can’t let anyone forget a name like mine, they’d waste away not knowing. Christ.”

Rose must be a little off her game. She can’t tell if she legitimately triggered some dormant irritation in Dave, or if he merely prefers to veer off into elaborate metaphorical tangents on a regular basis. She’d need further opportunities to observe him if she wants to gather the data needed to properly analyze him. “Dave, then. John and I were just discussing you. It would seem that I owe you a considerable debt.” It seemed to be a day for establishing these things, after all.

Dave freezes up. It is a fascinating process to witness because he is clearly fighting it every step of the way: his muscles twitch as he forces them relax back into a slouch, but he can’t stop the tension from stringing along his shoulders as he hunches them forward, defensive. His hand goes to the shape of a cell phone barely visible in his suit jacket pocket, though he stays himself before he removes it and stuffs his hand into his pants pocket instead. He is not nearly so practiced at emotional suppression as his elder brother, then. As much as he’d like to hide his reactions, he remains vulnerable.

“What. No, what. John what the hell. Talkin’ about me with random snarky broads,” Dave mutters, mostly to himself but loud enough for anyone to hear. “I don’t remember any of this. I was busy being unconscious this morning, passed out like a hella lightweight, dead from the goddamn neck up. The fuck have I ever done for you, Lalonde?”

“Do not call me that,” Rose cannot stop herself from growling, the sound ripping through her vocal cords raw and ragged and too close to horror for comfort. By the window, a puppet with gleaming blue eyes peers over at her from the Puppeteer’s shoulder, though the man himself doesn’t move an inch. The puppet itself is reassurance enough. Rose never thought she’d be so painfully grateful to have someone who could kill her in seconds, if the need arose, in the same room as her. She clings to that reassuring thought as she rides out the fury. Rose closes her eyes, breathes meditatively, and lets the tension flow out of her body. “I find that I would prefer Rose at the moment,” she says to the open air, careful not to look anywhere in her mother’s direction. She can stand to be in the woman’s presence, it seems, but clearly Rose’s assumption that she had grown too fatigued for anger has proven false. She must tread carefully.

Dave has his hands raised in some gesture meant to convey ‘calm the fuck down,’ no doubt. “Hell yeah. Rose it is. Ain’t no thing.” His voice is even, but Rose can see the wariness in him.

Sensible of him. Rose is, after all, one of the terrible things.

“John and I have been catching up,” she continues, trying to brazen her way past her vulgar outburst. “He has informed me some of what went on approximately two years ago, and the circumstances that led you two to become acquainted. With John being John, I am certain he glossed over a troubling amount of detail to save me from the full onus of my neglect. He is foolishly kind that way. But he was quite clear when he said that you assisted him in dealing with certain consequences of my desertion. And for that I owe you more than you know.”

Dave relaxes minutely, and there is a moment, Rose thinks, of accord between them. The bond of having torn and mended John Egbert, respectively. Then he tenses up again, and she can just barely glimpse the slight hostility that grips him. “Yeah, whatever,” is all he says. “Guy needed a bro to educate him in the ways of cool; who am I to deny a supplicant when the dude comes to me on his hands and knees, all penitent and shit, requesting the humble privilege of studying under my tutelage. My tutelage is in high fucking demand, I’m telling you, but EB had true need. I still can’t break him of the goddamn unironic hero shirts. I think it’ll be my life’s work or some shit. Could write a fucking autobiography about my struggles with that kid’s hero fetish.” By the end acid almost drips from his tongue, and his hostility is clear on his face.

Ah. Rose is beginning to understand. Perhaps Dave would like to think he can obfuscate as well as his enigmatic brother, but the truth is quite the opposite. He can maintain that flimsy pokerface all he likes, but the key to Bro Strider’s stoicism is his relative silence, the choice manner in which he eliminates all non-necessary communication except through the medium of raised eyebrows, monosyllables, and truncated sentences. Because of this silence, he need never concern himself with Freudian slips or similar tells.

Dave might believe that his reflexive, rambling tangents produce the same effect, but he is quite wrong; Rose can read more and more of his emotions as time passes, plucking out his insecurities as he babbles frantically in an attempt to obscure them. It is a classic example of reaction formation: the coolkid persona is how Dave chooses to channel anxiety or any other strong emotion that he doesn’t want to acknowledge into an acceptable impulse. Being raised by a relatively emotionless elder sibling, Rose can’t imagine that Dave feels comfortable expressing any strong emotion at all. It can't be a healthy state of mind.

They are, all of them, such broken creatures, aren’t they, Rose thinks grimly.

In this case, with the help of the prior knowledge she gained from her conversation with John, she can see clearly through the chinks in Dave’s armor, the unspoken challenge behind his words: John needed help, and somehow he came to me, and I was all he had. He was desperate and he felt so much and I couldn't just tell him to change who he was and bury it; I had to acknowledge all those emotions people have and it sucked but then he was my friend and I couldn't leave him.

You weren't here, but I was. And I will continue to be.

There are inklings here of a fiercely protective friend. At least now Rose can be sure John has been in good hands, if not the most emotionally adept ones.

"John has been quite enraptured with heroes since we were both children," she acknowledges, raising an eyebrow and trying for a snarky smirk. She may or may not succeed. "In hindsight, I am unsure why I ever thought he'd end up pursuing any course in life other than hero work, powers or no. I'm afraid that it may indeed be the work of several lifetimes to ever bring irony and heroism together in his mind. I wish you the best of luck, of course."

Dave's eyebrow flies up in response, and she can see that he remains, if not hostile, at least still tense. She has most likely confused him by meeting his hostility with acceptance, but she has confidence that after giving it some thought, he'll figure it out.

I know John, have known John. I know how his mind works, and I can see that your friendship is valuable to him. He has chosen to befriend us both, and if you are willing to be quite civil, there is no reason we can work in tandem to keep him safe and sane and whole.

No need to elaborate further. She has said what she needed to say. By the end she feels stable again, as though the mere act of utilizing her analytical mind on the fly to read Dave has helped settle the rage that continues to plague her mind. Even when she turns to her mother and looks upon the impenetrably smooth, fine features of her face, she is able to control the anger. It might be safer for all involved if Rose took the time to properly meditate first, but Rue speaks before she can excuse herself. "Would you mind if I had a word with my daughter alone, Ambrose, Dave? I understand you intend to leave soon, but I would like to see you off at the runway when the jet returns. For old time's sake."

Typical. Of course Rue would want to keep Rose off-balance during this confrontation, even by such low-handed tactics as playing the game while Rose must work twice as hard to keep her emotions in check. How disgustingly petty of the woman.

"Ain't my fucking business, Lalonde," the Puppeteer mutters from where he is now leaning with his back against the window. "If you ain't there when we leave, 'm not waiting on you."

"I wouldn't expect anything else," Rue replies sweetly, with a note of that passive-aggressive hostility she usually reserves for Rose. Hm. Intriguing. John had said the two had a rather checkered past - now Rose is left wondering just what their relationship had been. "Rose, do come along, darling. We are quite overdue for a nice, long, heart-to-heart chat, I think."

Oh, Mother mine. If you believe you'll be the one controlling this conversation, you had better think again.

"Oh yes, Mother. Let us talk," Rose says, with a faint smile. "A pleasure, Dave," she adds as she walks by him follows Rue Lalonde out into the hall.

-

"That was rather rude of you, Rosie," Rue Lalonde admonishes the moment they leave the computer cafe. They are no doubt still within the Puppeteer's hearing at the least, and Rue knows that, which means that she is deliberately speaking so that Rose is embarrassed by it. As though that is a tactic that works against Rose anymore, after all these years of inuring herself to its stings. "Snapping at the poor boy - it was unkind of you. Particularly for such a silly reason. I thought I raised a young lady."

"Well, three years is no doubt a long enough span enough to put paid to even the best laid plans, I suppose," Rose murmurs.

Rue just sighs, her heels clicking almost like PM's patter on the floor as she leads the way past yet another research lab. "It was necessary for your continued security, my dear. I apologize for being unable to explain beforehand, or contacting you until so recently, but I'm afraid our enemies have certain resources that even I cannot counteract consistently."

"Our enemies!" Rose snorts. Rue blinks and looks almost startled in the corner of Rose's eye. Excellent. John's forewarning of their guardians' strange obsession with the gang has already given Rose an advantage her mother didn't anticipate. "These Midnight Crew? I have read of their misdeeds. They are nothing more than a rabble of brutish thugs, a criminal syndicate of some skill but nothing so organized and targeted as an 'enemy.' Perhaps you have begun to grow paranoid in your old age, Mother."

"Ambrose Strider was only twenty one when they attempted to kill him," Rue says. Rose can see the way her fingers twitch as though closing around the stem of a martini glass, and is actually surprised that her mother hasn't already plucked a fresh appletini from some convenient counter throughout this conversation. In the old days, Rue Lalonde was quite literally never more than three feet from a source of liquor. "Dave was three, and from what we know now, he was the primary target. Three years old, Rose. What reason would a mere criminal gang have to target a child?"

"You are speculating," Rose insists. Not that she truly doubts her mother; it's clear enough that something is highly unusual about the Midnight Crew's shenanigans. But the more stubborn Rose plays at, the more secrets Rue will spill in an attempt to win Rose's belief. It is one of Rue's few weak points - she plays this game to win, and for a scientist, there is no greater victory than proving oneself right.Even at the expense of any pompous conspiracy she'd like to maintain. "I highly doubt that they would just walk up and announce that they wanted to kill a toddler before trying to complete the attempt -"

"They didn't try to kill Dave. They tried to take him." Rue clenches a fist, though she attempts to conceal it in the folds of her lab coat. "They attacked Ambrose only because he wouldn't stand aside."

Confirmation, then. The Crew wanted Dave, most likely for his rather unique time abilities. This fully correlates with what little John has learned. Now, Rose just has to root out why. Why on earth would a seemingly ordinary gang specializing in robbery and other mundane heists suddenly turn its attention, at least all those years ago, towards such a divergent goal? Could it really be so simple an aim as to obtain those time powers for criminal enterprises? Or is there something more, something all three guardians want to keep very well hidden?

Rose intends to find out.

They are now in a totally unfamiliar section of the laboratory complex, nowhere near either the isolation room or the computer café, and Rose activates some of her sight to better orient herself. She is very aware that in this complex, she is at the mercy of her mother's whims. The rooms around gleam with motes of light, other types of magic that Rose is familiar with from her studies. As far as she knows, her exclusive manipulation of light is unique among thaumaturgic styles, but the most basic shields and fortune-telling spells are quite simple for anyone with the mental fortitude and the correct teaching manual to utilize. It's just not common knowledge.

Rue doesn't speak again until they pass through a crowded, busy engineering lab, with a team of humans and trolls clustered around something behind a Plexiglas shield. Rose cannot see through to the object of their scrutiny, but she can feel the tingle of spells in progress, shields against possible radiation leaks and to promote quantum instability within a fixed point.

This - quantum-level experimentation - is far more along Rue Lalonde's line of expertise. They must finally have passed through to her personal labs, the heart of this isolated forest sanctum.

"I know you, darling," Rue says at last as she slides open the door to a cluttered office. The décor is the same functional, chic design as the majority of the labs' furniture, but the plush swivel chair behind the four large computer monitors is a fantastically vibrant shade of fuchsia. "For that matter, I know me. We could dance this way until the world burns around us. If there is something you mean to ask me, Rose, just ask, for once in your life. It has been three years since I've seen you and I would rather not play these games."

Rue is trying her best to sound sincere, but Rose naturally knows better than to trust her. Just enough condescension remains in the doctor's voice to verify that this is just a new brand of the same underhanded tactics as ever. Rose matches Rue, tone for tone. "Oh, of course, Mother," she drawls, folding herself into the chair on the other side of the desk, hands clasped in her lap. "Since you're so interested in clearing the air between us, then why don't we talk about John and Dave? Let's chat about how throughout the course of my childhood, you've managed to connect us to two other families with heroes, both of whom have had to or currently are dealing with said Crew? I'm so. So. Curious." She pretends to inspect her nails, but by the end her voice has gone totally flat.

"I knew them," Rue replies airily, picking absently at the strange model on her desk, her eyes hooded as she taps on one of the rings and sets the whole device spinning. Some of the hinged segments begin to weave in and out, and Rose sees at last that the model is of a series of spirographs, each layered within the other in ever smaller circles until the center, a tiny orb of metal around which the rest revolve and flip and dance.

Rose would have thought nothing of it – would not have even known the symbol’s name – if not for the fact that the Horrorterror had been so obsessed with the design, and yet loathed it as well, the boundless hate only a hivemind can achieve. Even as Rose sweeps the room with her eyes, she catches a stylized spirograph emblazoned in the top right corner of a file folder stacked on Rue’s cluttered desk. Perhaps Rose had simply missed it when they arrived – she had still been drifting in and out of consciousness when they arrived at the laboratories, after all – but she can see now that the ‘o’s in ‘Lalonde Laboratories’ are both tiny, simple spirographs on the header of her mother’s stationary.

"Ambrose was an acquaintance even before he began to raise Dave, and Samuel Egbert's mother - John's grandmother - was one of my professors in college before she retired." Rue meets Rose's eyes, her eyelids still half lowered. She's concealing a lot, enough that both Rose and Rue are aware of how much is not being said behind such innocuous words. "Neither I nor Ambrose saw the attack on Dave coming. While Ambrose fled to Houston, I sought out my old mentor, only to learn she had passed away, survived by her son and grandson. Seattle seemed distant enough from Atlanta, and once there it wasn't difficult to deduce from Samuel's behavior that John possessed unusual powers. We guardians like to think that we're subtle, but there are tells that another such guardian knows to look for."

Rose does not give away her interest in the symbol. Bad enough that she must now so crudely extract answers from her mother, with no elegance or subtlety; no need to extend the torment beyond what is strictly necessary. If the spirograph is so significant a shape, Rose will surely be able to research it at her own discretion and find the answers she seeks. Certain other matters, however, may be resolved only through a brute-force interrogation. There are too many blanks in the picture, too many spaces where the narrative does not run smooth upon a second review, and Rue Lalonde may hold all the missing pieces.

"Astounding. And you do not find it an amazing coincidence that you had these connections to them at all?" Rose says mockingly. She multitasks by attempting to read the names of the file folders upside down. She can pick out 'paradigm,' naturally, and the names of other scientists listed beneath Rue's own. But there is one word, one she just isn't familiar with, no matter how she squints at it.

What on earth could 'Skaian' mean?

"Not at all," Rue replies, running a hand through her hair and idly adjusting the arrangement of her curls. "Ambrose and I were close enough when we began to raise you and Dave that it was inevitable that eventually one of us would catch the other's charge in the middle of power-related antics. And it is not as though I went deliberately seeking out other parents with empowered children. Two does not a pattern make, Rose! I have sought the answers to these questions and others like them for years, and found no real explanation beyond coincidence and chance. You may like to think me some chess master, manipulating you in some inexplicable cold war of wits, but I assure you Rose, I am no such thing. You ascribe too much foresight to me than I truly have, and it is blinding you."

Rose just smiles. Her sight is working in full force by now, and though her mother may be a void, Rose can see how the edges of Rue Lalonde's shields are wavering, thrown into turmoil by Rose's pointed jabs. Oh no, Rose is not blind. She can see, better than Rue will ever know.

"I think I ascribe just enough," Rose says. Her mother is growing truly impatient now, a flush of color rising in her perfect cheeks. Just a little more, and Rose will be able to strike at her real target, the one that plagues her more than any other query thus far, though it remains linked to her earlier questions. "Are you sure you're feeling well, Mother? You seem quite flushed. Perhaps I hit too close to home for your comfort?"

"And you, Rose?" Her mother's voice is outright harsh now, as she draws forth a flask from within her lab coat. Well, that much is new - but Rose supposes a flask is far more easy to conceal around a laboratory full of one's subordinates than a martini glass. "How are you feeling? That is, after all, why I wished to speak with you in the first place - out of concern for your wellbeing. You think I am oblivious after a few years' absence, but I know the isolation tank did nothing for you. Four hours? No, that's not nearly enough for proper meditation, which begs the question of why you left that tank?" Rue sips, a single gulp that remains neat and tidy despite the slight tremble of fury in her fingers. She swallows roughly and continues. "You've grown over-proud, daughter. Do you think you're still in control of them, Rose? How much longer do you think you can keep the voice of the gods out of your head?"

The words sting. But they are precisely the questions Rose wanted to provoke, no matter how painful. She grins ferally, because she has won this round. “Oh no – you’re asking the wrong questions, Mother dearest!” Rose closes her fist around the arm of the chair and feels it crunch beneath her grip. “The question is not how long I can keep the Horrorterrors suppressed. The questions is, why can I do it at all.”

Rue Lalonde sits back, looking first startled, and then despicably pleased. It becomes clear she has misunderstood Rose’s vehemence when she proceeds to say, “Well, Rose, I have always hypothesized that your power of light-based thaumaturgy provides you with the clarity of mind needed to maintain your sense of self, even in the face of minds far more vast and multifaceted than your own, and utilizing that ability in conjunction with my Void -”

“You mistake the question yet again, Mother,” Rose says coldly, and the doctor’s mouth clamps shut, her red lips twisting. “I did not have the strength to remain distinct anymore. I was able to alter the pattern the tangle meant to complete, but then I resigned myself to assimilation. By the time we reached New York, they had sapped enough of my strength and claimed enough of my mind that I had no ground to stand on. I was dying.” She pauses, then shakes her head. “And then John arrived, and I was suddenly able to hear, to speak. I knew he was there not because the tangle recognized him, not because I recognized him through brief glimpses of a masked face, but because the light told me. The light that should not have been there.”

"You underestimated yourself, my love," Rue replies, shrugging smoothly as she reclines further in her chair. Rose can see the sharp glint of intelligence in her eyes, but also that of uncertainty. "You had that strength all along; you just needed to realize you could still access it. I knew that when you saw John, he would be able to reach you, to inspire you to fight back. You two were such good friends, despite how coldly you cut him out of your life -"

Rose forces it out. “Wrong. The moment John – and Dave too, perhaps – confronted the Horrorterror, I began to regain myself." She keeps her voice steady and collected. She cannot panic. Not now. "They did not inspire me, in some pithy burst of renewed hope, to try to reclaim myself. They simply arrived, and I could access my senses once more. After mere minutes, I was able to sneak in my own command prompts and speak to John directly.” Rose shakes her head. “It should have been impossible. It is impossible. But his and Dave’s presence increased my own personal powers, in a way not even the grimdark could prevent. It was a measurable, distinct increase, an amplification of my magic that had already been consumed by the sea.”

She pauses again, gasping for breath. She is speaking too rapidly, and Rue’s face has gone frightfully blank, but she can’t stop now, not when so much else does not add up. “And then I learned that all three of you – you, Ambrose Strider, Mr. Egbert – all three of you have known each other. Three random families scattered across America, and somehow you, Mother, managed to bring us all into contact. At the very least, the strength of my powers is directly linked to John's. I cut him out of my life, and within a year he was teetering on the brink of depression. Who does he end up running away to? By sheer coincidence, Dave Strider."

And Dave, an emotionally repressed, untrained teenager obsessed with being cool, had been able to soothe John out of a full depressive episode in the space of a day. Real therapy took weeks, if not months, to take effect, and required more than just scattered pesterings at a distance to maintain. John's recovery is unrealistic, impossible.

Unless, as PM had almost said, you all are much stronger together than you are apart.

When Rose broke John, Dave picked up the pieces with uncanny ability. When Rose broke herself, John and Dave together had been able to empower her with little more than their presence. John had spent more of that battle in New York fleeing with Dave's unconscious body than he had talking to Rose, and she had still steadily gained in strength, as though power had been flooding into her from an outside source, bypassing the Horrorterror entirely.

None of this is normal, and all of it is somehow connected to Rue's antics in their childhood.

"Rose, stop." Rue crushes the flask in her hand, lurching up out of the chair and leaning heavily on her desk, her eyes haunted. "Rose, you -"

"If you think I cannot see there is a pattern here, you vastly underestimate me. And so I will ask you one time, and one time only. What are you not telling me, Mother?”

"Rose. Rose, breathe," Rue commands, reaching out to touch Rose's face with a seeking hand.

All Rose wants to do is tear that offending limb off and paint the walls with the blood that pours forth -

And -

I've gone too far.

The full weight of her rage smashes into Rose then, and she gasps with it, wrapping her arms around her waist as her stomach knots itself in unspeakable fury. It feels as though she's being torn in two.

She must leave, before she does something she will truly regret. Standing up so quickly the chair topples over backwards, Rose uses a wild wave of magic to slam the glass door of Rue's office aside, shattering the glass. The cluster of scientists beyond yelp and scatter as Rose half-runs, half-staggers out of the office, ignoring her mother's shouted, desperate orders. She is off-balance and lurching as she races through the labs and out into the main hallway, veering too close to walls and corners as she darts her way to an empty lab and closes the door behind her.

Her information gambit has failed entirely. She may have won a round or two against Rue Lalonde, but in the end it is clear the gambit falls to Rue by default. Rose cannot control herself enough to finish the game.

She stumbles into a corner, getting a wall to her back to lean on, and folds her legs, sucking in uneven breaths through her nose. Sweat plasters the hospital gown to her back, and she rests her head in her hands for a few long moments before she can sit upright. Everything feels tight and closed in, and she cannot distance herself from what she perceives - the cold of the tile floor, the whir of the fume hood running two labs down the hall, the rustling movement of the trees outside that she shouldn't be able to see from in here. The last of her filters and shields have cracked, and everything is a nonstop stream of light and information and incomprehensible gibberish. She cannot put this off anymore, not when all she wants to do is teleport back to that despicably cluttered office with its insipid pink chair and tear that woman apart, that woman who reminds Rose of herself in all the worst ways.

Aren't they, in a way, exactly the same? Isn't that why she and her mother clash so spectacularly - both of them striving and clawing and sniping at the other because they are the exact same?

Maybe that is why Rose hates so much. When it comes down to it, to the barest, basest, ugliest facts, Rose is no better. Because when John needed her most, she severed him from her life, lost in her waking nightmares and her delusions of heroism and her haze of prideful, spiteful independence.

She did the same thing to him that Rue had done to her, and she had not even spared a thought to the hypocrisy of it all.

Like mother, like daughter.

If this is some innate quality of Lalondes, some genetic proclivity for discarding old loved ones like so much cast-off trash, then she wants no part of it. If this is how a Lalonde loves, in fitful, stumbling, careless bursts that trail off into nothing, into a void, then Rose does not want to be a Lalonde anymore.

Swallowing another sob, Rose shuts herself off from the waking world, and plunges into the internal visions of her mind. With shaking hands, she forces herself to take up the trailing, unraveling edges of her shields, and begin to slowly, carefully knit them back together. The needles in her hands look like wands, and as she slowly sinks her mind into the shields and strings them around her mind, across the Void-blocked channel to the grimdark, she falls into the familiar pattern of meditation. Not even the anger can reach her here.

And yet, she has never felt so lost before in her life.

One thing is quite clear. No matter how the Void of Lalonde Laboratories may ease the presence of the many-angled ones, Rose cannot stay here any longer. She cannot rest here, not as she needs to. And New York is no longer an option.

She will consider her options further when she is no longer on the brink of falling apart all over again. For now, she knits and knits in the corner of the lab, piecing her mind back together from the inside out.

---

By the time they get home, the collar is completely fried. The exposed wires burn along the side of Dave's neck, right on top of the ever-present throb of the giant fucking hole the Horrorterror ripped through his neck and shoulder, and he endures it with a stoic face for as long as he can. Longer than a smart person would have, maybe, but no one has ever claimed common sense was Dave's specialty.

"Kid."

"I know."

"...Kid."

"I fucking know. Fuck."

He wants, more than anything, to still be with John. Heck, even that Rose chick would be great to hang out with right now. He just wants someone to fucking talk to, while he still can, but instead he's stuck with Bro in this shitty private jet. And of course this is Bro; the man thinks talking is so lame, speech deserves to be devoured by a fucking mountain lion in the name of natural selection. No way is he desperate enough to call the stewardess over and yap at her, though; he has standards still, okay.

Just. Fuck. It feels like his throat is going to catch on fire, and he hums to himself, staring out through the window and trying to think of a song, any goddamn song, that isn't by Katy Perry so he can sing or mix out loud or something without Bro giving him shit.

"You're gonna fucking hurt yourself, you dumb shit," Bro informs him. He's perched himself on top of the back of the seat across the row, and stares down implacably like a giant bird of prey. Lil Cal, perversely, is safely buckled into the seat, one floppy gloved hand wrapped around a glass of ginger ale. The level of ginger ale has been steadily decreasing ever since the stewardess delivered it, and that wouldn't unnerve Dave so much except that he can usually sense when Bro is manipulating his puppets, and Bro hasn't moved a fucking inch. Yet every time Dave blinks, watching this spectacle from the corner of his eyes, the glass empties more.

Yeah, he's basically shitting himself with terror over here. He has put up with that fuckass clown puppet for too long, and it's finally driven him insane. "Dude, I want that thing banished from our household, like, yesterday," Dave mumbles, sparks fizzling against the side of his neck. "Our ancestors frown upon it, and I'm pretty sure it's single-handedly responsible for the fact that all of our rice crops failed this year. Get rid of it or I fucking disown you and you can go join the army disguised as a man to support your sick homicidal possessed puppet fetish, alright? Are we clear?"

"Kid, you're not even makin' sense anymore." Bro adjusts his shades, but doesn't immediately move to ritually disembowel Lil Cal, which means he's being a rebellious daughter and needs to be taught a lesson in Han dynasty respect. "You're trying to make Mulan ironic. Mulan is not ironic. Mulan is a piece of cinematic genius. Take off the collar, you're just being a stubborn little prick now."

"Oh my god. Fuck you. Wait, what else was I going to say? Right. Fuck. You." Dave digs into his empty glass of apple juice for one of the previously pointless ice cubes. He presses the ice to the side of his neck and nearly punches through the wall of the airplane to express his extremely manly, extremely stoic relief. Hell yes.

The next second, the ice has been ripped out of his hand. When he looks up, mouth open in a too-dramatic grimace, he sees Bro has confiscated the entire glass of ice as well and is now popping ice cubes into his mouth. Whole. "What the fuck."

"Stop swearing, you foul-mouthed barbarian. Do I need to rinse your mouth out with soap or some shit?" Bro places an ice cube by Lil Cal's hand. Dave refuses to look and see what happens to it. Enough of the puppet. He is so fucking over the puppet. "You heard littl- Rose. Talks like a properly educated young lady. Where the fuck did I go wrong with your punk ass?"

Dave stares.

Bro stares back, completely impassive, as he loudly crunches down on an ice cube.

Dave can't even tell if this is irony anymore, or just some sick, sick game for Bro's perverted pleasures and they're all secretly on Smuppets Live, in which case, no. "Give me back my ice." When Bro raises an eyebrow and wiggles it, Dave grits his teeth and forces out, "Please. Oh my fuck never make me say that again."

"Don't get your goddamn feathers ruffled. You're not getting this back. It's mine now, little man," Bro says, still sticking his fingers into the glass of ice and come on, man, who even knows where those hands have been?!

(The answer is, they've been up puppet butts. The answer is promptly deemed too horrifying to contemplate further and is erased from the memory of paradox space.)

"Stop being a massive douchecanoe."

"No. You were letting ice water melt all over a bunch of exposed wiring, just how dumb of a fuck are you?"

Yeah, Dave honestly hadn't considered that. Well, shit. He can't back down now. "Just give it back."

"No."

"I will pry that glass out of your cold, dead anime gloves," Dave says, tensing. Are they seriously doing this here, thirty thousand feet in the air when they're basically thirty minutes from Houston?

Bro swallows an ice cube whole, apparently with the intent of eating the entire freaking glass and in doing so win the coveted title of 'World's Biggest Fucknugget.' "You could try, little man," he drawls.

Dave stops time and flings himself out of the seat. It's go-time.

Bro knows the attack is coming of course, and somehow prepares himself for the assault even before Dave twists time to a halt. This always fucking happens. When Dave is forced to let time go, his fist inches from Bro's face, there is a blur of movement and then Bro wraps an arm around Dave's wrist, tucking Dave's punch under his arm and bringing the attack to a dead halt.

Coolly pissed, Dave uses the rest of his momentum to slam a knee up into Bro's side during the next stopped moment of time. He thinks it connects, until time starts up again and he sees that Lil Cal has taken the blow and wrapped its spindly puppet limbs around Dave's leg.

He screams hoarsely, with a piercing note vaguely reminiscent of a little girl. He refuses to be ashamed of this, particularly not when he can blame the shitty sound quality on the collar currently burning a ring through his throat. He wastes his next free moment peeling the puppet off his knee. Lil Cal's blue eyes arrest him, and Dave can only stand there, motionless, one arm still pinned by Bro, and meet that horrific gaze before punting the puppet back at Bro's face.

Bro tosses Dave to the side. Dave skids, the flimsy carpet ripping up in a huge square under his feet. This time he aims straight for the glass of ice, which Bro still holds in one hand. Victory doesn't have to include punching Bro out for the first time in Dave's life; he'll take any kind of win at this point, before the pain of the collar fizzling against his neck takes him out of the fight. The burning isn't anywhere near as bad as the kind of havoc travelling back in time plays with his throat, but it's going to start doing some real damage, soon.

In one smooth motion, Bro tosses the glass of ice up in the air and tries to palmheel Dave in the nose. Dave stops time, grabs the ice cup, and lunges backward.

His back slams right into Bro, who has finally abandoned his perch on the back of the seat and waits in the middle of the aisle for Dave to bring the glass back to him.

The most humiliating part? Bro hasn't taken out his sword. He's not even taking this seriously. Nope, Dave's in such shitty condition, even Bro is taking it easy on him. Fucking fuck.

"Okay, you dipshits, we will begin our final descent at Hobby Airport in ten minutes, so siddown and stop tearing holes in my ship!" the pilot bellows over the intercom.

With a smirk, Bro shoves his foot down into the back of Dave's knees and reaches out with a long arm to yoink the collar off Dave's neck before he can react to defend himself. Dave catches himself and whirls to face Bro; Bro just twirls the crumpled piece of metal around his finger, raises an eyebrow, and kicks Dave in the chest so hard he goes flying ten feet through the air. Dave rolls awkwardly because the plane is tilting at an unholy angle by now and comes up in a fighting stance, sword drawn at last as he uses it to stab into the floor and halt his tumble. He's just in time to watch Bro down the last remaining chunks of ice in one ungodly chug. It looks like he swallows the ice whole.

Oh my god. Why. Dave could have gone his whole life without that mental image to haunt him.

For a moment, Dave considers going back in time to steal the collar back. Bro, as though reading Dave's mind, proceeds to shred the wiring out of its metal casing with expert fingers. Dave breathes out hard, not quite able to process the act of desecration going on right in front of him. Bro then dumps the remains of the collar in the empty glass of ginger ale that sits before Lil Cal; the puppet is propped up in its seat as if it had never moved from the spot. This basically guarantees Dave is too freaked out to try to retrieve the parts. Not that he could have recreated the inner workings now that Bro's torn it apart, anyway - Bro's the freaky mechanical expert, not Dave.

"You're a fucking asshole," Dave goes to say, rubbing his throat and feeling the hum of his vocal cords beneath his skin. As always, there's that faint, stupid hope that this time it'll be different, this time, it'll work -

Nothing comes out of his mouth.

Seriously? Fuck everything about this.

-

Dave doesn’t sign a single word all through the trip home from the airport. He can’t bring himself to admit defeat, not even to sign one of the choice sick burns directed at Bro that he’s steadily accumulating in his head. The urge to talk, on the other hand, lodges like a tumor in his throat, a constant pressure whenever he opens his mouth and then snaps it shut. Bro, being Bro, probably doesn’t even notice anything has changed as he leads the way back home from the airport – it’s not like he ever paid much attention to Dave’s rambling tangents in the first place. Dave catches the sideways looks he’s getting, though, and knows that Bro is thoroughly unimpressed by all this first-class, grade-A sulking.

Too bad. Dave is mute again for the first time in years, and he reserves to right to throw the mother of all silent tantrums when they get home. That collar had still been working perfectly fine before Bro decided to crown himself the king of all puppetfucks and rip it apart, and Dave is fucking pissed.

“Kid, are you seriously going to be a little bitch about this?” Bro says wearily when they reach the top floor of the apartment. Dave flashsteps right past him and shoulders his way into the apartment, keeping his head down and his eyes fixed on the floor. It’s three in the morning and he’s been wearing the same blood and sweat-stained outfit for the past nineteen hours, after jetsetting halfway across the country to get his brain chewed out by fucking tentacle monsters and his speech simulating collar fucked seven ways to Sunday. And. Fuck. He needs to claim the shower before Bro does or he’ll be absolutely foul by the time the man’s interminable shower ends.

A smuppet comes flying at Dave's head from a diagonal. It's an obvious distraction, but Dave can't handle taking a smuppet to the face even on the best of days, so he wastes precious seconds whipping out his sword and slicing the bright green plush abomination into quarters. Bro inserts himself between Dave and the bathroom, leaning on the door frame as he folds his arms and continues to stare pointedly at Dave.

“Get out of my way, Bro,” Dave tries to say. He fails miserably; his vocal cords flap, and air rasps out through his lips, but no sound emerges. There’s a faint, breathy hiss, and that’s it. Just. No. Fuck this. He stops time and ducks under Bro’s arm, but before he can slam the door Bro hauls him back out by his shirt collar. Dave lets out a stream of curse words that don’t make a sound anywhere but in his head, and within seconds he just shuts down because what's the fucking point.

Bro keeps a grip on Dave’s shirt, silent, and Dave tenses up under the scrutiny, staring at a shitty poster hanging on the wall instead of meeting his gaze.

"Fuckin' brat," Bro mutters after five minutes of silence.

Yeah, Dave doesn't have to put up with this shit. He rips his shirt out of Bro's grasp between one second and the next and huddles up his shoulders, slouching away as he heads for the kitchen. "Fine, have the fucking shower first," he wants to say, even though he knows that's not what Bro is on about. Fuck, can't a guy just brood over the fact that he's mute for two fucking seconds?

When he glances back from the kitchen, he can see Bro's hands moving. Dave intends to pointedly ignore the sign language, but he grimaces and ends up looking anyway, trying to hide it behind the cover of his shades. 'Look, I can get new parts in a month. I'll go hit up my dealer abroad,' Bro signs, the movements of his hands deft and sharp, like he's cutting the air with the signs. 'Stop dicking around and suck it up, you whiny little beanpole.'

"Don't pander to me." Dave shoves both hands through his hair, accidentally brushing his shades halfway up his forehead as he does so. He's just wheezing and flapping his lips at Bro at this point. Not even getting angry can make the words audible, and he knows that, but he keeps trying anyway because he really is a dumb fuck who doesn't know when to stop.

'It's not pandering, dipshit, it's me making sure you haven't actually forgotten the fucking language you use when you can't talk.' Bro shakes his head. 'Sometimes I wonder about you, kid.'

Dave returns to ignoring Bro, shoving aside a pile of empty video game cases and letting them fall onto the kitchen floor as he hunts through the debris. He's so sick of Bro's stuff lying around everywhere (never mind that half the stuff is nominally Dave's, too) and is seriously debating the ironic merits of going on a soundless cleaning spree to usher in the new era of Silent Striders. It would be like taking a vow of silence and training in a mountaintop dojo to become some kind of badass ninja monk who uses cleaning techniques to shank people.

...No, he's not doing this, man. He's not making this happen. He's too fed up with fucking life right now to be that motivated, and where the fucking fuck is his apple juice.

In the space of five frenzied seconds and all the pauses in-between, Dave tears the kitchen apart. Bro could've stopped him at any point, but he just watches as Dave runs out of hiding places to search.

There is no apple juice. It's not in any of his usual stashes, or any of Bro's funky hiding spots. It hasn't even been poured out of its usual containers and poured into beer bottles just to fuck with Dave - he would know, he does taste tests. It's not anywhere.

The last of Dave's meager, childish hopes and dreams wither and die. Life is awful. All of the light has literally gone out of the world, as though the sun can never bring itself to shine on a world without AJ ever again. Or maybe Dave's just closed his eyes and started banging head against the side of the fridge. One of the two. He's willing to bet cold hard cash on it being the former. The absence of AJ is something to be universally mourned. The sky itself weeps and thunders out a booming elegy for the amber elixir - no, no, that's still just Dave pounding a new dent into the fridge with his forehead. Close enough.

"...Is that Morse code?" Bro asks aloud, sounding almost thoughtful. "For...AJ? Oh my god, kid, you have a problem."

Dave lets out a strangled wheeze of fury and removes his head from the side of the refrigerator, bypassing the bathroom entirely as he darts into his room. Bro could be signing any number of things at Dave as he stomps by, but Dave doesn't look up. He's not deaf, god fucking dammit, his voice may have pulled a fucking Ariel but his ears are working just fine. If Bro starts going around signing all the time out of some perverse desire to mock Dave's mourning (which let's be honest, is pretty fucking likely), the man's just going to have to deal with being ignored all the time. Bro might not say a lot, but when he does talk, he gets all pissy and bitchy when people ignore him. Too bad. Dave refuses to fall back on the old instinct to keep a person's hands in sight at all times except in combat situations.

He kicks his door shut. Bro probably has cameras in here but Dave stopped expecting personal privacy in this place way back in the infancy of irony. These clothes are so fucked, and he'd like to not get pulled over by the cops on the street, so he just strips as he goes and then pulls a dull red sweater over his head against the almost-cool night air drifting in through the hole in the wall. Pants are overrated as fuck, but he puts them on anyway. Oh, the sacrifices he's willing to make in the name of apple juice. He fishes his phone out of his torn work uniform's pocket and grabs his wallet before exiting the room. Still seething inwardly, he heads for the front door. He still smells like ozone and blown up buildings and creepy secret labs, but he can probably pass for normal long enough to retrieve the goods from the convenience store.

Commandment one of the Faith of Dave - thou shalt not suffer a dearth of apple juice in thy household. It is law.

'Where the fuck do you -' Bro begins in sign language, then switches over when Dave doesn't turn to indulge Bro's weird new signing fetish. "-think you're going?"

Out, Dave thinks loudly. His throat scrapes dryly as he swallows down words, and he leaves the door hanging open behind him and flashsteps all the way downstairs. Bro doesn't come after him, which is - fucking typical. Sheesh, Dave's eighteen goddamn years old, he doesn't need permission to go out at night. Or three in the morning. Jesus fuck. And if Bro really wanted him to stay indoors, Dave wouldn't have even made it out the door.

He supposes he could also get some cleaning supplies while he's out. Showing John around the pigsty that is the Strider household had been more than a little embarrassing at the time, what with all the gross puppets everywhere, but of course that has nothing to do with why Dave would want to clean a little. No, this would be a purely ironic exercise.

...Yeah. Hell yeah. AJ and cleanliness. He's making this a thing, goddammit.

-

He's about five blocks away from the apartment when he remembers that he meant to pester John. Fuck it, his phone didn't have service on the plane, but it does now. Dave zones out and lets his feet go wherever the road takes him, removing his phone from his pocket and opening Pesterchum. John's handle is greyed out, but that doesn't mean shit with him; on top of the hero thing, John is a total goddamn dweeb. Homework is like that kid's crack cocaine. Dave would bully the shit out of him if he weren't a total sucker for the kid.

-- turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 03:21:30 --
TG: john
TG: i know youre missing me already
TG: like 'fuck, that strider guy'
TG: 'he was just too righteous'
TG: 'how do i go on without him in my life'
TG: 'hes ruined me for all other brohombres'
TG: 'that handsome asshole'
TG: im sorry john i cant help being such a liferuiner
TG: sorry im not sorry
TG: shit, no, that was lame
TG: fuck
TG: forget i said that i have a reputation to maintain
TG: i blame the internet they dont let shit die there
TG: that saying should be taken out back behind the shed and shot
TG: then we can stuff its rotting corpse and burn it in effigy
TG: its a fucking plan, my man, am i right? we can invite all our derpy little friends to the corpse party
TG: …
TG: why does this always happen
TG: why do we always end up here
TG: me pouring out my fragile, manly heart to you
TG: you ignoring my finely crafted overtures of brohood
TG: why must you string me along this way EB?

Wait. Shit. It's 3 in the morning here, which means it's 1 in Seattle, right? The last time he saw John, the kid had a new sling and massive bruises all up and around his shoulder; surely he couldn't have gone out and done the hero thing right after a tentacle monster smackdown?

Yeah, who is Dave kidding. This is John he's talking about. The kid doesn't have the common sense of a fucking red shirt, though so far he's got a better survival rate. He's probably trying to pitifully elbow some rando in the kidney with his crippled elbow. Dumbass.

TG: awesome
TG: ill have you know i can sense your dumbshit life choices from here john
TG: and i am stating for the record that any choice that does not involve talking to me is a shitty life choice
TG: but
TG: i am a generous brohort and i know that one day you shall return to my bosom
TG: shhh no words now
TG: just bosoms
-- turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 03:37:11 --

Yeah, he's just going to shut up while he's ahead. Yikes. Thumbing out of the Pesterchum tab, Dave looks up just in time to see himself slouching out of an alley up ahead.

Oh great. Time fuckery. Exactly how Dave wants to top off this shitty evening sundae, with the cherry of temporal inevitability. Now he's facing a morning that, depending on how far back future-Dave tells him to go, could very well end up lasting another twelve hours longer than it should. Time travel is all cool and shit in theory, but in practice, Dave has found it anywhere from baffling to tedious to outright stupid. But then, isn't that basically life?

The other-Dave is carrying a bunch of plastic grocery bags on his arms, so at some point Dave at least makes it to his intended destination, which is a fucking relief. Half the time these temporal tangents send him halfway across Houston and he completely fails to get his original job done. Future-him huffs and shoves the plastic bags up into the crook of his elbows to free his hands and start signing. Weak. Looks like Dave gives in at some point tonight, which is fucking dissatisfying. He is personally disappointed in himself; he's really let himself down this time.

'Oh my fucking god are we a whiny little shit,' other-Dave signs, glowering. His shades are off, hanging by one folded arm from the collar of his sweater, so the furrowed brows are really obvious and exposed. 'Bro is right. This is obnoxious. Stop that right now. Stop proving him right or so help me God I will punch us in the dick.'

He'd ask how future-him knows what Dave is thinking, but the answer is pretty obvious. "Go ahead," he mouths, stuffing his hands in his pockets. "You're the one who'll have been feeling it all night long."

Other-him grimaces. 'It's almost worth it. Almost. Whatever. If you don't shape up, BQ will think we're idiots and she won't let us all in on Operation Investigashenanigans and Detectevasion.'

"There was a line. You just crossed." Dave rubs at his face with a hand, not quite a facepalm but pretty close because holy fuck, did they seriously just graduate to double portmanteau mission names? That's it. He is so done right now.

Future-Dave just smiles. 'Okay, first I was just going to not tell you because that was how I remembered it happening. Now, I'm just not gonna tell you because witnessing you boarding the struggle bus over something as obvious as those wordsmashes is almost the equivalent of that dick punt I seriously considered earlier.'

"Why. We swore, you asshat. We swore the struggle bus wouldn't become a thing." Dave pulls a facepalm 2x combo. "We fucking swore. Ugh. Everything about this morning is awful and it's barely three."

'Welcome to the struggle bus. Next stop, pointless agonizing over a shitty portmanteau like the little bitch we are.' If future-Dave could talk, he'd be using that flat monotone they use whenever they're maintaining a flawless pokerface. The execution is excellent, Dave will give himself that much. 'It's totally a thing now, man. And speak for yourself, I've had a fan-fucking-tastic morning.'

He doesn't need to take this kind of abuse from himself. "Just tell me how far back to go," Dave demands silently, almost managing to pronounce the vowels in a wheezy kind of way. If vowels sounded like angry breathing. "Let this end."

'Two hours.' Future-Dave shakes his head, hands still fluttering like birds. 'I like how I'm always so much more well-adjusted by this point. Past-me is always so pissy whenever we have to run loops, have you noticed that? Dude, just chill, they're not that bad.'

Dave has no idea what could possibly make him so disgustingly cheerful in two nonlinear hours from now, and he has no interest in having this obnoxiously good mood rubbed in his face while he's personally still 'pissy.' He turns away and heads for the alley, blatantly staring away from future-Dave's hands.

So he misses the warning signs before a hand lands on his shoulder. Dave flinches, nearly shanking his future-self by reflex. He really should know better than to startle himself when he's got a sword on his person. "Dude. What?" he doesn't say.

Future-Dave rolls his eyes and dumps a small container in Dave's free hand. 'For the road, man. You'll thank me later.'

Dave doesn't get it, until two seconds later when he does a double take and everything in the world fades away. His vision tunnels in on that precious green cardboard container resting in the palm of his hand.

...Oh my god. Future apple juice.

AJ.

From.

The future.

It's like a religious epiphany, dawning over an unseen horizon, and this. This is what enlightenment feels like.

Holy fuck, how the hell has Dave not been abusing this power to hell and back all this time? He could have built up a one-man monopoly on the import and consumption of apple juice in the Western hemisphere by this point, and he's been wasting time powers with useless shit like fighting crime? Fuck all this noise, he could have his own apple orchard by the end of the night if he plays his temporal loops right -

'Yeah, I'll get started on eBay when I get home,' future-Dave promises, a tiny smirk tugging at the edge of his lips. 'We're doing this, man.'

'We're making this happen," Dave agrees with his hands, too awed by this glorious new vision of the future to stay on the struggle bus. Because hell yeah, he'll sign if it means he gets to start his own apple juice empire.

He has seen the future.

And it involves him owning a personalized apple juice company, goddammit.

-

Thanks to the BQ’s whims, Dave has been out at night more than usual, but he’s still not used to going all hero mode when it’s dark out. This early in the morning, even Houston’s humidity levels have calmed their tits and sunk below 50%; Dave’s sweater almost tips the scales from painfully ironic to actually suitable for the current temperature, which is just weird.

Dave and the Badass Quandary don’t have a set meeting place or method of arranging their rendezvouses. Dave had suggested it once.

Once.

BQ had just sneered at him, and began mocking him for his ‘utter incompetence in the realms of subterfuge and subtlety,’ which Dave felt was pretty fucking unfair. He is subtle, okay. He is like the sex guru of subtlety. Ninjas come to him for tips. Spies don’t have shit on Strider quality cunning, alright? He is stealthy as fuck. He just doesn’t think it’s too much to ask for a little goddamn order in the shitstorm that is his relationship with the Quandary.

He doesn’t even know what this dame wants. It’s been nearly two years since he first ran across her, and Dave still doesn’t understand what the carapacian gets out of this alliance. She has the whole enigma thing down; like shit, this woman could make Bro himself fucking work for it. For whatever obscure reason, she wanted Dave to time travel – she wouldn’t fucking shut up about how ‘pausing’ time was moronic and that he should be ‘working in quantifiable paradox loops, you damned fool.’ But after he nearly killed himself to get the hang of going backward in time, she just seemed smugly pleased, and then shut him the fuck down. And she did it in a way that made Dave look stupid for wanting to know the little things, like, you know, how the hell the BQ found out his regular identity anyway, or how she knew enough about his powers to encourage him to expand them past flashstepping.

These are pretty huge concerns, okay? But she just keeps putting him off with misdirection and condescending sarcasm.

So the apple juice only goes so far in placating Dave as he shuffles along the street two hours earlier. He sips it slowly through the straw, trying to savor the last dregs at the bottom of the carton. Meetings with the BQ are becoming pretty useless, and more than once over the past few weeks he’s wondered just why he keeps this up. If he can’t ma