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Like One Sundered Star

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It really was only a matter of time before Karkat's shitty luck kicked in.

Sure, he's had a good run of it lately. Maybe he's been overdue for a good old-fashioned Karkat-class fuck up (a phenomenon which is capable, according to general consensus among the scientific community, of wreaking about as much interpersonal havoc and emotional distress as a class-5 hurricane) after all these months of disgustingly wholesome happiness.

First he met John and actually managed to maintain a friendship that didn't slowly self-destruct due to Karkat's brain and its easily overstimulated rage gland. Then, he miraculously didn't fall off a tall building during his first few weeks as Hemogoblin, and even got Heir's attention. And apparently the other hero liked what he saw enough to want Hemogoblin as a partner.

Yeah, he's still internally screaming over that last part. It's like something out of an actual comic book - the newbie hero and the seasoned veteran partnering up to kick ass and wreck shit. Hemogoblin had even helped rescue Heir last night. In fact, since Karkat is a huge Ancestors nerd, he can in fact tell you that this is all uncannily similar to the classic plot line from the first ever Signless/Ψiioniic crossover, in which the mysterious unsigned troll frees the more experienced psionic hero from a mindtrap, beginning a partnership that continues, despite occasional falling-outs, in the comics to this day.

This is fucking huge, okay, and he reserves the right to internally fan-girl about it whenever the urge strikes him.

Since that night at the docks, when he'd formally accepted Heir's offer (insert high-pitched shriek of fan-girly goodness here), he's been antsy. The problem is, he wants to rave about this mind-blowing development to someone - aka John - and about how fucking fantastic it is that he - and by 'he' he'd of course mean Hemogoblin, and not actually him because they're clearly two different people - gets to fight crime with Heir of fucking Breath. He almost fell out of his recooperacoon wriggling around with repressed excitement, reaching periodically for his phone and getting slime fucking everywhere in repeat attempts to pester John because this news must be shared with the whole goddamn world and John is his whole damn world, only to catch himself at the last minute.

Because only Hemogoblin and Heir know about this partnership. That's it. If Karkat starts blathering on about it like a panaddled, vacuous dipshit the morning after it fucking happens, it's going to be pretty fucking obvious he's privy to knowledge only two people could possible have.

So he has to sit on this until the team-up becomes common knowledge. Which holy fuck is going to be hard. Karkat's specialty is running his mouth, not censoring himself.

So he expects his biggest problem Thursday morning is going to be sitting on this priceless nugget of intel while hanging out with John all day, especially knowing that John is a massive Hemogoblin fan.

It's when he's awakened by Crabdad's shrieking click-skree that is the lusus equivalent of John's name that everything goes sideways. By the time he retrieves the home phone from his custodian's grubby claws, he's ready to punch a baby or something. No, really, put a wriggler in front of him, he will punt that sucker through the wall. Crabdad's retirement cannot come soon enough.

And then John has to open his mouth and tell Karkat he's going to be out of school because he 'fell.'

This sounds like so much bullshit, because John may be a ditsy, nerdy son of a bitch, but it's not like he's tripping over himself all the damn time. Some of the swim team kids - what few Karkat has been forced to absently notice, since he's always getting dragged along to cheer at John's swim meets - are downright klutzy on land, at home only in the water, but John isn't, despite the fact that he blows everyone out of the water the vast majority of the time. So some random fall during the land training he puts himself through instead of the regular swim practice the incompetent members of the team (read: anyone who isn't John) go to doesn't make any fucking sense and so help him he is going over to the Egbert house right the fuck now to see this for himself -

"Shoosh."

That's all that Karkat really hears. The rest is soothing, humming white noise, and before he knows it, he's put down the phone and begun to walk in a daze to get his school stuff together, buoyed in a weird sense of goodwill. It feels suspiciously like not being angry, and that's just not normal.

Fucking serendipity. Wow.

-

The effect in person is much more dramatic, and Karkat would be lying if he didn't admit that some part of him deliberately lost its shit when he saw John in the hallway in the hopes of provoking a repeat moirailing. John has no subtlety, of course, and zero sense of timing (because who starts initiating such blatant pale flirtation in front of a teacher for god's sake?! Fucking John, that's who), but that doesn't really seem to matter after Karkat gets shooshpapped right back to that same level of lulled, peaceable calm. Seeing John throughout the day keeps him reassured that his moirail is well, and by the time Karkat drops John off at his house, he can barely maintain a properly angry rant, except to instruct John to stop breaking his fucking collar bone, for fuck's sake.

His bad luck really hits its stride, however, sometime around six in the afternoon, when John's dad calls and everything starts going downhill.

Karkat is absorbed in his calculus review when he hears the phone ring downstairs, followed by an answering screech from Crabdad. Karkat groans and lets his head thump forward onto the desk, slamming his clenched fist down onto the open textbook with the pencil still in hand. When he huffs angrily through his nose and sits up, composing himself to answer the phone in a state of only mild irritation rather than murderous intent, he sees that he has stabbed the pencil into the pages of the textbook itself, so deep that the pencil actually remains upright when he lets go of it.

Wow. Fucking fantastic. Good to know that he can put all of this strength and fitness training to good use by stabbing textbooks right in the problem set. Criminals, beware, Hemogoblin’s new fucking weapon of choice is a goddamn mechanical pencil, and he will shove that fucker right through your kidney.

Unless the caller is John, they better have an absolutely mindblowing reason for calling. Really, Karkat wants to see chunks of brain everywhere after this call is through. Muttering to himself, he clatters down the stairs and wrests the phone away from Crabdad. The lusus doesn’t fight him nearly as much as usual, so it’s not John, who always encourages flagrant mutiny from the lusus for his own incomprehensible amusement.

What ensues is the most worrying conversation Karkat has ever engaged in with John's dad ever. Usually he's too intimidated by Samuel Egbert to do more than stiffly exchange pleasantries and try to keep the swearing to a minimum. This conversation is strange enough that Karkat can't help but try to pry more details out of Samuel.

He fails miserably. John's dad doesn't even let him get a word in edgewise, which for Karkat is an unpleasant new experience. Samuel has the nerve to fucking chortle as he shuts Karkat down, hard. “I believe he took off to his extra volunteer hours without stopping by my office to say goodbye, that’s all. He did say he was running late, and he knew I was in an important conference call. I thought I’d check with you, just in case. Take care, Karkat.”

All these last few sentences are spoken rapidly, with no pause for breath, as though to prevent Karkat from trying to break in and start his own question. “...Yeah, okay, are you su-” he finally gets the opportunity to demand, when the click of the phone hanging up greets him.

Dad Egbert just hung up on him. Always polite, ridiculously courteous Dad Egbert. Hung up. On Karkat.

…Wow. Like that wasn’t suspicious at all. Karkat totally believes every word out of that man’s mouth!

He throws a look back up the stairs toward his room, then growls and grabs his hoodie off the hook beside the front door, yanking it on over his head. After the collar bone debacle, like hell is Karkat ignoring some fresh fucking crisis going on at the Egbert house. Anything that can rile Samuel Egbert up is pretty damn serious. Especially when, from the way Samuel was talking, he has no real idea where John is. Given that the kid has such a regimented schedule, losing him would have been pretty hard work.

He gives the door a piece of his mind as he kicks it open and slams it shut in one smooth motion before Crabdad can try to escape. He sets off down the street toward the Egbert house. If Karkat’s moirail is actually missing or hurt, he reserves the goddamn right to freak the fuck out.

-

He knocks on the door of Chateau Egbert (also known as the House of He Who Makes Me Vomit Diamonds), and begins tapping his foot in anxiety the moment he’s forced to stand still and wait. He jogged all the way here, but that’s done nothing to work off the nervous energy engendered by that really fucking weird phone call. Twitchy and irate (or at least, more so than usual), Karkat waits for Dad Egbert to answer the fucking door.

And waits.

…He pounds on the door again.

Still no answer.

“You just called from the goddamn grubfucking home phone, you – grah!” Karkat swallows down a burgeoning rant just as the door swings open, and tries to cover up his guilt with a forced, toothy smile as he looks up at Samuel Egbert. All he really manages is a grimace. Dad Egbert is just really fucking intimidating sometimes, alright?

Right now, though, Samuel looks…at loose ends, and that puts Karkat on edge. For the first time Karkat can remember, he’s not perfectly done up in one of his dapper white suits, and his cropped blond hair is in slight disarray, as though he’s been raking his fingers through it. “Ah. Karkat,” he says, his icy blue eyes sharpening as he recognizes Karkat at the door. “Is something wrong?”

“I can only assume there is. Or did you really think I would just ignore you calling me in a panic over John? What’s going on – uh, sir.” Karkat tacks on the ‘sir,’ an afterthought as always. There’s just something about Samuel Egbert that screams ‘military man’ even twenty years after he apparently resigned, at least according to John’s account. Whatever it is about him, it works to intimidate pretty much everyone on the planet except John.

But if Samuel thinks he can use that to put Karkat off when John is involved, he has another thing coming.

Samuel laughs, and it sounds so obviously forced Karkat nearly gags himself. “Karkat, my boy, John really is just at his volunteer hours. I’m sorry for the little scare. I don’t know how I got it into my head that he might have stopped off at your home first. I apologize.”

“Where is he volunteering?” Karkat demands. He sees Samuel’s hand tremble on the door, and Karkat puts his own hand on the door, leaning on it without an ounce of subtlety as his jaw tightens.

Oh yeah. Something is up. Karkat talks right over the start of whatever excuse Samuel tries to give. “I mean, usually he says he’s doing land training on Fridays, not volunteering. And anyway, shouldn’t he take the afternoon off? That collar bone isn’t going to fu- I mean – oh for fuck’s sake – isn’t going to fucking heal if he doesn’t get some rest! I will drag that halfpanned idiot back by his fucking goggles if he thinks I’m letting him do some kind of manual labor in a sling!” By the end of his tirade he’s almost spitting. He can tell he’s working himself up into a fucking knot, tripping over the line from mere irritation into a full-fledged meltdown, but he can’t stop himself, how is he expected to stop himself when his moirail isn’t here, isn’t anywhere

“Karkat, there is no need to -”

“Do not ‘Karkat’ me!” Oh fuck. Oh fuck. He’s freaking out. The rage is squeezing his bloodpusher so hard he thinks his chest might implode. He staggers back from the door, trying to put distance between him and John’s dad. Homicidal rages are more the purview of highbloods with coldblood-type dementia, but all trolls can get stupid and violent when they get worked up, and who even knows how Karkat’s mutant brain will react to a genuine meltdown.

Karkat has always thought that by maintaining a standard level of fury, he’s been able to regulate it himself, to prevent any violent incidents that could draw blood, but this is the third time in as many days that he’s nearly gone crashing into a full-on class-A tantrum. He digs his claws into the hornbeds around his horns, feeling the prickle of claws digging into his scalp. Everything is too much, too close, too tight, and he can’t focus. Get it together, you fuck up, come on, this isn’t hard, you’ve managed without John for fucking years –

“Karkat. Breathe.”

It’s not soothing or reassuring or relaxing. It’s just an order, spoken with the expectation of obedience, and Karkat’s jaw unclenches automatically in response. He sucks in a breath, and almost immediately some of the pounding in his head dies away, the tunnel vision widening so he can see more than just the blurry white of Samuel’s shoes.

Oh, way to fucking look like an idiot in front of John’s dad. Karkat can’t believe he just freaked out so hard, he literally forgot to breathe. Sucking in furious breaths through his nose, Karkat glares when he catches a hand descending to land on his shoulder. He lurches backward a step to dodge the hand, and hugs himself. He’s progressed into sobbing hiccups now, and he can barely meet Samuel’s eyes as he hiccups and gasps for control like a wriggler barely out of its first cocoon. “Then – why didn’t you – know where – he went,” he forces out between hiccups. He’s still furious, but at least at this level of anger, he can still fucking talk. “Not like – him – to take off – without telling you.”

Samuel spreads his hands out placatingly, but Karkat’s in no fucking mood to be placated by anyone but his moirail, goddammit. “It was just a mix-up, Karkat. I got a little caught up with my work, and missed John when he left. Like you said, though, he really shouldn’t be working with that collar bone – I told him so, myself. So I just thought, perhaps, that he went to your house instead, and called in sick to his volunteer work. But I called the community center, and he is definitely there. He is not missing, Karkat. He’ll be back in a few hours.”

And okay, yeah, that…sounds logical. Certainly more so than the hasty explanation Samuel gave over the phone not ten minutes earlier, even though it basically is the same explanation. Besides, what reason would Samuel have to lie?

But does it really match the state of Samuel’s hair, the way his white suit jacket has been left crumpled over the top of the sofa rather than carefully and neatly hung up on a hanger?

Karkat can’t tell anymore. Some part of him, the part that isn’t hiccupping and struggling not to swandive off the metaphorical handle into a panic attack, can tell he’s not thinking clearly. He rubs his hands up and down his arms, chafing against the chilly spring air of the on-coming evening. Finally, he just nods, clamping his mouth shut against more hiccups, not trusting himself to stop before tearing his moirail’s guardian a new one in a fit of irrationality.

Samuel nods solemnly back. “Now, my boy, you seem distraught. Is there anything I can get you, anything you need?” Samuel smiles and yeah, he has this reassuring, fatherly look on his face, but it just pisses Karkat off all over again.

“What I need is for my moirail to not be wandering around taking heavy boxes from old ladies like an oblivious, dumbass gentleman and pretending he doesn’t have a fucking broken collar bone,” Karkat hisses, before losing it with one huge hiccup. “Where is he right the fuck now, I’m going to help him. I want the address.”

“Karkat.” Samuel fold his arms, giving Karkat a stern look. “While I appreciate that you care about John, you are in distress and in no fit state to be operating a motor vehicle or wandering around while John is working. I’m certain John knows better than to overwork himself. He knows his limits. And while I’m sure he’d be glad to see you, he would also feel obliged to work longer to make up for any distraction you might pose. Please, do not become a distraction.”

Karkat freezes up. He has about five different instincts yammering at him, three of which urge him to go corral his moirail and prevent that dopey idiot from injuring himself further.

But Karkat is not a goddamn grub. He isn't some demented highblood who can't help but act on ancient psychoses. And this is him. Putting his foot down. Enough.

Samuel must see something in Karkat's face at the moment Karkat forces himself to calm his fucking tits.This time, when Samuel reaches out a hand and claps Karkat on the shoulder, Karkat lets him, even though he feels an immediate spike of irritation at the touch. He crushes it as best he can, trying to maintain just a faint grimace of distaste. Control. Control. "Thank you for understanding, Karkat," Samuel says, and then the door shuts, perhaps with a little more force than usual. Hell, Karkat can't tell anymore.

Karkat stands outside the Egbert household for a long time, staring at his shoes. All he really wants to do is head down to the community center - walk there, if he has to - and see John, to make sure he really is there. The urge is overwhelming.

But. Fuck. Dad Egbert is right. Jeez, John shooshes him one damn time and suddenly Karkat starts getting all clingy. Fucking fuck.

Instead, Karkat goes home. He strips off his clothes on his way up the stars and sits in the recooperacoon for nearly an hour instead of working on his homework, letting the sopor soak its way into his skin. A heavy fuzz settles over his thoughts as his body shifts gears from panic to a drugged lethargy, and when he drags himself out to do homework instead of just going to sleep, his thoughts feel like they’re slogging through mud. He feels like shit, but his breathing has calmed and his heartbeats ease to a slow rhythm.

He no longer feels like crawling out of his skin and clawing at anyone who breathes too loudly, but he also feels – well, drugged. It’s extremely fucking tempting to just dunk his head back into the ‘coon and sleep through the night for once, because at this rate he’s not sure he’ll be alert enough to handle crime fighting. But he can’t. Working off some of this distress with a night of being Hemogoblin might be the only thing that can work the aggression out of his system – or at least distract him until he can latch onto John again.

He’s never been this dependent on John before, and Karkat can only assume it’s because John’s the source of the distress itself. Objectively he knows John isn’t some fragile dumbass glass butterfly, but in his troll hindbrain all those lovely hormones in his panic glands are stewing because John got hurt, and it just keeps building up every moment Karkat isn’t able to personally reassure himself John is safe.

Serendipity. Wow, it can be a bitch.

-

Three aborted muggings, a thwarted car-jacking, and a domestic dispute gone wrong later, Hemogoblin feels just a little bit more sane. Few things in this world are more therapeutic than getting to kick bad guys in the face. Every thirty minutes or so he’s seized by the urge to run all the way back to Maple Valley and bust down the doors of the community center, demanding his moirail be returned at once, but John has no doubt gone home by now; it’s nearly one in the morning. He had pestered John via his phone before leaving the device in the library, but hadn’t received a reply before starting his patrol. It wouldn’t be unusual for John not to reply until early in the morning. That does not lessen Karkat’s brand new goddamn anxiety problem in the slightest.

Focus. He can’t fall back into Karkat thoughts, no matter how much they’re weighing on his mind tonight. Hemogoblin leaps from one roof to the next, landing in a neat tumble and rolling to his feet, trying to lose himself in the attention-consuming work of running across the roofs without missing a step. Yeah, he’d probably survive the fall, but with his run of bad luck he’d probably break his arm or some other bullshit he can’t heal instantly.

That’s when the third explosion rocks the air.

Hemogoblin is far enough away that he feels the blast as barely a ripple in the air, but it sounds like a gun just went off by his ears. He stops before leaping to the next building and kneels beside a bird coop, searching the skyline for the source of the explosion. To his relief, when he locates the blast site, it’s nothing like the raging, fiery inferno that had broken out two nights ago, when Hearts and the Crew had torched an empty warehouse. Smoke plumes up in a heavy black cloud not far from his current location, but he can’t see any fire spreading to other buildings. Rolling his shoulders, Hemogoblin takes off in the direction of the fire.

He keeps checking the skies though. There’s no way Heir missed that, and he’s sure the other hero would have come to the same conclusion as Hemogoblin – this is retaliation in some way for Hearts Boxcars’s arrest the other night.

As it turns out, it’s a little worse than that. Hemogoblin’s stomach sinks as he draws closer and closer to Virginia Street, and realizes that the building that exploded is not some warehouse or bank, or any other convenient target.

It is the police station.

Well, fuck.

He approaches with more caution after that uncomfortable discovery, his stomach sinking as he scans the streets and alleys below for any sign of a fleeing prisoner. But by the time he reaches the station, he can’t find a damn thing, and he suspects – if Hearts was the source of this particular explosion, which Hemogoblin doesn’t doubt in the slightest – that Hearts and his accomplices are long gone.

Where the hell is Heir? Hemogoblin stops on the roof across from the police station to take in the damage, but his mind is still on the weirdly empty sky. There doesn’t appear to be much structural damage to the station; the street is flooded with evacuated officers and staff, but aside from a smoking hole where the front wall used to be, it doesn’t look like any part of the building is in danger of collapsing.

After a few minutes, Hemogoblin realizes he’s stalling because his next instinct is to drop down and ask the police if they’ve already spoken with Heir. This seems extremely unlikely, since Hemogoblin would have seen the other hero fly down to street level even if Heir had beaten him here, but it’s possible. And if Heir hasn’t been by yet, it would probably be a good idea to check in with the cops, see if anyone is trapped in the building and needs assistance, or if they’d seen which way Hearts and his gang of merry fucking assholes took off to.

He should hurry this along. Uh huh. Yep. Time to go downstairs and play nice with the cops. Gather some valuable intel. Be the hero.

…Any second now.

Yeah. He’s stalling like a pansy-ass wriggler. It’s Karkat who turns away from the edge of the roof and has to spend a few seconds checking over his costume, his false horns, his uniform, before trying to shake off the nervous tension turning him into a twitchy, stilt-legged spaz. He’s failing pretty fucking miserably.

But the last thing Karkat’s ever wanted is to attract the attention of the police. His blood color is down as rust red in the records, thanks to either the most gracious, forgiving jadeblood in the history of trollkind, or the most colorblind son of a bitch this side of the Atlantic, and that has protected him from the more unfortunate consequences that would ensue if it got around that he was a mutant. However, he’s gone through most of his life avoiding hospitals, skipping out on blood drives, and hoping that he never gets selected for a random drug screening, either at work or at school. And now here he is, prancing about as Hemogoblin with bright red eyes and a costume most people would associate with the color of human blood. So far most rumors seem to have Hemogoblin down as wearing candy red contact lenses for dramatic effect, but who even knows how a troll police officer will react.

He jumps down at last, after a few long minutes of wondering where Heir could possibly be. Hemogoblin lands soundlessly in the shadows just beyond the edge of the street lights and the flashing police emergency lights, and saunters his way closer to the ring of emergency responders trying to contain the situation and keep people out of range of the smoke. This situation is even more sensitive than most; Hemogoblin has no doubt by morning people will be whispering about a potential terrorist threat. Three bombings in a row? Homeland Security could show up any day now, and he and Heir will have to watch their steps. Vigilante heroes and local police generally cooperate together without incident, but federal law enforcement is notorious for interrogating first and trusting heroes later, after they’ve been Mirandized.

Karkat would be intimidated. Hemogoblin isn’t. He can’t afford to be. He slinks up to the nearest human officer and clears his throat. The last thing he wants is to sneak up on an entire crowd of jumpy cops. His smile inches up into something more seductive when the cop turns and very obviously gives Hemogoblin an unintentional once-over. The human turns bright red. “H-Hemogoblin, I presume,” he says, taking a step back. “Should have known you or Heir would show up after something like this.”

Hemogoblin lets the smile drop. Shit. “Heir hasn’t been here yet?”

“No, there’s been no sign of him all night. And now this? If you or he have any information on what the hell is causing this ruckus, we here at the police department that just got blown up would really appreciate a heads up.” By the end, the cop has lost his fluster and gotten serious. He’s clearly pissed about the explosion. Which is pretty fucking understandable, all things considered.

“Let me guess. The explosion came from a holding cell containing one Hearts Boxcars,” Hemogoblin says, folding his arms over his chest and glancing at the shattered glass that litters the road in front of the station from where the front windows blew out.

“Actually, it was the interrogation room,” the cop says, pursing his lips. “He asked for a lawyer. An hour later, the lawyer shows up, and the next thing we know everything’s fucked to hell and back. Er. Don’t quote me on that.”

Like Hemogoblin would have any right to be offended on the whole swearing front. But – “Who was his lawyer? You just let someone just waltz in there with a bomb in their briefcase?”

He winces, because that came off way more accusatory than he intended, and the last thing he wants is to antagonize the police the very first time he interacts with them.

“Well obviously, now we’re fairly certain it wasn’t a lawyer,” the cop snaps back, his body language shutting down. Fuck. Way to shit all over that one with your incompetence at social interaction, Hemogoblin. Note to self – grow some fucking tact glands, starting yesterday. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave; this is being classified as an on-going potential terrorist attack at the moment, and I doubt you or Heir want to be around when the feds show up. Legislacerators could be involved.” He raises a meaningful eyebrow.

Great. Exactly what Hemogoblin had expected, but not wanted, to hear. He hides an outright grimace behind a flirtatious smirk. It’s one of his many layers of disguise that he uses to separate Karkat from Hemogoblin; whenever Karkat would want to throw a fit and run his mouth for days on end decrying the incompetence of the Seattle police department, Hemogoblin just simpers and flirts. “Thanks for the heads up,” he says, winking, and then he slides back into the shadows of the alleyway. There. Mission accomplished.

He is torn, though. When he scales the building and searches the skies, he finds nothing. There isn’t a lot of cloud cover tonight, aside from the burgeoning cloud of smoke rising from the police station, and thus nothing really obscuring his now-impeccable night vision. Over the past few weeks he has definitely seen Heir in flight a few times, so he can see that slate blue uniform against the night sky.

But now there’s nothing. Nothing at all.

Hemogoblin’s stomach turns over.

The Midnight Crew has already lured Heir into a trap once. What are the odds they could do it again, lead him somewhere far from the police station so he couldn’t interfere with Hearts’s escape? Last time they had grenades and semi-automatics, and there’s no doubt in Hemogoblin’s mind after that harrowing night that the Crew intended to kill or at least maim Heir to get him off their backs. He wants to believe that Heir could have handled the situation even if Hemogoblin hadn’t arrived when he did, but…he’s not so blinded by hero worship and a (tiny, absolutely miniscule) flushcrush that he couldn’t see that Heir was in serious trouble.

If Heir got here via the sky, as he always does, then if the Crew wanted to lead him somewhere, they –

Would leave the note where Heir’d see it from above. Wanting to slap himself for taking this long to work through some grub-level logic, the exact same process he went through two nights ago (way to go, Karkat, you’re truly measuring up to your usual minute level of intelligence on this fine night, crack job dunking yourself in sopor before heading out to fight crime), Hemogoblin crosses the rooftops in a wide circle around the mess of people and vehicles packed in around the station and ascends the building next to the police station, using blood hooks to get a better grip on the vertical surface. Once he reaches the top he switches to the police building, landing gracefully in a crouch when he swings himself up over the edge.

It’s a similar set up to the other roof two nights ago, a mirror set up this time to reflect the beam of a flashlight up into the sky. The mirror rests at an angle against the side of the covered stairwell that leads down into the police station, and there is a slip of paper tucked underneath the mirror. Checking the surrounding buildings for any watchers or traps, Hemogoblin darts over to the mirror and carefully lifts it up, removing the paper and unfolding it.

‘Sorry, kid,’ the note reads. ‘Got orders not to kill yah anymore, but here’s a little something to remember us by. Special delivery, to pay yah back for getting me arrested twice. It’s only a little personal. Give my regards to that sneaky troll son of a bitch.’

It’s not signed. Hemogoblin frowns. There’s nothing here that he can see that would have lead Heir away from the police station to another amush. Fuck, it doesn’t even look as though anyone’s touched this note but Hemogoblin. Has Heir even been up here? Is he even patrolling tonight? Heir has such stellar record for patrolling nightly that it’s a thought that hadn’t even occurred to Hemogoblin until this moment – maybe Heir just isn’t working tonight. Maybe that grenade messed him up more than Hemogoblin noticed, which is a scary fucking thought.

And what does Hearts mean by a special -

Oh.

Oh, fuck.

The flashlight beeps, and the light shining at the mirror shuts off, and fuck, Hemogoblin is crouching barely a foot from it -

And the device explodes.

---

Through the lens of the grimdark, everything is clear. Now that the essence of light has been drained from the world, she is no longer blinded by the sun's harsh, deceiving glare.

Everything is dark and she can see the truth now. The channel between her mind and the swirling depths of eternity flows freely, the upwelling of bloodbrine and silt and ink flooding her body unhindered by such pathetic things as mental shields and a sober mind.

(wake up wake up wake up wake up)

There is nothing of the light here. She rides over the world wrapped in darkness, with thorny tentacles of power arcing up into the sky above and trailing in black whorls over the forest beneath her. The tentacles above reach out and gather in clouds, blotting out even the light of the stars until nothing can shine through.

When she glances beneath her feet, surveying the too-dry, cluttered earth beneath her, she waves a smoldering hand and her dark aura drips down in smears of grimdark. Her thorns tangle down amidst the trees and stab into the base earth, and she begins to rend and tear. Darkness envelops the forest and sinks through the bark of trees to the soft rings within, poisoning them from the inside out. Everywhere she reaches out, death snuffs out fleeting bursts of life, animals that flee before the onset of the blight. Of course, everyone is welcome to become a tanglebuddy in death, and she soaks up their minds as their feeble land bodies perish. They stop screaming once they understand that they will NEVER BE LONELY AGAIN.

Much better.

But honestly, everything the light has ever touched will have to go. All of these blighted, blasted creatures that thrive on such petty things as sunlight and clear air have no place in the salt sea of the Darkest Depths. Yes, when the Gate is open, they will have to cleanse this world and wash it clean with grimdark void and colddamp sea.

And then there will be nothing but the absolution of the void, the damp embrace of the tanglehorde, and everything will be at one with the most Noble Circle of Horrorterrors.

(please you have to stop this you can't let them do this wake up!)

There is, of course, that niggling voice that whispers up through the blood-dimmed tide, the strained, hoarse cry of a golden, bright mind. But it is swept aside in a rolling wave of dark water, and is gone once more. It stubbornly refuses to join the hivemind, Terrors only know why, but she will deal with it properly later.

Alas, that she must keep moving. She cannot loiter here and finish this work, not when there is still a Gate to open. Her gaze blank and pitiless as she looks down on the dark wastes beneath her, she continues to make her way south.

-

Rose wakes up over Albany.

She has been swallowed up by the sea for several hours now, and when she heaves herself up onto a dry refuge in her mind, she regains control of her eyes just in time to see that the forest has given way to city streets and buildings. The skyline is unfamiliar enough that it takes her a moment to identify it.

Albany is not the first town she has crossed while the Horrorterrors direct her toward New York City. It is simply the first Rose will be awake and aware of while the callous thing manipulating her body destroys it. While trying to make sense of the scattered memories that have survived being filtered through the grimdark, she can see what the Horrorterror working through her has wrought on the forests and small towns between the Lalonde manse and here, and she wants to vomit.

She is not the one in control, though, and the fragment of Terror that is in charge is in no way disgusted by the memories of destruction Rose sifts through. But suffice to say, if she were more than a simple mental construct isolated within the possessed depths of her own brain, Rose would be vomiting right now. From what she recalls, there is now an entire swath of dead earth through the middle of New York, and it is almost entirely her fault.

The thing controlling her body raises a hand gone grey with grimdark, and a thorny spell grows out of her palm. The rush of filmy, slick cold through her veins sickens her, and she has to retreat from the thin layer of salt left behind by the swelling power. But she can see what is about to happen; the spell is dark and crackling with unnatural power, but she can identify the basic magical structure, and extrapolate what this abomination means to unleash on Albany.

It will be awful. It will be cruel. It will be bloody.

What she does next is foolish, and reckless, and stupid. But Rose can't let this happen. She has to stop this. She can't let these people die.

She flings her mind at the tangle of raw power just before it can fire, wrenching at the smooth, moist flank of a massive intellect that is foreign and distorted, absolute and all-consuming, trying to divert the blast before it can happen. If she can just redirect it, just a little, take out a wall instead of a human, blow up a road instead of an apartment complex -

Her mental hands slide off the impenetrable, writhing tangle, and something slams into her side with the force of a geyser. Rose's mind cracks under the impact. Shards of herself break off and trail down into the dark sea below, and she barely stabilizes herself before she dissolves completely. When she finally connects to her vision again, she looks out through her own eyes just long enough to watch the spell drop to the ground below and explode in a brilliant burst of white fire and black thorns.

It's not Albany's fault, really. It was just in the way.

Thankfully, the tangle in her mind seems uninterested in more than that short display of its power. Even as screams and alarms begin to break the night sky, smoke rising from the wreckage below and feeding into the dark aura smoldering around Rose's body, she begins to float forward again, the black tentacles of power returning to wrap around her.

"S͛Eͩͭ͐E͐̍ ̏͊ͫR͑O͑ͦS̏Ě͗͌?̅ͯ̿ A͒͐͋̊ͪN͌̑Dͩ̾͆ͥ ͤŇ͛͑Ȏ̾ͮ̓̆̽W ̓̐TȞ̓̂̐̇̌E͌ͦ̂̓Yͩ̃͋ͩ͗ ͪK̄̑ͩ͗̈͊̐N͗̏͋̐O͌Ŵ̆ W̆ͮ̾̽̚E͂̂̂̍ ͥA̾͛ͪ̾ͤͣ̇Rͦͯ̊͗͛͌̈E ̓ͦͭ̆ͮ̈HE͌ͭ̾͆̆R̆̒̆̈͌̂Eͭ̌̇ͦͪͤ.͗̈͆̓ͯ̅ͯ"

The words drum straight into her mind, and Rose screams, clawing at ears that aren't there as the voice of the Void echoes through her skull, acidic and knife-edged and ecstatic as it smiles at the destruction below. Even in meditation, even when she had to deal with the Horrorterrors directly and bargain for them to respect the seals she placed on her mind, she has never heard them like this.

It sounds like her voice. It sounds like her and she can't she can't she can't -

-

Everything is sticky and wet, and when Rose licks her lips, she tastes blood and brine.

For the past few hours she has not been conscious within her own mind, and she knows with cutting certainty that the only reason she woke up this time is because the writhing, inky sea below has deliberately spared her. The tangle in her mind could have finished dissolving her from existence whenever it felt so inclined; but it seems to take some measure of amusement out of her horror whenever a new atrocity is committed by Rose's hands.

Black, thorny vines wrap around her hands, spikes digging into the flesh of her palms, and drag her forward out of the surf, and she no longer has the mental fortitude to fend them off. When the tangle brings the visual centers of her brain back online, she can see New York City through them. From this angle, they are no doubt on top of the Flatiron. The city looks rather unnervingly untouched.

"T̔͐̚H̓̓ͯ̎̔I͆̐̐ͬS̏̎̔ ͊ͯI͆ͣ̑S̑̄̈̓ ͂TH͂̾ͪ̊ͮ̅̚Èͪ͌ͯ ͯ͑̓̊̇ͯ Cͬ̊ͯ̌͆͛IT̈́̔Yͨ"

Rose's mental avatar of herself is already smeared with blood and salt-water, worn thin by the endless tide. At the sound of that horrifying voice, more blood begins to trickle from her ears and nose, and a little more of her sanity trickles away with it. But the tangle keeps her from slipping back into unconsciousness, forcing her to endure the grating whine of the Void without relief.

Raising a hand, the tangle floats over the city until they reach Times Square. "How cliché of you," Rose mutters, but the words come out a slurred mumble, and she has to spit a clot of blood out of her mouth afterward.

"ͩ̄̊ͥ̋̍T͊̄Ĥ̐Eͩ̓ͧͦ͒̒̂Sͬ̑̔E̔ ͂̌̂͂AR͗̑̐ͣ͐̒ͯĖ̆̓ TͧH̔̋Ė P̋̔̔̏̍͌ͭEͫ̔ͯ͑O͗̍ͮͯ͌P̽̌͌ͤ̅L̏E͆̓̆ ̅Yͫ̀OȔ P̍ͮͯ͋̅Ȓͣ͛O̎̽Tͩͦ͌̂̍͋̚È̐ͥͫC̈́͗ͯ̄͂T̒ͣͪ" the tangle continues, spreading her hands to encompass the crowds below. It is full morning, by now, but Rose has no hope that the tangle will be driven back into the Abyss by the rising sun. It is clear by now that the voices of the Eldest Gods have only abated during the day because that was when there was the most light for Rose's other powers to feed upon. The moment she spent a day in the darkness of her house, drunk and hungover in equal measure, her mind became an open channel for them, and she no longer has the strength to reach out to the sun and drive them back.

The Seer of Light is effectively dead.

The tangle descends. Rose's body glides down to the street below, her grimdark appearance and the crackle of dark tentacles reaching up into the sky sending people scurrying for cover. "THͯͣ́͛ͩEͫ̍̋ͦ͂ͣ̚Y̊ ͌̎ͭDOͥͯ͛ͪ ͐NͦO͒̎͌̅̚̚T̓̈ͧ͛ Ĕ͂̽͂̽V̈́͐̌EͭN̄ ̒̑͛ͭ̏RÈC͋ͨ͒ͨ̊̿O̔̽ͣ̇ͨ̊GNͨ͌ͤI͆ͮZE͊ ͯY͋O͆ͥͤ̍͆U̓̄ͫͨ͛̌ N̆͆O̎ͬ̆Ẅ͐͆ͭͩ" the Horrors comment, smiling with sharp teeth and white fire at the crowd as vehicles veer and swerve to avoid its lashing aura.

Get out, Rose begs them silently, seeing more than a few foolish souls take up their smart phones and begin filming from behind food vendors and around corners. They don't understand; walls won't keep them safe from the monstrosities this tangle will unleash. Run!

"͋TḦ́͌ͣ̑̊ͮ̅E̿̑͒ͤ͑͒͆Yͧ̔ͬͪͬ͐ ̿ͪ̄̆ͪH̒͑A̋̅̒͆̚T̅̐̅̑̌̈́E͊ͧ.ͥ̐̈ ̍̔ͥ̊̌̔THÈ͆Y Fͧ̂͋͛̐̈̑E̐͒̔Â̅ͤ͑Ř͌.̄ͥ͗͑ ̈́ͭ̾̾͛T̍HE̿͊ͫ̆ͣ̊ͣY͆̿ ̌ ͦ̓S̔ͦ̋̓̐͛Uͬ̾̄F̒͂̚Fͥ̎͊̾Ȅ͗͆̃ͤ̅R̒.͋" The tangle cocks her head to the side, and raises a hand. "T̐̒ͯ̋ͧ̎Hͣ̓͐ͦ́ͯEͧͭ͌Y͊̆̌ͩ͊ ͦ̔ͫͯ͆̈́̚Aͦ͐̓͊̋̇̋R̈́̆̇E ͪẄ́̆̆̂ĒͩA̎ͬͥK. ̊P͋Eͦ̇͗T͌̾ͣ̌̑̄T͊̅ͬͪ̿̈Yͥ͊̒ ͨͦͧ̇͒ͯS͐ͩ͋ͦ͐HͣŎR̔̊Tͧ ͦLI̍͗͐T̿ͩͬ̈̂ͧT̎̽͆L̄̒ͧE ̓Q̾͊̽ͤͬ̏ͭU̇͗̃ͫ̇Ȋ͆ͮCͤͭKͧ̾̎ͥ͆-̓̏L͒̐̆̿̍I̎ͪͩ̑V̌͒͛͛Eͯ͑̋ͨͣ̂Sͤͬ.͛̚ ̿T͆̇H͐͂̈EYͭ ͨ̉͒̊̈͌ͧAͯ͛ͮ̂͂ͫR̂Eͧ ̋̈́ͥ̐N͛̓ͬ͌ͣOTͭͣͩͩHͨͫͬ͗̿IN̊ͥ͗͐G̑ͨ̈ ͧ̑̑ͮ͛ͯ̿T̑̉ͫ̒O̓ ͊̄THͭͯͧ̿͛E ͤ͆̍̓ͯ͐͆T̆ͯ̒̆̍ẢͧͩNͣG̊L͆Eͯ̒ͧͤ͑HO̍ͣ͊R͊D̑͊͐Eͩͭ"

They are important to me, Rose thinks, but the tangle already knows this. In fact, Rose realizes, that is the reason they came here at all. Hadn't it said itself, 'these are the people you protect?'

Why use a few random, doomed souls in Albany to open a gate to the Furthest Ring when the Horrorterrors could wring so much more grief and despair from their host by using her city. By undoing all the work the Seer ever did?

The tangle cackles, and charges up its first spell. " ̋̑̊̅ͧͪ̆YES. TͯHͬ͋ͮEIͩ̅̓̓̐R ͭͣ̾̏͗D̿ͬ͆ͤ̓͂EͪA̋T̒ͮH͊͌S̄ ̅ͬ̒̏S̓ͨͨ̒ͩH͌̒ͫ̾ȦͩͤL̐̔̅ͩ̽̑Lͥ̊ ̅͋̎BR̂I̊Nͤ̂ͪGͥ͊̆͛ͥ̄̓ ̎ͦ̒̄̔̓͑U͗Sͩͨ̋ ̈́ͫ̽͗ͫ͑THͪͦ͊̉͒͐̒R̋̌O̅̾͌̋͐ͤͦŨ͛̑͊ͦ̄͊G̐͐ͫ̉ͭ̋Hͧͮ͊́ T̽̑̔H̃ͫͥ̓E G̿̃ͤ̈Aͪ͌ͥT͋̓̌̌̽È̔."

I won't let you do this. I won't let you get away with this. I will find you and I will kill you and I burn you for this -

The tangle clucks, and lets fly the spell in its hand. Black thorns like lightning erupt from the ground beneath a cluster of curious on-lookers, and they are impaled instantly.

Rose screams.

"ͪ̈̂̄Rͥͤ̂ͩEM͑͗̄̄ͫEͬM̒ͦBE̐̆ͧͪ̍Rͮ͛ R̄Oͮ̐S̆͗͆ͬ͛͐E͑̇͑ͭ.̿̏ͩ ̅ͤͮ̚̚̚REͨ̔̏ͬ̅̃̐M̑̂̂͐̌EͤM̿̚B͆EͪR̓͛̇̏̍ͩ" the Horrorterrors chide. " ͆̔̆Tͧ̂̄ͬͨ̑̆H̾̌̾E̒̿̍Yͪ̾͐̐ ̾̏̅Aͭ̓̑̓REͫ̌̐͛̿̊ͯ ͬͥ͗͒ͧ͂ĀL̈́̈́ͮ̒̎L̋͂̚ L̿̔Ì͊̐̊̽͗KEͭ̓ ̑͑̇͊̈Ÿ̍̑̋Ǒ̐ͤͮ̈́̿Ŭ͌͗͒̚Rͧͯ̂̑̏̿̔ ̔̍͆MO̐̓̿̍͒̆̂T̎̒Hͯ͐̏̑̊̓̚Ë́̇͐ͭRͨ̋̏̈́. ͒̿̒͆N̎̆̒̈́ͥ̓ŎNE̊͒͋ͮ͋̋ ͩ̌̿ͥ͛ͦ͒OͪͦF̎ͪ͗̈͛ ̑̔TH̓̑Eͬ̏ͯM̓ ̓̇̍̚L̋̆ͪ͗Oͭͪ̈O̅ͪK͐ͪ̆͛̒̊ͩE̒̔̊̒ͨ̄D̈́̄ͫ̌̎ F̄͑ͭͮͫͮOR Yͮ̇O̒̆̍ͨ̈͊U̇ͤ. ̋̐ͬͣ͐ͯͭN̐ͮ̒Ō̓̎̾N͐ͫ̐̂̂Eͥ̒ͯ̌ͦ ̌ͥO͌F͆͛͛ͭ͛ ͮT̋ͪͫ͆̅̓H͌͑ͫ̚Eͭͮͣ̑̓ͭḾͯͯ̿͆ͯ̂ ͆̈́̒C͑̏̅Ǟ̽RED̆̇̒.͒͌̆ͣ ̊̌̇ͨ͌ͪ̚"

The kind of enraged logic that had been so convincing in the despair caused by her mother's pathetic note is quite obviously paper thin by now. But even the merest mention of her mother of that bitch is enough to trigger a flood of anger in Rose, and she feels the colddamp sink a little further into her bones, until she is miserable with it.

No one deserves this no one not even my mother please stop I will do anything please please stop anything at all but this stop STOP STOP!

And somehow, miraculously, the tangle pauses. Rose's breath catches in her throat as a sob. People are still screaming and fleeing before her, but the Horrorterrors are too absorbed in turning their sanity-shattering attention upon her to give chase.

"REͭAͦ̄̉͋̾L͊ͯ̊͌ͨL̿Y̿̄,ͨͧͩ ͫ͒ RͯÖ͊̂S̒̽E͂ͤͦͮ̔̋?ͩͩͬͨ̚ AͮͫNͥẎ̑T̅̇̒̎̆̋Hͬ̄ͩ̓͌IͭNͨ̐G̋̾.ͧ͑͐ ȦͮT ͥ͊Aͭͧ͒̇ͬL̿͑ͣ̆ͩ̑L̿̍?ͨ"

This is a trap. This is a trap, and everything left of Rose, of Seer, knows it. But does she have any other choice? She cannot wrest back control, but she can take any opportunity to convince the tangle to stop using her body as an instrument of genocide. Yes, she thinks, and some last part of her mind cracks. Yes. Anything. Anything at all.

I will bring you through the Gate myself.

One by one, the tentacles supporting Rose above the grimdark sea detach from her wrists, and then she is falling, falling, falling -

"T̓ͨͪHͦͫͪ̽̋̃ͥE ͤͫ̊̐ͥ̾C̾ͥ͌͌Òͯ̅ͯ̓ͯ͐N̑̽́̋ͣ͑T̿͛ͭͪ͐R͛͒͂̅̐AC͊ͦͪ̍͗̀T́̒ ̉ͪ̿Iͦͦ̓ͬ̄̍͌S̎͐ͧ̐ ̈͊̃̆Sͬ̎̿ͨ̇E̽AL̆̏E̓̐D.͌̍̂̈ ̇͆ͭ̉͛ͪ

And Rose drowns once again.

Everything beneath the surf is cold and dark and bloody, and there is no light after.

-

She considers, for a moment, simply ripping the puny creatures before her to shreds. No, their deaths are no longer a necessary component of the Gate, but it would have been amusing to hear the last of Seer choke on her screams.

But alas, a contract is a contract. And the work of the Gate will still take hours, even if she doesn't waste time smiting every fleshling she comes across.

Shrugging, she stretches her arms over her head, the reinforced bones of this borrowed body creaking and cracking and breaking before settling back into place. She flaps a careless hand at the humans that still remain. "͗̌̅̎̋ͤB͛̋ͩ̽ͮ͆E̋̽͂ͥ̌̈G͗Oͨͨͭͬ͌̈Ń̾ͧͤEͨ̔ͩͪ̈,͌̔ͤ͌ ̂͗͑ͭW͊̌̓̐ͧ͐̽Ô͐RM̾̈́S."

They mewl and shriek and babble in their flat, lonely voices, but they obey, scrambling this way and that with no order, no finesse, trampling each other in their haste to escape their doom.

There. That should do it. Having fulfilled her obligation to get them out of the way and uphold the accord not to kill them all immediately, she begins charging the first of the sigil-carving spells between her palms, tracing with her eyes exactly where in the road she will carve the first curve of the Gate.

She hums to Seer, as cheerful as an eldritch abomination can be, the goodwill of the Tanglebuddies returned now that the host serves the horde willingly, rather than trying to block them at every turn. "̐ͤÒH͆,ͩ̋͊͐ ̅͌ͤ͑Rͫ͛̽O͆̏Sͬ͗̄Ȅ̿͆ͣ.̑̓̄ͣ̽ ͋̇N̏̿O̚Ẅ́ͥͥ̅ͨ̓͋ ̓̊ͩẎ̓ͫ̒O̚Uͭ ̌AR̓̓̽ͤ͂ͩE͆ͦ̆̈̽̚ W̌Iͨ̒͐͑̓ͧL̐̐͊L̔͋̈̋͌ͯ͑IN̓̄ͭͯ̔G͐̅ͣ.̾̊ ̾͆NOͦͧͬ̾̉W͂̊̋̏̑̇ ͒̆̌͂W͆̊͐̿̔͒Ȇ̓̍ͬ ͑Hͦͥͬ̎AVͦͦ͛̅̎E ͐A͌̅̾ͨͩ̌ͪÑ ̽A̔CC̐̌͂͛̚Oͥͪͮ͗̋ͦͧRͮD.ͨ̄̊͊̈́ ̎N̋ͯ̚Õ͒̓͌ ̐̔̌ͤ͛NE̐Èͤͥ̂̒D͑͐ͭ̎ ͂͛̋TO͂ ͂ͮ̽͐͛͊D̆͂ͬͣ̓Ŕ̌A͛W͛̌̇ ̔̒Tͧ͊̋Ȟ̂ͮ͒I̅̇̆͐ͯS̋̌͌̑̏͋ͭ ̾Oͦ͊͆̐̀͆͗Uͣ͗ͥT͑.̌͌ ͋̍"

She raises the spell between her hands, and she grins maliciously.

"̎LET ͣͪ̍I̎ͫ̐ͯ͗T͑͐ͣ̅ͦ B͒͊̊ͯ͂̏ͥE͆̓̈́̅̌̏G̽I͛͋ͭNͤͧͭ"" she croons, and beams of power lance out, clawing up the street to burn the first curve of the Gate into the earth.

Clouds continue to gather over New York City, blotting out the rising sun.

---

Dave is stupid angry. Just. Stupid angry. The only reason he hasn’t flashstepped to his Bro’s room to initiate a beatdown is because Heir is throwing down with equal intensity, stubbornly rebutting Bro every time he tries to pull this weird bullshit. Mad props to the windy dude; he may so goofily sincere it's almost sad, but he doesn't take shit from anyone.

And then suddenly, out of nowhere, everything goes to fucking hell in a lacy little basket full of freshly picked what-the-fuck posies.


EB: OKAY THAT IS IT YOU PESTILENT NOOKSTAIN CONGRATULATIONS YOU ARE OFFICIALLY THE MOST RAGE-INDUCING BULGELICKING ASSHAT THE UNIVERSE HAS EVER HAD THE DISPLEASURE OF SECRETING INTO EXISTENCE
EB: LOOK AT THIS I AM REDUCED TO USING HIS FUCKING CAPS LOCK QUIRK THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE
EB: I SWEAR TO ANY GOD LISTENING I AM GOING TO
TG: whoa what
TT: shit
TG: john you know caps lock?
TG: were those weird troll swear words because i got maybe half of that
TG: john?
EB: WKSHRISEHSKW
TG: oh my fuck what was that
TG: did you just keyboard smash in rage
TG: I swear to gog bro if you broke my fucking friend i will end you
TT: shit
TG: im not fucking around
TT: shit
TG: why do you keep saying that
TG: i don’t think it means what you think it means
TT: shit

A crash rings out through the apartment, coming not from the direction of Bro’s room, but from the kitchen. An unfamiliar voice yelps in pain as the kitchen’s pile of shitty swords collapses in a clatter of metal on linoleum.

Dave has his sword in hand and is in the kitchen the next moment, sword at the ready. Bro is already there of course, his face unreadable behind his shades as he observes the fuckass kneeling in the pile of piece of shit swords. Lil Cal is lounging lazily on his shoulder though, which means Bro is deadly serious.

“Ow,” the rando says, extricating himself from the sword pile with a wince. Dave can see the guy took a hard fall and landed pretty much in the worst way possible. One of the swords cut a long, deep slice up the guy’s inner arm, which is already in a sling, and he’s spewing blood everywhere. “Oh, fuck,” the guy says, gingerly dabbing at his arm.

“Yeah. Fuck,” Bro says, tucking his thumbs into his pockets. The more nonchalant he appears, the more of a threat he is. But there's no way this intruder will know that.

The guy whirls around, eyes wild. Dave’s stomach jolts with a sudden burst of recognition but – fuck, there’s no fucking way –

“Where the heck am I? What is this jackassery?!” the guy demands, tucking his injured arm up against his blue t-shirt. Blood starts staining it immediately, and the sling itself isn't looking so hot either, considering it's been slit up the side. His eyes track over both Dave and Bro, frowning and defensive. They're both wearing their sunglasses, so he wouldn't know them for Flashstep or Puppeteer. “Who are you?”

“Right questions. One problem. You should be the one answering them.” Bro shifts a hand slightly and Lil Cal’s eyes gleam. “Care to explain just how the fuck did you get in our apartment, little man?”

Your apartment,” the guy says, shaking his head slowly. And yeah, those fake brown eyes are kind of hard to forget, the rings where the contact lenses don’t quite cover a brilliant blue. “What are you talking about, I was just sitting in my room -”

“John,” Dave manages at last. “John.

The guy freezes. He meets Dave's gaze through his shades, eyes widening. Then, slowly, his frown transforms into a look of pure terror. “No,” he whispers, his face turning a sickly shade of maroon. “No, fuck no, fucking fuck -

Dave drops the sword and steps forward, just as John – aka Heir of fucking Breath – takes a step back and nearly steps on the shitty sword pile again. A weird breeze stirs up, and it takes too long for Dave to realize it’s Heir about to flip his shit. He hides his face in his good hand, his eyes turning an ominously luminescent blue as he stares out from behind splayed fingers. “This isn’t possible,” John stammers. “Dave? You live in Houston!”

Dave just nods, spreading his hands wide to try to look nonthreatening. He just - needs to keep it cool. Yeah. Random heroes from halfway across the country pop up in his kitchen all the damn time. It's getting pretty old, actually. He wants a refund.

Yeah, he's not kidding anyone, not even himself. This is fifty shades of fucked up, right here.

“Bro, put the creeptastic puppet away,” he hisses at his brother. Bro gives him a considering look, one eyebrow very firmly raised as he ignores the order. Yeah, Dave probably has some explaining to do. Which can, you know, wait until after Heir stops bleeding out all over their goddamn kitchen floor. “John, hey. Yeah, this is Houston,” Dave says, taking a step closer.

John has his back up against the fridge, and can only straighten up when Dave comes closer, still trying to conceal his face with his hand. It makes sense; the one time Dave had met Heir, he’d had pretty thick goggles and a face mask on. Secrecy is pretty important to the kid; half of the rules that guide their chat sessions were laid down by John. Even in the middle of one pretty fucked up mental break, Heir had been a stickler for protocol. Being caught without something covering his face must be just eating at him.

Well. There’s a solution for that. Dave takes his shades off and holds them out, squinting his eyes against the kitchen light. Even as he does so Bro is at the light switch, dimming the lights to a level more comfortable for someone just this side of albino. “Here, cover your eyes man,” Dave says, deliberately looking down at a corner of the countertop rather than John’s face. It’s too late and everyone here knows it; they got a nice eyeful of John’s face the moment he looked up from the swords. But this way, everyone except Bro will be almost halfway to hero mode, and maybe that will make John calm the fuck down and stop flinging wind around willy nilly.

John reaches out and takes the sunglasses, putting them carefully on his face. They sit weird on him; they’re a style suited to the impassive face of a Strider, and they look too big and clumsy on John. But they do the job, and John’s shoulders visibly slump with relief, the warning breeze dying off into a soft susurrus. “Thanks,” he says, with that same note of sincerity that Dave still remembers all these years later. Jeez, the kid hasn’t changed at all, has he? Just got a bit taller, filled out some, lost that hollow look in his face that stemmed from some serious depression.

Little things, really, not that big of a deal.

“No problem, man.” But of course, there’s still the question of - “Seriously, how the hell are you here? Last time I checked you were chatting with us from a computer in Seattle. How’re you suddenly in Texas?”

John shakes his head slowly, hugging the injured arm to his chest. There’s actually a worrying amount of blood spreading across the front of his shirt, now. “I have absolutely no idea,” he admits. “I mean – I was just chatting with you guys and then - I don’t know, I just suddenly landed face first in a bunch of sharp objects. Why do you guys have this stuff lying around on the floor, anyway?”

“You didn’t come here on purpose?” Bro says, his tone too noncommittal to sound like a demand. Lil Cal is still on his shoulder, even when Dave scowls at him. Then he remembers he’s not wearing his sunglasses, and he won’t get away with showing such obvious expressions. He smooths his face out again into stoicism.

“How could I?” John’s hand fists in his hair. The shades don’t work for him; Dave can still see the panicky confusion contorting his face. “This is – not possible. Even when I’m at top speed, I can only go as fast as the wind. I think the most I’ve ever clocked in at was maybe 250 miles an hour? And that was in a dive, almost free-fall. To get from Seattle to Houston – wait, what time is it -”

“You stopped responding five minutes ago,” Bro says, his shades glinting. “And we’ve been talking for three of them.”

John shakes his head. “That can’t be. That kind of distance – it would have taken me hours, if I flew nonstop. Days, if I needed to stop to rest, which I would have.”

“And yet, here you are,” Bro murmurs. “Go check out the window if you don’t believe us.”

John’s head swivels toward the open window in Dave’s room, visible through the open door, and he stiffens. “That’s not my skyline,” he whispers. “And – fuck, I can feel the humidity. Okay. I’m in Houston.” He laughs, and it sounds hysterical before he muffles it. “This is just. Wow. What a fucking mess.” His shoulders shake with suppressed laughter, and he winces visibly, pulling his arm away from where it lies sticky with blood against his shirt.

“Alright, yeah, we need to deal with that,” Dave says, taking another step closer. “Give me your arm.”

John stiffens, then holds his arm out, as though begrudging the motion. But his arm is shaking when Dave takes it by the wrist to examine the cut. It really does run pretty fucking deep, and it’s gonna need stitches, in addition to a metric fuckton of antiseptic. Dave knows his sword wounds, and this is at least moderately concerning.

“Here, we have some Neosporin and shit in the bathroom,” Dave mutters, keeping his eyes fixed on the line of red running down John’s forearm. If he looks up now John will get a good look at Dave’s eyes. Without his shades, in a situation that kind of fucks the boundary between work and personal life, Dave feels more vulnerable than ever with his bright red eyes bare. “It’s gonna need stitches though.”

“I heal fast,” John says, with the practiced tone of something he’s clearly memorized in the past.

“You’re not gonna heal if you pass out from blood loss and get fucking infected,” Dave says, raising an eyebrow. Eyebrow raises are still on the table.

“…Point,” John says, nodding. “Can I -”

Bro holds the first aid bucket in his hand when Dave looks up. Supposedly the bucket started out a mere first aid kit, and had been upgraded to full on bucket status as the intensity of Bro and Dave’s training increased over the years to accommodate the amount of shit they needed to keep from losing fingers. “Rinse it off in the sink,” Bro says, setting it on the counter by the kitchen sink, and then he vanishes again. Who even knows where to. Dave's lived with the guy his entire life, and he still has no fucking clue where all the hiding places are. Hide and seek as a kid had been all kinds of life-ruining.

Dave realizes he’s still got his hand on John’s arm when John steps over to the sink and turns the water on. One half of the sink is full of smuppets, and Dave’s face burns bright red for a moment before he stops time to pull a stray towel over them, mortified. John doesn’t seem to have noticed the puppet abominations, too busy extricating his arm from that sling and gingerly stretching out his arm to let water run into the cut, his jaw set against the pain. Dave hands him more towels to dry the arm, which is already starting to bead with blood again.

The silence is weird and strained as Dave helps smear antiseptic on the wound, with John biting back noises whenever the Neosporin has to touch the open gash itself. On Pesterchum words come easily; in reality, Dave is very aware of the collar around his throat (which he had only put on to go talk to Bro before he’d crashed their chatroom) and of the vague, ever-present buzz in his voice. It’s not like he’s fucking self-conscious, it’s just – it’s a thing, alright. And maybe John hadn’t noticed when they met that first time, but there's no need for Dave to go waving a pair of middle fingers at the guy and belting out an opera to show off how fake his voice is.

“Damn. It is going to need stitches,” John says, sounding mournful. He prods at the edge of the wound, and sighs. “I don’t even know how I’m going to explain this to my – guardian.” The pause when he probably means to use a more gender-specific word for a guardian is obvious. What a paranoid kid. Then again, Dave is hardly allowed to talk, right?

Then John's eyes widen behind the shades. “Shit,” John breathes, digging in his pockets with his uninjured hand, patting at them a few times uselessly when he fails to find whatever the hell he's looking for. “Shit! My phone is still in my backpack. Dammit, my lusus must be freaking out by now.”

Dave has to think about that one. “Dude, did you just use the troll word for parent? Exactly how much time have you been spending with your new troll buddy? Because that’s a little weird.”

“It’s gender-neutral,” John says, burying his face in his hand. “Fuuuuck. How do I even explain this? For that matter, how do I get back home?!”

“First you let Bro stitch up your arm.” When John shoots him a harassed glare, Dave shrugs. “Puppets, man. He’s fucking good at stitching and shit. And you can use a phone here, dumbass, we’re not gonna just stitch you up and shove you out the front door. For one thing, you’d probably try to keep my shades while you blasted off into the metaphorical sunset.”

John smiles. It’s shaky, but it’s there. Mission a-fucking-ccomplished. “Yeah. That makes sense.” He pauses. “Can I borrow a phone first?”

Dave’s phone background is one of his many ironic selfies. He maintains a perfectly straight face as he unlocks it and goes straight to the phone app before handing it over. “Knock yourself out, kid.”

Bro returns between one step and the next, a sewing kit tucked into his hand, and Dave exchanges a look with him.

Are we going to have a problem?

Not from John.

Bro grunts and starts setting up his needles while John is tapping in a phone number, slow and careful, as though worried he’ll forget the number halfway through and can’t afford to mess up. His arm is oozing blood still, and his shirt is smeared with both blood and Neosporin now. However he’s getting home, he’s probably gonna need to borrow a shirt before he goes out in front of people and gets an ambulance called on him. When Bro tilts his head at John’s arm, John isn’t paying enough attention to notice, intent on the phone ringing against his ear, so Dave nudges his arm onto the countertop, trying to play it off smoothly. John looks at him worriedly, before his face lights with comprehension and his whole body braces for the first stitch.

Someone answers on the other end of the phone line just as Bro starts stitching silently. Dave gives the kid props, he doesn't even need a bottle of vodka to keep from flinching at the pain. “D-d-lusus,” John catches himself. No, that was just…wow. Dave mouths ‘just say dad’ at the kid, and John flushes painfully. “Argh. Sorry Dad.”

Dave can hear the force of John’s dad’s response with ease; but then, he is standing all up in John’s personal space. He should probably move, but how else will he listen in?

“John. Where are you. This number has a Houston area code – is someone with you right now?”

“Yeah, someone’s with me, you could say that.” A stitch tugs at John’s skin and he twitches and bites back a yelp, one eye clearly twisted up in a weird half-grimace behind the shades. Wow, those shades are doing absolutely nothing at all on the concealment front. "Um. This is gonna sound pretty much impossible. Uh. I kind of, uh. I am in Houston.”

A long silence ensues. “John, stay where you are. I can trace this number to its location, I just need you to stay on the line. Are you injured?”

John blows out air through his nose. “Dad, I’m serious. I am in Houston. I have no idea how I got here, but apparently I managed it in just under a minute or so. I’m, uh. I’m with Flashstep and the Puppeteer.”

“John, I’m going to need a little more explanation than that,” the voice says flatly.

“When I landed – however I landed – I ended up kind of accidentally stabbing myself on this pile of shitty swords,” John goes on, kicking one leg absently. He yelps aloud and then claps his free hand belatedly over his mouth when a particularly deep stitch tugs at the edges of the sword wound. “So now I have to get stitches. But uh, other than that, I’m fine. Just reeeeally confused.”

“Password,” John’s guardian says at last. “I mean it John, if you’re in danger, I need the password.”

“I’m not giving you the password when I’m not in danger.” John rolls his eyes, proving that the shades have in fact begun to slide down the bridge of his nose and reveal his eyes anyway. No wonder the kid wears the goggles, nothing else stays attached to his face. “I’m just confused and kind of hungry and wondering how the heck I managed to cut a ten hour flight down to less than a minute without remembering anything about it. And also how I’m gonna get back.”

Another long silence occurs, during which Bro’s quick, neat stitch work ends and he ties off the knot with a nod before vanishing to hide his sewing kit again. Dave wordlessly hands John the Neosporin again, and the kid makes a face before starting to salve more onto the wound, head tilted to the side as he listens.

“You don’t have your wallet with you, or your phone. I have both here. Do you think you can return the same way you left?”

John hesitates, eyes flicking toward Dave, who just raises another pointed eyebrow. He doesn't even know what that look was about, but he's not going to let that ignorance show. Strider rule number one, never let them see you confused. A coolkid is always on top of his game, even when the game involves twelve different types of dice, people can teleport from one end of the map to the other, and the points don't matter. “I wouldn’t even have the first idea how to. I don’t even know if I did it, or if it was some kind of outside force. All I know is – uh, Flashstep and Puppeteer were just as surprised when I showed up as I was.”

“Preach it,” Dave says, slouching with his hands in his pockets.

“Have them set up a secure email.” John’s dad is suddenly all business, some of the urgency gone from his voice. He still sounds coldly furious, though, the barely restrained tension in his voice audible even to Dave. The guy sounded like a fucking douche – what, John didn’t even get a ‘glad you’re not dead or kidnapped’ spiel? “I don’t want you flying back to Washington out of uniform. I can see what flights run between Seattle and Houston and send you the ticket information.”

“Dad,” John begins to protest, pulling another hilarious face.

“No buts. Nothing is up for discussion until we get you home. Did you have plans with – your friend tomorrow?”

“Yeah. I’ll cancel th- no, I can’t. He’d notice the area code, too.”

“I’ll do my best to get you on a flight tonight. If we need to, you can send me your password and I’ll text him through your phone.” A pause, and the cold voice continues. “I’ll call you back in a few minutes. Please answer when I do.”

“I will.”

The phone clicks. John looks up, shoving the shades back up his nose when he realizes how far they’ve fallen. “I guess I’m flying the old fashioned way,” he says, a faint, forced smile on his face.

And –

Fuck.

Dave knows that weird, wistful smile, knows it too well for having only witnessed it one bizarre day nearly two years ago. Feels it like an ugly twist in his gut, a sickening lurch as though he’s misjudged the landing while crossing the rooftops. Hell, if he wouldn’t do anything to make that smile fuck right off, because it isn’t a smile at all. It's a question mark, like the kid doesn’t remember how to be happy.

So much for ‘i’m feeling much better now dave, you don’t need to worry so much i think i’m not so alone anymore.’ Load of bullshit. If he hadn’t overheard Asshole Dad mention a friend, Dave would be seriously doubting the existence of said friend at all. Apparently one good conversation with Dad of the Year and none of that mattered, because John looked just as lost and tired now as he had the day he punched a mugger in the face with a fistful of air and then turned to smile at Dave with a too-wide, rictus grin, more suited to a skeleton than a boy.

Dave does the same thing he did back then, when faced with that mockery of a smile. He takes the phone out of John’s hand and yanks him roughly into a hug, ignoring the kid’s flailing protests as he wraps his arms around his shoulders and holds on tight. “Shut up, John,” he says, clapping at a handful of John’s shirt, aware that he can feel the sticky damp of blood from the front of John’s shirt smearing onto his own. He could fucking care less at the moment. “Fuck your dad. You want to fly home yourself, then fucking fly home yourself. We can go all professional robber-chic and buy you a ski mask so no one can take your picture while you’re buzzing Nevada.”

“My dad would be pissed! And it would probably take me two days to get there, if I pushed it,” John protests, getting all squirmy. Dave just gets comfy, patting him on the back occasionally. That's the nice thing about having the ultimate poker face; shit like this doesn't even faze him. “Ka- my friend would definitely notice if I just mysteriously vanished or something over the weekend. I already made him really suspicious when I had to miss school on Thursday!”

“Yeah. But you still want to.”

John stills, and then, abruptly, Dave has an armful of heavy, quiet John. All the fight has gone out of him, and for a moment they’re both silent. “You know, I’m pretty sure that counts as shooshpapping,” John mutters, knocking his head on Dave’s shoulder. “Asshole. No one’s supposed to do that but my moirail. Which I have now. Fuck.”

Yeah, Dave has about zero context for any of this. Whaaat, so he's culturally insensitive - he has enough trouble maintaining all this Strider brand cool without worrying about weird trollmance quadrant shenanigans on top of that. “Contrary to whatever your troll buddy is telling you? Humans don’t follow troll quadrants,” Dave says, rolling his eyes. “Yeah, sometimes people get their hatemance on and everything, but seriously, I’m pretty sure serendipity is just some troll hormone thing. You’re a human. Guess what. If the shooshpapping works, it works. Whatever the hell shooshpapping is, anyway. Sounds like a troll made-up word, so that makes about as much sense as anything else about trolls.”

“Haha. I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works.” John shakes his head. “Why do you know me that well, anyway? How did you know I want to fly?”

“Aside from the fact that you practically gave me a play-by-play of your issues last time you were here? I’ve been talking to you for years now, dumbass. You always want to fly.” Dave lets go of the kid at last. You can only hug so much before it stops being either necessary or ironic and descends into the realm of the disgustingly sappy. “Seriously, this isn’t anything new. You were practically in tears last time because you wanted to zoom off during school hours and fly to your classes and take people for crazy tornado fun times instead of walking everywhere like the rest of us peons.”

John blushes so much his whole face looks stained the color of tea. “Shut up,” he says, picking at the stitches in his arm.

“We should wrap that up if you’re flying back,” Dave notes, turning to dig through the first aid bucket again.

“I haven’t said I’m flying back.” John makes a face, but it’s no longer plagued with the old, weary exhaustion; he looks alive again. Behold the power of Strider. “I still wish I knew what got me here. If it happened again mid-flight, who knows where I’d end up.”

“You don’t remember anything at all?” Dave yanks a roll of bandages out of the bucket and starts unrolling it. “Because it looked like you were pretty pissed off at Bro, and you got cut off before you could finish your assuredly epic-level death threat.”

John purses his lips as he glances at Bro’s closed bedroom door. Apparently, care and keeping of Heir has been left to Dave for the duration of his stay. Even Lil Cal has fucked off to parts unknown, which is vastly reassuring. The older Dave gets, the fucking creepier Bro's puppet of choice gets. He swears to any god listening that one day he will take that puppet and introduce it to the fucking blender.

“Yeah. Uh. Sorry about whole chat thing," John says, rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly. "I kind of did a flip off the metaphorical handle, didn’t I? I don't know why I got so angry.

“A full-on pirouette,” Dave agrees. “But to be fair, Bro was getting all weird and shit about this Midnight Crew thing.”

“That’s because they’re dangerous.”

Both he and John yell, because Bro’s voice doesn’t come from behind his bedroom door but from right the fuck behind them. The wind whips once before John settles down again, sending the bandages flying at the wall to bounce off the stovetop. The kid is fucking twitchy.

“Apology accepted by the way, kid,” Bro says, a tiny smirk in the corner of his mouth. “But hell. I’ll only say this one more time. You want my advice, you don’t go home. You call your guardian and tell him you’re moving somewhere else. Maybe Vancouver – Vancouver is still clear, and you’re still near your old turf. I wasn’t fucking kidding around; people die when the Crew gets pissed off. And after what just happened today? I think they’ll be very interested in you.”

John frowns and leans against the counter, crossing his free arm awkwardly over his chest while Dave commandeers his other arm to bandage it. “What the heck does that mean? Why would they be interested in me after today? I didn’t even fight them today. I’m probably going to miss patrol at this rate.” He sounds bitter, but Dave is too busy keeping steady pressure on the arm wound to clap him on the shoulder again.

Bro tilts his head to the side. “Because I just took a look at the kitchen cameras.”

Dave slaps his forehead. “You have the cameras on again?! I thought we said no more creepy puppet porn in the kitchen!” He should have known better after seeing the pile of smuppets once again taking up the kitchen sink, but he’d still held out hope for an alternative explanation.

“Ain’t porn, kid,” is all Bro says, which is a total lie. Dave knows. He's seen things, man. Terrible things. Things not meant to be witnessed by a sane man.

John rips his arm out of Dave’s grip, the bandage job only half finished, and he stares at Bro with wide-eyed horror, and, for the first time, genuine rage. “You have me on camera.”

“I have fucking all of us on camera at some point,” Bro says with a shrug. “And you’re going to want to see this, anyway. It’s pretty fucking enlightening.”

"No, just - no. This stops right now. You need to delete that, whatever you have on camera. This is not cool, okay?" John insists. His brown contact lenses seem to have fucking dissolved, because the blue is showing through and starting to look luminous again.

"Fine, I don't fucking need it," Bro says. "But you'll wanna watch it first. Come on, kiddies." With a wise-ass smirk he vanishes.

Dave catches John by the arm, and John gives him an irate glare, eyes all glowy and shit. "Come on. If he says he'll delete it, he will." This is a blatant lie, but Dave has a fucking spectacular poker face, as has been stated. Bro follows his own weird, puppet-freak whims, and only keeps his word about half the time. Usually when he doesn't, he only breaks his promises to some inscrutable end that ends up saving lives in an unfathomably badass fashion, so Dave's learned to let it just roll over him. Mostly. "Let's just get it over with. Then we can get you a new goddamn shirt or something, you look like fucking Carrie."

John grimaces, but his eyes power down as he tugs at the edge of his shirt and makes a face at the blood smeared down his front. "Oh, great. Yeah, I'd appreciate that. What a mess…"

And so peace is restored to the land. Dave is the Heir-whisperer. It is him. He walks without flashstepping toward Bro's unholy hellhole of a room, and John follows, the windy thing around him relatively calm but still present.

Bro's room is deceptively clean and free of puppets, and his bed, unlike Dave's is perfectly made, as though Bro is too cool for such lowly human functions as sleep. Dave knows this to be an ironic cover for the fact that his closet is fucking jam packed with creepy ass puppets and high quality swords. Instead, robot parts and gears litter the corners in piles, and a single battle puppet - not Lil Cal - lies out on the desk, its mechanical insides exposed. Bro is putting on a show of tinkering with the gears, but the four monitors on his desk are all tuned to one channel, a silent hint that he's more interested in the screens than the robots.

Dave and John crowd in behind Bro's chair, Dave keeping a good distance from the screen to hide just how very interested he is in getting a goddamn explanation for tonight. John just leans in, one hand clenched on top of the desk, oblivious to how close to a potentially deadly puppetkind specibus he's leaning. Seriously, Dave is gonna have to sweep his room for fucking sword traps and shit before he lets John anywhere near it; the kid just does not comprehend the many different ways this apartment is designed to fuck with the minds of the unwary.

Once they're both there, Bro absently reaches up and presses a button on his keyboard, and then pretends to go back to working on the puppet as the video starts.

On the tape, the kitchen is dark and cluttered with random shit (John is right, why do they have all this random-ass stuff everywhere?), the pile of smuppets in the sink silhouetted in the moonlight, which is creepy as fuck.

They watch about five minutes of the same scene before John gets antsy. True, Dave doesn't see the point of this either, but John shows his restlessness, shifting his weight from side to side, his frown deepening with each passing minute. How does this kid feel so damn much all the time? John opens his mouth, then snaps it shut, as though swallowing the urge to say something. It's bizarre, watching someone with so many tells in their face. And all that is just what Dave can see in the corner of his eyes, with most of his focus on the video feed.

Finally, something changes on screen. It doesn't really make sense, either. A whooshing feedback blasts through the speakers, loud enough to make even Dave wince, and then - John is on screen. He just magically appears out of the air two feet above the ground, one arm flying out to grab the edge of the kitchen counter. The other arm, trapped by the sling, ends up taking a sword to the forearm before John can yank it free, which is actually a pretty lucky coincidence - the angle of that sword could have fucked John's lungs up good.

Then Dave and Bro are in the kitchen, having flashstepped their way in, and Bro pauses the feed.

"What...the heck?" John says, looking nonplussed. "I just - showed up. I didn't even fly in through the window, or anything. Are you sure there isn't something wrong with the tape?"

"I have five cameras on that kitchen, kid. Same thing on all of them. No sign of tampering or distortion. Kudos, Heir, you've apparently mastered teleportation." Bro doesn't even bother with a slow clap; it's implied.

"I don't think you can call it 'mastered' if I have no idea how I did it," John says, still staring at the paused video feed. "Weeeird. So weeeird."

"Well, figure it the fuck out. Dave and I are still overdue for a nice long, heart to heart chat about how he knows you, and the only reason you're still in this apartment right now is because he's vouching for you. If you figure out how to do it again, feel fucking free."

"Vouching for - he didn't even say anything," John protests. Dave has to shake his head. Apparently a lot of the subtext has been going over John's head.

"Boy, sometimes you are as dumb as a sack of hammers," Bro says, shaking his head almost at the same moment Dave does, shrugging sarcastically. "Anyway, your guardian called."

John flinches, then looks confused, one hand going for the pocket where he'd put Dave's phone. "Wait, what? When?! I thought I had the ph-"

Bro holds up Dave's phone in his hand, and Dave bristles. John stops patting at his pockets, looking embarrassed. "He emailed over the flight number and shit," Bro says, smirking at both of them in his victory. "You head out at five in the morning. Crash on the couch or do fuck all in Dave's room, I don't care. I printed off the tickets for you."

He holds up a folded piece of paper in a gloved hand, a smug grin on his face as John snags the ticket. Then he lobs the cell phone at full speed toward Dave's head. Dave stops time and grabs it. "Nice selfies, btw, Dave," Bro finishes, swiveling in his chair to face the computer monitors and the puppet once more. "Classic irony. Truly vintage stuff, right there."

He has the tone in his voice that means Dave's slipped up in the great game of irony again. It's gone past vintage irony and straight into cringe-worthy. Fuck.

"Wait, that doesn't make any sense. What did you say - he would have asked for me if he called. There's no way he'd trust you guys with something like this. No offense," John says. He doesn't look apologetic, though; he's eyeing Bro warily, one hand still at his pocket where he'd kept the phone. He no doubt wonders how Bro got in and out of his guard so easily. John is smarter than your average non-Strider, but Dave could have told him there is no point in wondering - Bro's impossible speed and stealth remain a mystery even to Dave after all these years.

"None taken, kid. What can I say? I have my ways," Bro says, answering basically nothing at all. He pulls out a fucking welding torch and starts using it on the puppet without even putting on a safety mask over his shades. Sparks fly everywhere, and it's probably a side effect of Bro's eternal aura of cool that nothing catches fire.

"What does that mean? What did my dad say?!" John demands, taking a step forward.

Bro grunts. "Nothing much. Told me to mind my own fucking business, then had to go answer the door and deal with people. Probably afraid I'm gonna trample all over his precious single-parent territory. What can I say, I intimidate other parents with my fantastic guardianship skills. It's why they kicked Dave out of preschool - the other kids couldn't handle their jealousy over the fact that Dave got to come home with me everyday, kept trying to ditch their own parents to get some of this parental goodness."

John looks suspicious, but he folds up the ticket and stuffs it into his pocket after scanning it again. "Thank you for printing it, sir."

Bro's eyebrows could have raised the roof. "Sir? Dave, why the fuck don't you call me sir?"

"Because fuck you, that's why," Dave replies, giving him the middle finger. "Now delete the creepy kitchen video before I beat you to it and introduce the hard drive to my shitty swords."

"You could try, little brother. You wanna go? Because it sounds like someone's getting a little uppity." Dave catches the twitch of Bro' fingers that could mean anything from a puppet pile to a stack of shitty swords is about to appear out of thin air. He braces himself to stop time -

"I really would prefer if you destroyed that video," John interjects, before Bro can finish issuing the deathmatch challenge Dave can feel coming. "I'm sure you guys wouldn't leak it to the Internet or anything like that on purpose, but it's still a risk to have that kind of evidence lying around. And you two are out of costume on it, too."

He clearly thinks he's being reasonable and convincing with that last point; it probably has yet to hit him that Bro is wearing exactly the same kind of outfit he always wears in the field on patrol.

"...Fine. I'll erase every copy of that clip. Just for you, kid, because Dave likes you, and it's fucking precious that after eighteen years he's finally figured out this mysterious thing called friendship." Bro cracks his knuckles. "All I ask is that you hear me out about the Midnight Crew thing."

What.

"Dude. Okay. What. No. What the fuck," Dave demands. John just seems speechless, his mouth opening and shutting wordlessly, and Dave completely understands. He'd thought they'd put this whole MC farce behind them but apparently not. "Alright, yeah, John, just ignore him, we're leaving."

"Stop, Dave. Let the kid talk. Your massive secret friendship boner is just embarrassing," Bro drawls.

Wow. Shut down. Again. Dave feels his teeth grit, his cheeks flaring a bright red of both embarrassment and anger, and knows that even showing that much irritation is too much. In Bro's eyes, Dave just lost, no matter what he says or does afterward.

And maybe John had a point earlier, on Pesterchum. It's been building for years now, but Dave is just...tired. So tired of this fucking nonstop game Bro plays. Irony and self-control - the twin essences of the coolkid, the way of the Strider.

Yeah. Maybe it had been fun when Dave was a kid, and all he wanted to do was prove himself to his big brother. Lately, it just feels stifling. Annoying. Every time he has to remind himself not to express emotion, it's a pain in the goddamn ass.

Of course, there's absolutely no one he can talk to about this. Perks of being raised by a fucking isolationist. Bro would have done the Monroe Doctrine proud, and no, don't ask Dave how he knows what the Monroe Doctrine is. You come across some weird shit on the Internet, alright? Suffice to say, Striders are a fucking island, and Dave's spent so long avoiding normal social interaction, he can't remember how it works, if he even knew in the first place.

John and Bro have still been arguing while Dave seethes, lost in his own head. "It's not going to stop with blowing up random buildings," Bro is saying when Dave's brooding intermission comes to an end. "They'll go after you directly now that you've crossed them. And now that you're dicking around with teleportation, you'll jump right to the top of their most-wanted list."

"He already tried a grenade once already," John yells, flinging his hands up in the air. Dave is almost impressed by how much excess emotion the kid has to spare. Even at his most outraged Dave doesn't think he could feel that much. "I don't see how they're even going to find out about this whole Houston thing - I'll be back by tomorrow!"

"They know. They always know."

"If you can't be more explicit than that, there's no way you can convince me to leave Seattle," John says, shaking his head. "I have a duty to my city. I'm going back. I'm not running away," His expression goes still and solemn behind the shades, and his lip pouts out a bit, but the overall effect is pretty clear. "I appreciate" - the word practically scrapes over John's tongue with clear reluctance - "your advice. But that's enough. Once I get home, I'm in my territory. I'm not telling you what to do about Houston, am I?"

"...Touché. It's your ass, kid. Up to you how you want to risk it," Bro replies at last. He pushes his pointy shades up his nose, and they glint in the half light. "I already gave my two fucking cents to your dad. I'm just telling you. Let that troll kid know what he's up against, before he gets hurt. I'm sure you can take care of yourself, but he's probably not half as resilient."

"Why do you even care?" Dave bursts in. "Oh my god, Bro, and you call me embarrassing. You and this Crew thing, it's like a dog and a fucking bone. Aren't you supposed to be the chill one? Lay off."

"Please," John adds emphatically, nodding at Dave. Fuck yeah, solidarity.

Bro goes totally still. The kind of still that implies a truly harsh smackdown is about to be unleashed when they're strifing, and Dave tenses. Between John's (totally justified) anger, Dave's simmering rebellion, and Bro's incredibly idiotic decision to be a stubborn ass today, they're basically setting up for a three-man cage match, which is both awesome and amazingly stupid. Particularly since they're in the seat of Bro's power. It's like a puppet depot up in here.

Somehow, it doesn't all end in a free-for-all. "Yeah. I don't let shit rile me up. But I'm also not a total dick," Bro says, his tone actually dry with detectible sarcasm. His volume starts to increase, until it's louder than Dave has ever heard Bro speak before, and Dave can't help but stare as though Bro has started to grow a second head. "I raised a fucking kid, I'll have you know. Dave didn't just magically walk out of the sea fully formed in a cloud of seafoam and rainbows. Maybe your guardian is okay with letting a pair of kid heroes go up against an entire gang of dangerous motherfuckers, but I. Am. Not."

Dave's jaw drops.

Bro shakes his head and puts down the welding torch. He closes up the puppet's chest cavity and takes up his needle and thread. "Get outta my room, you punks. Go the fuck to sleep or something."

There's some weariness in his tone that brooks no argument. Dave is shaken, still trying to process the violent emotion that had suddenly emerged from Bro's monotone at the end of that rant. He - he can't. He touches John's shoulder instead, jerking his head toward the open door. He doesn't know what his face is doing, too much confusion and shock roiling around to contain it all, but whatever John sees is enough to get him to walk out with Dave.

They leave Bro alone, hunched over his desk, sewing quietly in the bluish light of the computer monitors.

-

"...Wait here," Dave says, putting out an arm to stop John from crossing the threshold into Dave's bedroom.

"What's up?" John says, standing awkwardly in his blood-smeared t-shirt and the reattached sling. Using his windy thing earlier seems to have dissolved his false-colored contact lenses or some shit, but even with the brilliant blue eyes exposed, the difference between John and Heir is obvious. John may be on the alert, stuck in an unfamiliar place under mysterious circumstances, but he does seem to trust Dave a little, at least, so he's lost some of the battle-ready aura and tension that followed him from the kitchen into Bro's room.

"Gotta disarm all this shit, man. Try to make this place safe for human habitation. There's some sacred law of hospitality about this kind of thing, all right?" That all cleared up, Dave walks into the room, fighting the urge to flashstep all over the fucking place and just clear up any potential traps that way. Bro knows about the flashstep - that's the whole fucking point - so most of the traps will be set to go off in places he least suspects it, places he'd only step if he happened to walk there normally rather than skipping over it in a time-stop.

So Dave does a careful, shuffling circuit of the room, hands stuffed into his pockets. He's painfully aware with each passing minute of how stupid he looks, circling his own room while nothing at all happens. He even opens his closet door and steps inside, and nothing happens.

Did someone abduct Bro and replace him with a normal person? Jesus Christ, Dave is about ready to believe that, even if he only just saw Bro two minutes ago. After that glimmer of actual emotion from his brother at the end of his argument with John, Dave doesn't know what the hell to think anymore. There isn't a single fucking trap in here. This ain't natural.

Trying to distract himself, he grabs a short-sleeved red shirt with the Iron Man symbol on it (everything is done in the service of irony, okay?) and tosses it to John. The wind catches it instead, which is - really fucking cool, all right, he said it - and John glances around the room once more with an appraising eye before stepping in, apparently put on his guard by Dave's residual wariness. Then John looks down at the shirt in his hands, and pauses, blinking at the shirt. "You know, I think I own this shirt, too!"

Dave shakes his head, going to his desk and shoving his latest taxidermy find, a four-eyed black cat, behind a pile of old vinyl records. Knowing John, he wears that shirt unironically, and Dave wants no part in that level of geekery.

He has also never been more aware of just how many dead animals he has lying around in various different states of preservation. He sees John's jaw drop as he inspects a Gila monster in a jar of formaldehyde, and he quickly kicks a stuffed platypus into the shadows under his desk before John can see it. "Anyway, mi casa, su casa, John," he says, hitching a hip on the corner of his desk. "Except, you know, don't go near Bro's puppet sex torture dungeon by yourself. There is evil there that does not sleep. Seriously. I've never seen that asshole sleep. Not even once."

"Haha, really?" John shakes his head. "You know, I don't think I've ever seen my dad asleep, either. Even when I wake him up to report like, head injuries and stuff, he's usually already sitting up and putting on a robe before I finish opening the door."

"Fucking guardians, man," Dave says, fervent. The best part is, John doesn't give him a look for letting that bit of emotion out; he just nods back in agreement. "Anyway. Yeah. I think there's another blanket in here somewhere. I've got the floor."

John actually tries to put up a fight. But Dave is pretty sure it's automatically a dick move if you make guests sleep on the floor, and any argument John tries to make is totally cancelled out by each wide yawn he lets out. It's barely nine, Central time, but despite John's protestations he looks completely beat. There's the fading edge of a bruise down the side of his face, presumably from that whole grenade incident he still refuses to acknowledge did a number on him, and though he claims to be able to work on four hours of sleep a night, Dave is willing to bet that however that teleportation thing worked it involved a fuck ton of energy. Space isn't exactly his forte, but he's pretty sure you can't break the laws of physics and catapult yourself halfway across the country without expending some massive amounts of energy.

Finally, John is half passed out in the bed, barely keeping one eye open. "Hey, Dave. Do you want to talk about you and your Bro? Because it definitely seems like you have some kind of beef with him, but he's ignoring you. Like, he just talks right over you sometimes. And he's really fucking obnoxious."

Dave locates his spare pair of shades in the drawer of his desk. They're dusty and really fucking ancient, but he slides them on, since John shows no sign of taking off his current pair, even with half his face mashed into a pillow. "No, not really. I'm sick of his fucking asshat rumpus tonight," Dave mutters. "He think he can do no wrong or some shit. Fuck him."

"Hear, hear," John agrees. Then he laughs, sounding halfway asleep. "You know, I'm glad you're just as big of a nerd in real life as on Pesterchum, Dave. We only ever really talked once before, and I kind of shoved all my issues at you at once. But you're still a total coolkid nerd."

What. Dave sprawls out on the floor, one leg still propped up with his knee bent as he stares at the blank ceiling. "I have no idea what you're talking about, John. Seriously, where do you come up with these bizarre ideas. What the fuck is a coolkid nerd supposed to be? An abomination of science?"

"You can pretend you're as cool as you want, Dave, but I know you quoted Lord of the Rings just then." John chuckles, before another yawn interrupts him.

Fuck. Well. "Fellowship is the shit. It gets a special pass and it in no way reflects on my coolkid gambit, John." Dave folds his arms behind his head.

"I wear super hero shirts, and you quote Lord of the Rings and rap Celine Dion. I'm just, you know. Saying it. For the record. Nerrrrd."

John is smirking, damn him. Dave can hear his smug tone. Oh, hell naw. "Irony, John. Irony," he says. "Don't make me come up there and instruct you on the exact difference between irony and being a total nerd. I'm sure I've given you this vital life lesson before, I don't want to repeat any material.

John snorts. "Yeah, yeah, Dave, okay. Whatever you say. You are the irony master, after all."

"Damn straight I am."

After a few minutes of silence, he thinks John has gone to sleep. The kid's breath rustles every piece of paper in the room, which can't be fucking normal, but after a while the windy thing settles down, and Dave nods to himself. He's kind of tired himself, but he still has to get up and -

"...Is Dave your real name?"

Holy crap John is still awake. Dave stays very still while his heart does a two-step, and thinks about how to answer.

"John is yours, isn't it?" Dave says at last. He doesn't really know how else to respond. Because yeah, of course Dave is his real name, but it would have been the smart thing to give a fake one when they met that first time. John might not even believe him if he confirmed it.

He's asked himself countless time why he just gave out his real name to some random depressed hero who just flew in unannounced from New York, but he can never really come up with a good answer. Nothing that makes sense, anyway. He doesn't know why, but he's always assumed John gave his real name, too. The kid is paranoid as fuck, but - Dave doesn't know.

Sometimes he says their internet brohood is transcendent. As stupid and corny as that sounds, maybe some part of him even believes that. Even when it might be dumb to give each other their real names and risk blowing their aliases, they both did.

"...G'night, Dave."

"...Yeah, sames."

-

An hour later, when John has sunk into a fitful doze, a second Dave walks into the room. "Just go," future-Dave tells current-Dave, shaking his head. He looks like he's sweating, which is really goddamn weird, but Dave has a system now. Future-him doesn't tell him anything about what's about to happen during his daily round two, except the life and death shit. After the whole shoving himself off a building incident, all Dave Striders past, present, and future must obey the law of mortality-threat disclosure. He will have order, goddammit. He has a fucking system.

"How far back?" Dave whispers, putting on the same pair of shoes future-Dave is wearing. He throws a few glances at John asleep on the bed, but other-Dave just shushes him and doesn't seem too concerned about waking up the unexpected guest. They've had these plans to go meet the BQ for a while now. And hey, this way there will still be a Dave around to keep Bro from kidnapping John for his own good or some shit.

"Only about four hours. It's a fucking shitshow, though. Take the good swords," future-Dave advises.

Dave does.

---

John can't really sleep. The air coming in through the window is hot and humid and unfamiliar, a good ten degrees warmer than back home in Washington, and he has to kick off both the sheets and the covers from Dave's bed before he can begin to doze off. Part of the problem - a huge part - is that this is the second night in a row he's missed his patrol in Seattle. The fact that he's stranded all the way down in Texas does nothing to assuage the rising tide of guilt eating at him, preventing him from relaxing enough to fall asleep.

He wonders if he could teleport himself back, right here and now. But...he just doesn't have the first clue how he did it in the first place! It's like there's a blank spot in his head between being pestered by Dave and his Bro and suddenly landing in their kitchen.

See, John is in Houston.

That still hasn’t really sunk in yet. But every time he turns around, he gets another reminder: the piles of dangerous junk lying everywhere, the sticky, hot smell of pollution drifting in through the hole in Dave’s wall, the unknown age of the pizza that Dave excavates for them to eat from a fridge full of shitty swords. Oh, and the fact that every time he looks outside, he sees Houston.

He feels like he should probably be freaking out a lot more. This is a mess. He’s stuck in a tiny apartment with two people who wave swords around for a living, and just because one is his Internet chum and the other is a relatively well-known hero doesn’t make him any safer with them than with any other strangers. Okay, Dave’s not really a stranger, but this is the first time John has met the guy in years, and anyway, that first meeting only lasted about a day before they went their separate ways.  

His dad calls one last time before John goes to sleep. Dave hands him the phone wordlessly and stares out the window while John has a muttered conference with his dad on the details of his flight tomorrow morning, once more blank-faced behind a pair of sunglasses he found somewhere. Which means, in a way, Dave is out of uniform; Flashstep doesn’t cover his face while he’s working. So now that both John and Dave have shades on, somehow, John has ended up the only one in disguise in an apartment full of three heroes. Flashstep and the Puppeteer are just a totally different type of hero from the kind John has been raised to be. They’re careless and John is pretty sure they’ve mentioned what may be their real last name a couple times so far, with no regard for his presence. It’s backwards and confusing and blehhhh.

He doesn’t understand how he can be tired so early, either. He runs a mental check when his eyes first start drooping over a slice of reheated pizza, but despite the fact that it’s only seven in the evening, Seattle time, he can barely think straight past the exhaustion. On a regular night, he wouldn’t even have started patrolling yet! Jeez! The cut on his arm has already started to heal and barely stings anymore, but his collar bone aches grumpily when he changes out of his gross blood-stained shirt and into one of Dave’s.

Using the wind for big things like tornados and stuff always tires him out a bit faster, and he can only assume that…whatever happened that landed him here in Dave’s apartment, it took even more out of him. He doesn’t want to call it teleportation. Teleportation isn’t even close to what the wind has been able to help John do before. The wind obeys his call, helps him fight, catches him when anyone else would just fall. It doesn’t mysteriously transplant him over two thousand miles out of his way in under two minutes.

You’re also strong, a niggling voice whispers in his head. You heal too fast. On a normal day, you barely need to sleep. Those aren’t windy things.

Okay, John’s power has never been restricted to just the wind. But being really resilient doesn’t have much to do with teleporting, either.

So what gives?

He supposes this could all still be an elaborate conspiracy by the Puppeteer, who was the only one to have access to the tapes before John and Dave viewed them. Bro is insanely fast, so fast that John can barely track his breathing when he moves around in a room, and could hypothetically have the technological skills to quickly alter the video while John was dealing with a giant stab wound in the kitchen. But why? What would be his motivation?

If all of this is some kind of trap, what’s the point? John can’t figure it out, and it’s goddamn frustrating.

All John remembers is being so pissed. A whole new level of pissed. Sooo pissed. Like, he’d been channeling the spirit of his inner-Karkat or something, only being that angry wasn’t so hilarious when you were the one feeling it. You were just…angry, and everything was awful, and it sucked. He doesn’t know how Karkat maintains that level of pure irritation all the time. John had had to just stop talking to Bro earlier, because – he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t let himself get that angry again. His dad has drilled into him that getting angry could get people hurt, with John’s level of strength and his abilities. While honestly, of all the people in the world, the Puppeteer could probably give as good as he got, John didn’t want to hurt anyone out of some irrational anger because that person was worried about his well-being.

Because even if at first it just seemed like Bro was being a dick? After his outburst earlier about raising Dave, John just feels bad. Bro’s default state seems to be stuck on ‘emotionless douchebag,’ but apparently being annoyingly persistent and taunting people and smirking is how he…shows brotherly concern?

Yeah, no, John doesn’t get it.  Maybe it’s a brother thing. He’s only ever had his dad, after all.

He doesn’t know how he’s going to get to sleep now, though. How can he be expected to sleep with all of this crazy stuff on his mind, in a strange place with people he barely knows?

-

…He apparently fell asleep. Uh. Well. Okay. That was easy.

John rolls over, the wind tugging at his hair but not trying to yank him up into the air like usual. He can’t tell if it’s because the air is heavy and sluggish with humidity, or because he himself is slow on the uptake, trying to make sense of the hovering pile of rainbow puppets that hangs over his head, supported by the wind.

“Dave?” he asks tentatively, reaching up to adjust the shades on his face. They won’t stay on properly over top of his glasses, but he draws the line at removing either pair. It’s going to be weird and attention-grabbing enough that John is flying back to Seattle without having legally flown down to Houston in the first place; no need to have his face exposed so everyone can see that John Egbert’s eyes have turned a bright blue. His tinted contact lenses are just – gone. No explanation. It’s too late to keep Dave and Bro from seeing his face and the real color of his eyes, but he wants to be as low key as possible at the airport, where there could be yet more cameras that could record his face.

Or maybe Bro’s paranoia is just contagious.

“Dave?” he repeats when he gets no reply.

“No,” Dave’s voice mumbles. “No Dave here. Whoever told you that was a lying liar who lies.” When John leans over the bed, holding both pairs of glasses up with a hand, he sees Dave half hidden under the bed, and half covered in more of the weird rainbow puppets. Seriously, do these things just generate out of thin air?

John looks up at the puppets above him, and then gestures with the wind, sending them toppling down in a pile on the floor.

Someone flickers through the air, in and out of the room before John can process who it is. Suddenly, the puppets rise up and fling themselves at Dave, bombarding him from all sides as he flails. “Augh!” Dave yells, and he must pause time right then, because the next second he’s standing over by the desk and the puppets are scattered in pieces with stuffing everywhere, like he sliced his way free. “Mother. Fucking. Puppet. Ass,” he chokes out, clearly struggling to suppress some intense emotion as he lets his head rest back against the wall. “Oh my god. Why. Why is this happening. So plush. Eurghhhhh.”

“Does this happen a lot?” John asks.

“You have no goddamn idea, John. My life is a puppet-themed hell.” Dave recollects himself, shoulders slumping out of a battle-ready stance as he sticks his hands in his pockets, as though he didn’t just have a minor episode over a bunch of relatively innocuous puppets.

Remembering a certain offhand comment about puppet porn, John decides not to think about it. Seriously. He’s not thinking about it. Ever. “Hey, what time is it?”

“What do I look like, a watch?” Dave says, his tone too flat for John to tell if he’s joking or not. “It’s like six in the morning. Normal people shouldn’t even be awake right now. This is obscene. Thanks, Bro. Thanks for the wakeup call!” He raises his voice a little on the last part, sarcasm giving the words bite, and John hears a grunt of acknowledgement from the kitchen. “Can’t even deal with him right now,” Dave mutters. Then he frowns at John. Or at least John thinks he’s frowning – his eyebrows furrow a bit, but John obviously can’t see all of his expression. “You managed to avoid a faceful of puppet ass, John? Oh my god. Teach me your ways. Right here, right now.”

John stands up, stretching carefully to avoid jolting his arm. “Were those puppets supposed to hit me, too? I guess the wind just caught them.”

“You don’t know how lucky you are, man.” Dave shakes his head. “I stop time and I still can’t evade these fucking things. Ugh. I feel violated. Learn from my mistakes, John. Do not ever piss off a carapacian dame and a puppet-obsessed maniac on the same night. I regret all of my life choices right now. So much regret.”

John blinks. “Wait, what? When did that happen? Was I asleep for that part or something?” Sure, he could see Bro maybe starting a fight in the middle of the night, but when did a carapacian enter into the equation? They’re really rare, aren’t they? John doesn’t think he’s ever met one in person.

“Or something,” Dave says, rubbing at his eyes behind his shades. “Come on, if we’re going to be functional at ass o’clock in the morning, I need way more AJ.”

“Uh, okay. Whatever you say, Dave.” Self-conscious and awkward in his borrowed shirt, John follows Dave out into the main room. After two more piles of things – a stack of robot parts and an entire table, which doesn’t really count as a pile, he supposes – ambush them, evaded by Dave and caught by John’s breezes, he starts to get that yes, this really is a regular thing. Dave looks grim but not surprised by the constant barrage.

John realizes, with a combination of wonder and dismay, that this might well be Bro’s equivalent of John and his dad’s morning t’ai chi routine. After that first disastrous puppet pile in the bedroom, Dave is flashstepping around flying cutlery and empty pizza boxes without missing a beat, while John lets the wind circulate around him in a constant shield to deflect anything that flies his way.

This is more than just the unfathomable whim of a cruel and distant brother. This is…training.

...Sooooo weeeeeird.

They somehow survive the journey to the kitchen, despite one flurry of swords that nearly took John’s eye out, and John sees that most of the piles of junk scattered around the room, including the shitty swords he cut himself on last night, have vanished, repurposed as part of the trap-riddled obstacle course. Dave goes into the pantry, heaves himself up onto the third shelf, and feels around in the shadows of the topmost shelf before a tiny smirk of triumph breaks through his blank face. He holds up a bottle of amber yellow liquid solemnly. “Fuck yeah.”

He jumps down to the ground, apple juice in hand, and the ceiling bursts open. Dave barely has time to look up, mouth parted in horror, as he is completely buried in puppets. John can only watch, startled, as puppets continue to pour down in wave after wave of rainbow goodness.

“John.” The voice comes from within the pile of puppets. One last puppet tumbles down from the trap door in the ceiling and bounds off the top of the Dave-pile.

“Yes Dave?”

“I need you to be my second. Bro just declared war on the sovereign nation of Dave Strider. It’s on.”

John raises an eyebrow. “I thought the puppet thing was normal?”

“That fucker stole my apple juice.” Dave emerges from the pile between one second and the next, leaving most of the puppets decapitated behind him. “The deathmatch commences now."

-

Apparently, in addition to doing hero work without masks and buying groceries while in costume, the Puppeteer and Flashstep engage in semi-regular rooftop duels, where anyone in one of the apartments on either side could easily look out and watch them go at it. Even as John anxiously scans the windows of the building next door to make sure the coast is clear, a woman with a small child opens up a window on level with their roof and yells, “You two gueros locos better not fuck up my window again!”

Bro salutes her with a sword.

Chingate!” With that she closes the window with a resounding slam and disappears.

John’s brain hurts.

Dave raises his swordkind, the corners of his mouth turned slightly downward in an amazing display of fury. “One rule, Bro. One. Do not. Fuck. With my apple juice.”

Bro tilts his head to the side. John looks at where Bro is staring, and sees one of the many puppets propped up on the edge of the air conditioning unit, the bottle of AJ enclosed in the embrace of its arms. Its wide blue eyes glimmer uncannily, its cheeks stretched in an unnatural grin. It freaks John right the fuck out, enough so that he unconsciously tugs more of the Houston morning air around him. Puppets like that didn’t belong anywhere but carnivals and horror movies. He recognizes the Puppeteer’s puppet of choice, Lil Cal, but it’s a lot more terrifying in person than in newspapers. It just…stares. Unblinking. Soulless. Ever-smiling.

Bro finally says, “Nut up or shut up, kid. Fight me or the AJ goes over the edge.” He raises a hand and Lil Cal twitches closer to the edge of the roof.

Dave stiffens. “You wouldn’t.”

“Last night just proved you need some schooling, little brother,” Bro says, shrugging. “If you weren’t so attached to fruit juice, I wouldn’t have to use this weakness against you. You should probably look into that.”

“You bastard. What did the apple juice ever do to you? Just give it back and no one has to get a fucking sword in their kidney.”

Bro raises a hand and curls his fingers in a ‘bring it on’ gesture. Dave obliges, crossing the yards between him and Bro in a matter of seconds. Then both men begin flickering and out of sight as they move too fast for John to follow, their swords flaring with reflected light in the rising sun. Neither of them take off their shades, either, which means they’re both doing this in their civilian attire. John doesn’t even bother to point that out.

This would be really, really cool and all, getting to watch two of the best heroes in the US in action, except that John doesn’t understand why any of this is happening, and these two are completely insane.

“Do we really have to do this right now? This whole thing seems like it could turn out to be completely pointless,” John calls, hands cupped around his mouth. He feels he should throw his opinion into the ring. “And I have to go to the airport eventually!”

“Kid, you can fly!” Bro shoots back,  slowing just long enough that John sees him kick out to trip Dave before the battle’s time-defying pace resumes. “You don’t need a fucking babysitter!”

He’s an asshat, but he does have a point. “Hey Dave, just yell if you need me to, I don’t know, avenge your death or something, I’m gonna go find something to eat.” He’s starving by this point – reheated pizza doesn’t exactly last long when you usually eat as much as three men per meal.

Dave nods before parrying another blow. Bro is practically invisible by this point, and it would look like Dave is just fighting by himself except for the occasional stray puppet or spark of steel on steel that gives Bro’s position away. All the while, Lil Cal looks on with shining eyes.

Yeah, as interesting as it is to watch the Puppeteer and Flashstep duke it out in person, John is 120% done with that creepy puppet.  He backs away from the duel, not really willing to turn his back on the scene when there are really sharp swords everywhere, and then descends the stairs back down to Dave’s apartment. He lets out a sigh of relief when he can’t feel Lil Cal’s eyes on him anymore. How does Dave stand that all the time? He wanders to the fridge and opens it, bracing the unstable pack of shitty swords with his shoulder as he hunts through the drawers for something edible.

...How do these two even survive?! There's a drawer full of something unmentionable that's gone fuzzy and green, and apart from that the entire fridge is taken up with empty apple juice bottles and sword specibi. This is unnatural; how can two people live with only a single three-day-old pizza to sustain them?! Shaking his head, John grabs a slice of pizza. It tastes like cardboard and mushrooms, but he coughs it down. He's still wallet-less, and he's really hoping Dave will finish up this deathmatch in time to direct John to the airport -

John stops. He had started to wander back towards Dave's room, thinking he might retrieve his old shirt, but on the way he sees that Bro's door is hanging open. A single puppet wedged between the door and the frame must have caused the door to slowly open rather than closing completely.

And that normally wouldn't have caught John's attention, except that he can quite clearly see, through the open door, that the video from last night is still up on Bro's monitor. As he does a slow, deliberate doubletake, swallowing a piece of pizza, he sees that it has been paused right when past-John has just mysteriously appeared over the sword pile.

The Puppeteer promised he'd delete that, John thinks vaguely. The wind starts to pick up around him, new gusts streaming in through the hole in Dave's wall and whipping around John in a protective circle as he storms into Bro's room. No traps go off or anything as he marches up to the desk and takes in all four monitors. Three have different angles of the kitchen from last night, with John in the center of the shot.

The fourth has a tiny popup that reads 'File Copy Complete."

Bro didn't erase the footage. He saved a copy.

For a long moment, John can only stand there, feeling the fury rise up inside him. Then, his chest explodes in pain.

He huddles forward over it, one hand clutching at his chest, but between the pain all he can think is he is going to punch The Puppeteer into next fucking week -

And then –

John’s ears pop, and he’s falling. He yelps, and closes both fists reflexively, and the wind catches him a foot above the Puppeteer’s head.

He’s back on the roof.

More precisely, he’s hovering seven feet above the roof, suspended mere inches from a really sharp, not-so-shitty katana.

“Dude. What.” Dave is somewhere under John’s feet, which is makes it awkward when John tries to turn and look at his face. With a twist of the wind John flips himself upright and eases himself down onto the roof. His legs feel kind of wobbly, but he lands alright. The sudden chest pain is gone, but he presses a hand to his sternum anyway, shaken. He'd been so angry that the pain barely registered, but the shock of appearing above the roof sucked the rage right out of him, along with the pain.

Just like it had earlier, when he'd teleported from his bedroom to these guys' apartment.

Well then.

“Sup?” John says weakly. “Uh. I think I might have done the teleport thingy again.”

“You know, I wouldn’t have guessed that, John, not with the way you just appeared out of bugfuck nowhere,” Dave says, facepalming with his free hand.

"Any idea what you did this time?" Bro asks, tucking his sword away across his back. Dave is still at the ready, but the Puppeteer walks away from him and John, striding to the AC unit by the edge of the roof. He rests Lil Cal on his shoulder, completely unconcerned about the fact that Dave still has his sword out and a total revenge face on.

John glares at the man. “You didn’t delete that video! I saw it on your computer still. You lied!”

“And that got you all righteously pissy, didn’t it,” Bro states. He flings the entire bottle of apple juice at Dave’s head. Dave catches it and takes a moment to stare at bottle before hugging it under one arm. “And then, you ended up all the way up here.”

Bro then goes silent. After a long minute, John gets it. “I got mad at you – again – and I – ohhh.”

“Except this time you came up here with Dave and saw where I was, first. And traveled a shorter distance. Probably helped you aim more accurately. So that’s one mystery solved. You’re fucking welcome, kiddos.” Bro raises his hands to some unheard applause, and then readjusts his hat on his head, slouching toward the stairwell.

"So now John fuels teleportation with his own rage? What next, you start photosynthesizing when you're feeling peachy?" Dave snarks, finally putting the sword away with clear reluctance.

“I said one mystery, you little shits. Do your own fucking homework, I’m done for the day.” And with that, Bro disappears.

John can feel the faintest rush of air as the Puppeteer vanishes back down into the apartment unseen. He and Dave exchange bewildered glances. Then John remembers – “Hey! Come back here! You still didn’t erase that video!”

-

They all end up back in Bro's room, somehow. John harasses the Puppeteer until he actually deletes the video in front of him, though John can't be sure there aren't still more copies saved to the hard drive. Then Dave gets into a renewed one-man argument about how the apple juice is out-of-bounds when it comes to 'being a huge fucking asshat,' while Bro blatantly ignores him and starting tinkering with a bright pink puppet that has scissors for hands. The only possible explanation for the combination is some kind of irony John can't even hope to fathom, especially not when a short bout of exhaustion hits him. He paces for a bit until the tiredness dies off. He's starting to think it's not just the concussion anymore - teleporting takes it out of a guy! But it's not nearly as bad as last night, when he'd passed out before the sky had even gone dark.

Having exhausted even his strange, tangent-based method of arguing and ranting, Dave finally subsides, taking off the ancient pair of shades and pressing the tips of his fingers against his eyes. "Fucking dick," he says halfheartedly, keeping his eyes shut. Then he shakes his head, and turns back to John. "You okay, EB?" he asks shortly, putting the shades back on.

John nods. "Yeah. Just still trying to wrap my head around all this. Sorry for interrupting your apple juice war."

"Dude. Bro clearly used you to cheat his way into a draw. I claim this one a victory in my name by default." Dave smirks.

"In your dreams, kid," Bro replies absently.

Dave just shrugs. "You're really not controlling this at all?" he asks, sticking his hands into his pockets. "Just hoppin' on the reality-warping train and hoping for the best?"

"I definitely didn't do it on purpose. I just got really mad. Actually, I really wanted to punch you in the face," John says, directing the accusatory tone at Bro, who ignores him. "And then - nothing." John scrunches up his face, but the seconds between getting angry and being on the roof again remain a stubborn void.

Bro folds his arms, leaning back as though to inspect his work, and then interrupts with, “And you didn’t feel anything? It’s just a blank?”

Just the opposite it's too much i can’t remember i can't i'm not allowed –

“Nothing,” John says, more forcefully than he intended to, and he can already see Dave's eyebrows rising like pale birds, Bro swiveling around in his chair until -

A phone rings. The ring tone is ‘Barracuda’ by Heart, and it seems to be emanating from Bro Strider’s back pocket. Bro hesitates, then flips the phone out and slides it onto speaker phone in one smooth motion. He then goes back to tinkering with his bizarre puppet project. “…’Sup. You’re on speaker.”

“Ambrose.” The feminine voice is smooth and warm and just slightly slurred on the ‘s,’ like a mug of hot chocolate with a good shot of cognac mixed in for taste. It is weirdly familiar, though the distortion from the phone is severe enough that John can’t place it.

Without looking, Bro reaches out and hangs up.

Dave raises an eyebrow. “Ambrose?”

“We don’t talk about that,” Bro grunts. “Must have been a wrong number -”

Barracuda plays again. This time Bro doesn’t put it on speaker phone, just puts the phone to his ear while he begins to solder a puppet joint with one hand. “I told you no, woman.”

“Put me back on speaker phone this instant, darling. This is a matter for your ward as well.” The woman on the other end of the phone speaks loudly enough that John can still hear here, even from here. But he has better ears than most. “And I do hate having to raise my voice.”

“Who says I still have a ward,” Bro says. His voice has gone flatter than usual, and he pulls open a drawer on the work desk to start tapping buttons on a heavy black machine. “I’m tracing this call, woman. In about five minutes, I will know exactly where to go to wreck your shit.”

“Speaker phone, there’s a dear,” the woman repeats, just sounding amused. Bro Strider huffs and sets the phone down on the table, hitting the speaker phone tab. “Thank you,” the woman says, her voice now reverberating slightly. “Dave, love, I know you’re there. It’s been too long.”

John feels Dave tense at his side. Outwardly, he’s still slumped against the wall with the practiced nonchalance both he and his brother favor, but his surprise is clear in the way his shoulders stiffen up. “Can’t say I know you, lady,” he says at last. “Random broads with phones, not my specialty.”

“No, you wouldn’t remember.” John can hear the smile in her voice. “You were perhaps three years old when I last saw you. After that, circumstances conspired against us meeting. I believe you would have been five when the trouble with the Crew began, and your guardian never quite trusted me again.”

And yeah, now John is paying attention. “You know the Midnight Crew?” he blurts out, earning himself a smooth-faced but probably irate stare from Bro.

The line is silent, buzzing for a good minute. “Is that -” the woman begins, voice shaky.

Bro cuts her off. “Not now, Lalonde. I’m still one wrong word away from cutting you off. For all I know, you could have been the one to tip them off in Georgia. Say what you want, then piss off before I hunt you down.”

Lalonde.

“Doctor Lalonde!” John yelps, leaning over the desk. He can’t help but ogle the phone with wide eyes, as though if he stares through the cheap plastic hard enough he’ll be able to see through to the lab coat-wrapped form of Rose Lalonde’s eccentric, terminally tipsy mother.

“What the fucking fuck,” Bro says flatly.

“John. I thought that sounded like you.” Doctor Rue Lalonde laughs a little. “I should have known you’d find your way to Dave eventually.”

“What,” Dave says.

“We haven’t heard from you in years! Is Rose doing alright?” John bounces on his heels, ready to laugh now that the mystery has been stripped away. He’d know Doctor Lalonde for nearly six years before she and Rose had moved abruptly to New York.

Then he realizes what she just said. “Wait, what do you mean, I’d find my way to -”

“You haven’t heard from Rose? In how long?” Doctor Lalonde interrupts, urgency slurring into her words. “A few days? Longer?”

John stops bouncing. He frowns at the phone. “Doctor Lalonde, I haven’t heard from Rose in – it must be years, now. First she stopped calling, and then she stopped writing. Maybe three years ago? ...You didn't know?”

“Three -” There is a long pause, and then the sound of someone crying out, and a glass shattering against something hard, as though Doctor Lalonde has thrown her habitual appletini against the wall. John flinches and Bro actually pushes him back from the table, as though just hearing the sound over the phone is somehow a threat. “She didn’t say why?” Doctor Lalonde demands, her slur suddenly gone.

John shakes his head before he remembers she can’t see him. “No, she just – stopped. I guess I thought she just maybe moved on with her life. I’m sure she made other friends who didn’t live across the continent from her, right? She probably got tired of trying to psychoanalyze me through letters.” He laughs, swallowing back old pain.

“I’m fairly certain that was not the reason, John,” Doctor Lalonde says, with an equally bitter laugh. “You see, I’m afraid the Midnight Crew caught up with us three years ago. I left Rose in New York to draw them off. I have not seen her since. It would seem that in my absence, the situation has…deteriorated."

“They found you?” Bro cuts in. He’s still fiddling with the puppet, but it’s obvious by now that he isn’t paying attention to it. “And you left her alone?”

“I don’t understand,” John says before Doctor Lalonde can reply. “You mean – has Rose been all by herself by three years? Who’s been watching her? Why were the Crew after you in the first place – what if they went after her again?!” He clenches a fist and can feel the wind starting to whip around his hand as his confusion simmers. He’d known Doctor Lalonde as a kind, if eccentric and most definitely alcoholic, guardian, despite Rose’s insistence on viewing her mother’s strangeness as deliberately passive-aggression directed against her.

But abandoning Rose for three whole years? That smacks of something truly unforgiveable.

“I’ve always trusted Rose to take care of herself,” Doctor Lalonde says, her voice slurring slightly again. There is a pause, and the clink of ice in a glass, and a throaty swallow audible through the speakers as she no doubt finishes mixing herself a new drink and tosses it back. “Though I worry now that I may have made a terrible mistake. As for why the Midnight Crew would seek us out – they sought Rose’s power. To harness it, or to destroy it, if they could not. Just as they sought Dave. I have been able to lead them a merry chase by pretending to still have Rose by my side while she has remained at work in New York, but recent events have shown that perhaps it would have been better to stay with Rose and fight a bloody war against the Crew than – than to have allowed this.

“Allowed what, Lalonde,” Bro demands, spinning the phone on the table to drag it closer to him. There are tiny lines visible between his brows, where the pointy shades don’t quite meet. “The hell is going on? You wouldn’t call this number unless it was a fucking emergency. What’s wrong with your kid?”

John can’t tell what his insides are doing. It feels like the bottom of his stomach has dropped out, like that one horrible moment a month ago when the explosion at the bank had ripped him free from the safety of the breeze and nearly sent him falling to his doom. He’s so lost; half of this conversation isn’t making sense, but he feels like he’s two seconds from being sick all over the nearest pile of weaponized puppets. All he understands, really, is that Rose is in some kind of trouble. “What’s wrong with Rose?” he says after Bro finishes, before realizing that he’s just repeated nearly what the Puppeteer had just said.

“…Tell me. Are you familiar with the hero Seer of Light?” Doctor Lalonde asks, sipping audibly again. “Forgive me, I need to be more drunk for this. If what I hypothesize is happening, has in fact happened, we are all in grave danger.”

“Seer of Light? I’ve heard of that one. She’s up New York City way,” Dave says, folding his arms across his chest, his red eyes glinting over the brim of his shades. “Shiiit. It’s this Rose chick, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Doctor Lalonde says.

It takes John a second.

Then he flips the fuck out.

“Wait, what?! Rose is a hero?” And yup, that’s it, he has absolutely no clue what to think now. His brain rams up against ‘Rose is a hero???’ and begins to flail uselessly, spitting out meaningless phrases like ‘how?’ and ‘how do?’

“Not the quickest on the uptake, are yah, kid,” Bro Strider says beyond the haze of John’s mental reboot. “Yeah, we know about Seer. What’s happened to her?”

“If the news reports I’m seeing are to be believed? She has gone full grimdark.” Doctor Lalonde says. “Just turn on any news channel, if you even have a television in your usual hellhole of an apartment. The broadcasters do not recognize her as Seer of Light without her costume, but I know my daughter’s face when she goes about blowing things up without a mask on.”

Bro Strider is gone between one blink and the next, just as John comes snapping back to reality with horror clenching in his gut. He looks at Dave, only to find the other hero halfway out of the room already. John dashes out after him, stopping behind the coach where Bro and Dave now stand. Bro flicks through the channels on the widescreen television hanging on the wall so fast the pictures are a blur. He stops on a prominent news station with a banner declaring a ‘breaking news’ bulletin in the corner. The rest of the screen is taken up by what appears to be a live video feed.

The camera is shaky and jolting, though the cameraman seems to be on a relatively clear street; the only problem is that the streets are almost empty, despite the fact that it should be almost eight in the morning in New York, and therefore the middle of the morning commute for one of the most crowded cities in the country. The streets should be absolutely packed into a gridlock. Instead, there is one car visible – and it has been flipped upside down, the wheels still spinning as it rests heavily on a crunched in chassis.

An explosion of dust bursts out over the street, blinding the camera with a film of greyish brown haze for a long moment as someone unseen, perhaps the cameraman himself, yells. John can’t tell if it’s a yell of pain or just shock.

And then John sees there is something moving in the dust. It looks like a shadow on the monitor, coiling and uncoiling sinuously before splitting into countless black tendrils that stab into the street, digging through the pavement with huge clouds of dust. The edges of the tentacles seem to burn with black fire, twining up toward the sky when they aren’t busy tearing chunks out of the sides of buildings.

Something shifts in the writhing mass, and John nearly falls to his knees. “Fuck, EB,” Dave swears, one arm under John’s before he can hit the ground.

But it’s Rose.

It’s Rose.

Maybe somewhere in his head, John has been denying it, unable to believe that Rose Lalonde with the sharp smiles, the slim fingers, the angled eyes and the silvery golden hair framing her tiny face could possibly be involved with anything related to hero work. Rose had always pandered to and tried to analyze John’s passion for heroes, but had never expressed interest in them herself, preferring to share details of the latest fantasy books she read or the newest knitting pattern she had attempted when they had hung out together in the park by their houses. The idea of Rose being a hero hadn’t felt quite real.

But he knows that face. He knows it.

And it’s breaking his heart at the same time it’s freaking him the fuck out.

Rose’s golden-pale skin is gone, eaten up by a greyish black tinge that’s just a few shades darker than troll grey. White-hot fire burns and oozes from her eyes, leaving them pupil-less and brimming with power. She looks like she’s wearing just leggings and a tight, skin-hugging top that might once have been the neoprene-and-Kevlar, pale yellow undershirt Seer of Light wears beneath her golden tunic in official press releases. Everything is painted with that dull grey stain. Her hair is more silver than blonde, and it tangles and floats in the air, unnervingly similar to the coiling motions of the black tendrils of grimdark surrounding her body.

But she’s still unmistakably Rose, even as she turns her head in a stiff, unnatural motion to stare at the cameraman – and grins with a mouth hollow and burning with white fire.

The camera feed cuts out. The anchorman in the newsroom appears on the screen, babbling something about losing another camera feed, before Bro shuts it off.

“Lalonde. You need to explain grimdark. Yesterday,” he states, holding up the cell phone. The call with Doctor Lalonde is still going.

“I can give you the short version if you wish, but trust me when I say we don’t have time for me to explain the multi-faceted nature of the Noble Circle of Horrorterrors,” the doctor says, her slur once again gone. "In essence, Rose has had mental contact with what you would think of as the Eldritch gods - the many-angled ones, the Outer Gods of the Furthest Ring, our Great Tentacled Tanglebuddies - for most of her life. She has always fought their influence. It would appear she has lost. They have taken over her body, driven her into grimdarkness, and if the reports are valid, have been using her to destroy parts of the city in what appears to be a summoning spirograph."

"Why does the summoning part sound really, really bad?" Dave mutters in John's ear.

“I called to ask a favor of you and Dave, Ambrose," Doctor Lalonde finishes. "The fact that John is already with you just saves me the trouble of attempting to contact Samuel as well.”

“What do you mean?” John asks, bracing himself on the couch. He still struggling to process what he just watched, and Doctor Lalonde’s words sound like white noise.

“I have no right to ask this of you. But I am asking. Please. Save my daughter.”

Can she be saved?” Bro retorts, bristling. “Lalonde, no offense, but your kid looks pretty fucking evil out there.”

“It is not her choice, I assure you,” Doctor Lalonde replies. She is silent for a long moment before beginning again, slowly, her words completely clear and unslurred. “Her power has always stemmed from two disparate sources. I studied it as well as I could until I was forced to leave, but could find no explanation for why Rose possesses two such radically different powers. She has always favored her talent with light magic over the whispers of the grimdark - it gave her nightmares while she slept, and so she suppressed the darkness constantly, too afraid to unleash it. I don’t know what may have happened to trigger this sudden descent into grimdark, but the last time something similar almost occurred, she was terrified.”

Doctor Lalonde stops, and she swallows loudly before continuing. “The grimdark possessed her body and left her powerless to control her actions, yet still able to see and feel everything she did. She screamed and cried constantly, begging me to stop her, because that was the only thing she could still control. I was able to free her only by isolating her in a sensory deprivation tank and remaining with her for weeks, soothing her. Eventually, she was able to take back control. There have been no further incidents until, apparently, last night, when news reports began to reach my location describing what could only be a grimdark event in Albany.”

“And now your kid is tearing up New York City, and you can’t get to her, can you?” Bro says, folding his arms. “Where are you, Lalonde? Are you trying to stop her? Or are you heading the other way.” His voice has gone low and dangerous.

Another long silence. “I am, in fact, on my way to New York as we speak, Ambrose. I know how this may look to you, but trust me when I say I had no choice but to leave my daughter. I trusted in her ability to fend for herself, and I have been able to convince the Midnight Crew she was relocated to Zimbabwe for the past three years. She has been safe, even when I could not be by her side. Now, however, she has quite obviously been exposed. The Crew will be attempting to capture her soon, once they think they have enough manpower to handle the grimdark.”

Can they handle that?” Bro asks. John blinks, and realizes that some of the latent anger must have left Bro; John hadn’t noticed just how quietly furious his tone had been as he spoke to Doctor Lalonde until after the fury abruptly dissipates.

“That remains to be seen.” Doctor Lalonde sniffs haughtily. “But even once I reach New York, I won’t be able to approach her. I have never witnessed the grimdark at such strength as it is demonstrating on the live feeds. Last time, it barely had the strength to kill Rose’s cat before she began to fight it from within; once she distracted the darkness from the inside, I was able to restrain her. I have no doubt that she will kill any who attempt to get close enough to restrain her, this time, and the grimdark is growing exponentially.

“That is why I need your help, all three of you. I know your powers. And John may be able to wake Rose up and get her fighting the grimdark from within. After that, all I ask of you is that you confine her with restraints of my own devising. Nothing more; I will take her to a secure location myself and watch over her until she recovers herself. Please, Ambrose.”

“How – how do you know my powers?” The room is doing wild loops around John, and he has to rest most of his weight on the back of the couch because this is – it’s too much. It’s all too much. The way Doctor Lalonde is talking, Rose has had these powers for years, probably longer than John knew her. And somehow, Doctor Lalonde knows about John’s powers too. Has probably known about his alias as Heir all these years. She had said she meant to contact John’s dad in order to ask John to come to New York, after all.

Did that mean John’s dad had been the one to break his cover? Without even telling John that ‘oh, yeah, the drunken family friend who used to live down the street knows exactly what you are, don’t worry about it’? Were they talking about the same Samuel Egbert who had drilled it into John’s head from age five that he could never, ever speak about his powers to anyone but him? Who had taught John everything he knew about maintaining a double life?

He can’t – he can’t even handle this right now. Dave has a hand on his shoulder and is saying something too him, a weird, low buzz underlying his voice, but John can only focus in on the conversation between Bro and Doctor Lalonde, almost hysterically giddy in anticipation of some new world-altering whammy.

“We don’t have time to go into details right now, John, I apologize. Suffice to say that I’m sorry that I haven’t spoken with you in so long; your father was as adamant as Ambrose that we maintain distance from each other’s wards once the Midnight Crew began to gain strength over the years.” Doctor Lalonde sighs. “Well, Ambrose?”

Bro stands utterly still, one hand thrust into his pocket, his eyes unreadable behind his shades. “I don’t control the kid, Lalonde,” he says at last, looking at Dave. “Up to you, kid. Feel like helping Lalonde fix her fucking mistakes?” The tinge of bitter anger has returned to his voice, and John wonders why the two adults have such contempt for each other – or at least, what happened that Bro seems to disdain Doctor Lalonde so much. He’s missing a whole lot of context for this, but it’s obvious that at some point the Lalondes and the Striders had known each other much the same way the Egberts used to know the Lalondes.

And it’s pretty fucking suspicious that all three families later ended up producing heroes in cities across the United States.

But he can’t focus on that right now, as downright freaky as the idea is. His mind scrambles to make sense of the flood of scattered information, but his first priority is already obvious.

He can’t go back to Washington now. Not when his oldest friend is being possessed by crazy shadow tentacles.

No, he needs to be in New York. And he needs to get there fast.

“I’m coming to help,” John says, interrupting whatever fresh argument Bro and Doctor Lalonde are trying to stir up, talking right over their acerbic barbs. “I don’t have any money on me, though, Doctor Lalonde, I’m sorry. Can you cover a flight to New York? Are they even letting air traffic go near the area?”

“Kid, you should think about this-” Bro starts to say, before, suddenly Dave cuts him off. “I’m going too,” Dave says, meeting John’s eyes when John turns to look at him startled. Dave winks a crimson eye, an uncharacteristic gesture for someone who seems to abjure expressing emotion, and John is struck by the feeling that he’s not looking at Dave, but at the Flashstep, cocksure and confident, the same coolkid mask he had worn the first day they met. “Can’t leave a lady all distressed and blowing up shit against her will, Bro. Definitely can’t leave my man Heir hanging. This field trip is gonna be ironic as fuck.”

Dave then raises his chin and meets Bro’s stare head on, as though this is some kind of weird power struggle between the two Striders – and for all John knows, it is. The way the media always plays it, the way Dave has never denied in their chatlogs, the Puppeteer takes the lead in their partnership, which has always made sense in the context of their older and younger brother dynamic. They've been clearly in the middle of some major power struggle since before John arrived, though Bro still has the advantage. Right now there’s nothing but disapproval in Bro’s blank stare, but Dave isn’t backing down.

Then, without any visible sign that John can see - “Fine. We’re in,” Bro says to the cell phone. “But I don’t fucking like this, Lalonde. If we pull your kid out of the fire, this is the last fucking chance you get from me. Clear?”

“Thank you, John, Dave,” Doctor Lalonde says quietly. “I still wish you didn’t suspect me of giving away your location last time, Ambrose – I assure you, I have never betrayed you. But I can’t argue this now.”

“So how do we get to New York?” John demands. He can feel a tug in the place where his sense of the wind lies, and a breeze starts to pick up in the room, even though he knows intellectually that flying to New York is as time-consuming a process as flying to Washington would have been. Never mind the fact that he somehow managed to cross nearly the same distance in a little under two minutes. He can't trust this new teleportation thing yet, not for something as important as this. “It’s something like a three hour flight in a plane, right? How soon could we get through airport security?”

“No need to worry about all that. I ordered the private jet to rendezvous at Hobby Airport the moment I realized I would need backup,” Doctor Lalonde says, her voice brisk and efficient. It's a startling change from her earlier slurring. “And with your powers, I have utter confidence in your abilities to sneak onto the flight strip. Why waste time pandering to airport security protocol when you're all in disguise anyway?" 

Bro raises an eyebrow above the line of his shades. “The private jet? How’d you get your hands on that?”

“You’d be surprised what you miss out on when you cut yourself off from those who’d wish to help you, Ambrose.”

“That’s not my name.”

“Yes it is, darling.” Now that they’ve agreed to help Rose, all of Doctor Lalonde’s slurring, chortling confidence seems to have returned, and she needles Bro as carelessly as though she hadn’t just a moment ago been begging the three of them to save her daughter. On the other hand, Bro hadn’t been complaining about her use of the name Ambrose all through the earlier conversation, either.

John decides he can’t be bothered to puzzle out what the hell is going on with these two. He just really can’t care about anything else anymore, not when Rose is in danger. “Private jet. Sneaking onto the runway. That’s the plan?” When Doctor Lalonde chirps a drunken affirmative John nods, feeling the last of his confusion get sucked away into the back of his mind. He’ll deal with the metric fuckton of weird and disturbing stuff he’s just heard later. For now, the mission-centered part of his brain kicks in, the part of him that focuses on the work each and every single night, and knows that nothing else is more important than the task at hand. The only thing standing between John and a mad dash for that waiting jet is –

“Dave, I don’t have my uniform with me,” John says, the realization smacking into him with the force of a freight train. “Agh, dammit, we do need disguises. Can I borrow something of yours? I can’t go out and fight in public with all those cameras they have on her without -”

“Don’t worry. I’ve got you covered, John,” Dave says. They leave Bro behind in the living room, still talking to Rue Lalonde.

Dave flashsteps to his closet and starts flinging things out with wild abandon, including a mummified cat and one or two of the same long-nosed puppets that seem to litter nearly every surface of the apartment. “Heh,” he says in some kind of dark triumph as he emerges from a corner of the closet and throws an entire bundle of clothing at John. “Try that on, man. We don’t have time to resew the whole thing, but I can stitch a quick fix on the plane. We’re nearly the same height. Ain’t your usual thing, but once you go Strider chic, you’ll never go back, man. You will be wearing suits all over Seattle. The bitches will fling themselves down at your feet. It’s hard exuding as much awesome as you’re going to, but don’t worry, I believe in you, John. I believe.”

John shakes his head and unfolds the crumpled clothing, looking it over as he strips off his own clothes and the borrowed red shirt. He mentally struggles to piece together how the new outfit works. He’s known, vaguely, that the Flashstep’s costumes are ridiculously elaborate, an ever-changing array of suits and trendy styles that make absolutely zero sense in a crime-fighting position. This looks as ridiculous as anything John has ever seen in internet forums. John’s just going to have to wing it. A Kevlar vest comes flying John’s way, and he catches it with the breeze before it hits him in the side of the face, slipping it on.

He pulls on the black pants first, stops halfway through, and stares at Dave in abject horror. “Oh my god, are these skinny jeans?!”

“Own it,” Dave deadpans, throwing him a middle finger.

“We’re not all built for skinny jeans!” John says, exasperated. They do not have time for this. “I need regular pants, Dave! Forget it, I’ll just wear my shorts -”

“Oh hell no.” Dave starts tearing through the closet again. “I’ll find you regular pants, don’t you dare try to mix your nerd cargo shorts with this work of genius.” He flings another pair of black pants at John, and while these appear to be an extremely high-quality pair of dress pants, at least they mostly fit when John tugs them on, though they’re still tight in the thigh. Just how skinny is Dave?!

Unable to waste brain power on the question, he starts frantically buttoning up the white, long-sleeved dress shirt and eyeing the bright red suspenders and the white suit jacket still lying on the bed. The suit jacket has a hood attached seamlessly rather than stopping at a collar, and tiny cloth loops that blend into the back where John’s supposes that sword hilts are meant to hang. “Dave, dude, why are your outfits so weird and complicated?”

“It’s ironic, okay. Just put it on.”

“I think I’m okay without the suit jacket -”

“Dude. Just. Dude. John. EB.” Dave leans out and stares at him from around the closet door, his face serious. “Wear it.”

John wears it. The shoulders are tight (because Dave is totally a skinny little shit, no matter what he says about John having too many muscles) but apart from that the clothes all fit. It feels totally different from wearing his Heir uniform, with not nearly enough Kevlar and neoprene involved for him to feel comfortable, and the lack of a grey and slate blue color scheme makes him blink in confusion when he glances in the mirror. His face feels totally naked, because Dave is so right, the shades aren’t gonna work. They’ll fall off the moment John tries to fly.  “Take these back for the airport,” John says, handing the shades over carefully when Dave emerges in full, bright crimson regalia. Jesus that’s a lot of red.

Dave snatches the sunglasses back too quickly, almost sighing with relief as he swaps out the old pair for the new. Clearly wandering around without them for the past night has been bugging him, which John would feel bad about if he didn’t have a million other problems clamoring for his attention – first and foremost, the issue of his oldest friend still rampaging through New York on a demon-possession high.

“Shades aren’t for you,” Dave says, tossing a handful of possibly shitty swords into a baseball bag and swinging it over his shoulder. “We’ll get you goggles or something along the way, you make them work.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it.”

“Is the fucking fashion show over?” Bro stands in the doorway and holy shit John is getting really sick of being startled every time Bro appears out of nowhere. He's used to being totally aware of the people around him at all times, sensitive to their movements thanks to the air that surrounds them, but apparently Bro is just that good.

“Yeah, we’re done,” John says, hesitating before kicking his cargo shorts under Dave’s bed. He has no idea if they’re coming back here; maybe Dave will forget about the shorts and discover them later on, and John will have some belated revenge for the skinny jeans. “Is Doctor Lalonde still on the phone?”

“No,” Bro says shortly. He throws the phone at John and vanishes. John catches it with a twist of air, startled by the abrupt throw, and then follows Dave out into the kitchen area, dialing his dad as he goes. His stomach flip-flops as the phone begins to ring.

Yeah, he has no idea how he’s going to explain any of this. Hell, John doesn’t even know what’s going on, and he knows his dad will say that flying in blind is the best and quickest way to get himself killed.

But he doesn’t have a choice. His dad is just going to have to understand – John can’t abandon Rose in her time of need.

Nor can he forget the image of the grimdark destroying the street, and possibly killing that poor cameraman. That, even more his old connection with Rose, is what is driving him to skip out on the flight back to Washington.

People are dying. Maybe New York City isn’t his city, but people are people. And with their resident hero out of commission due to grimdark possession, New York could probably use a temporary stand-in.

Or three.

The phone clicks in John’s ear, and he opens his eyes, determination setting his jaw as he begins to speak without hesitation.

“Dad? I’m sorry. I’m not coming home just yet. There’s something we need to do.”

---

Jade is dreaming again. Everything is black thorns and red vines and green fire, and a bright golden city that gleams in the light of an unfamiliar sun, its inhabitants carefree and oblivious to the horror raining down from above. She strains herself, running as fast as she can, but she can't outrun it. She never can. No, she needs Bec, she needs him, where is he when she needs him most -

"Waaagh!"

Jade wakes with a jolt, topples sideways off the lab stool, and lands on her butt. Her chin hits the edge of the table as she falls, and she rubs at the spot, grimacing as she sits upright. "Bec?" she calls, and for a single tense moment she is certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that what answers will not be her wolf anymore.

Bec flickers into existence, its body as sleek and pale as ever, and Jade sighs with relief, hooking fingers into its thick fur and drawing the wolf in close. It allows her to, and she takes comfort in the unnatural cool of its side. There is no pulse of a heartbeat in Bec, only the smooth whir of a functioning, stable nuclear fusion engine.

She doesn't know why Bec is a he in her dreams when it is an it in real life. She just knows that thinking about the dreams too hard makes her queasy. She rubs at a spot in her chest that feels sore until the imagined pain fades away, and then slaps Bec playfully on the flank, giggling. "Silly Bec! You're supposed to wake me up if I fall asleep in a weird place like that, remember? You know I hate dreams!"

Bec sniffs at her neck with a cold nose, and then sits back at attention without a reply. Not that she'd expected one, of course. Patting on top of the desk, Jade finds her glasses and pushes them back up on her nose, humming as Grandpa's lab comes back into focus. That's right - she'd been in the middle of analyzing the results from the latest round of tests she'd done on the Wandering Variable. She wonders exactly when the exhaustion caught up with her and she passed out on the table. Long enough ago that she dropped into REM sleep, at least.

"WV?" she calls, pressing the button on the side of her glasses that activates some of the wire frames' more eccentric features. She flicks on the sniper scope as usual, and then the quantum filter, an ad hoc program she only just invented herself on the flight up to Britain. A quick scan of the room lets the program adjust itself, until it registers the furniture and computers as relatively quantumly stable. By the time the fine-tuner finishes sifting through and ignoring stable objects, the only figure that is lit up like a star with quantum superposition is the Variable, who appears to be sitting on the stool next to the one she'd just fallen from, kicking legs that may or may not exist. At least he hasn't wandered off, then.

He still can't reply, but Jade talks as though he has. "Sorry about that! Using the missilekind must have taken more out of me than I thought! My arm is still a little sore." Pressing absently at her collar bone and feeling the bruise that has finished growing there, Jade yawns. Then she sniffs again, and catches a whiff of her own smell.

Uh oh. Oops. When was the last time she showered? Or did more than swap her clothes out for a new uniform from her sylladex pocket?

She winces, and casts a glance over the table. There is nothing there that is time sensitive anymore, she decides. She must have finished the finally battery of tests before passing out, because the more fragile samples are already stored in the fume hood, in case something goes wrong and they explode. That's good! She would have hated to have lost a hard-won sample just because she got tired!

"I think I'm going to have to shower reeeeally quick, though," Jade says, making a face in the Variable's general direction. "No peeking, mister!" With that ground rule laid down, Jade stows away her lab equipment, leaving some test tubes in the sink to clean later, and then strips off her gloves as she heads down a small side hallway. She has to consult the maps engraved in the walls a few times to reorient herself, but with her sense of space it's easy to feel out the difference between another research lab and the locker room. The water still works here, just as it had in the sink in the main lab, and Jade starts digging through her sylladex for shampoo and conditioner. Her hair really is getting kind of snarled; time to get some of the grime and gunk of the road out of it!

-

When Jade emerges in a cloud of steam fifteen minutes later, Bec is waiting outside by the row of lockers. She raises an eyebrow at it, but the wolf doesn't give any indication why it chose to leave the lab without Jade calling for it.

She automatically raises her alert level a few notches, just in case Bec senses something she doesn't, and then proceeds to towel her hair until it no longer streams water down the backs of her legs. Long hair can be pretty hard to deal with, especially hair as thick and crinkly as Jade's, but she really likes it this long! Oh well! Once it's mostly dry, she towels off the rest of her and then lets the towel drop. Picking the first costume her hand touches in the sylladex pocket, she steps into an slinky emerald green neoprene suit and zips it up the back by tugging on the zipper with her power.

She thinks she left her lab coat up in the lab, and it probably needs to be washed anyway, before it starts getting all discolored and gross. There probably isn't a laundry room down here in the sublevels, though; she'll need to venture back up to the main estate for that. Well, this is her first time in a house in more than a year - she should probably make the best of the amenities while she still can -

Bec growls and bursts into green flame.

She has no idea how it gets by the house's defensive arrays and sensors; she doesn't sense it in time, herself, because she just doesn't think to spread her spatial awareness out that wide until it is too late.

The explosion comes from above, and Jade barely has time to think WV! before the ceiling - and the collective debris of nearly four floors of mansion and foundation above it - come crashing down on her head.

She doesn't have time to grab her samples or the fancy lab equipment or even the white lab coat she left slung over the seat of the stool. Instead, trusting in the cold weight of Bec as he tackles her and the green fire swallows them both, she reaches out with everything in her to where she remembers the tiny outline of the Wandering Variable swinging his legs on a stool. Her mind fumbles, as she forces it to wrap a bubble around what feels like empty air, to clutch a fistful of space about five foot square to be safe and yank it at a diagonal through space.

They land hard in the field outside the front of the Harley residence under a clear, pale blue sky, the impact strong enough to send the breath whooshing out of Jade in a huff. Bec is unaffected by such things as breathing, and leaps at the first assailant before Jade has time to realize they are, in fact, surrounded. The grass is tall and green, and full of men and trolls in dark suits.

"Get offa my lawn!" Jade yells, forgetting the Variable's uncertain fate as she loads and hoists her modified pistols, raising them from within her strife sylladex to level them at the backs of the nearest troll's knees. She's not as good with a pistolkind as with long-range weaponry, but she counts at least fifteen unknown agents around her, in such close proximity that a rifle would only slow her down.

The first two shots of rubber bullets catch the troll square in the knees and they immediately fold forward, the troll letting out a shocked cry. Jade rolls to the side as a woman swings a quarterstaff at her, coming up with both pistols still cocked. The pistol kicks in her hand and the troll she hit first pitches forward onto his face, unconscious.

Her sense of space is almost completely overwhelmed as all of the assailants begin to move, almost all of them lunging toward her. Jade kicks out sideways and catches a female troll in the stomach with the ball of her foot, the ducks under another wild swing from the woman with the quarterstaff. Yelling, Jade teleports two feet up into the air and pistol-whips the woman in the temple. Her momentum carries her forward, and she lands on the woman's unconscious body with a thump.

She lurches back up onto her feet, the bare sole of her right foot crunching down on a sharp stone that distracts her for a split second. A blunt cudgel appears in the corner of her eye, and she whirls on her heel, bringing the pistol to bear -

Bec appears against a backdrop of galaxies and closes heavy jaws around the man's throat, tackling him to the ground. Unfazed, Jade coolly fires the pistol anyway, catching the orange-blooded troll that had been waiting behind the cudgel wielder smack in the middle of his chest. She rolls forward and puts a pistol away temporarily, rising to her feet with the orangeblood's Taser in hand. She fires it at the next man to come at her from the side, and he drops to the ground. Taser spent, she pulls out the pistol specibus again and loses herself in the fight.

She starts aiming for headshots, despite the risk of possible brain damage at this range. There are too many of them to pull her punches any more than she already has. As she spins and teleports between oncoming blows, she can see through brief glimpses that a good quarter of the Harley residence is in ruins, still smoking from the explosives these guys somehow snuck in to blow through the floor and reach the sublevels.

She can only assume that these are the same assholes who tried to fire a space-to-ground missile at the estate yesterday. She still wonders how they knew where to find her, but hey, she can wait on answers until after she's dealt with all twenty five thugs, total, that have been sent to blow up her goddamn house and ruin her experiment.

"And that one is for blowing up my good photonic crystal laser!" she spits, bringing the hilt of her pistol down on the back of a man's neck. As he falls forward she looks up, whirling to see where the next attack will be coming from.

She blinks as she realizes the field is full of unconscious bodies. Bec whuffles at her from where it sits on top of a troll a few yards away, and then lies down, at ease.

Oh. Well. I guess we took care of them all, Jade muses, still in a battle-haze as she stows the pistols away. Cool. She rolls her sore shoulder, but nothing feels strained. The bottoms of her feet are pretty torn up from the small chips of sharp rock that litter the ground, though, and when she gets an unimpeded view of the residence, she sticks out her tongue. Most of the easternmost wing has completely collapsed in on itself. She can see metal shield walls have shuttered down to cut off the intact portion of the manor from the gaping holes, but it's the principle of the thing, alright? They blew up her house!

"Straight to the nearest prison, okay, Bec?" Jade says, hands on her hips. "Do not pass Go. Blowing up Grandpa's house is the opposite of okay. Straight to the big house for these chuckleheads!"

Bec pants, a pale tongue lolling out of its mouth, and green lines expand outward from its back, stretching out in a rectangle that divides up into smaller, proportional rectangles that box in each unconscious assailant. All of them follow the golden ratio, as far as Jade can see, and after a flare of green fire the perfectly proportional series of rectangles vanishes, along with the bodies. Jade waits, bemused, for the wolf to reappear.

Then she remembers WV.

"Oh nooo!" she yelps, patting at her face and swatting herself before remembering she took her glasses off in the shower. No wonder that fight made her feel so dizzy! Jeez!

She pulls out the glasses from where she stored them in the sylladex and flips on the quantum filter again, slowly rotating in a circle even though her first instinct is to freak out and teleport-search the entire field in a grid formation, which just wouldn't work to find a person who doesn’t really exist half the time. The afterimage of Bec's mass teleportation takes a while to manually filter out, and Jade begins to think that either her hasty teleportation missed WV entirely, or she flung him too far in her hurry to get him to safety, and he's ended up in France or something -

A familiar buzzing shock jolts her elbow, as though she whacked her funny bone and the sensation got turned up to eleven. She exclaims with relief when the glasses' filter shows a tiny figure that barely comes up to her waist flicker in and out of stability by her side. WV is barely a cloud of atoms that can't quite form a real body, but she drops to her knees and tries to hug the space where he should be anyway, enduring the faint shocks whenever one of his super-charged particles is observed enough to collapse and brush against her own atoms.

Bec arrives a second later, minus about twenty five troll and human assailants, and Jade stands upright, putting her hands on her hips as she surveys the house again. After a few moments of speculatively staring at the damage, her spatial sense confirms that the sublevel they were working on earlier has completely collapsed in on itself, crushing the equipment and samples inside. Kind of a bummer. Darn.

She claps her hands together and grins. "Oh well! Looks like it's time for round two, WV! We're going to have to start from scratch in B-lab!"

-

It takes a while to locate B-lab's transportalizer. Grandpa's backup labs are much more difficult to find and unlock than his regular secret labs; the whole point is that if the first lab is compromised, the second will be ten times more secure. Which is smart, but also reeeally annoying when Jade is kind of in a time crunch, here. They can't afford to stay here much longer, not when they literally have missiles and unknown teams of assailants in black suits targeting them on purpose, but the next closest lab Jade can think of that might have all the equipment needed to perform the last tests on WV

Grandpa would probably scold her if he were here for getting so sidetracked from the instructions he gave her. But he also always told her to trust in her heart and do what feels right, and helping WV definitely feels like the right thing to do. Besides, she can clearly take whatever these bozos feel like throwing at her.

They finally find the transport pad hidden in a study on the fourth floor of the mansion, thankfully on the opposite side of the building from the demolished wing. WV goes down first, as before, and then Jade follows. She's worried about how having his molecules broken down and teleported by machine will affect the test results, if they even did the first time, but when she gets down to sublevel B the outline of WV shows no sign of distress.

Would she even be able to tell if he were in distress? She just has no way of knowing.

This time, she knows what she's looking for, though, which speeds up the process immensely. Between Bec's help and her own levitation abilities, Jade is able to rush headlong through repeats of the vital experiments she performed last night, running the Variable through the human-sized spectrometers and scanners that are essential to any good mad scientist hero's laboratory. The most difficult and time-consuming part is sampling some of WV's atoms directly, which involves waiting for the opportune moment, when Jade is able to observe one of his fingers directly by staring at the same spot for hours, and take a scraping from between stubby black claws to run through the analyzer.

She can't let herself fall asleep this time. Jade moves her stool away from the desk and sits in the middle of the room. She flips on the wifi-function of her glasses and starts surfing the web for a bit. She supposes that now would be a good time to send off another letter to her penpal, while she has nothing else to do!


-- gardenGnostic [GG] began pestering ghostyTrickster [GT] at 9:34:05 --
GG: hello john!
GG: sorry i haven't been able to write in a while - i got up to so many shenanigans these past few days! :DDD
GG: grandpa told me after i recalibrated some of the sensors for him, i should come see you right away, but i got really sidetracked. :P
GG: there was science, john! i couldn't resist the science!
GG: anyway, right now i'm trying to help out this guy i've been calling WV, and once i have these test results i think i'll be able to use my spacey powers to stabilize him!
GG: i already have an idea for how to do it, i just need to make sure he won't explode or something if i mess up~ :O
GG: also i've never tried using my powers this way before, but it can't be that hard, right?
GG: and Bec is here if i mess up!
GG: but after this I will definitely come visit you
GG: get ready - the Sharpshooter is headed your way! ;)
GG: oops! the carapace cultures are ready! gotta go!
GG: be safe john!
-- gardenGnostic [GG] began pestering ghostyTrickster [GT] at 9:43:12 --

Jade kicks off her stool and floats over to the beeping analyzer to spare her bandaged feet, snapping her glasses back into safety mode. After a few minutes spent reading over the printout of the results of the test, she grins. "Good news, WV!" she announces, spinning to face the empty space of countertop where the Variable has taken up residence. "I thiiiink I get what's going on with you! All of your quantum possibilities are firing at once, so we just need to narrow you down to your ideal self, the one you want to be observed as, and I should theoretically be able to collapse you down into one eigenstate." She droops a little as a thought occurs to her. "The only problem is, how are you going to tell me what you're supposed to look like? Oops…"

The cloud of quantum superposition leaves the counter top and makes for the computer monitor beside the analyzing unit. Jade had logged into it early, only to discover that this is, in fact, the infamous monitor 42 with the mansion's anti-missile launcher controls. Way to go, Grandpa, sticking the controls in the secondary lab…

With a spark and a violent whine, some of the WV's atoms brush up against the computer, and the screen flicks on. It doesn't display the login screen; instead, static fuzzes up the screen, occasionally lit up with streaks of green fire, like the kind Bec uses to get around. For a moment, Jade can half-see the form of a figure silhouetted against the distortion, as though she almost managed to observe WV head-on for the first time since he showed up in the back of her plane. She keeps her eyes open as long as she can, tearing up a little as she focuses on the minute form of a tiny carapacian.

The screen flares a bright white, and Jade can't stop the reflexive blink.

When she opens her eyes again, the WV can't be seen for a long moment while her glasses relocate him. He is back to being nothing more than a cloud of mostly air, his matter too unstable to register for long.

But on the screen, monitor 42 is analyzing something new. Jade approaches cautiously, careful not to walk into the middle of WV's personal bubble, because that would be sooo rude! The numbers and equations zoom by too quickly for Jade to catch them all, and she frowns as the coding for what appears to be ectobiological genetic markers flashes by.

And then the computer finishes processing whatever data WV fed into it, and a model appears on the screen. It is very basic and polygonal, the best representation of the data that the computer is able to produce. The figure is the size of a grade-schooler, with beetle-black carapace and a round head, blinking out of the screen with button-white eyes. It is swathed in faded greyish brown fabric, leaving only its spindly legs exposed.

"Is this you?" Jade asks, studying the data with renewed interest. Oh yes, this is exactly what she needs! All of the dimensions and details of WV's chemical makeup are here, the exact configuration of quantum states that the WV apparently considers his correct collapsed state. Jade plops down in the nearest stool and drags it closer, speed-reading through the lines of data as fast as she can. She can't afford to miss a single line, or she could mess up WV's entire vascular system.

Thankfully, the amount of data is...surprisingly short. Almost as though a lot of the most basic details of the Variable's body are clone-copies of an original genetic pattern. That would explain the ectobiological markers that show up everywhere - Jade doesn't know much about carapacians from the internet, but she does know they reproduce via cloning.

"You want to try this now? I bet we could get you stabilized and observed in time for lunch!" Jade says, rubbing her hands together with glee. "Wouldn't that be great?!"

There is really no way to tell if the violent tremor that runs through the cloud of atoms is an affirmative or a negation. But the WV doesn’t try to leave the room or anything when Jade waves it toward the center of the lab, or when she pulls down her lab goggles and puts on her Sharpshooter gloves. They help her focus her space powers too, which she’s going to need help with to pull of this kind of complex quantum manipulation.

Breathing in deeply, Jade raises her hands and frames the cloud of the Wandering Variable between the rectangle of her fingers. Her tongue slowly migrates out between her lips until it sticks out the side as she become engrossed in thought. Static electricity begins to arc between metal surfaces and computer monitors, buiding up in Jade's hair. She doesn't notice, too caught up in focusing on the WV in her mind's eye. Over in the corner, Bec whines in apprehension.

It isn't working. Jade bites down a bit, her tongue still stuck between her teeth, and frowns in concentration. She can feel exactly how she needs to do this, can see in her mind's eye how she means to nudge WV's particles just a little bit, isolate all the extra quantum states in space until all that's left is the basic being that is WV, not all the beings he could have been or not been.

Maybe - maybe she just needs to apply a little more power. She's been holding back, afraid of hurting the WV by accident, but - just a little more couldn't hurt. She pours on a little more power, and the floor begins to quake under her feet.

There is no warning. One moment, Jade is applying the barest minimum of pressure, trying and failing to push through a barrier that stubbornly refuses to let her through to the Variable's quantum possibility cloud. She's getting kind of frustrated, now; there's no logical reason why what she's doing just won't work. She has the skill and control and sheer power needed to pull this off - so what is she doing wrong? She grits her teeth and pushes -

Something gives, and a dark figure flickers into being across the lab from Jade.

At the same time, Jade's entire body explodes in pain, crushing pain that drops her. She lands hard on her knees but that's nothing compared to the pain of burning burning burning falling -

There is a loud pop as all the air is displaced from the room, and all of the contents of the lab, including the girl and the carapacian, vanish.

Bec follows its absent mistress a few moments later, unaffected by the massive explosion of green fire that radiates out from where Jade just stood, bursting upward through the floor of the mansion above and causing a second wave of destruction to rock the Harley estate.

The residence stands empty, the lower levels hollow, as though its contents have been scooped out with a spoon and deposited elsewhere. Just outside of Jade's range, a truck containing an array of spatial, temporal, and paradox sensors explodes in a flurry of activity, jolting the head Crew operative manning the outpost awake. By the time Clubs Deuce gets a handle on the situation, however, they have completely lost the trail of Sharpshooter.

-

Sydney, Australia

Oof.

Note to self: next time you want to stabilize a strange person into a single quantum state using only the power of your mind? Don't.

It feels like Jade's brain is about to burst out through the front of her skull. Groaning, she covers her face with her hands, unable to work up the motivation to open her eyes. The air temperature seems to have skyrocketed, and she can feel sunlight (burning) on her skin. So at the very least, whatever the heck just happened, it looks like she managed to blow through another roof. Grandpa would be so proud.

"Bec? WV?" she croaks at last, her throat dry and gritty. She opens her eyes and regrets it instantly; the setting sun is obscenely bright, and she shuts her eyes against the burn.

Wait. The setting sun?

She touches the side of her glasses, still unwilling to open her eyes again. "Computer, what time zone am I in?" The voice-activated responder does not reply, and Jade is forced to crack open her eyes again to see that the power level displayed in the corner of the frames is dead. Great - now how will she keep track of WV?

If he's even still alive. If whatever knocked Jade out hasn't done damage to his quantum state that can't be repaired.

A pair of white eyes appear over her head, tiny white lines underscoring them as they stare quizzically down at her. A second figure also appears, the more familiar, reassuring eyeless face of Bec. "Oh. Hey." Jade says, rubbing at her eyes one last time. "Bec, have you seen -"

She stops, and sits upright, nearly whacking Bec in the chin as she does so. She flips around onto her knees and stares at the short, shadowy figure kneeling next to Bec. "WV?" she whispers.

The carapacian nods wildly, flinging his arms around as he gestures in quick succession at himself, Jade, and the sky. It seems like some kind of sign language maybe, but Jade doesn't understand a word of it. Even when he moves his mouth a little - though not nearly enough for the amount of information he seems to be trying to convey - no sound comes out, and he seems to become frustrated by this. Jade can only stare, bemused and uncomprehending.

He hiccups in a last paroxysm of this desperate attempt at speech. For a moment, his whole body turns into bright green and white plasma, kind of like the greenish fire Bec uses to teleport sometimes. WV doesn't teleport anywhere, but he does seem shocked after he settles back into a normal black shell, patting at his body and filthy bandages as though to reassure himself he's still all there.

Oops. Jade gets the distinct feeling that the green fire might be her fault. But she can't really feel too guilty about it when holy cow, it actually worked! WV is (almost) totally stabilized!

Behold, the power of science!

"Ahaha, don't worry, I'm sure I can fix that!" Jade laughs, dragging the tiny carapacian into a headlock and giving him a noogie with her knuckles. He squirms and shakes his head in silent protest, but his whole body shakes with giggles that sound like strangled gasps . He hiccups again and is a burst of green flame for a second before solidifying. It doesn't burn, really, which Jade is really, really grateful for!

Now, all she has to do is figure out where she is. Tilting her head to the side, she tries her space powers. After this whole weird day, she really hopes she hasn't broken her powers or something -

Her eyes pop open, and she lets go of WV to grab the sides of her head in shock. "We're in Australia?! John is nowhere near Australia! Aggghhh!"

WV sits back and listens to the Witch's confused wailing as she tries to figure out how she crossed half a planet when her previous range has always been limited to a few hundred meters. He pats Bec hesitantly, and when the wolf merely rests its head on its paws, he decides that despite the scary shape of the wolf's head, they might be able to get along. After all, Bec hasn't tried to kill him all this past week.

The Witch may not be able to hear his words anymore, but honestly, WV's just happy to be alive again.

Everything else can wait.

-

A few hours later, a cloaked figure comes to a halt before the wreckage of the Harley estate in Britain. What little hadn't been destroyed in the explosion earlier in the day is now smoldering with green fire.

It had travelled here as quickly as possible, but it seems it still missed her by a good amount of time. Shaking its head, the figure begins to fly up into the air, lifted by bright red rocket shoes with yellow flames down the side. Not exactly the figure's sense of style, really, but it hasn’t yet figured out how to create rocket-based transport devices without the flames. It seems to be a multiversal constant, a fundamental property of paradox space, that all rocket shoes must be red with yellow flames.

Once it comes to a halt over top of the destroyed residence, the figure makes a noise that may or may not be a sigh.

The blast radius from Jade's takeover has left a mark scorched into the foundations of the house, easily visible from any eyes watching from above.

Some may have described the scorched shape as a Borjgali, a Georgian symbol of the sun, or as a spiral galaxy, with six arms curling in whorls of green fire and grey smoke.

The figure knows this to be the symbol of Space, and bows its head. It can no longer feel weariness or weakness in its body, but it still feels a kind of mental exhaustion within the parts of its brain that are still organic. It has always known this day would come.

Jade has become more than a simple manipulator of Space. From this moment on, they will never stop hunting her.

Which means, of course, that the figure above the Harley residence will simply have to guard her from afar.

It's about time it began to give these Crew ruffians a piece of its mind.

-

Somewhere in the continental United States...

Diamonds Droog adjusts the cuffs of her suit jacket with precision, tucking in a stray thread that she makes a mental note to remove at some later point. She has an open slot of time from 10:15 to 10:17 tomorrow morning, and if there is one thing she can always make time for, it is a stray thread. One must always look one's best, after all. If there is one thing she cannot abide, it is an ill-tailored suit.

She must always look impeccable, and she holds her subordinates up to the same standards, naturally. Hearts, Clubs, and their barbaric ruffians can flout uniform protocol all they like; when Diamonds is in charge of an operation, not a stitch may be out of place. The Midnight Crew has an image to maintain, and if Diamonds must be the only one to enforce that image, so be it.

As she strides through the corridors, the tail of her suit jacket fluttering slightly and the heels of her shoes clicking, the peons around her shrink back against the walls. The combination of her cue-stick strife specibus and her (admittedly) short temper inspire exactly the degree of awe and intimidation in her subordinates that she has found can shape an obedient, efficient crew out of a pack of otherwise lawless hooligans.

After ascending a flight of stairs, Diamonds finds herself on the tenth floor, dedicated to questionable accounting and stock manipulation. Not her division - she's more of the covert affairs and kidnapping cut, herself. No, this floor is part of the Felt's territory, and she bristles at the garish, pale green décor. Ever since the new big shot took over and merged the two gangs into one crew, she has been visually assaulted by this abominable hue on a regular basis. She has even taken to performing more field operations in person, rather than simply directing lackeys to do her will, solely to escape the sickly wash of green. Alas. Her struggle is real.

Speaking of these useless pawns. Just as Diamonds finishes bracing herself to pass through the crowded desks of human and troll thralls scribbling and typing away at their desks in the bullpen* that lies between her and the stairs to the eleventh floor (her final destination), a tiny man in a ghastly green suit scurries around the corner, his trim hat's pale purple color clashing offensively with everything else he's wearing, right down to the matching felt green bowtie.

He crashes into her right as she steps out into the main room, the stack of papers clutched in his arms flying everywhere and littering the repulsive green carpet with sheets of paper. Diamonds remains upright, barely jolted by such a weak impact, while the Felt operative topples backward and hits the ground.

Diamonds is about to smirk and sweep away, leaving the pathetic man to make his fawning apologies to her back, when the unthinkable occurs.

Her hat falls off.

The hair underneath, of course, is flawless, an elegant coif worthy of a 1930s debutante styled to survive being hidden under a hat for most of the day. But Diamonds must watch, frozen, as her equally elegant hat, the one specifically crafted to match this particular suit, floats to the floor, the brim bent at a strange angle as it comes to a stop.

"You bent my hat," she says hollowly, aware that her lips are parted in a most uncouth, gawking stare.

"O-oh! I'm sorry, sir - ma'am!" the Felt operative stutters, but that one slip up costs him any of Diamonds's remaining good will, such as it is. She extends her cue-stick to its full length with a flick her wrist, and winds up like a batter. "I didn't mean it-!" the Felt shrieks, scrambling to his feet and trying to back away from her with his hands raised beseechingly.

She brings the cue stick around with all the strength of a major league baseball player, and the cue-stick slams into the Felt man's ribs. He goes flying backwards and, with a crash, he crashes through the outside window. The force of the impact actually breaks not just the window glass but the window frame itself, huge chucks of the wall on either side flying out into open air along with shards of glass and the Felt operative himself. His scream of flailing panic slowly dies out in volume as he falls out of sight.

Still seething, Diamonds takes out a lighter and stoops to pick up her fallen hat. She sets it on fire and watches with an impassive expression until the last of the disgraced article of headgear burns away, and she lets the final smoldering piece fall to the ground before crushing out the embers with her heel. Then she places her spare hat on her head, and smiles. Perfect.

The balance of the universe thus restored and all due final respects paid to a fine piece of headwear, Diamonds adjusts her dapper hat and smirks at the horrified thralls, all of whom have looked up from their mindless paper-shuffling to gape at her and the new hole in the wall. "Relax. The fool is too lucky to let a little fall kill him," she says, collapsing her cue-stick with a brisk flick of her wrist and placing it back in the inside pocket of her suit jacket. Smoothing her suit jacket and brushing a fleck of green debris from her pants, she strides through the middle of the desks, away from the evidence of her wanton violence.

Though she presents a confident front for the peons - and, truthfully, is quite pleased herself with the outcome of that little encounter - she knows that when she reaches the eleventh floor she'll have to explain herself to the big man. Urgh. He doesn't approve of infighting between the Felt and the Crew's aces, and his disapproval can be...unpleasant. Clubs, of course, blindly obeys the restrictions, and probably has the best relationship with these felt green nightmares, but Clubs is a bumbling fool at the best of times. As much as it sticks in her craw that someone as useless as Clubs has a better record than her in any way, she can't help it. Sometimes it's like these Felt go out of their way to rouse her ire.

But hey. Diamonds is the bearer of good news for once. Or at the least, very promising news. Between her own spy network's latest intel, and the babbling reports she's been intercepting from Clubs out in the field, she's fairly certain the boss will cut her a little slack on the whole 'use of needless and excessive force against allies' front.

Still, she's apprehensive as she approaches the dark green door at the head of the stairs. Quite aside from being a repulsive shade of green, this door has always given her the heebie jeebies. Maybe it's the bizarre, strange carvings and unfamiliar words engraved in the stained green wood; maybe it's just the creepy aura of the big man bleeding through. Either way, Diamonds makes sure her gloves are firmly in place before rapping on the door with the back of her knuckles, affecting as much of a carefree demeanor as she can.

Oh, do come in, Droog. I've been expecting you for quite some time. I'm sure the business of punting poor Clover out of the building must have been a vitally important delay.

Oh, balls.

The door opens soundlessly, without even a decent creak to match its creepy aura. Schooling her expression into confident boredom, Diamonds straightens her tie and walks through the open door.

The room within is plush and richly decorated, and it is a testament to the boss's good taste that the only flaw Diamonds can find with the interior design is the abominable color scheme. There is a fire crackling in the hearth, though it does nothing to alleviate the dead cold of the air. Diamonds highly suspects the hearth is only for show, as the fire within is a bright green, and flickers out of existence every few seconds. There is a bowl of Swedish fish by the door and she fights the compulsion for all of five seconds before giving in, reaching out with greedy fingers to start shoveling the delectable treats into her outside pockets. She doesn't know how the Doctor always predicts correctly which candy to place by the door, given that every member of the Crew has a different unnatural predilection, but he has never failed to tempt her with these blasted things every time she thinks her visits will surprise him.

She's resigned to the fact that he'll already know exactly the news she comes to report. Her entire division of the Crew often feels more than a little redundant, given that any news she brings seems to be old news to the Doctor. He simpers and panders to her and assures her that her work is quite necessary. The way he's explained it, the one time he deigned to acknowledge her concerns about being replaced, he has some way of knowing (nearly) everything Diamonds knows. However, he requires Diamonds's work to ferret out the information in the first place, before he can pluck it from her mind and draw his own conclusions. Something about an "abnormally high level of Void background interference" in the air.

Sounds like a load o' bull to Diamonds, but then, so does most of the Felt's blathering about their temporal experiments. She doesn't much care; as long as she gets to keep doing what she good at and gets paid quite handsomely to do so, she's more than willing to put up with this all-knowing crap.

"Sir. I have something of significance to report," she says, still reluctantly pocketing the Swedish fish. She knows from experience she can fight the urge all she wants - by the end of this meeting, she will be scraping at the bottom of the bowl with her fingernails, hunting for the last morsels of artificially flavored treat. "Though of course, I am certain you are already aware of it."

Do not be petulant, Droog, not in front of the company. Your work is invaluable, as you well know. I am indeed aware of the goings-on in New York, but only because the media outlets are covering the explosion in Albany as we speak. My guest has just arrived to discuss it, in fact.

Diamonds controls her expression, but then she sees exactly who is lounging on a chaise lounge by the window, absorbed in tapping away on a slim fuchsia cell phone.

Diamonds knows that the only reason the Crew has been able to expand and profit as well as it has over the years since the corporate takeover is due to the Doctor's uncanny, illustrious connections with several major figures in the government and the justice system. But she had no idea the Doctor's connections in the upper echelons reached quite that high. It is one thing to have the Vice President in your boss's pocket, and quite another to find Her Imperious Condescension with her Grand Culling Fork leaning on the wall beside her.

This is...unnerving. She should have known about this. With a spy network as intricate and wide spread and well trained as her own, something as huge as this should not have slipped between the cracks.

When the undisputed economic and political powerhouse of the entire world shows no sign of looking up from her phone, completely engrossed in whatever is on the screen that involves so much tapping, Diamonds shakes off the unpleasant surprise and refocuses on the back of her employer's chair. The Doctor is facing away from her, looking over an intricate chessboard. He'd once called it a Mobius net, but to Diamonds it just looks like someone crumpled up a piece of paper and arranged it in a ring around an inner blue sphere.

He moves a single piece into position, so miniaturized to fit on the minute squares that she can't even identify it, though she thinks it may be black with lavender accents. Not your standard chess set, to say the least.

Is there anything I can assist you with, Droog? Something else appears to be on your mind, aside from the reappearance of the Seer in a reversed aspect.

Diamonds blinks. It seems strange that the Doctor hasn't just told her the news while pretending to couch it in all-knowing certainty, but if he really wants her to say it first, she can oblige. "It's - well. It's about the Heir in Seattle. A few hours ago the paradox sensors spiked, and his signature disappeared from Seattle. He is now in the greater Houston area, though as usual the Puppeteer's efforts make it difficult to pin down an exact location. Our agent's suspicions have been confirmed - the Heir is no mere wind-manipulator; he has begun to alter the fundamental laws of reality."

There is a pause, and then the Doctor swivels around in his chair. Diamonds folds her hands behind her back, the collapsed cue stick slipped up one sleeve just in case. No matter how often she tells herself that the smooth, unyielding surface of the Doctor's head must be a mask, an anonymous disguise, she can't quite believe it. It is perfectly spherical and pale as bone, and its lack of features leaves his expressions and tells a mystery. She can never read if he's upset or enraged or excited; he is simply, eternally, composed.

She does, however, detect a note of surprise when he speaks next, his words a crackle of white and lime green in her brain.

I suspected as much. Thanks to this universe's active attempts to stymie my foresight, however, I simply couldn't be sure. In a world populated by such over-powered life forms, after all, there have been more than a few false alarms over wind-users in the past. Thank you for informing me of the gap in my knowledge, Droog.

"I - you're welcome, sir," she replies, feeling a little as though the rug has been pulled out from under her. The Doctor has never admitted to ignorance before; even his confession about only being 'nearly' omniscient always rang hollow. "What step should we take next?"

The Doctor pulls open the drawer of his grandiose desk. Then, even as Diamonds observes, intrigued, he lifts up a false bottom to reveal several small chess pieces. He plucks out a bright blue figurine and begins to study the intricate chess board once more.

Clubs has also reported that he wishes to confirm the Witch's presence in Britain, as I am sure you are well aware. Combined with the temporal disturbances we confirmed around the Knight several years ago, it is quite safe to say that they are all active once more. There was a very real possibility that they would be born years apart, scattered throughout time and space. That they were born and have begun to reactivate within such a short period of time...is fortuitous.

"You sure 'bout that, Doc?" the Condesce says, the first words she has spoken since Diamonds entered the room. She doesn't look up from her phone though, and in fact puts the screen closer to her face as her deadly claws tap away faster and faster, the light of the game flashing across her reflective goggles until - "Oh, hell no, this fuckin' candy game is kickin' mah glubbin' ass. #fuckinbullshit #cullthismotherfucker"

Did - did she just say hashtags -

I wouldn't go down that road, Droog. Greater minds than yours have been broken attempting to comprehend the intricate, unfathomable nature of our good friend's chosen linguistic vernacular. And yes, my dear Condescension, it is excellent news indeed that all four have risen in such quick succession. They are already being drawn together - they can't help it.

"Hell yeah, fucking color bombs," the cultural figurehead of all trollkind mutters to herself, her untamed masses of fuchsia-tinged black hair twitching as she rolls over on the lounge seat, lying on her stomach with the phone resting in front of her as she continues to play Candy Crush. "Yeah, Doc, maybe lettin' a buncha super-powered lil shits team up ain't the best idea. NGL, I think we could still cull 'em afore they, yah know, rise up an' wreck our glubbin' shit. Jussayin'."

"Pull Clubs out of the field and reassign his agents to me, and I could give you the Heir's new location within days, Doctor," Diamonds adds, wanting to throw a metaphorical hat into the ring. Excitement clutches in her throat, and she wants to squirm with delight at this wonderful opportunity. Here is a chance to personally kidnap the four heroes that have been the object of the Crew's time for nearly as long as the Doctor has been in charge. Better still, with the Heir halfway across the country from Seattle, Hearts is going to look like a fucking idiot when he misses out on capturing the hero in person.

And maybe after they take care of these four miscreants, the Crew can finally get back to what it does best - delicious, elegant criminal works - instead of being constantly distracted by the Doctor's weird obsession with these kids.

Oh, no. One cannot simply rush the game, Droog. There is an order to these things. A proper sequence of events, however convoluted it may appear from your perspective. I'm afraid you lack the context to make any informed decisions about this matter just yet. Suffice to say that while your enthusiasm does not go unappreciated, now that we have confirmed the four, all active members of the Crew are to follow gradual escalation protocol. Tell Hearts to return to base before he attempts to go crashing about on an ill-advised rampage. Three explosions in under a week tells me he's getting far too worked up.

"...Of course. Shall I recall Clubs as well?" Diamonds asks, her shoulders slumping a little. "He recently requisitioned a low earth orbit-to-ground missile launch and sent an entire team of covert agents to confront the Witch. Both operations proved a waste of time and financial resources -"

"Bitch, I gotchu fuckin' covered," the Condesce interrupts. She is now playing with only one hand, using the palm of the other to rest her chin on. Her slim feet kick in the air absently. "M'rollin' in the big boonbucks, you feel me? #blingblingmothafuckas"

"Boonbucks?" Diamonds is thoroughly lost. She's never heard of such a thing before, and the hashtags have become rather distracting.

The troll holds up a sparkly, pink block in response. No really, it glitters all over with an opalescent hue, and Diamonds is immediately intrigued. She can't identify the mineral that makes up the majority of the block, but she can damn well extrapolate that the material must be quite rare and quite valuable.

Concentrated, compressed majyyks, utilized as units of arbitrary monetary value by a select oblivious few.

"So it's fake money," Diamonds says, disgusted. What is the point of fake money? Counterfeiting is yet another despised Felt division, and she holds no truck with it. She has earned a living throughout her life with good old-fashioned conspiracy, ransom, and espionage, and has never had to stoop so low as to printing her own cash to pay for her suits.

"It's glubbin' real money if dis bitch says so. DWI," the Condesce snaps, scratching behind a long horn at the horn bed buried in her hair. "You got anythin' else we needta get our heart to hearts on about, Doc? There'sa snippy lil basic bitch Imma have to cull if she gets any more uppity on my turf while I ain't around. #bitchezain'tshitttt"

Yes, your complaints about the young heiress do grow tiresome and unconstructive. By all means, I believe this meeting is adjourned. Droog, a moment of your time after our good friend takes her leave.

"Yeah, yeah, you got it, Doctor," Diamonds says, fingers tightening around the handle of her cue-stick as the fuchsia-blooded troll growls at her phone one last time and clicks off the screen, placing it within a pocket of her skin tight suit. She wraps a hand around the balance point of her 2x3dentkind and stands up.

She barely comes up to Diamonds's ribs.

Diamonds has to do a double-take, not sure what she's witnessing, and then fights the urge to step closer to the troll for comparison purposes when the Condesce makes for the back of the room. Diamonds is devastatingly tall of course, and her high heels simply elevate her further, but she'd expected the most infamous, long-lived troll in history to be a little more - well, imposing. But no, she's...she's...shrimpy.

Diamonds has never felt more ashamed of a mental pun in her entire life. It takes everything in her not to remove her hat and resign on the spot. And from the way the Doctor's head tilts toward her and an amused green chuckle crackles in her skull, he knows.

This is humiliating.

Instead, long, slim horns make up for in height what the rest of the Condesce's body lacks. It is more than a little off-putting. As Diamonds watches, the troll walks to the enormous green grandfather clock by the fireplace and pulls the front panel open. Whistling something that sounds suspiciously like 'Beez in the Trap,' the Condesce steps into the clock and - vanishes. Diamonds squints, trying to see into the clock because what, but after a moment the panel shuts itself with a series of mechanical clicks, and is still.

Well, it makes about as much sense as anything else in this damn room.

"What did you want to talk about, boss?" she asks, folding her arms across her chest, careful to arrange them so that the white diamond insignia on her lapel remains visible. "You got something for me to do?"

Oh, just two final matters I'd like to clear up. First and foremost, I wished to assure you that poor Clover survived the ten story flight you helped him to achieve, but he most graciously does not wish to press charges. A most fortuitous turn of events.

Diamonds just rolls her eyes and sighs internally.

DS: Second, though I do not wish you to see this as a reward for your earlier actions - I have an assignment for you. Something to get you out in the field. You are clearly growing restless if you have begun ejecting my agents out of windows during business hours over an admittedly very dapper hat and a shade of green that you find disagreeable.

Diamonds straightens up. "You've got my attention, boss."

Excellent. Now tell me - are you familiar with the name Spades Slick?