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Like One Sundered Star

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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.