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Like One Sundered Star

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For the first three seconds after the blast, Karkat can’t believe he’s still alive. His body feels numb, as though he got slammed by an icy cold wave of water rather than a concussive blast. He can taste the adrenaline running through his veins as a bitterness in his mouth, sharp and unpleasant, and even has the mental clarity to wish his powers didn’t let him taste chemicals in his bloodstream – it’s fucking nasty. He blinks his eyes, and gets about five seconds worth of a hazy view of the night sky overhead before the pain comes crashing down.

Fuu-uck!” he gasps, his hand fumbling as he clutches his side. He had been crouched at an angle to the flashlight bomb, and he thinks he remembers covering his head with his arms in the seconds between his realization and the detonation. His arms feel as though they’ve been scraped raw, and there is a throbbing ache in the side of his calf, but the most pressing pain emanates from the left side of his ribs. As his hands press against his side, he immediately regrets that decision; something metallic and sharp-edged is wedged up around between his ribs. He can’t tell how deep it goes.

Fuck.

Even around the pain that radiates through his torso, Karkat is aware of just how very fucked he is. The bomb hadn’t been powerful enough to kill him or throw him off the roof, obviously, but that’s part of the problem: he’s just been blown up on top of the police station in charge of most of Seattle, and the anti-terror unit could show up any fucking second and decide to arrest his ass for being at the scene of the crime.

As he rolls onto his stomach, letting loose a torrent of unimaginative swearing (yeah, let’s see you try to think up creative new insults when you’ve got shrapnel jabbing at your lungs, nubfucker), he gapes in silent pain again, throat working to swallow down a scream. He has to rest his forehead on the roof, closing his eyes and breathing in uneven spasms. The roof is cold, despite the recent goddamn explosion, and a piece of rock digs into his skin between his eyebrows. He can feel that his mask has survived the blast, but when he lists to one side, panting, one prosthetic horn does not quite come up even with the other. They’re both supposed to curve forward, past his profile, but if he can lean his forehead down to touch the ground, then – yeah, the left horn feels as though it has cracked all the way through, and the tip has broken off.

Shit. Hopefully he can do this before the cops arrive and see his false horns mutilated, because he’s not going anywhere until he heals this side wound. Fighting through the threat of unconsciousness, Karkat zones out, focusing on the pain beating through his blood until all he can feel and see is red.

The pain simultaneously grows distant, and intensifies; he is aware of every minute nuance of the damage that has been done to his body, but also better able to ignore it from this perspective. If these were just simple cuts, he could simply reverse the damage by drawing the blood back up to quickly scab over the wound and heal in a matter of seconds. Hey, power over blood – it has its perks.

But the raw rash running down his arms is a series of burns, running the gamut from first to second degree depending on what angle the arm had been facing the blast, with little flecks of shrapnel speckling his skin. And burns are tricky, to say the least. Gritting his teeth, Karkat urges blood to well up, washing out infection and forming long, thin strips of scabbing. It’s a quick fix – it’ll keep the burn from getting infected until he can rinse it off and treat it properly. He leaves smears of drying red blood behind on the roof when he hesitantly shifts his arms, but he can do no more than grimace at the marks, and trust that since he’s never had his blood drawn, the police won’t have a sample to match it to.

There’s a slice along the back of his calf, and he deals with that in seconds, sighing with relief as he knits the skin together and the pain instantly dies off. The arms still sting when he stretches the skin, but now he only has one major source of pain left to deal with before he can get the fuck out of here.

…The longer he leaves that fucker in there, the more likely the chance Karkat will fuck up again and twist his torso the wrong way, and end up with the shard of metal stabbing right through his lung. The only way this is going to heal is if - Yep. Fuck. No choice. The shrapnel’s gotta come out.

This is quite possibly the stupidest thing he has ever contemplated doing in a very short but rather busy life of contemplating myriad acts of stupidity. This may well make the top five, right up there with allowing Crabdad to choose him as a wriggler. Most people would argue that a grub lacks the sentience to know such things as right from wrong, or to protest a lusus choosing them. Karkat would say sentience is fucking overrated, and that past-Karkat should have taken one look at that fatass and wriggled in the other direction as fast as his tiny mutant nubs could carry him.

Before he can lose himself in another tangent and talk himself out of this latest act of stupidity, he just does it. Curling up on his right side, Karkat wraps a gloved hand around the blood-slicked shrapnel in his side and pulls and ohfuckohfuckohnublickingfuck why is past-Karkat such an idiot?!

Karkat chokes out a whining scream, slamming his other fist against the roof. Hissing out a breath, he finishes the job, probably ripping edges as he turns the entry wound into an exit wound. He brings the piece of shrapnel up to his face, unleashing the full force of his righteous glare upon the offending scrap of metal. It looks a lot smaller than it felt, and is absolutely coated in bright crimson blood. Throwing the metal to the side, offended by its impudence in daring to stab Karkat motherfucking Vantas, Karkat presses his hand right up against the open wound. His side is damp and warm with blood, but now there’s nothing in the wound preventing him from just closing it up.

There’s some muscle damage that will take longer to heal on its own, but Karkat reaches into the blood rapidly pulsing out of his veins and tugs it back into its proper place. The veins reattach and seal themselves up, and he knits together what skin he can before letting a scab coagulate over the area. Peeling away the tatted edges of his suit and the Kevlar lining, Karkat sits and props himself up against the wall of the stairwell, counting backward from ten in his head. By the time he does, the scab cracks and falls off, and all that’s left is blood-smeared grey skin where the stab wound used to be.

Well. Alright. Way to go, mutant powers, at long last you have justified just a tiny fraction of the life-threatening hassle and apprehension you have caused me every day of my life, he thinks. He only feels about half as bitter as usual. Shaking his head, Karkat stands carefully. He still feels shocky all over from the surprise and sheer impact of the explosion, but considering he just survived a bomb from three feet away, he’s feeling surprisingly chipper.

Note to self: never use the word ‘chipper’ in conjunction with one Karkat Vantas ever again. Ever. He’s making this a universal law. Seriously, he will personally ascend to Raging Fuckass levels of godhood and smite any dumbfucks who so much as think that word in his presence again.

Shuddering, Karkat gets his feet under him, bracing with both hands against the wall as he slowly slides up into an upright position. His left side aches a warning from the muscles, and then is quiet. The overwhelming pain has almost completely subsided, but he’s going to feel this one in the morning.

He cracks his neck from side to side, trying to work the kinks out of his system, and then scans the roof, taking in the damage. A dark blast pattern radiates out in a three foot wide circle from the spot where the flashlight had been set up. There’s no sign of the reflecting mirror or the note left by Hearts – they’ve either been incinerated or tossed off the roof entirely.

That much of the note was true, though. Hearts had said something about not having orders to kill Heir. With such a small blast and Heir’s skill with using the wind as a defense mechanism, Karkat is willing to bet he wouldn’t have been badly damaged at all. Heir certainly wouldn’t have been unlucky enough to take a wad of metal to the ribcage. No, this had been intended as a warning shot, and Karkat just happened to waltz up and stick his cartilage nub in where it didn’t belong.

Except of course, this is Hemogoblin’s new partner the Crew wanted to blow up. One could argue this is, in fact, exactly where he belongs. Especially since Heir is still missing in action after not one, but two, explosions.

For the first time since the explosion went off, Karkat is able to switch back over from survival mode into a more heroic mindset. Hemogoblin steps away from the wall, twisting his tattered arm guards absently until they mostly cover the scabby, blistering burned sections. He’s going to need to replace a lot of his costume after tonight, which is a pain, but for the most part the skintight Kevlar and neoprene did its job. This could have been a lot worse.

Now then. If Hearts and his phony lawyer took off just after the initial explosion Karkat witnessed, they’ve probably only been running for about fifteen minutes, now. The problem is, a gang as well-funded as the Midnight Crew seems to be probably had an escape vehicle waiting to pick them up, and they could have taken off in any direction in the ensuing confusion. By wasting time getting blown up, he may have lost the opportunity to pick up their trail at all.

But maybe he hasn’t completely fucked himself over.

Heir may have flown into that fight the other night from above, but Hemogoblin snuck in from behind, circling around until he found a good vantage point from which to back Heir up in the firefight. If he’s right about what he saw while he weaved his way through the maze of containers to catch the Crew off guard, he believes that Hearts will at least make a quick stop at Dock C before fucking off to parts unknown. At the very least, there might be some residual Crew members hanging around there he can interrogate.

It’s not much. But it’s better than nothing.

Hemogoblin hightails it for waterfront. If he remembers correctly, there’s a certain dock in the container port with some contents the police might have missed.

-

He doesn’t see the members of the Seattle bomb squad who flood onto the roof seconds after he begins loping across the rooftops.  He doesn’t look back as they spread out and search the roof for more explosive devices, and eventually locate a puddle of candy red blood, drying into a rusty, copper brown stain in the half-light of the moon.

He doesn’t think anything of it.

Why should he?

-

Most of the docks along the Seattle central waterfront are ferry terminals and cruise ship docks, the vestigial piers reclaimed for use as parks and boardwalks for tourists. But just to the south lies the container port yard, where most of the maritime trading in Seattle now occurs. As he approaches, the number of roofs he can travel across peter out, and Hemogoblin has to drop to the ground and sprint across the road, then scale the fence and neatly flip over the top into the container yard. He pays for the deft flip with a spasm of pain from his ribs when he lands hard on the other side, but he pushes through it, sticking to the shadows where the too-bright industrial lighting from overhead doesn’t quite reach.

He creeps through the rows, and knows when he sees a line of yellow police tape flapping in the slight breeze ahead that he’s at least in the general vicinity of the site of the showdown on Wednesday.

The line of tape has been cut.

Eyes narrowing, Hemogoblin rises up onto the balls of his feet, and continues down the row with more caution, listening carefully. The heavy, crunching tread of boots on gravel alerts him long before he sees the person round the corner, and he slips back into the narrow space between two containers like a sigh. Crouching in the shadows, he watches a cerulean-eyed troll stalk by the opening. The troll is in a black suit, which bodes very, very well. After one last disguise check – his false horn had nearly fallen off during the race to reach the docks earlier, and is still rather unsteady thanks to the crack running through it – he scales the towering stack of containers noiselessly, slithering on top of the stack and keeping his belly low against the roof of the container as he surveys the container yard from above.

And yeah, it’s still here. A squat, bulky container ship sits heavy by the loading dock beyond the rows of containers, its sides a rusty and nondescript maroon-brown mix, and the name at the prow just a string of letters and numbers in faded white paint, difficult to make out from this distance. More significant, to Hemogoblin at least, is the series of four containers that stand open in the harsh lighting, a few rows over from the clearing where the Crew had confronted Heir. Leaning to the side a little, he can see a black-clad figure standing guard, and the mysterious unlabeled crates within that had perked his interest the last time he passed through here.

He’d found this little setup while evading debris from the miniature tornado Heir whipped up Wednesday night. It had kind of slipped his mind afterward. Okay, fine, it was shoved violently to the side to make room for the extreme internal fangirling that ensued while he accepted Heir’s offer of partnership. Hey, he could either forget temporarily about the shipment of stolen goods that he’d assumed the police would find anyway, or he could squeal like a mewbeast in excitement and make himself look like a pancracked lunatic in front of Heir.

…He has his priorities, okay? And he really did have every reason to believe the cops who came to arrest the members of the Crew would at least bother to search the nearby shipping containers – isn’t that kind of investigation 101? But judging by the slightly scruffy black suits worn by the two trolls patrolling the rows and the female human guarding the open end of the large container, a wicked looking pistolkind in her hand, the police not only missed out on a few members of the Crew, they also forgot to check for and confiscate whatever stolen goods the Crew seem to be shipping out tonight. Sloppy.

But it may well pay off in the long run. Past-Hemogoblin’s forgetfulness means that current-Hemogoblin has an advantage he might otherwise not have. He may not have done it on purpose, but he can sure as hell work that angle if anyone tries to say otherwise. Clearly, he is a criminal activity predicting machine, and thanks to his innate talent for cunning, subtle manipulationand his associated degree in guilefoolery, he now has the Crew right where he wants them.

He searches the rows again, this time picking out the rumbling shape of a forklift as it returns from dumping off one of the suspicious containers on the deck of the squat shipping rig. He can’t identify who is driving it until it comes closer, at which point a human male leans out, signals at one of the patrolling Crew members, and trundles on to retrieve the next container. Hemogoblin growls under his breath.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like Hearts Boxcars is here. Hemogoblin is painfully aware of how much slower his method of transit is across the city; he still gets chills when he remembers how it felt to fly with Heir, how quickly the ground had sped by beneath them as the wind ushered them along. But for whatever reason, Heir isn’t patrolling tonight. (Hemogoblin has accepted this must be the case by now, though it still worries him – how badly would Heir have to be hurt to be off the job on a night like this?) And given Hemogoblin’s much slower rate of travel, Hearts Boxcars should have beaten him here in a vehicle.

Hemogoblin eases forward to peer over the edge of the container stack again, very aware of the empty air behind his back. He hadn’t known how reassuring it was to know Heir patrolled the skies until that assurance was gone.

Then he hears a distinct, loud rattling, and he slithers backward to the center of his perch, raising his head to watch as the front gate of the shipping yard creaks open, admitting a pitch black car. The vehicle has neither plates nor identifying car brands on it. It drives to the edge of the narrower container rows before purring to a stop. The driver emerges first, and the human nods in familiar greeting to the Crew woman who steps out from the container to meet him.

The second person to exit the vehicle is Hearts Boxcars.

Hemogoblin shouldn’t have beat them here on foot, even if he did haul serious ass to make it on time. They must have stopped along the way, or maybe lost time evading police traffic stops or traffic cams. Either way, it looks as though Hemogoblin’s hunch has paid off. At last, something happens this catastrophe-riddled night that actually manages to go right. Hemogoblin lets a slow smile creep across his face as he silently observes the hulking form of Hearts address the gang members who gather around him. 

"I want all of the goods outta here by dawn," Hearts is saying. "The boss wants us gone yesterday. And any damage to the goods I take outta your hides, got it?"

There is a chorus of "yessirs," and then the members of the Crew scatter, the guards helping the forklift driver to line up with one of the last containers.

So, the Crew is definitely leaving town, at least for now. Hemoglobin wonders if two encounters with Heir and being arrested were really enough of a turn off for them to completely give up, but it's not like he knows shit about how the inner workings of a criminal enterprise operate. Maybe they've decided Seattle is just too risky an investment, and have chosen to cut their loses.

Unfortunately for them, Hemogoblin takes exception to being blown up by a bunch of pansy-ass fuckwads. Maybe before he had hunted them down because they were particularly violent criminals who needed to be stopped; now he's more than a little pissed. And Karkat in a pissy mood doesn't let things go. If Hearts Boxcars thinks he can just sail out of this city without so much as a slap on the wrist, he had better think again.

Hemogoblin tracks the sentries one more time, memorizing their routes, and then lowers himself down the side of the containers to the ground.

Time to get to work.

He cultivates two blood sickles from his wrists, and finds that he has to adjust the angle of the one on his left wrist when the burns begin to prickle with pain. Swinging a few times to adjust to the change, Hemogoblin lopes down the row to where the first troll's route will cross his path. He presses himself into the space between two containers, a slightly wider passage than his last hiding place. He lounges against the side of the container, affecting carelessness, but keeping his luminescent eyes hooded so the slight glow won't give him away.

The troll strides by without looking at him. Hemogoblin simply steps out behind the sentry's back, leans back and plants a heel at the vulnerable base of the troll's skull. An "oof!" of pain escapes the sentry's mouth, but then Hemogoblin presses in close and wraps a hand over his mouth to muffle any warning shouts. There is no struggle from the troll, and abruptly he has an armful of sagging, unconscious dead weight to drag over into the shadows. He leaves the troll there and traces the maze of containers in his mind as he darts through the rows to intercept the second sentry.

This one causes more trouble. He'd been lucky to run into the green-blooded sentry first - the lower on the hemospectrum you go, as a general rule, the less stamina and strength a troll is capable of developing. In exchange, the warmer bloods tend to develop psychic abilities more often, and are more mentally stable and less susceptible to dementia.

But the second troll sentry is the cerulean from earlier, his eyes a dark enough blue for Hemogoblin to be wary. His abilities and training seem to have kept him on par with the fighting ability of most of the trolls Hemogoblin's fought and put in jail over the past few weeks, but he's still wary of challenging blues and above. If he tangles with them recklessly, he could easily spill more than a few drops of blood. Red eyes can be explained with contacts - candy red blood is a bit more of a stretch.

So when he locates the other sentry, he doesn't fuck around with the flashy kicks. He slinks in behind the blueblood and launches immediately into a chokehold, keeping his chin down to protect his windpipe and nose when the grubfucking dickweed tried to slam his head back into Hemogoblin's face. He keeps up the pressure on the artery running up the side of the troll's neck and his hand on the troll's mouth.

The troll bites him. Hemogoblin bites back a yelp of pain and tights his grip, clinging to the cerulean blood's back as he tries to slam up against a container. He's tall enough that Hemogoblin's feet scrabble at the gravel on the edge of his toes. Finally, still fighting and shoving against Hemogoblin's grip, the Crew member falls forward to his knees. This is taking too long, they're exposed in the middle of the row, but the blueblood still won't stop.

The teeth stay clamped on Hemogoblin's hand even when the troll's head lolls forward, which is naturally the most fan-fucking-tastically unpleasant sensation to ever inflict itself on his hand. Grimacing,  he peels the sentry's head back and pries his hand free, letting the blood pulse out and fill in the broken skin, easing the pressure on new bruises until his hand is unmarked again.

Somehow, he manages to drag the second sentry out of sight before anyone shows up. But his luck stops there. When he looks up out of the container he stuffs the unconscious body into, he has the unwanted pleasure of meeting the eyes of the driver from earlier, just as the man turns around the corner.

The man's mouth pops open and he shouts, "We have a hero over here!" Two pieces of metal slide out of his sleeves; a pair of knives fall into the driver's hands.

Shit shit shitfuckery. There goes his surprise advantage. Hemogoblin brings his sickles up on guard, sidestepping a little so he can check over his shoulder with the corner of his eye without looking away from his main opponent. The driver remains on guard as well, and there's something weird about that. Most of the Crew members are shoot first, ask questions later type thugs, in Hemogoblin's short experience; they seem to take after their rather violent boss in that respect.

So why does it feel like something is different about this one. Maybe it's the slightly higher quality of his suit, as though it is better tailored than the cheaper make most of the Crew members favor; maybe it’s the weary, calculating look in the man's eye as he simply waits for Hemogoblin to make the first move.

As much as Hemogoblin doesn't want to run into some kind of trap, he can't wait around here forever. He's not letting this prick distract him while Hearts gets away. He grits his teeth and prepares to jump forward and to the side, to throw the driver off -

Hearts Boxcars himself rounds the corner behind the driver. "And what do we have here?" he says, walking up alongside the driver, eyeing Hemogoblin with a face that's a little worse for the wear since the showdown on Wednesday. "Great. You again."

Hemogoblin tenses up, and starts changing his game plan right the fuck now. He'd really hoped to whittle away the Midnight Crew in the area until he could focus all of his effort on Hearts alone; the man is too skilled a boxer for Hemogoblin to take him lightly.

"I can handle this one, sir," the driver says. To Hemogoblin's surprise, the man appears to be gritting his teeth, and he glances at Hearts impatiently.

The larger man fails to notice the irritation radiating off his underling in waves. "It ain't just the one. Where there's one of these bozos, there's two. Trust me, I'm not makin' the same mistake twice," Hearts grunts, eyeing the sky. "You can't underestimate these two lugs."

Hemogoblin doesn't let his relief show. If Hearts thinks Heir is in the sky to back him up, that means the Crew isn't responsible for the Heir's disappearance tonight. He can use that.

But he doesn't have Heir at his back, and he doesn't think much of his odds against both Hearts and a second man, going head to head. Instead, Hemogoblin smiles knowingly, raises his sickles - and darts back into the shadows.

He doesn't risk looking back, even when he hears shouts and the scramble of shoes on gravel behind him. He flings himself down the first narrow intersection he can find, and then the next, trying to lose Hearts's line of sight long enough to climb a container.

The first chance he gets, he takes it. One foot slips on the way up, and he just barely manages to swing his legs on top of the container before the driver squeezes through the passageway, panting. Hemogoblin allows himself a small smile; it looks like Hearts is just too bulky to shove his way through the tiny openings between containers and give proper chase. Good. Hemogoblin would prefer a one on one.

Hemogoblin tenses, ready to hook his legs over the edge and grab the driver from above, but the man swears and starts easing back out the way he came, too far away for Hemogoblin to reach.

He'll have to head them off again, before they reach the container ship. Who knows how many Crew members are manning the ship itself? No, he has to knock Hearts out before the nookstain absconds from Seattle and gets away with arson, theft, and two attempts at blowing up law-abiding heroes.

Seriously, fuck this guy. Hemogoblin is ready to vomit fury all over this guy and his fruity asshole shenanigans.

Descending from the container roof, Hemogoblin takes advantage of his slim build to keep evading the two men who are now searching the gaps between containers in earnest as they hurry through the main rows. Hearts and the driver meet up again before he can drop the second man, and he silently fumes as they stalk out toward the two remaining containers of contraband.

When he draws closer, he realizes their furious, whispered conversation is more of an argument. He lurks in the shadows nearby, easing his feet over the gravel to prevent the same crunch that keeps giving away the Crew's location.

"You need to go, sir," the driver is saying, his knives still held in a practiced grip. "It is my task to see you out of the city before dawn."

"And I'm tellin' yah, I leave when I leave. I ain't runnin' from these two little shits," Hearts snaps, impatiently waving the forklift into position. "I gave 'em more than enough warning. If they want to try this again, I'm gonna show them you don't mess with the Midnight Crew!"

"You can't," the driver insists, looking both anxious about contradicting his superior - at least, Hemogoblin assumes so - and yet irritated. "If you will not board that vessel of your own volition, I am to forcibly assist you. My lady Droog insists."

Dissent in the ranks? Hemogoblin snickers, kneeling in the gravel behind a container to observe.

"You think you can make me, you pompous deliveryboy?" Hearts says in a low voice. He reaches out with a thick hand and grabs the driver by the collar, yanking the shorter man upward until he's barely balanced touching the ground. "I'd like to see you try. You think Droog can tell me what to do?!"

The driver just looks at him. "He would know," he says, quietly. "If you disobey him in this, he'll know. He always knows. And he wants the children alive. He wants you out of the field, and Lady Droog would rather not see what happens when he finally gets mad. And sir? He. Would. Know."

The air is tight with some tension Hemogoblin can't name, confused by who exactly this he could be. Then Hearts releases the man and loosens his own shirt, grunting and glancing around shiftily so that Hemogoblin catches sight of his face. He looks, Hemogoblin thinks, as though he's ready to shit bricks of solid fear. His ruddy face has gone pale and slick with sweat, and he looks ill.

"...Fine. Fine," is all Hearts says, and then he whirls on the forklift operator. "Hurry that up, yah dunce! What, do you have butterfingers?! We gotta schedule to keep!"

Well. That was...enlightening. Hemogoblin files this "he" and the name Droog away to wonder about later - right now, he has to focus on recapturing Hearts. Unfortunately, the next second, Hearts storms off toward the ship, stomping alongside the forklift, accompanied by the female guard with the pistols. It looks as though the driver has somehow won the argument. The driver himself scans the containers around him before striding back to the vehicle he escorted Hearts to the dockyard in. He flips away his knifekind and adjusts his suit jacket before entering. The car engines starts a moment later, and the driver veers back out of the container rows, heading back to the front gates. Apparently he still has some business in the city to deal with.

As long as that business doesn't involve blowing people and buildings up like a certain fucking maniac, he is officially less of a priority to Hemogoblin than said fucking maniac, who is currently heading for the ocean.

Fucking fuck fucker. He has to get ahead of Hearts before the gangster can surround himself with whatever backup is waiting for him on the ship. This would be so much easier if Heir really was here - Hemogoblin is painfully aware of just how much more time he wastes as he is forced to duck and weave between containers to avoid the pistolkind range of that female guard.

He doesn't make it in time. By the time he finds a vantage point near the old, barnacle-infested, unrepaired dock, Hearts Boxcars is already waving down another black suited-troll from the deck of the ship, who lowers the gangway and stomps down to listen to Hearts's whispered instructions.

Stealth isn't going to help him much anymore. Nevertheless, Hemogoblin waits until the woman with the pistols begins to scan the containers down the row from his location before he recklessly sprints out into the open. The troll from the ship gives a warning shout, but Hemogoblin is already kicking her legs out from under the woman before she can aim at him. He slams down on her wrist with a foot and twists to pin her other arm, ruthlessly slamming his palm into her chin when she tries to stand up.

When he rises, sickles growing from his wrists once more as he squares off against the forklift driver and the troll, he sees Hearts already has both feet on the gangway, striding up toward the ship. "Hey!" Hemogoblin shouts, and then he proceeds to (possibly, maybe, perhaps) overreact a tiny amount. "Get the fuck back down here, you nookwhiffing shithead!"

And wow, it's probably the massively inappropriate language that actually provokes Hearts into turning around, both eyebrows nearly disappearing into his hairline with mild surprise. "Wow. Got a mouth on yah, don't you, kid?" Hearts shakes his head. "Yeah. Nope." And on that note Hearts stomps up the gangway, disregarding Hemogoblin completely. "Keep him busy, boys."

Oh my fucking god, did he just get shot down by a fucking criminal dick with a heart fetish? Tell me that did not just happen. The forklift driver removes a fucking spear from within the driver's compartment, and the greenblooded troll from the ship draws a single wickedly sharp, curved bladekind from his side. Both of them come at Hemogoblin at the same time, and he loses track of Hearts's progress as he dodges their wild stabs.

Neither fighter is particularly skilled, not compared to Hemogoblin and his sickles, but they take up time, and Hemogoblin chafes at the delay because it's exactly what Hearts wants. By the time Hemogoblin brings the last Crew member to his knees and knocks the man unconscious with a boot to the temple, the gangway has already been drawn up, and the Crew's ship has begun to pull away from the dock. Hearts is going to get away.

Or maybe not, Hemogoblin thinks, spying a rope that trails down the side of the ship. Yeah, with enough of a running start, he could reach it. Probably.

Time to find out.

Fuck. He's going for it. Hemogoblin jumps over the fallen Crew member and runs as fast as his legs can carry him, the muscles in his side flaring with pain as he races along the edge of the dock. When he reaches the end, he leaps up and forward, and catches the rope trailing off the side of the ship with one hand. He goes spinning in circles around it, tangling the line around his fist and banging against the side of the ship hard before coming to a stop. With a grunt, he untangles himself and begins to drag himself up the side of the ship hand over hand, the muscles in his arms straining as the burn scabs crack. The ship continues to pull out into the middle of the water as he slowly makes progress.

The rope trembles menacingly, and Hemogoblin nearly loses his grip. He wraps his hand again before he looks up.

All the adrenaline dies away, and a stone lodges itself in his stomach as he looks up the last few yards at Hearts Boxcars's square face. "Well, well," the man says, leaning over the side. "Real cute, kid. I give you points for persistence, a'ight? But this is the end of your little adventure." He raises a wickedly sharp knife, one he had failed to reveal last time, and Hemogoblin clenches his jaw. The specibus must be borrowed, because it's clumsy in Hearts's hands, but he can still saw away at the rope with ease, causing more vibrations to run through the rope and jostle Hemogoblin.

"You're not going to get away with this," Hemogoblin says, and it’s the most pathetic, clichéd stock phrase to ever crawl out of his mouth and die. Frankly, after a horrible line like that, he deserves to get cut down.

Hearts pretends to think this over. "Nah, I think I will. Looks like Heir decided not to show up, after all," he calls down, wearing a smug grin that just makes Hemogoblin want to rip the man's entire ugly face off and feed it to him. "Shame. Give him my regards, will yah?"

Hearts cuts the dragging line with a deft stroke of the knife, and then Karkat is plummeting toward the water. He barely has time to shout out in surprise and suck in a breath of air before he runs out of air to fall through.

He lands in the water with a hard splash. The momentum of his fall carries him down further than he expects, and when he waves a hand through the water above his head, he fails to find the surface of the bay. For a moment raw panic floods him, and his heart seizes up. It's dark and cold and he can't see which way is up. For all he knows, he could be frantically paddling in the wrong direction, going down instead of up, and he can't breathe -

Because his fucking costume is covering up the edges of his fucking mutant gills.

Jesus bumblefucking Christ, if Karkat dies because he made this goddamn suit too tight, he is going to shit on everything that moves. The left side of his suit is already fucked thanks to the shrapnel, so he tears at the fabric on that side first, ripping right up to where the candy red slits of gills cut their way across his upper ribcage. He gulps down nasty port water. It tastes like he's filtering solid pollution as it works its way through his system, but the resulting influx of oxygen in his bloodstream is far too welcome for him to care.

The suit is already fucked anyway. He cuts a new hole in the other side to let his other gills help take up the strain, and he blinks his eyelids rapidly, wishing he had the second set of eyelids that help true aquatic trolls see underwater. With the ability to breathe underwater thus reestablished, he can think a little more clearly, and stops panicking like a scared little wriggler.

Yeah, he has gills. He doesn't like to talk about them. They're yet more proof that he's the kind of mutant that's so fucking bizarre, it makes you question just what kind of illegal mind-altering drugs the mothergrub who mixed his gene slurry had to have been on at the time. Usually by the time a troll dips below indigo on the hemospectrum, the gills are vestigial and barely function, and by the time you hit olivebloods they don't develop at all. Somehow, Karkat has gills and the kind of internal vascular system that can filter oxygen from water, but he missed out on the webbing between fingers, the elaborate ear-fins, and, oh yeah, any one of the fucking blood colors that would have saved him a lifetime of living in fear of being culled.

What the fuck ever. Karkat shakes his head and begins kicking his way back to the surface of the water. He's a slow-ass swimmer, despite the gills, and by the time he makes up for all the time he lost flailing around drowning like a dumbass and breaks the surface of the water, his heart is sinking. He treads water, slamming a fist angrily and futilely against the rolling surface of a wave that overtakes him.

Hearts's ship is already halfway out of the port, kicking up waves in its wake that buffet Karkat and drive him back towards the dock.

There's no way he'll ever catch up before they hit open water.

As though the universe can't bear to let this momentous fucking failure end on such a devastating note, his cracked fake horn falls off a second later. The splash of water right in his eye just about sums up the general mood of his entire existence, and he spits foul port water out of his mouth, ignoring the horn as it vanishes into the depths.

Karkat is forced to watch as the Midnight Crew ship vanishes into the night.

Wow. Fuck this night. Fuck everything about this night. He's going the fuck home. Waterlogged and with half his costume shredded, Karkat swims for shore.

---

She carves the old symbol into the base earth of the city. The fleshlings have done their own work of cutting into the base earth and riddling it with tunnels, and she must waste precious time sealing off the pipes of filth-ridden water and draining power from cut wires that spit blue sparks. At one point she delves down to form the inner corner of an epicycloid curve, and finds to her distaste an entire metal tube of mewling humans speeding along beneath the earth. She loses her patience and gestures sharply. As one, her thorns reach down and scoop beneath the underground train.

She rips it out. It is longer than she expects, and the street crumbles and caves in along an entire block as the sectioned train is torn up through the pavement. One section of collapsed road intersects with the Grand Spirograph, and black, incensed fury consumes her in a wave of dark fire.

When the rage of the tanglehorde clears from her eyes, the train has been flung through the nearest building, lodging there with the bottom torn up by thorns. Blood and twisted metal hang down above the street, and screams echo within the tiny metal trap.

They are worth no more effort than that. Still crackling with rage, she returns to her work, carefully summoning a new carving spell to trace over the marred section of the Gate.

Everything must be perfect. They can afford no such flaws in the design. There are, after all, still rules that must be obeyed, covenants that must be fulfilled.

It does not help that the Noblest Gods have not been forced to make use of such a Gate in so many an eon. This is an elaborate work, and despite their many glorious, intertwined minds, a shared sentience beyond anything conceived of by mere singling quicklives, it remains...difficult to craft the old, hated symbol of the Spirograph, even in the service of the Eldest Gods. Destroying gates has always been a far simpler task for one such as she.

On a second flyover of the city, observing her work and noting the sections still left to be carved and consecrated, she sees it. The abomination. The wings are the wrong shape, more insectoid than cosmic, and the enormous statue bears a thorny crown and twin, slender horns that no angel ever bore, but the tangle within reacts with old hatred nonetheless. Screeching unintelligibly, she raises both hands and unleashes a wave of dark fire. It shreds through the coppery metal as though through flesh, and the wings are sheared away from the solitary metal form that the fleshcreatures have seen fit to erect in their harbor. Then, almost as an afterthought, she lands on the statue's shoulder and, with grimdark-laced hands, rips its head from its shoulders, tossing that too down into the muddy waters below.

Something tattered and pathetic in the corner of her mind thinks that this is a suitable ironic gesture, and then subsides into broken, ever weakening struggles.

Having thus satisfactorily defaced the Statue of Liberty and Equality in the name of both her mindrending Gods and that mysterious mistress of paradox space called irony, she smiles down at the ships fleeing from the tiny sub-island that served as base for the abomination, and turns to float above the city.

The butterfly wings of the statue topple over at last, sinking into the mud and kicking up a massive wave of displaced water that tosses the fleeing ferries and swamps some of the roads on the main island. She does not mind the rising waters, even as they begin to trickle into curves of the Gate. She prefers a colddamp canvas for this glorious work, anyway, and the water will not interfere as metal or earth would.

And so it goes.

-

In a space that is not, between one world and the Void, there is Rose.

She thinks there will always be Rose,  even when the thought of the name 'Lalonde' enrages her, even when all that is left of her is a sliver of pale light, a battered and brine-pickled husk that must watch as the grimdark swallows the world.

Sometimes she can feel the tentacles creep and crawl into what little of her own mind remains, and she must feebly shove them away, batter at probing thorns with lacerated hands. It hurts, it hurts, and she is so tired. Sometimes she thinks she has been tired her whole life, never sleeping, with the whispers of the Void ringing in her ears all those endless nights. And now she can only observe, feeling old down to her bones, as her body is used to create the Gate. Once the outline is finished being carved, it must be consecrated and opened, but now that Rose has given her consent, that consecration will only be a matter of minutes, rather than the hours that it would have taken up if they'd had to consecrate it the old fashioned way, with death and torture and sacrifice.

It isn't hard to extrapolate where such a grimdark construction will lead. Already the scent of cold and dark and brine hangs heavy in the air, so thick Rose can taste blood when she swallows. This will be a Gate to the Outer Ring. She has no idea of the distance, both in light years and across paradox space, that must be bridged in order to create such a portal, but the swelling tangle satiating itself upon her mind seems unquestioningly confident the summoning will succeed.

However, in the part of her that can still think, can still analyze, can still See, Rose has an inkling of a plan. And she has already set it into motion. Because the Horrorterrors may like to believe that they are absolute, but she herself has ignored and refuted their murmured urgings almost since she was born. She will not fall prey to this false dichotomy.

If they wish to believe the Horde is infallible, let them toddle along in their delusions. Rose is still Rose, and she will not let them win.

Perhaps it would be easier to give in and become one with the embrace at last.

When has Rose ever done what is easy?

And so, under the guide of drifting aimlessly through the tide, she paddles her way, slowly but surely, toward the pattern that occupies the center of the tangle, the loops and points and curves of the Gate.

The many-angled ones are just such - many angled, tangled and thorny and messy, with no order, the embodiment of chaos and death made sentient. She can see even now how the tentacles and stickers of the tangle clutch and writhe around the edges of the spirograph, and then are just as quickly pulled away. For whatever reason, the smooth order of the Gate is anathema to the Horrorterrors; they make use of it simply because they seem to have no other choice. Rose cannot comprehend all of the massive, overwhelming intelligence that controls the tangle, but she can see well enough how the Gods must fight their inner urge to tangle in order to keep the pattern of the Gate pure. Otherwise, the Gate will not open.

It is no more than a stray thought, a fledgling idea that she pours herself into. She masks it with blood and salt, and then marks it with a single beacon of light before setting it loose on the tide that swills and corrodes in tangles around the spirograph.

Just a simple thought. Just a tiny urge. As easy as breathing.

̾̽ ̏d̈́ͣo͊͑̈́͗͑̓̋̑ͮi̋͒̅̽̓̒̈́̍t̓ͮͦ let go break it alter it tangle it make it ours let it join the tanglehorde the embrace of all our wonderful t͑̿̂a̓nͬͨ̈̆ͪg̈́ͤ̏leͥ̈́ͥbͫͫ͌̏̏ͪũ̅ͤͬd͒ͫd͂͌͆̓̚iͦ͌ͩ̅̒̓ͩeͬ̄̅̔̇̇s̆͂͐ͣ͛̚ why deny it just ̏d̈́ͣo͊͑̈́͗͑̓̋̑ͮi̋͒̅̽̓̒̈́̍t̓ͮͦ

Rose smiles and falls away from the spirograph. She cannot let the tangle notice her near here, in case it realizes she and that subtle, slippery thought are one and the same.

That is the beauty of this plan. It demands nothing of the tangle that the Horrorterror does not already wish to do, the most insidious, corrupting kind of thought. It is the same method of gentle suggestion and tantalizing whispermurmur the Gods have used to entice and manipulate Rose her entire life. In hindsight, it is easy to see where they encouraged her alcoholism and fed her fury with her mother, to create that perfect moment of despair in which they could take over her body.

Surely turnabout is only fair play?

break the pattern bring chaos bring disorder after all how can we be wrong HǑ̈́W̌̄̑̈́̚C̊͗͒͗ͣ͐ͤͬA̋N ̓͆̈ͮ͒̈̚Wͥ̄̈̿Eͪ͆ͭͯͯͩ B͒͒͑Ĕͥͥ͒ͮ̚W̓ͣ̈́ͦ̒R̔̌Ǒ̂̆ͯNͤ̈̽̌́ͤ̋̈́Ḡͬ̓̌

The pattern shines, order in chaos, a symbol balanced above the churning sea. The tentacles draw forward and abate, reach out to tear, then restrain themselves -

be free be C͐͊͛͐̍ͪ̅H͐ͩ̽̾̎͛ͣ͒Aͫ̍͑̒̈ͯ͐ͯO̽ͭ̈̈̎̈́ͮͫŠ̆̌ͣ͛̽̎ tear tend disorder disaligndistortdisturbdeviate D͂̔ͭ̍̓E͋̅F͋͛̔͌̂ͣ̒̽ͥȮ̊ͭͭ͌͗Rͧ͊͊͑M̊̍̄̓

And then, with a shudder that rocks her mind and sends her spinning into the dark, the tentacles surge forward and embrace the spirograph. There is a keen of hungry, grim triumph as thorns wrap themselves around the curves of the Gate's image, and the bitter, distant pain of acid floods the waters of the deepdark.

As Rose watches, that perfect, unsullied pattern begins to melt and sag, dripping into the sea.

The tangle does not appear to recognize what horror it has wrought upon the Gate. It only follows its most primal instinct, after all, to bring chaos to order - why should that register in the hive mind as a breach, a failure? This is natural. This is acceptable.

Within moments, the same overwhelming force that tore the Seer of Light to shreds has also altered and distorted the Horde's only hope at a successful summoning into a warped version of its former self. The great spirograph lists to the side, slimy and scummy with brine and smears of grim dark.

Checkmate, Rose whispers to the Void, a soft sound audible only to herself.

She has no idea what such a damaged Gate will do once the unwitting Horrorterror has finished recreating the broken pattern in the streets of New York City. She would lay money on it all exploding rather disastrously, and she is well aware that she has condemned not just the island but any remaining inhabitants to almost certain death. At the very least, when the tangle realizes its failure, and the cause, it will turn upon what remains of Rose and finish the job of annihilating her individual identity. She will be Rose no more.

But she thinks that this sacrifice is well worth the price. If she had let the Gate be completed, the Horrorterrors would have flooded the world in their true forms, and more than just New York City would have burned.

Yes, this is...an acceptable outcome. The best possible future that she can See, in the dim pale light of her broken mind.

Rose closes her eyes, and lets herself drift away. She is so very tired, and now that she has done all she can, all she can do now is await the end.

-

She tears and carves with gleeful abandon. The perfect order of the Gate no longer seems quite so urgent a priority. She is so close to completing her goal, white fire drooling from her mouth as she lashes out with great vines of power. More and more often, she accidentally crushes the edges of stray buildings in her violent haste, but she simply knocks the debris out of her way and continues on.

When a tiny human bearing a camera rushes across her path, trying to conceal its pitiful form behind a fallen vehicle, she smiles and clenches her fist, shrieking with wild laughter as the camera explodes with dark fire in the man's hands. She does not even stop to watch if he burns with it. She floats upward, baring her teeth at the looming dark clouds of the sky.

She is so gloriously, gloriously close, and all her inhibitions are gone. This is so much fun!!!

(be free be C͐͊͛͐̍ͪ̅H͐ͩ̽̾̎͛ͣ͒Aͫ̍͑̒̈ͯ͐ͯO̽ͭ̈̈̎̈́ͮͫŠ̆̌ͣ͛̽̎ tear tend disorder disaligndistortdisturbdeviate D͂̔ͭ̍̓E͋̅F͋͛̔͌̂ͣ̒̽ͥȮ̊ͭͭ͌͗Rͧ͊͊͑M̊̍̄̓)

And oh, she does. Does she ever. These pathetic fleshlings will never know what hit them when her work is done.

She fails to notice how her careful carvings begin to deteriorate and warp, the lines trailing off at loose ends and fading out as she begins to hack and tear at the earth indiscriminately. All she notices is an old and familiar hunger, the ever-present urge to D͋̓̎E̚S̓̓͌T̑ͥRͫ͆̎O̿͒̾̆Ẏͥ͌̇͑̑͊ ͦ̂͆ͧ, to F̏̆ͯ̒̚̚Eͦ̽Aͦ̎̏̍ͫS͐͆ͥͪT͛͑̏̾, to Iͧ̓̿͐N͒͆ͦ̐ͤ̐ͪF̍ͯ̓̄ͩͥͫE̎ͨ̎̆ͭ̔̅SͦT͒.

The urge, in short, to ta͊̅͋͑̌n̈́̇ͫgͩ̐le͊͊.

Reaching out with all the tentacles at her disposal, she hurries to finish her work on the Gate. Hurry! For once the work is done, the Many may feast! They can clear the useless fleshy creatures away, and the great F̑ͨ̒Lͦͦͯͮ̔̌ͮͥÓ̇O̓ͩ̐̌̌͐̅ͯ̚D̐̈́ͯI̒̈́̎͂N̑ͧG̊ͣ̚ may begin, free of the inconsequential mortal beings that paradox space holds so dear.

Unheard, unnoticed, a shred of a voice sighs into the grimdark waters with a an unseen smirk.

(checkmate, motherfuckers)

She has no idea that the Seer has already won.

---

Sneaking onto the runway at Hobby Airport is easy. I mean, Dave and his Bro, they’re basically the equivalent of the most badass ninjas ever. He’s only worried about John for a second; he turns around to face the fence they’d just hopped, expecting to see John failing every stealth check known to man, only to realize the other hero has disappeared entirely. He looks up and sees John hovering overhead, his face obscured behind the cheapass black rimmed swim goggles they had picked up from a sports store and a black scarf that had drawn the weirdest looks because hello, they're in Houston in the bugfuck middle of spring. No one in their right mind is rocking a scarf at this point.

The kid is so much of a goof out of uniform, it’s easy for Dave to forget he’s just as competent at the hero thing as anyone.

John lands and they all three run the rest of the way to the sleek, almost military-style jet idling illegally on the runway with the engines running. Bro seems to know where he's going, which is the only reason Dave actually trusts that this is the right private jet.

Once they’re up the gangway and inside, the pilot and copilot eye them through the open door of the front compartment before nodding and closing up the outside door as well, preparing for takeoff. “We should reach our destination in a little under two hours,” a troll informs them hurriedly as she walks by, striding through the most luxurious interior of a plane Dave has ever seen. Seriously, when Lalonde said private jet, she hadn’t been kidding. This place is decked the fuck out. “Please be seated for takeoff and landing. If you require anything, call me.” The troll disappears into the back and buckles herself in.

Apparently, they aren’t dicking around. The next second the plane jolts and starts rolling along under Dave’s feet. Shaking himself, he sees John aiming for the window seat by a large television screen. Bro has vanished, though how he’s managed it in such a confined space is a total mystery. Probably off to call the elder Lalonde again. For someone who claims to hate the dame so much, Bro sure has a lot to say to her, considering how tight-lipped and stoic as fuck the guy usually is.

Still. None of this had been in Bro’s plan. Dave had stared down Bro until he agreed they were going on this hella awesome rescue mission, not the other way around. Dave doesn’t think he’s ever disagreed with Bro like that and won – well, ever. Dave’s heart squeezes with elation, and he has to sit on the urge to throw a because damn. Damn. He is the one and only reason he’s here. And he is all for this new state of affairs. He is the Secretary of this State. Fuck yeah.

Of course, now they’re flying off to confront one of John’s old friends who is apparently possessed by tentacle monsters because some lady who calls Bro ‘Ambrose’ of all fucking things has asked them to. There is so much pure, unadulterated ‘what the actual fuck’ going on in that sentence than Dave doesn’t even know where to start.

Well, it doesn’t look like Bro is willing to be interrogated at the moment. John is probably an easier target anyway. Dave sprawls into a seat across from John, just as the jet takes off and he would have fallen over anyway, timing it so smoothly it looks like the last little jolt shoving him back and down into the seat is all part of the plan. Awesome.

He waits.

John stares out the window.

He waits.

John appears to have decided that the clouds slowly appearing through the window are the greatest thing since man first invented apple juice. Which is literally impossible, because no one can ever top that crowning moment of achievement. Ever.

“John.”

John blinks, looking startled, as though he were so engrossed in the sky outside the window that he hadn’t noticed Dave sit down. Eh. Doesn’t matter. Dave’s smooth moves aren’t for an audience – they’re a one-man ritualistic offering to irony, goddess that she is.

“Dave,” he says in reply, a faint smile flickering across his face before he shuts down again, with an intense, far off gaze that hones in on the sky outside the window. It’s not quite the weariness that makes Dave want to hug the sadness out of the kid, but it’s only a few shades off from the mask that he’s seen John wear when he’s trying to hide that fatigue in front of a crowd. The kid has his hands folded up in his laps and he’s sitting straight up like he's sitting before an audience, making no effort to make himself comfy for the two hour flight.

“Something fascinating out there?” Dave asks. “I mean seriously man, how can you bear to look away from the face of a Strider? This is some Bernini-quality anatomy here and you’d rather cloud-watch?"

John bursts out into laughter, and immediately tries to choke it back, snerking behind a hand he claps over his face. "Oh my god, Dave, where do you even get this stuff from?" he laughs. "

"Sorry John, this is 100% homegrown Strider, my man. All original material, all the time." Dave slouches in his seat, letting his legs stretch out into the aisle. "Totally au naturel. Now come on, John. Talk to me about this Rose chick or something. Do the conversation thing.” He wants to stop doing the majority of the talking now. John has really good ears. Eventually he has to notice something is up.

“Sorry, Dave,” John says as though on automatic, tugging his wandering eyes away from the clouds. “Ah, what do you want to know? Because honestly if we should be asking anybody around here questions, we should be asking your brother or Doctor Lalonde. I don’t even understand half of what was going on in there. I didn’t even know Rose had powers, or that she was Seer of Light all this time.”

Interesting, but not unexpected.  Dave had kind of already figured John didn’t know about little Lalonde running around playing hero after the kid nearly collapsed in shock on their shitty sofa. “All those years running around being adorable little friendderps and holding hands, and you never once suspected she could grow space tentacles? She never realized you float when you’re winning at video games?”

John flushes. Dave wishes he could count it as a point to him, but he's long since realized that playing the game against someone who isn’t a Strider, and therefore isn’t even trying to pretend they don’t have feelings all the damn time, renders the game kind of moot. “I do not float, man. Do I?” John flips into earnest anxiety, searching Dave's eyes with a worried expression. Doesn’t he get whiplash, changing his expression that dramatically every two seconds? Dave hadn’t noticed it as much yesterday, but damn, is John easy to read. “Dude, I play video games with – people who don’t know, I can’t have been floating all that time or they would have noticed.”

“Chill, John, you only did it the once.” Dave allows himself a victory smile when John splutters out another protest. “I’m fucking kidding, bro. We haven't even done a proper video game faceoff, how the fuck would I know about your floating tendencies in the long term." Dave begins tapping out a beat with his foot. Between John's sudden arrival and last night's exhausting shenanigans, he hasn't had time to work on his sick beats in almost twelve hours. He's getting antsy. "But seriously, neither of you knew about the other?”

John pulls a face and leans his head against the window, tangling his fingers together. “I – look, it's called a secret identity for a reason, you know. My dad had been teaching me to keep my powers a secret from everyone since I was, like, five years old. He discouraged me from getting friends all through elementary school because he was afraid I’d forget and want to show off in front of other kids.” John shakes his head, looking confused. “But now it turns out that Doctor Lalonde knew all along, I guess? She and Rose moved into town in the third grade, and I just – wanted to be friends with someone, finally. And my dad said it was alright if it was Rose."

Dave raises an eyebrow at that. "Really? Damn. I mean, obviously they were in some serious cahoots, right? Mom Lalonde clearly knew all along about you, and who else would give her the lowdown?"

John nods, frowning. "I didn’t even question why some girl from out of town was a safe choice for a friend. But you're right - I think maybe my dad and Doctor Lalonde knew each other even before the Lalondes moved in. Knew about the two of us, and trusted each other enough to discuss that information, even if they never talked about it where we could hear."

Dave scans the plane, but there's still no sign of Bro. Like that's unusual. "Bro, too," he adds in an undertone, even though he's resigned to the fact that Bro can probably hear him anyway. The man is fucking psychic or something. "Or at least, he and Lalonde go way back. I mean, fucking Ambrose? No wonder he tried to bury that one."

"He talked to my dad, too." John folds his arms over his chest, then grimaces, tugging at the collar of his borrowed suit jacket. He opens his mouth, but Dave beats him to it with a raised eyebrow and a slight smirk. John shuts his mouth and goes red again, pouting. Heheh. No one complains about borrowed Strider swag, not while Dave's here to taunt them about it. "And Dad wouldn't talk about it when I asked him what it was all about. Said it wasn't safe to discuss anything over the phone." John huffs. "They all have a lot of explaining to do. But I don't think we can bug them about it right now. We have to focus on saving Rose."

Dave remains silent when John gets his thinking face on, and starts drumming on the armrest with his fingers, running through the beat for Poker Face.

...Shut up. It's not even ironic at this point. It's a sick, sick addiction that will drive him, alone and unloved, to an early grave. At least maybe he'll have John to give a kickass eulogy, even if Bro will probably show up fifteen minutes late on a shitty skateboard with Starbucks -

John leans his head against the back of his seat and starts talking again, interrupting one of the most depressingly funereal tangents Dave has ever gone on. "Anyway. Me and Rose just spent the next six years being best friends, apparently never once letting it slip that we were both…different.” His face falls even more. “And I definitely never knew about this grimdark thing. I mean, Rose used to talk about her cat – I think she called him Jaspers. But she always told me he died when she was 4 years old. She was four the last time this grimdark thing happened? I mean…that’s horrible. I can’t even imagine being possessed and losing control of my body that way. For a little kid – god.”

John trails off, and then he’s looking out the window again, a little crease of worry between his eyebrows. And yeah, okay, that kind of had been a conversation killer. Dave is very careful not to think about how it would feel to have your body possessed, to be forced to march along to someone else’s commands, merrily  wearing your meatsuit as they drive you to an early grave, damning you and everyone around you, while all you can do is scream inside and watch as you - you - you -

(you -)

Yeah, he’s not thinking about this. He’s forgetting it ever happened at all. He’s –

-

When Dave comes too, the plane is at a really weird angle, and it takes him a few blinks before he realizes someone is shaking his shoulder gently. If it had been Bro, he'd just have shoved Dave out of the seat entirely without a word. “Hey, Dave, are you still zoned out?” John asks, leaning over in his seat with a worried expression behind his clear goggles.

Dave grunts in response, mind slowly kicking back into gear, just in time to feel every bone in his body creak. Chrriiiiist. Had he really just passed the fuck out while sitting upright like that? He feels like he’s been to the fifth dimension and back, and whatever he met there kicked his ass ten ways to Sunday. Seriously, if sleeping upright leave him feeling like he has fucking osteoporosis, he’s sticking to horizontal siestas from now on. He can still feel the headache from earlier edging in, because tapping your fingers isn't exactly a work of musical genius. He needs his turntables like he needs air, but oh fuck, look who decided to go on a cross-country road trip to rescue some broad from tentacle monsters. He couldn't even bring any sick beats - his iPod got wasted last night when Bro had torn him a new one for keeping his pesterchumhood with Heir a secret. Way to plan ahead, Strider.

Then he looks out the window and realizes why they’re all leaning at a funky angle, and why he’s half slipping out of his seat. “We here already?” he asks, not wiping at his bleary eyes until John glances out the window himself, giving him a second to recover his composure. Naps always knock him for a loop.

“Yeah, we are,” John says, his voice grim as he turns back to the window. “And you might want to see this.”

Dave surreptitiously hooks a leg around the edge of the seat to keep from slipping any further, feeling like a stealthy genius, and puts his face to the window.

New York City looks...a little worse for the wear. For one thing, enormous black thunderclouds tinged with sickly green and bruise purple have swollen up overhead, taking up the entire sky. Their plane is looping in a wide circle around the worst of it, aiming for a small runway to the northwest of the swirling vortex. Every so often, a crackle of thorny black lightning rises up from the city itself, and another building bites the dust. Shit, there isn't even going to be a city left by the time this chick is through with it.

He whistles. “Wow. She really did a number on the skyline, didn’t she?” He narrows his eyes and frowns, squinting at the tiny figure out in the harbor. “What the fuck did she do to the Statue of Liberty and Equality? I mean, aside from the head." He wonders if grimdark monsters have a sense of irony, because it so, 10/10, well done tentacle dudes. Classic. "It’s different, I can tell, I just can’t put my finger on it…”

John cranes his neck to the side to get a better angle. “It was those troll wings they sometimes pupate with. Looks like she cut them off. I wonder why.”

“Tentacle monsters, man. Truly, their whimsy is inscrutable to us mere mortals.” Dave sits back a little, clenching his jaw against the edge of a throbbing headache. He refuses to raise his hands and rub at his temples in front of witnesses. “Maybe they just don’t like angels.”

"Yeah, maybe," John murmurs.

-

When they disembark at the Newark airport, as close to the chaos in Manhattan as the pilot is willing to land, a woman who can only be Doctor Rue Lalonde is waiting for them on the runway.  The storm from the island sends gusting winds flying everywhere, kicking up the doctor's pristine white lab coat and fluttering the edges of her military, high necked fuchsia dress. She raises a flask in one hand and tosses back a good shot of unidentified alcohol even as Bro disappears from the gangway and reappears before her, arms folded.

A stray breeze slams into Dave sideways when he's halfway down the walkway, and he has to brace himself as discreetly as possible by grabbing the hand rail, his hair flying in his face. Fuck everything.

Abruptly, everything goes still. Rue Lalonde's hair settles down into messy blonde, bobbed curls, and a soft smile spreads across her face, aimed behind Dave. He turns his head slightly to see that John has exited the plane, one hand raised in a tight fist as he frowns up at the sky. The wind lashes one last time, then wraps around him and settles.

So, the windy thing has mundane applications as well. Kick ass.

Dave slouches down the rest of the stairs with more finesse. Need to make a good first impression on elder Lalonde.

Well. First impression that Dave can remember. Shit, this lady probably saw him in diapers or some shit. Bro has some serious explaining to do.

"Mom Lalonde," is all Dave says, sticking his hands in his pockets. That earns him a startled, though pleased smile, which is - really fucking weird. Yeah. He takes a small step back and refrains from letting his very fucking weirded-out expression show.

John stops next to Dave, folding his arms. He looks solemn, almost stern. "Doctor Lalonde," he says evenly.

"Dave. John." The doctor hesitates, then smiles again. "Or it's Heir at the moment, yes? It's been too long, both of you."

"Not long enough," Bro mutters. "Can we hurry this up, Lalonde? Eventually your kid is going to get tired of restricting herself to one little island. Unless you've figured out why the fuck she's so fixated on it in the first place?"

Rue's gaze lingers on Dave and John for a long moment. Long enough for it to get awkward. Dave bristles, his shoulders hunching reflexively under the sustained scrutiny. John breaks first, though. "Doctor Lalonde, I'm not gonna lie. I'm pretty mad at you right now, and when this is over, one way or another, I'm coming to see you. You have some explaining to do about how you justified abandoning Rose like you did."

You fuckin' tell her, John. Dave nods slightly. He doesn't even know this Rose chick, and he can still see that elder Lalonde fucked up somewhere along the line. Seriously, when your kid ends up possessed by raving tentacles gods from beyond the stars, something is seriously fucked about how you raised them. Or failed to raise them, as the case may be. Hell, Bro might be a shitty example of guardianhood, but at least he's always, you know. Been there.

Doctor Lalonde flinches, closing her eyes. "Yes, we do owe you children some answers, don't we?"

"Speak for yourself," Bro says.

"But not now." The doctor shakes her head and opens her eyes. "The Horrorterrors will not leave the city. I did not realize why, at first, when they'd already proven capable of devastating a straight line between here and Albany, but it's clear they have some design on the city. Literally." She reaches into her pocket with the hand not occupied with a flask and holds up a photograph. "This is the last image of the city a helicopter crew was able to obtain before being shot down. Ambrose, I'm certain you recognize the pattern?"

Dave picks out the pattern immediately, though he doesn't really know what to call it. Half of the overhead view of the city is full of looping curves and rounded triangles, like a huge-ass stylized flower or a star. It is elegant, precise, and ominously familiar, causing a sickening lurch in Dave's gut that he can't explain, all of it carved straight through to the earth below without a care for buildings or roads that get in the way.

The other half looks like a preschooler looked at that elegant, spiraling star, and began to fingerpaint the same design using broken fingers and a very sketchy definition of straight lines. Several ends trail off into the water without connecting properly to the rest of the design, and a large, wriggling line cuts right through the middle, at a right angle with the rest of the shape.

Overall, it's a pretty shitty design.

"What, did they drink a liquor store before they started?" Bro snarks. "No wait, that's something you would do, Lalonde."

The doctor ignores him, putting away the picture. She smiles with a distinct aura of pride. "No. I believe Rose is still fighting. If they're trying to complete a perfect spirograph, they have failed miserably. The Horrorterror's movements have grown more and more erratic over the past two hours, and they have made no effort to correct the gratuitous mistakes being made to the other half of the pattern. Rose has outwitted them, somehow. And I trust in her. Whatever the many-angled ones intended with this pattern, it will inevitably fail."

"They're not going to be happy about that, are they?" John interrupts. "Whatever the heck this thing does, when it doesn't work, they'll know who to blame."

"No," Doctor Lalonde admits. "They won't be pleased at all. Which is why it would be best for all involved if you three can help Rose before they try to activate that thing." She pats a large, grey container sitting at her side, and slides open a keyboard attached to the side. She keys in a code and the container beeps. The top opens up with the whoosh of air entering a vacuum, to reveal a pair of metal bands encased in foam.

"And what do these do?" Dave asks. "Do we walk up to Miss Evil Congeniality over there and offer her the latest spring trend in accessories?"

Doctor Lalonde hiccups, and drinks from her flask again before she answers. Seriously, this woman must have the liver of a fucking Russian sailor to still be coherent after drinking all morning long. "These are restraints of my own design," she slurs afterward, leaning a little heavily on the container. "They are imbued with several elements that have proven efficacious in suppressing the whispers of the Furthest Ring in the past. Rose has taken medication with the same properties to assist her in meditation all her life, though I should have anticipated that she might stop taking it in my absence. All you really need to do, in essence, is get close enough to attach these. However, the problem is the approach. The Horrorterror will fight you every step of the way, unless you can reach Rose somehow and have her assist you from within."

Bro has the cuffs in his hand between one second and the next. He stares at them hard behind his shades, before raising his head to stare at Doctor Lalonde. "...A'ight," is all he says.

Doctor Lalonde facepalms. "Just say it, Ambrose, I know how you think. I know what you're going to say."

"Fine, woman. Just how do cuffs imbued with the essence of nothingness help suppress 'emissaries of the Void?'"

"That title is a common misconception, one I would be happy to explain to you at our leisure after Roseis no longer wreaking havoc on New York," Rue snaps. "You may not care about her wellbeing after all these years, but she is still ou-"

"Okay, okay, fuck, Lalonde, we're going." Bro raises both hands as though to ward off the doctor's ire.

John, meanwhile, has one eye scrunched up, clearly thinking hard. "How do you imbue something with nothi-"

"Not enough time." Doctor Lalonde snags the cuffs from Bro's hands and holds them out to John. Dave blinks. Did - did she just steal something from Bro? Did Bro...let her? Or was she really that fast?! Because holy shit. "Rose is likely to let you get closest, Heir," she says. "She barely knew Dave as a child, and her memories of you are more recent, and more positive. Just remember - it has to be both restraints. One will weaken the grimdark significantly, but the two is the only thing that can shut the Horrorterrors down long enough to get her to an isolation tank."

"So. If this half-assed, really vague plan works, where exactly are we taking Little Miss Sunshine?" Dave asks. "Do we just drag the ticking time bomb out and toss her on the private jet?" Seriously, why does he have to ask all the important questions, here?"

"I thought I'd fly Rose out if she can't move afterward," John admits, shrugging as he stuffs the restraints in the inner pockets of his costume. Those pockets are never going to be the same. Dave can see seams tearing from here. Urghh.

"Fuck, just for that, you get to carry her, little bro," Bro adds.

"That is a good question," Doctor Lalonde says. She looks almost...approving? Huh. "I have recently enlisted a new friend who will drive a safe van for you to transport Rose in. She delivered a letter to Rose at my request that may have...helped trigger this incident. She was only the Messenger, but she has insisted on serving as your Personal Motorist on your way out of the city as a way of restoring her honor."

Oh man. John and Bro's expressions don't change - like Bro's expression really ever changes, anyway - but Dave recognizes the emphasis on those capitalized letters. "She a carapacian?"

Doctor Lalonde outright grins at that. "Very perceptive of you," she murmurs. "Yes, PM is a pale carapace, and has proven very reliable thus far. Her priority will be on escorting you three and Rose out of the city. Is that all?"

"Yeah." John opens the palm of one hand, and a whistling wind begins to pick up around him as he yanks up the bright white hood of the suit jacket. Every trace of that goofy kid from Pesterchum is gone, and even in red, black, and white instead of grey and blue, this is Heir. "Let's go."

-

Heir flies them to New York City. It's a fucking weird experience, and Dave doesn’t like it. Yeah, he basically trusts Heir not to drop them or anything like that, but the winds kicked up by Rose's rampage fight Heir at every turn, which makes everything kind of wobbly and really fucking nerve-wracking when you're flying three thousand feet in the air, just below the leading edge of a pitch black thunder cloud. Seriously, flying from the grey cloud cover over Newark to the grimdark storm over Manhattan and Brooklyn is like crossing into the Twilight Zone or some shit.

Heir keeps flying them lower and lower, closer to street level as they draw nearer to the purplish, thorny lightning that occasionally lights up over Central Park. The western half of New York City falls under the messy, preschool half of the design, and it looks like the Horrorterror is still hard at work carving its messed up spiro-thing into the Upper East Side and the waterway between that and Astoria. Midtown is a fucking wreck when Heir has them touch down on Fifth Avenue. The people apparently had time to clear out, because there aren't that many bodies lying around, but there are more than a few smoking, overturned cars here and there with splatters of - yeah, that's blood. Dave has to look away. Blood isn't his thing, okay? Unless it's, like, the righteously spilled blood of his enemies. Jeez.

Bro has been taking this whole flying-thing like a fucking champ, jaw clamped shut and katana at the ready the entire time Heir insisted it was the quickest way to reach Manhattan, and while Dave needs to wipe sweaty palms on his pants, Bro looks as chill as ice cubes. Dave just can't match the guy in terms of net coolness. He's fucking inscrutable, even as he flips off his shades to reveal a pair of sicknasty orange-yellow eyes. That's Dave's cue, so he loses his shades as well. It's so fucking dark under the cloud cover, being outside doesn't even make his eyes water as he adjusts. Oh my god, he relocating to fucking Canada or something, this is so much better than running around Houston in the sun with his eyes aching all the damn time.

"Alright, you guys. What's the game plan?" Heir asks, studying the dark tentacles of power that eat their way up to the sky in the distance. "Doctor Lalonde seems pretty sure these grimdark things are going to try to kill us, even if I do manage to get through to Rose. Should we just try to distract her from finishing that spirograph -"

"Yeah, no. As fun as relying on the power of heart sounds, I think I'll pass." Lil Cal wraps itself over Bro's shoulder, and Dave shivers against his will. Fucking fuck, he'd hoped Bro had left that puppet asshole back at the apartment. Out of all of Bro's puppetkind, Lil Cal has won the prize for 'most likely to come to life in the middle of the night and stab the shit out of adorable, unsuspecting little brothers' every year since Dave came up with the award. "You can talk at her all you want, kid. I'm going in for an all-out beatdown. Cuff her if you can, but I'm not standing around while you try talking to someone who might now be there anymore."

"Doctor Lalonde thinks she's in there," Heir argues. "And she knows more about this than we do."

Bro shakes his head. "We can't dick around, kid. People have been dying out here."

"You think I don't know that?!" Heir yells. Then his face goes pale, and he grabs at his chest and oh my fuck it's finally happened. Bro has given John a rage heart attack. "Will you just stop -" he wheezes out, as Dave flashsteps to his side, internally freaking the fuck out because what do you do when a hero has a heart attack? Dave's first aid training does not extend to rage aneurysm and that kind of bullshit.

Then Heir vanishes, just as Dave's about to grab his shoulder and try to snap him out of it.

What.

He pops up again right in front of Bro's face, eyes gleaming blue and one fist raised. "You dick!"

Bro catches the fist and tosses Heir over his shoulder. The wind catches the kid before he hits the ground and Heir stays hovering on his back for a moment before landing on his feet, rubbing at his chest with a weird expression. "Seriously, can you stop doing that? How do you keep pissing me off so much that - that happens?"

Bro smirks. "It's a talent. Now, stay angry, kid. Your little party trick will come in handy."

"Why do we always choose the path of most asshattery?" Dave demands, throwing both his hands up. "Oh my fucking god, Bro. Bro. Seriously. You couldn't just say to the guy, hey? You know what would be good? If you remember that when you Hulk out you start teleporting and shit. And. You know. That would be a useful skillset to have. Can we just communicate like sane people for once in our lives? And not give people rage heart attacks? Just, you know. A fucking suggestion."

"No," Bro says bluntly.

Well then. "Oh my god, fuck all this," Dave mutters to himself, and then he flashsteps down the street, racing around piles of vehicles and shattered pavement.

He can't even handle these raging asshole shenanigans anymore. Cannot. Even.

He's crunching over a block of broken glass when his keen Strider-senses notice Heir has caught up. The other hero is flying ten feet above the ground on the other side of the street, soaring right over all the masses of debris Horror-Rose has kicked up, and he nods when Dave catches his eye. He looks drawn and pale, possibly from the recent ragefest, but also determined. Bro is nowhere in sight, and right now, that's exactly how Dave likes it.

The most unnerving part is the silence. Aside from the faint rustle of Heir's breezes and the sound of Dave's own buzzing, raspy breath echoing from the collar on his throat, there's no sound; even as Dave darts across glass shards and jumps the wide crevasses the grimdark has carved into the road, he doesn't make much sound as he moves. He's not on Bro's level, but he's as stealthy as he needs to be.

But you'd expect with a giant tentacle monster in the body of a teenage girl rampaging around the city, there'd be more noise - eldritch chants, the screams of innocent victims, a really badass soundtrack. Instead, there is the silence, and every so often, the faint rumble of thunder overhead that sounds, in the back of Dave's mind, a little like the ocean.

To be honest, it makes him feel a little sick. The closer they get to the dark tentacles arcing out over the park, the more the pressure in the air rises, pressing in against his skull, as though they're underwater. It doesn’t make any sense, but hell, does anything about this trip make sense?

They're about on level with the Metropolitan Museum of Art when the writhing grimdark overhead shudders to a halt. Dave freezes in place, ready for an attack.

Without any sound or warning, the entire clump of tangled thorns in the sky lashes out, stabbing into a building up ahead. It appears that the Horrorterror in little Lalonde has taken offence against the Guggenheim, as the tangle of grimdark proceeds to rip at the swollen roof and curved walls of the building, with bolts of dark thorns and white fire firing off at random. Jesus Christ, is not even art sacred anymore? What next, the Louvre?

"Shit. Flashstep, hey. Shit. Dave?!"

Dave snaps out of it. What a time to zone out. Heir lands next to him, staring at the Guggenheim with horror. "Yeah?" Dave says, wanting to smack himself. "Sucks, man. I never even got to visit that place. NYC is kind of out of my jurisdiction, but hey, I at least thought I'd try to drop by at some point. See all the pictures and shit."

"Dave, that's not what I'm talking about. Can you hear that?" Heir is starting to float again, his whole body going tense.

It's contagious - Dave is starting to freak out now, too. "Hear what?" he asks, his skin crawling as he tries to hear anything over the crunch of tentacles slamming into rock.

"P̒̾Uͪ̾̋N͑ͨ͋Ÿ́ L̂͋̓Î͆͋ͣT̆T̓L̒Eͤ F͆ͭ̍̒̆̔LË͐̔ŠH̅ĽĪ͊NĜͬ̽̊̽̓̈́S͗͊͛͋͂͗"

And oh fuck he heard that shit shit shit -

Dave claps his hands over his ears, but it doesn't do shit. That voice pierces into his brain, an absolute whisper that bursts into dark thorns behind his eyes. He's thought he'd had headaches before, but they're nothing compared to the ice picks being drilling into his skull with every word that broken, cold voice speaks.

Beside him, Heir winces, but then recovers. Fuck, how can he stand hearing this godawful noise? It seems like it's barely affecting him.

"Dave, I hear screams," Heir says. "I think there are still people in there!"

Well, fuck.

"We have to get them out!" Heir shoots forward, flying right at the grimdark thorns. Yeah, that's Dave's cue to move. He rips his hands away from his ears - it's not helping anyway - and runs after Heir, just barely able to keep up with flashsteps. As they get closer, he starts to hear multiple high-pitched screams, something separate from the constant white noise of the grimdark muttering in his head.

Oh hell, it's kids. Evil-Rose has a bunch of kids pinned down in that museum.

"HM͂̅̚M͌͌M?̅ ̽̐W̌̆̽͊ͥ̒HE̿R͋́E͆͂ͧͪ̐́̂ D̂̈I̐̾̌̓̓D͗̑ͦͪ̚ Y͊Ȏ͛̽̃̈́̀̃Uͪ͂̀ͨ̇͗͐ G͆̉ͮ͗̀Oͣ?͌  ͦW͒̈́͋͛ͯO͑̋̌Nͥ̽̓'̑T̂̓ ̍̓Y͂͒̂O͆͗ͩ̀U̽̏͐̿͑ CO͗̂͛M͛̔ͥE͆ B̓̒͐AͫC̆̉̃̐̏K̅ͫ̊ Ả̔ṄͯͣD ̐̋B͗̃͆E  M̀͐Y̒̍ ̍F̉ ̄̀̽͐̚̚Rͫ̎̽̈́̚  I͛̿̅  ͆̍ͧ͗ͭ̉E͋  ͮͤ͌N͌  D̔  ̏̓͑̏S̒?ͩ"There is an unearthly shriek of rage (finally!) and the thorns explode outward, tearing the whole roof off the building in one go. Dave has nearly caught up, and Heir is already on level with the grimdark tangle, darting to get between it and the interior of the museum in a flurry of wind. Dave can only assume he's trying to distract the Horrorterror from the kids, wherever they ended up -

Later, he can't say what made him stop and look to the side as he comes up next to the Guggenheim. A lot of this time travel shit is full of weird coincidences and happenstance like that, and it annoys the hell out of him. All he knows is that he looks to the side for the briefest moment, and catches a flare of crimson from the corner of his eye. He stops and looks again properly.

A future-Dave lurks in the shadows between one building and the next. And he's really recent too, because his outfit is basically the same as Dave's right now, without even any damage or tears or anything. His upper lip looks messy with blood.

Oh. Great. Now he's going to have to deal with goddamn fuckass time shenanigans in the middle of a goddamn crisis? It's like Christmas came early. "What now?" he hisses at other-him.

Other-Dave holds up ten fingers. "Go. Like, right now, bro. Ten minutes, send them out the back door along East 88th and tell them to go around on Madison Avenue. Do not fuck around, do not pass Go, just - go."

The problem with time travel is, this all means that Dave has to obey, even though future-him is the shittiest explainer ever. He is actually ashamed that he is going to be that uninformative in ten minutes from now. "Sorry, Heir," he mutters, and then he brute-forces his way into his time powers, narrowing his mental focus down from stop to reverse.

As always, there is a brief moment of inexplicable, overwhelming pain, as his throat seizes up and he gasps for air that can't reach his lungs, a white-hot line of pain running through his throat right beneath the collar.

In that moment, he sees the figures moving behind future-him, a group of tiny little midgets running through the alley and taking off away from the grimdark disaster.

Hang on. Wait. Hold the fucking phone. They aren't midgets -

Oh, so he's going back to -

-

- rescue the little shits!

That thought finished, Dave checks his surroundings, trying to orient himself. He's come out ten minutes ago in the same place he left from, but the museum before him is no longer in ruins; several windows are shattered, but the roof and everything else is still in tact. As he takes a measuring glance behind him at the park, he can see that the grimdark tangle is still in the distance, working its way across the park's reservoir. Without Heir's influence, the wind is at gale-force again, and Dave has to blink and shield his eyes when he gets a faceful of dust and debris. Fucking fuck. Shaking his head, he runs for the front door of the Guggenheim. Time to get the kids out of the fucking line of fire.

The front doors are gone. He spies them lying on the floor in the center of the lobby as he rushes in. He's flashstepping to wring the most movement out of every second that he can, but this museum is huge. Scanning up the levels of ramps visible from the lobby, he grimaces and cups his hands around his mouth. "Hey! Kids! Small human beings! Yo! I am here. You could in fact say that I am here to save you!"

Nobody answers. Dave is painfully aware that if he has to spend the next eight minutes searching the entire museum for wherever these little shits have been hiding through the entire attack, he's going to be cutting this escape pretty damn close. The evil-Rose is gonna lay down some unholy wrath on this place in five minutes, at the least.

He has the small measure of security in that he has already witnessed the children successfully escaping behind his future self. But that doesn't really help him right now.

He starts running up the ramp, the collar around his neck heating up steadily as he is forced to continue to shout. Fuck, he hates yelling. "Come on, you have to get out of here! Fuck, do you not have adult supervision or something? You have to come downstairs, we're going out into the street on the side - I know you're in here! "

"Who are you?" a voice demands. It isn't a little kid's voice either. Up ahead, a woman in thick glasses peers out of an exhibit hall.

"The asshole who's here to save you, obviously." Dave skids to a stop in front of the hall. At first he can't see the kids - then he's sees that they're all huddled up against an inner wall, underneath a bunch of tables that look as though they've been dragged from all over to form the shelter. He rounds on the teacher. "Look. Lady. The great big evil - uh, thing is coming to tear this building apart. In like. Two minutes. So we really need to hurry this up and get the shrimps out of here."

"The streets have been too dangerous!" she protests. "Most of the bridges to the mainland are too damaged for my students to cross."

"Well, fuck me sideways, lady -"

"Language!"

"Holy titty Christ we are not arguing about this right now. This is the opposite of what we're arguing about." Dave grits his teeth. The timer he has counting down in his mind isn't looking too promising. "I mean it, there's not going to be a building here really soon, so however dangerous the streets are, you have to risk it. Alright, so can we go now?"

"I suppose -" the teacher begins shakily.

She never gets a chance to finish.

With an enormous thunderclap, grimdark tentacles smash through the glass ceiling of the lobby. Dave shoves the teacher forward, away from the ramp that runs in a spiral around the interior lobby as glass and tentacles rain down. Then, in a rush, the tentacles rip back up, missing Dave by mere feet that he flashsteps just in time, taking part of the exhibit hall's roof with it. Suddenly, with the upper floors and roof torn away, he can see the sky above, the heavy thunder clouds now centered over the museum. He can see the grimdark cluster as it slowly descends to hover above the gaping hole in the roof.

And for the first time since they arrived in New York, Dave sees the thing inside Rose Lalonde, face-to-face. It is far worse than it appeared on the grainy video footage. The thorny tentacles have grown so thick over the past few hours that her form can barely be distinguished from the grimdark wrapped around her. White fire bleeds from her eyes, but there is something behind the blaze, something bloody and dark and writhing and aware -

"P̒̾Uͪ̾̋N͑ͨ͋Ÿ́͛̿ L̂͋̓Î͆͋ͣT̆T̓L̒Eͤ F͆ͭ̍̒̆̔LË͐̔ŠH̅ĽĪ͊NĜͬ̽̊̽̓̈́S͗͊͛͋͂͗" she says, smiling with an open mouth and bared teeth. The pain is unbelievable, even worse the second time around, perhaps because this time Dave is actually part of the group she's speaking directly too, rather than just overhearing the words from a distance. He feels blood start oozing out of his nose.

He already knows she's going to speak once more, and then begin ripping the building apart in earnest.

They need to be gone. Now. And they can't go down the interior ramp.

"Emergency stairwell. Now. Right the fuck now," he rasps. He yanks time to a stop and grabs the teacher.

As tenta-Rose lifts a hand, sickly purple light gathering in her palm, he has the teacher at the back wall, by the students. The children are all screaming, have been screaming all through the destruction to be honest, the noise that drew Heir's attention earlier/now.

Thank god they're at the back of the hall. Thank any god listening they're all huddled right next to the emergency stairwell. Between each time stop he grabs as many kids as he can carry, yanks them out from under the tables, and starts throwing them down the stairwell.

Hey, Bro threw him down the stairs all the time as a kid. Kids are resilient, right?

Okay, yeah, he probably shouldn't have thrown them. Oops. Too late. "Go go go, lady," he yells grabbing the teacher by the shoulder and pushing her into the stairwell, too. Most of the kids are running down the stairs already - thank god, they're little shits, but they're little shits with self-preservation instincts - and Dave grabs three who are sitting around crying and carries them down himself.

From above, he hears a brain-shattering voice."Hͯ̾̅̍M͂̅̏̚M͌͌͒ͫM?̅̏̂ ̽̐W̌̆̽͊ͥ̒HͭE̿R͋́E͆͂ͧͪ̐́̂ D̂̈I̐̾̌̓̓D͗̑ͦͪ̚ Y͊Ȏ͛̽̃̈́̀̃Uͪ͂̀ͨ̇͗͐ G͆̉ͮ͗̀Oͣ?͌  ͦW͒̈́͋͛ͯO͑̋̌Nͥ̽̓'̑T̂̓ ̍̓Y͂͒̂O͆͗ͩ̀U̽̏͐̿͑ CO͗̂͛M͛̔ͥE͆ B̓̒͐AͫC̆̉̃̐̏K̅ͫ̊ Ả̔ṄͯͣD ̐̋B͗̃͆E  M̀͐Y̒̍ ̍F̉ ̄̀̽͐̚̚Rͫ̎̽̈́̚  I͛̿̅  ͆̍ͧ͗ͭ̉E͋  ͮͤ͌N͌  D̔  ̏̓͑̏S̒?ͩ"

He nearly drops a kid, but no one is watching so it doesn't count. All he can think is 'five, four, three, two, fuck -'

This time, the eldritch shriek of rage blasts his eardrums, and he barely flashsteps to the ground floor before he collapses forward, clawing at his ears. He drops the kids, but this time they don't have all that far to fall. The roar stops echoing in his brain after an eternity that, according to his internal clock, is really only about three seconds. Holy fuck, he's not sure how much more of this grimdark bullshit he can take. When he wipes at his face with the back of his sleeve, he can feel even more blood gushing out his nose, a proper nose bleed. He probably looks like hell warmed over between his creepy red eyes and the new face paint.

When he looks up, fifteen small children and a frightened teacher stare at him, wide eyed. One of the little girls he had to drag downstairs is still kneeling next to him, tugging on his arm. "You're Flashstep, aren't you?" she says in what she probably intends to be a whisper, but echoes in the stairwell. "Are you okay, Mr Flashstep?"

"...Been worse," he manages, grabbing the railing and dragging himself upright. Thirty seconds. Heir is probably already flying at that thing alone, and Dave still has to give his past-self the cue to go back in time. Fuck, no wonder he was so pissy with himself earlier - he can travel through time at will and yet somehow he's always racing against the clock. "Okay, everybody, out we go." He yanks open the emergency exit door. "Down 88th and then turn on Madison Avenue. Do not stop. Seriously, just don't. Do not. Not even once," he orders the teacher.

She nods at him, picking up two of the slow kids from earlier with a grim expression. "Good luck," she says.

"...Thanks."

He doesn't even know her name.

"Come on, kids. Stay with your buddies," she whisper-yells, waving all the little kids out the door before running after them. Dave flashsteps out the door and watches them all race in a straggling line away from the grimdark zone. Then he turns around and waves a hand at past-Dave, who is just now running past the entry way to this side road. That must be what got his attention before, because past-him does a double take and stops, frowning at him.

"What now?" Past-him demands, and jeez, why are all of his different time-selves so pissy all the time. Oh right, because they're always in the middle of a crisis. That's why he generally doesn't get into arguments with himself - he's clear-headed enough even in the middle of these stupid shenanigans to realize it's just a shitty situation for everyone involved.

Anyway. He flashes other-him ten fingers to indicate ten minutes, and tells himself, "Go. Like, right now, bro. Ten minutes, send them out the back door along East 88th and tell them to go around on Madison Avenue. Do not fuck around, do not pass Go, just - go."

Past him glances up at something - Heir in the sky, probably, and mutters under his breath before vanishing.

Yeah. Finally, all caught up on the time loop. Speaking of Heir, Dave should probably -

"ͨ̈́O͌ͭHͯ?̊͋̏ͥ̅̽ Wͬ̏̽̿̌̂̂H̄A̅͆T̽ͦͧ̿ ȊS͗ ͩͯTͦ̓̂ͥH̊ͫIS̑ͩͬͥͥ?̐"

Oh shit. Dave gasps, his eyes watering with the sudden pain. He yanks out the sword he put away to carry the kids and stumbles a bit as he flashsteps forward.

Then he looks up into the sky and realizes grimdark Rose is staring right at him.

He meets those white hot eyes for too long.

͂̂͗(͂ͬdav̏ͭeͬ)

Dave yells hoarsely, and falls to his knees. All thoughts of keeping his fucking guard up, keeping his grip on his sword, maintaining his decorum, everything Bro has ever drilled into his head, flies out the goddamn window.

̍͂(̐̅̋̊ǒͫ̅h ̐̇̔̿ͥ̄da̎vͪͪeͭ, o͋̑̚u̽̉rͬ̃͑ͦ̊ oͫ̓̽t̅͆h͋̎̒͒ẽ̊ṙͭͪ̃̃̽ L͛̑̈́͋̌͋ÎT̔̾T̒͊̍L̉̍̓̈ͧE̽̇͛̓̎̈ͯ́̌ ̃̀D̓̍̑̂̎̓͐R̍Eͨͫ̒͑Ä̋M͛ͪ̚Ȅ̓̒Rͥͦ́)

Because this is worse, this is so much worse, this is the difference between a whisper and a shout, between a burst of thorns and an explosion of tearing, gnawing darkness behind his eyes.

Between hearing the sound of a girl's voice imbued with the horrors of the Furthest Ring, and hearing his own voice sound the same way.

(ḯt̏̓͋ͪ h͌ͪ͂aͣ͊ͮ͊ͫŝ͒ͫ ͑ͧ̈́͐̿b̅e͊̓̒̑eͤ͑n̓̅̇̒ͥ͒̐͌ ̓͗͆̔t̽ͯ͑̆o͌͛̍͑̽ͮo̍̐̋ l̄o͐̚n͆ͤg̈́̑)

"No!" he chokes out, ripping his gaze away from the mocking white eyes above. He draws his second sword and raises it, getting up on one foot and one knee in a half-assed guarding stance. It's not real, it can't be real, he won't let it be real.

He dodges the first tentacle of grimdark power that stabs at him, while the grimdark above laughs and laughs. He cuts into the tentacle with a slice of his sword, a clumsy swing that barely connects. Dark purple blood pours out, and the Horrorterror wails.

The shriek of pain is distracting enough that Dave never sees the second thorn coming. It stabs out from the slice he made in the first tentacle rather than from the main body above, and stabs at him.

And he -

He can't move in time.


---

Heir has had no time to observe the grimdark's powers in action. He has seen it committing random acts of gratuitous building demolition and tearing up the streets, but he hasn't seen it fight anyone. So he's basically flying in with no background knowledge, no real plan on how to fight this thing, and no guarantee that the wind will even be able to protect him throughout the fight.

The wind is...balking. It's reluctant to listen to him. The only instinct it appears to want him to follow through is the instinct to get the hell out of New York. And the breezes that aren't urging him to fly in the other direction are the ones that are somehow...hostile. John can smell sea water and blood in the air, thick enough that he can almost taste the flavor on his tongue. The grimdark is more than something possessing Rose - it feels like it's slowly permeating the air, like evil humidity.

If they get out of this mess alive, he is using that metaphor in front of Dave. Evil humidity is something Dave would get a kick out of, right? Right.

Focus.

The screams have died down by the time Heir flies between the transformed Rose and the museum, and he doesn't want to think about what that means. "Rose! Rose, listen to me!" he yells.

To his relief, the cluster of grimdark tentacles opens up, and the thorns stabbing down into the museum pause in their violent outburst. Rose's angular features are greyed and framed by dead-looking hair, but it is still Rose's face that tilts to the side, studying him, maybe even recognizing him?

Lizard-quick, the face jerks to the side, an unnaturally twisted smile parting Rose's face. It's - horrifying. ""ͨ̈́O͌ͭH?̊͋̏ ̑͗͋Wͬ̏̽̿̌H̄A̅T̽ͦͧ̿ IS͗ ͩͯ̿TH̊İS̑ͩ?̐" the Horrorterror says, the sound of its voice grating and cold in John's ears. Dave had almost collapsed the first time they heard Rose speak, and Heir has no idea why - it's unpleasant, but it's not debilitating. Whatever has gone wrong, he just hopes the other hero can still fight. Bro is nowhere to be seen, but even between Heir and Flashstep, he is pretty sure they can handle this grimdark thing long enough to get the cuffs on it, even if Rose...can't answer Heir right now.

Heir is cautiously optimistic, right up until the Horrorterror stabs Dave.

A tentacle lances out – but it doesn’t come at Heir, which is what he’d anticipated, is what he’d directed the winds to defend against. Instead, it stabs down and to the right, and Heir whirls to see that Dave has ended up on a sidestreet below, next to the caved-in museum. The other hero is crouched on his knees, clutching at his head, and barely manages to dodge the first strike by falling sideways and slicing with his sword, nicking the tentacle. “Dave!” Heir yells, but the other hero doesn’t respond even to that name. Heir can just barely make out the blood pouring out of the other hero’s nose.

And the sight of Dave bleeding from the nose makes Heir’s skin crawl because it means something is wrong. He can’t tell what it is, but it triggers every internal alarm he has. Why is the grimdark affecting Dave like this and not Heir?

He brings down a blade of his own, a slicing gust of wind that he directs with his good arm, and hammers all of its force down like a hammer on the section of the thorny tentacle next to him, trying to distract it from Dave. He wishes he had Casey – hell, any hammer would do, or even something with a real blade.

He hacks the tentacle in two just as Dave lets out a yell of pain that ends in a choked gurgle, and the grimdark laughs.

Then Heir starts to freak the fuck out.

The only explanation he can give for the rookie mistake he makes next is that he’s still not used to working in tandem with another hero. He and Hemogoblin have only really worked together once, and those hadn’t been the best circumstances either, but at least then it had been Heir who was hurt, not his partner. Now, instead of keeping his eye on the grimdark tangle right in front of his face, he looks down. “Shit! Dave!” He can’t tell how bad the damage is from up here; all he can see is the bright, arterial splatter of blood that has painted its way up the wall, and that Dave is gone. The tentacle Heir cut hits the ground with a thud, a secondary thorn having jammed itself into the wall opposite where Dave had been. It too is speckled with blood.

Heir is not prepared for the gut-wrenching fear that hits him at that moment. Dave is gone.

He is also really not prepared for the giant evil space tentacle that slams into him from behind while he’s distracted.

Reeeally should have seen that one coming, he thinks gloomily as the wind wraps around him and stops his uncontrolled arc. He flips himself around to face Rose again properly. The winds defending his body caught that blow before it could actually hit him, but the wicked point on the thorn that writhes in the air where he’d been hovering means the Horrorterror fully intended to catch him in the center of his back. That would have been a cripple or a kill shot if just a little more force had overpowered his shields.

And if it’s trying to kill Heir, where exactly did it hit Dave?

“Rose!” he tries again. “Rose, please! I know you’re in there!” All the while Heir begins to desperately plumb the depths of his connection to the wind, drawing every scrap of moving air in the area to his side. Between the hostile, grimdark humidity soaking into the air and his own thrumming adrenaline, he strains to keep the restless winds from launching into a full-blown tornado and spinning out of his control.

“YOͬ̎U͛͐̊͐͗ͤ̊ TR̍͌̾̍̇ŪͭͯL̎Y̾ ̈T̅̅̽H͐ͤINK̔͐͛ Yͯ̒̓͛ͤǑ̏̔̇̒̎U͒̓ C͑Ā̏N͊͋ͭ̇̾ S͒̐ͯT̾͒̌Ŏ͂P̏͆ US͊ͩ? ͋̔” Rose’s twisted voice cuts through the rising howl of the wind. The Horrorterror smiles, mouth gaping and cavernous with more of the white, sickly fire that bleeds out from its eyes. “Sͤ̿Ḧ͑E̊̎ ͥ̈́CȀN̏ͩN̓O̐̈́̈́ͬ̋Tͥ͒ ̇̅̏̈́ H͋̊E̎ǍR̾ YͤO̿̍̓U.”

“I think she can!” he fires back, spreading his hands wide. “I think Rose is still fighting you in there.”

“R͂͌͊O͂͐̑ͪͬS͂Ėͯ I͌Sͥ̒ͬ̄ D͂ͬȆ̅͒̚AͭD̈́̄̈̓. W̓̾̂E͆̓ K̏͌Iͦͦͭ̌̌̒L̈́L̔͊̇̿E͒͊D ̋̾͛̈HͧͥÊ͑͋͒͐̓R̂ͬ͐.” Still smiling beatifically, the Horrorterror raises its hand and begins charging some new purple spell in the palm of its hand. The crackling energy writhes with worms and thorns.

No. No. “You’re lying!”

Heir loses control of the wind in that brief moment of disbelief, and the breeze slams into the grimdark tangle at a hundred and fifty miles an hour.

It knocks the tangle back maybe a foot. The Horrorterror just laughs and stabs tentacles directly down into the ground below, anchoring itself. This thing can take a beating. “W̓E̒̄̿ D̄͛̄̌O͐ͫ ͨ̈́N̿ȌͪTͣ̿̓͒ N͆͌̋̈́͒̒EED̊̋̌̈́̑̍ͬ ̆̿̓̎T̑O̊ ̅̚L̍͋IE̓̇͐ͣ̚ ͬŴ̎H̆EͤN̓̊̔͆̚̚ ̋Tͭͪ̆H͑͋̏̾̄͆Ë́͋ T̄̅͋̓͊̔RͥU̓͐ͪ̒TḦ ͌̌͒C͋̊͐A̋USÉ̓ͭ̈̚S̍̔͂ YO͆Ű͌̅ͥ͗ͬ̈ S̐ͯ͗̊̋O͛ ̏͌̌̈MͤUͧ̏ͫ̾C̍̒͊̆͋H MͦͩO͐ͥRE̓̋ͮ̎͒̍ D͛ͯȈ͑̋͗Sͧ̅̓T͛R͊͐͑̄͋ͬES͋Sͦ,̑̍ ͗HͬͥEI̅̐R,͗” it taunts.

It knows his name. His heroic alias, anyway. “And how would you know my name unless she’s still in there? I know Rose – she’s been psychoanalyzing the heck out of every hero in the US since I first met her! That’s not something a crazy space alien would know, that’s Rose!”

The Horrorterror has replaced Rose’s eyes with streaming white trails of energy. It still, amazingly, manages to give the impression that it is rolling its eyes. It flicks a hand at him, and three whips of grimdark power lash out at Heir at once. “͛̊ͬY̒̌O̿͐̌U͂̈ͯ̑ A̓RͮĚ j͂̄͆̒ͧ͆o̒hń̚ iͧ̃s̓͋͑̂ th͐ͭͬà͐ẗ ͂͊͑͊y̆̈́̋̄̋̑oͫ̍͛̑u W͌̓͛͛̿R͋̊Ȯ͊̑ͯN͂͐̓ͯG͐.”

He barely hears it. With all the distortion in evil-Rose’s voice, it’s hard enough trying to understand when the Horrorterror is shouting, let alone the faint whisper between the words. Heir shoots up into the sky, dangerously close to the underside of the thunder clouds, and the tentacles arc up with him. God, is he lucky there’s no natural lightning in the storm. Spinning, he lets himself drop. The tentacles curve down to stab at him, but he already has a clear shot at the main tentacles. Miming the act of grabbing a handle, Heir throws his physical body into the swing as well to help him focus as he whips a gust of wind around like an ax, narrowing his focus as much as he can so all of that force has to funnel into a point like a real blade.

The wind cuts through all three tentacles, spewing dull purple blood across the debris on the street below. John’s collarbone screams. He’s been ignoring it all this time, minimizing his movements on that side, and now he feels every damn hairline fracture that grenade explosion left in the bone. Gasping, he stuffs his hand into the jacket as a makeshift sling, trying to give it a quick break from the strain. He doesn’t know if he can pull off a maneuver like that again.

Only after he’s taken care of that does he fully realize what he just heard.

Not Heir. John. “Rose!” John calls back, hope squeezing his heart as he begins to duck and weave between the secondary thorns that erupt from the severed tentacles. He guides sharp slices of the wind with his free arm, but the throbbing pain distracts him more than he likes. “Rose, was that you?”

“S͌͋͂͌̚̚H͊͊E̓ͪ͊̇͋ I͂S j̅õh͐n̓ ̇̍̽̒̌̒͛plͬͯ͒ea͒ͫ͗ͤ̈͒se͐ ̋ͤ̓͆s͒͋̅̈́̇̒t͂͌͂op̐̊ ͥͯ͊̿ͦ͂m̌̈́e G̑̋̓ͥͦͭOͯ̓N̓Ë́̈́ͯ”

The Horrorterror grimaces. The tentacles chasing John falter as the grimdark tangle wrapped around Rose’s slim frame huddles in on itself.

That is definitely Rose. And however she’s managed to start talking, the Horrorterror doesn’t like it. Which means, obviously, that John wants her to keep doing it. He has no idea where Bro has fucked off to, and Dave is presumably out of commission. As far as he can see, he has to distract the Horrorterror and cuff Rose, all by himself.

Heir may not be able to do this. But John can, because Doctor Lalonde was right - John is the one Rose knew. Still knows, even now, after all these years. “I can hear you, Rose! I’m right here!”

“YOͥ͗̔̏̚U͒̇̋̽ ͨ̍HEA͆͑͋R͂ͧ̈́͐ ̊Nͤͦ̄O̿̏̓T̾ͨͯͯHͯ̋IN̋͒ͮ̏̎͐Ğ̒̔̽.̈̏͐ͫ ” Two purple spheres of lightning launch from within the tangle, and John drops beneath them.

Then he realizes they’re still following him, turning much more quickly than the tentacles could. The spell squirms like a bundle of iridescent worms as he narrowly ducks one that aims for his face. He heads up again, trying to get the advantage of height, but he can’t help that he’s limited by the murky cloud cover. He doesn’t even want to know how saturated with grimdark the air inside the thunder storm would be. One sphere vanishes into the clouds when he turns sharply, and he drops again. He’s keeping an eye on the Horrorterror, but she doesn’t seem to be giving chase herself.

By this time he’s over buildings rather than the street, and he rounds the corner of the ninth floor of a building as tightly as he can, his arm skimming across the glass as he uses the wind to hug the curve. He knows he succeeds when the sphere can’t turn tightly enough, and slams into the corner instead in its haste to reach him by the quickest route possible. The sphere explodes against the side of the building. Cracks of dull purple eat their way up the windows before, with a twist, everything explodes outward. The wind whirls most of the resulting shrapnel away.

At least now he knows that works.  John touches down on the ground, eyes on the sky, and feels the crackling hum of the second explosive spell as it rockets down through the clouds to divebomb him. At the last second, he jumps to the side, and the spell collides with the pavement, shattering the road.

He rolls back up onto his feet, hands raised for another round, but to his confusion tenta-Rose hasn’t followed him. From what little he can tell amidst the cocoon of grimdark thorns, she isn’t even looking at him. Instead, the tentacles that propel her are dragging her over the wreckage of the Guggenheim and onto Madison Avenue. John rises up into the air, scanning the road for what could possibly have grabbed her attention. “Rose!” he shouts, and the whole tangle shudders to a staggering halt. John slowly approaches the tangle again, wind at the ready, but no more orbs of purple explody worms are forthcoming.

Suck it, Dave’s Bro! Suck on the power of friendship!

Then he hears what the Horrorterror is muttering to itself, and he tenses up again. “͊̊͆Ŵ͋̓Eͦ̌ MͩA̒͒Y̅ N̒̒O̅̍̓̑͊̓̍͛T̓ B̆͆ͭȆ A̾̈́͐ͨ͒̊BͮLEͨ͑̂ ̽ TÕ͑ͬͯ͊ͩͥ̚̚ ͊C͗Oͥ̂MP̽̆͐L̍ͬ̋̇ͬE͊T̂ͩͭ͛̔̄Ė̚ T͆̽̂͋H̐E̔ Wͣ̍ͤͪ̽͐̚O͑̓Rͤ͐̄K͒ ̈́i͒ c̒̐̅͐͋aͦn̋'̎t s̋t̒ͯoͯ̀̊p̍̀ t̀̅h͐ͮ̓eͩ̇m  ̒W̐ITͩ̿H̅ T͐̔̓̎͊͒̂Ḧ̚ȈS ̒̌̿̅V͂͛̚E̊S̍ͥ̑͛Sͥ̍ELͩ̊ͪ̊͋ͪ” the grimdark rattles out, even its quiet mutter a grating shriek to John’s keen ears. He distinguishes Rose’s short exclamation from the mangled growl of the tangle, and his blood runs cold.

“Come on, Rose! You can do this! You can fight them off! You’ve done it before!” He doesn’t mention how long ago that incident must have been. It wouldn’t help his case. And besides, Rose is already doing great! The Horrorterror is totally distracted, and if John can just edge a few yards closer, he can try to restrain one of her arms.

"TͤHANKͥͮ̆ͩͩFU̿LLͧ͐̊Y,̅ ͗̒ͮ̿̄W̏̍Ĕ̍̈́̚ iveͦ̇̌̋͑ ẗ̉̋͑ͭ̄r̍̐̂̄iè̑̒͛d̐ A͑LW͐̊͆̓̈́̿̊͑̓AẎS̄̂͋̋ͮ̓ Ȟͮ̌̑A͐̒VE.̅.̓.̏O͂͑ͣͯ̊̏̑PT̍I͋ͥ̇̓̎Oͮ̔̋̇N̏S̐̿̔͐̚”

Wait, what the heck is that supposed to mean?

The Horrorterror roars, with a piercing note within the rumble of thunder that shatters what few intact windows remain on the buildings around them. Three more tentacles lance out from the main tangle, aimed not at John, but at the rooftop of the nearby building –

It’s only then that he sees Bro Strider. In the seconds before the tentacles crash into the roof where the Puppeteer is standing, John realizes who is slung over Bro’s shoulder.

Dave is okay. Well, he’s not moving, and there’s an awful lot of blood painting the back of the Puppeteer’s white polo, but Dave hasn’t just vanished into thin air – he’s still here.

An iron band around John’s lungs falls away, and he feels like he can breathe again.

Of course, now the Horrorterror, for whatever reason, has decided to fixate on the other two heroes, and John is pretty sure even someone as skilled as the Puppeteer is probably gonna be slower while hauling around the dead weight of a teenager. When the Puppeteer leaps into the air, letting the tentacles slam into the roof where he’d been standing, John catches up to him (and yeah, if John can see Bro moving, he has definitely slowed down) and waves his arms frantically. “I can carry him,” he yells over the continued, rolling roar of the sea that echoes out of Rose’s mouth.

All he gets is a stolid nod, and then suddenly Bro throws Dave’s (please be unconscious) body right at him and draws a katana in his freed hand. John dives forward, yanking his injured arm free of the suit jacket, and catches Dave under the armpits, the other hero’s weight barely jolting him. In fact, even if Bro doesn’t have John’s weird extra strength, should carrying Dave have slowed him down that much? Gritting his teeth, John decides to set Dave down somewhere in the park, away from all the falling buildings and debris the Horrorterror keeps blowing everywhere.

“U͆͂̂͐͒R̍̍͌̎ͪ̓͂̍͋G͋͌ͭ̈́H͗ͧ!”

He realizes he’s been operating under a misconception when Rose roars up to meet him, closing the distance between John and the tangle in seconds with a lurch of unsteady tentacles. Even when John sees Bro slice off a huge chunk of the main tentacles supporting the Horrorterror, she doesn’t turn away from John. He pours on the speed and makes a break for the park. She is definitely chasing him in earnest now, not even bothering with the spells or tentacles as they speed toward the park.

She hadn’t changed her course just to target Bro and Dave at random. It isn’t like she somehow lost interest in John after his words began to reach Rose and weaken the grimdark’s control.

She’s targeting Dave.

It finally clicks. For whatever reason, now that Rose is able to speak, the Horrorterror doesn’t think it can finish its mission – and it considers Dave the next best ‘vessel.’

Naturally, all this revelation does is piss John right off. Karkat is probably a bad influence on him. He finds that he doesn’t much care at the moment. “Rose, call this thing off! Please!” he calls, but there is no response. If anything, the Horrorterror picks up the pace, howling with rage. John is pushing just how fast the wind can go with all this humidity in the air, and that gaping maw of white fire seems to be splitting Rose's face in two.

And yeah, John loses his shit. He does a full on pirouette off the standard metaphorical handle. Dave and Karkat would probably both be proud. “Fuck no! Get out of both my friends, you fucking fuck!” John yells. Evil Rose just puts on an extra burst of speed and lunges with hands and thorns scrabbling at Dave’s feet.

And oh shit, his body is wracked with pain as John tips right over that boiling point and –

- he pops out in the air almost half a mile away from where he started. As he watches at a distance, dazed and breathing hard, the Horrorterror lurches to a halt over the park reservoir. For a brief, terrifying moment, he doesn’t know if he’s still got Dave – shit, shit, John barely knows how this teleporting things works, can he even bring other people along for the ride? But then he realizes he’s still got a grip on Dave, gripping the other hero in a bear hug so hard it’s probably not safe for Dave’s upper rib cage.

He takes a few deep, sucking breathes, trying to collect himself. He ducks behind a building, landing within an office that has been scraped clean by a stray tentacle, and leans Dave forward against the overturned desk. He takes advantage of the brief moment to check exactly where Dave is injured.

It’s not difficult to figure out. Dave’s head lolls to the side, both red eyes shut, and John can see that the other hero’s neck and shoulder are a fucking wreck. That metal collar Dave’s always wearing is gone, and there’s a red band of soon-to-be bruises ringing his neck where it must have snapped off. John can hear the faint, raspy wheeze of Dave’s breathing, so at least his trachea hasn’t collapsed. Someone – the Puppeteer, obviously – has wadded up bright blue fabric the color of Lil Cal’s shirt and tied it down with a larger strip of cloth to stem the blood that still sluggishly pours out from the tear at the side of Dave’s throat. The thorn must have just barely clipped Dave on the neck and shoulder rather than punching through either, but it still managed to scrape right up against his carotid, if the amount of blood is anything to go by. John is willing to bet that if that metal collar hadn’t been there, a lot more damage could have been done.

More worrying is the blood still trickling out of Dave’s nose, and the fact that Dave is still unconscious. Objectively, John knows that a little nosebleed pales in comparison to the gaping wound on the side of Dave’s neck. But it – it’s just too familiar, and that familiarity is horrifying because John has never seen Dave’s nose bleed before.

“FOŮ̃N̏̇Dͣ̓ͨͥ́̑ Y̊͗̊ͬ̇̓Oͯ͂̍Uͥ̎̀́̔̾̄͗”

Shit. John turns to see grimdark Rose hovering outside the office, grinning madly. “Fͪ̏ͣ͗̂ͮͫ̈́̓Oͨ̔Ů̃ͫͨͦ̒̿͑N̏̇ͭ̓̉Dͣ̓ͨͥ́̑ ͧ̾̔̅̈̈ͦͥ̓Y̊͗̊ͬ̇̓̒Oͯ͂̍ͫ͊̑̂ͪUͥ̎̀́̔̾̄͗~~~” it sings, almost bursting John’s eardrums.

“No!” he replies, grabbing Dave under the arms again. This time, it’s almost like he walks right into the anger, welcoming the pain as he teleports three buildings down, onto the same roof he’d seen Bro last. The Horrorterror shrieks in rage behind them, and Dave’s whole body jerks, more blood trickling out of his nose.

Yeah, Dave can’t afford to lose much more blood like this. John lays Dave down and turns to face the grimdark tangle as it claws its way up into the sky and screeches at him, flinging itself in their direction. “Rose! Try to keep her still, just for a few seconds!” he calls over the rising wind.

He tries not to let it discourage him that he hasn’t heard Rose in…quite a while. She can do it! This is Rose we’re talking about! No creepy void-tentacle-many-angled bag of dicks is going to beat her!

John just has to get close enough to the center of the tangle before he can start to help Rose fight back in earnest. Sucking in a breath of sea-salt air, he launches himself at the tangle and begins to beat it back away from Dave with swathes of air. "Hey! Pay attention to me! I'm the one you're fighting, here!" he shouts when the grimdark tangle attempts to break away and swarm underneath him in a mass of tentacles.

Apparently, while he's not making much of a dent in the ever expanding array of tentacles that encase Rose's possessed body, he does eventually succeed in pissing off an eldritch abomination enough that it screams in outrage as he forces down the street again, and a flurry of thorny tentacles shoot John all at once.

Uh. He probably could have thought this plan through a little better. Welp, he starts weaving through the fray, slicing when he can get his good arm free to manipulate the air.

He misses the exact moment the Horrorterror decides to change its tactics, which was...probably the point. It was trying to distract him, and it succeeded. The wild barrage of thorny vines stops, and John is left twisting in the air. He keeps his head low as he rolls upright, expecting an attack to surprise him from behind, but he's perplexed to see he is now alone in the air.

He turns to see the Horrorterror peeling off away from him, yanking itself between buildings and using its tentacles to throw itself bodily at the office where John left Dave. “No!” John yells, flinging blades of wind ahead of him in an attempt to cut the grimdark and catch its attention again.

Mid-leap, the Horrorterror flinches back, shrieking, before it's even a few hundred feet from Dave. Adjusting for the abrupt halt, John flips backwards and slams both fists down on the tentacles over Rose’s head. It screeches and crawls backwards, wavering on its tentacles, and John sees that someone has cut a wide, bloody purple gouge through nearly all of the tentacles that had been reaching for Dave.

Bro Strider leans at a cocky angle against the edge of the hole in the office wall, a shirtless Lil Cal sitting on his shoulder. He has put the katana away already, and is inspecting his nails without a care in the world. “Bitch, please,” he drawls absently. “You should just listen to the kid and stand still. Go after my lil bro and I’ll fry you like fucking calamari.”

“M͗̚E̒͐W͐̌̄Lͥ͛I̍N̆̓̑͑G̅̑̐̍̚ L͑̍̾̇Å̄N̑̅̔̔D͆̍ͦ ̓̏͒͐͛͗DW̒Ȇͦ̓ͥLL̽̍̓̇̂Ê͗RͪͫS!" the Horrorterror shrieks.

“That’s hemoracist!” John yells back. He thinks maybe the relief is making him a little hysterical, if that's the best comeback he can think of. “So! Rude!” He raises his hands up and slams down another hammer of air down on top of the Horrorterror's head. It's a testament to how much the grimdark has been distracted that rather than anchoring itself and withstanding the blow, it topples over sideways, crashing into the building opposite.

John presses his advantage and flies after it, winding up to throw a punch as he flies at the Horrorterror's face.

Er. On second thought. Maybe he doesn't want to punch Rose in the face. It's still her face, after all. Instead, he skids to a halt before the hollow in the thorns where Rose's possessed body sits, clutching at its head with grimdark claws. He grabs her by the shoulders instead. "Give Rose back, you alien racists!" he yells at her face, shaking her hard.

Thorns surge inward to meet him, but the gamble pays off. For a brief moment, the eyes staring back at him don’t writhe with worms and tangles behind the white fire, it’s just a familiar, probing gaze –

And all the tentacles arcing in to stab him freeze in place. Crowing in triumph, John slaps a cuff down on Rose’s outstretched wrist and feels it click shut and lock into place.

Unfortunately, he only manages the one restraint before it’s the Horrorterror’s turn to lose its shit. “N̔̒̊ͧ̄̽Oͮ!” it shrieks, and a pair of tentacles wrap around John, crushing in tight until he can’t even slip a breeze between them and his skin to ease the pressure. There’s nothing left of Rose in those eyes, just an absolute, multifarious rage.

Oh, fuck. He’s fucked.

“NO!” someone else screams. John’s ears have grown so used to the ringing shrieks of the grimdark that Rose’s high, thin voice, gone hoarse with pain, sounds distant and far off.

But it’s Rose who looks back at him.

“Rose,” John says, grinning. He can’t help it.

Instead of tearing him apart, the grimdark tosses him aside. Rose’s hoarse shout can barely travel through the thick air. So yeah, he’s still getting thrown around, but who cares! Rose did it this time! That's awesome! John catches himself with ease, the wind stirring with new energy as his joy leaks through.

“̔̔̆Ẃ̾Ë̾ͦ͆͐͊ͯ̔ W͗͑̚IL̋̽ͪL ͤK̿I͋ͬ̆̎LL̂̍̆͗ͨͣ̍ Aͥ̎L̔̓͛̈́̆̎L̔ͬ̌̽̍ Oͯ̽F ͂ͬͭͣ̽Yͯ̈ŌU͛̓̾ͥͣ!!!” Rose bellows, and oops, no, that’s not Rose anymore. Dammit! The Horrorterror stumbles along like a drunkard, slamming into a building facefirst at one point (which is hilarious and really shouldn't be, but whatever), but still making its way towards Dave again. Darn!

“Give ‘em hell, Rose!” John yells, pelting after her. He catches up, and he knows the grimdark must be so very distracted from the inner turmoil Rose is stirring up because it doesn’t even glance his direction. It’s too desperate to reach Dave and ditch Rose’s internal rebellion to consider him a threat. “You are a strong independent woman who does not pander to insane murder-alien shenanigans!”

"jȯ͊ͩ̽h̓̽̊̈́̑n̈̓̈́.ͨ̇̅ͣ jo̓ͪ̿h̾̇ͫnͪ͆. STOP ME," Rose gasps again, wrenching her face sideways to look at him, pain wrinkling her forehead. "DON'T LET ME REACH DAVE."

"You got it!" John slides in close and buffets the Horrorterror in the side, knocking support tentacles out from under it and driving it steadily to the side, back toward Central Park.

"̇͑͑͆g͗̽eͨͭt ͋Aͫ͂W͆̔A͋ͮY̍͆͑ͫͥ!" He thinks it's still Rose talking, though the distortion has returned. He doesn't heed the warning in time, and a tentacle snags the wrist of his bad arm, bringing him to a painful halt. John brings his other hand around to stab at the offending vine.

The tentacle moves first, yanking his arm back and up.

There is a sharp pop as his arm dislocates.

"Fuuuuaaaaghhhh!" John swallows down the rest of the scream, hissing through his nose. All of the pain in his collarbone and shoulder has begun to meld together into a white-hot agony centered on his upper left side. He can't panic, he can't panic, he chants to himself, focusing on a short blade of air that slices through the tentacle before he rips the section curled around his wrist off. His left arms hangs at a horrific angle, twisted completely out of joint. It's not as bad as it feels; he just needs maybe ten spare seconds and he can pop the shoulder right back into place. This isn't a crisis. Not yet.

He hears the last few reassurances in his dad's voice. It helps a little.

"joHN."

He meets Rose's eyes, and tries to grin for her. The grimdark has frozen up once more. "You've got this, Rose!" he says, probing at his shoulder in the brief interlude Rose seems to have won.

"I'm sorry John," Rose says, panting. "I require your assistance.  I can't move, you see. But you - you would be able to. And once you get me loose - I believe I can take it from there." She grins, looking half feral, then shudders in pain as the tentacles of grimdark all ripple at once.

John frowns. "Rose, I don't understand -"

"And I can't explain the process right now." Rose holds out a shaking hand, the one that's not cuffed. He hadn't seen in the heat of battle, but the gloves of her transformed costume have been singed through to reveal her grey, burned palms. That Horrorterror threw out some serious fire power. "This restraint helps. Hurry up and get the other one finished, and then get inside my mind."

"What?! How? Why?" John protests. He has to let go of his shoulder and hover closer to Rose; the dislocated shoulder can wait. He digs into his inside pocket with the good arm and slots the second restraint onto Rose's arm.

"Now then. I intend to settle this once and for all. Just get me out of this damned corner, John." Rose raises a hand that shakes a little, her color almost peachy. John goes cross eyed looking at it, opening his mouth to explain that no, their plan actually involves restraining the Horrorterror and then getting the hell out of Dodge.

She taps him on the forehead before he gets the words out. To his relief, the sparks that result are not sickly purple but a feeble, greyish gold. Not exactly good, but not likely to kill him either.

Or so he thinks, before his eyes roll back in his skull and both he and Rose begin to topple to the ground, two hundred feet below.

Like mother, like daughter, John thinks to himself, blacking out. Neither of them can be assed to explain things properly the first time around. Jeez.

-

John thinks, dimly, that he can hear the ocean. The scent of blood and salt permeates the - is that air? It feels more like sludge, as though the air has finally surpassed Houston and achieved 100% humidity, thus winning all of Dave's shitty awards. Everything is pitch dark, and there is a distinct lack of pain in his shoulder and collarbone.

This indicates that Shenanigans with a capital S are occurring. Blinking and squinting in the darkness, he attempts to regain his bearings. This proves difficult; the darkness does not abate no matter which way he turns, and all he can really distinguish with his hearing is that somewhere, far below him, an ocean rumbles with the tide. And, if he tilts his ear down and listens carefully, underneath it all he can make out a low murmur, an arrhythmic chant, one that repeats, screeches, and then repeats again, as though being played on a broken record player.

(̒̔̆dͥĭ̋ͭso̔rͬ̿d̄͊̆̽͂eͣ͑ͫř̇̈̒̊diͧͩͯs͗͗̈aĺ̐̒͐̄̚ign͊̄d͑̽̍̓̔î̊͂ͨstͨͬ̓͋̋ͮ̂o̾r͗̆̓͑td̓̍͒̿i͑̄ͤ̾stͯͬuͬͤ͊ͪrͥͧ̍̐bd͛ev̄͛̋̐̿͛̂ia͒̓ͬ̐ͩtedͩ̆͌ͬ̎efǒ̈̅̍r͆ͣmdͥĭ̋ͭso̔rͬ̿d̄͊̆̽͂eͣ͑ͫř̇̈̒̊diͧͩͯs͗͗̈aĺ̐̒͐̄̚ign͊̄d͑̽̍̓̔î̊͂ͨstͨͬ̓͋̋ͮ̂o̾r͗̆̓͑td̓̍͒i͑̄ͤstͯͬuͬͤ͊ͪrͥͧ̍̐bd͛ev̄͛̋̐̿͛̂ia͒̓ͬ̐ͩtedͩ̆͌ͬ̎efǒ̈̅̍r͆ͣm-)͒̂̅̅

With that super creepy soundtrack muttering in his ear, John decides to descend. Rose had said something about him getting inside her mind to help her out with - something? She hadn't exactly been very clear.

Well, the solution is obviously to find her.

This is easier said than done, and for a long minute John flounders in the dark, hearing the ocean grow steadily louder beneath him as he casts about for a light. When he gets close enough to feel the spray kicked up by the roiling waves, a cold drop of water hits his face. It burns, and he wipes at the spot frantically with the back of his sleeve. The spot continues to burn, and he has to rip off the end of his sleeve and toss it away when that begins to burn as well. He can't see the sleeve as it drops into the ocean, but he can imagine what would happen when it hit the surface of the waves.

The entire ocean is full of burning acid.

And this is what has invaded Rose's mind?

He is struck momentarily by the horrific certainty that this dark expanse of cold water goes on forever, endless and churning and eternal. John shakes himself and flies up a bit to get out of range of the acidic spray. He doesn't question how he can fly in Rose's mind; the explanation will probably involve either psychology or magic, and he'd rather Rose explain it herself than he try his hand at her arts.

He floats forward for a while. He doesn't dare turn away from that single direction - he's probably already hopelessly lost, and he'd rather not end up going in circles on top of that. His best hope for getting out of here is to find Rose and help with her plan for - for whatever the heck the new plan is.

He wanders long enough to start worrying about his and Rose's body. They had kind of been in the middle of falling from a pretty good distance when he passed out. All he can really do at this point is hope that the Puppeteer left Dave's side long enough to maybe catch them both. ...Yeah, Bro is kind of a dick, but John doesn't think he'd let them fall to their doom. Hopefully.

(john. john. over here, john.)

He's so caught up in these musings, he nearly misses Rose's thready whisper. The harsh murmur of (̒̔̆dĭ̋so̔rͬ̿d̄͊̆̽͂eř̇̈̒̊diͧͩͯs͗͗̈aĺ̐̒͐̄̚ign͊̄d͑̽̍̓̔î̊͂ͨstͨͬ̓͋̋ͮ̂o̾r͗̆̓͑td̓̍͒̿i͑̄ͤ̾stͯͬuͬͤ͊ͪrͥͧbd͛ev̄͛̋̐̿͛̂ia͒̓ͬ̐ͩte) sounds...really, creepily similar to Rose's distorted voice earlier, so it almost blends into and obscures her voice.

(john, i swear, if you absent-mindedly wander right past my location in the middle of this unmitigated disaster, i will unleash such fresh vengeance upon you, there will not be enough of you left for a funeral.)

Oh. He heard that one. "Rose? Where are you? I can't see a thing!" he whisper-shouts, still not entirely sure just where the Horrorterror might be hanging out. The cuffs are supposed to suppress it enough for Rose to keep control, but the grimdark is still here.

There is a long pause, and he stops dead, afraid he actually did manage to float right by Rose and miss her completely. (yes, i suppose it would be rather impenetrably dark to one unused to dealing with the darkness of the Furthest Ring) Rose whispers at last. (i am directly to your right. you will know me when you see me.)

John turns slowly, staring helplessly out into the endless field of black. It all looks exactly the same. "Wher -" A flash of light catches his attention. Well, more like it blinds him and he has to bite back a yelp of pain. After so long in the dark, the tiny, flickering beacon that appears on the indistinct horizon feels like staring into the sun.

(oops. please make haste, john.)

"Not exactly the most reassuring thing to say, Rose," John hisses, flying over as quickly as he can in the thick air. "What exactly is the game plan here? Because I didn't sign up for an adventure to the center of your mind this morning, and I'm flying blind here."

The light eventually resolves itself, directly in front of him, yes, but also below him, closer to where he thinks the surface of the ocean lies. He begins to descend, cautious. The last thing he wants is to get caught in a wave of grimdark acid.

(if you could help me out of here, i would be greatly obliged.) The flickering, pale, faded outline of Rose Lalonde rests her head on a tiny lantern, her pale purple eyes gleaming in the reflected light. The rest of her trails off into the dark ocean. The faint light of the lantern doesn't even penetrate the grimdark submerging the her body.

John hesitates, then shakes himself vigorously. This is Rose! He puts out both hands and a pair of transparent hands clasp his back. It burns for a moment with the acid Rose has been lying in, but he grits his teeth and tightens his grip on her. "Don't worry, Rose. I won't let you go. What do you need me to do?"

Rose smiles. Maybe. It's hard to tell when most of her face is kind of...smudged and see through. (i would greatly appreciate a lift. once I am free of this grimdark pit, i have a bone to pick with the Honorable Horrorterror who dares presume to take over my mind.)

"It's as easy as that?" John asks.

Rose raises a single elegant eyebrow. Seriously, all of his friends seem to have this mysterious eyebrow thing down. When John tries it, both his eyebrows go up at once. Karkat, Dave, and Rose can all manage it. Maybe it's like how all of them ramble when they talk - John must really have a type when it comes to his friends!

Focusss!

(easy for you, john. The lion's share of the hard work rests with me, this time around. this is my mess. and I assure you, i intend to clean it up.)

John nods, and yanks Rose upward out of the acid sea. There's a surprisingly amount of resistance, and he looks down to see tendrils of grimdark clinging to her ankles. His whole body jerks downward as the ocean tries to swallow her up again. "Oh no, you don't!" John snaps. He feels Rose's nails dig into his wrists as he drags them both up. With a sound like suction cups popping loose, the miniature tentacles release Rose's lower half. John isn't expecting it, and they both fly up with the recoil, which he is totally okay with. The further they get Rose from that gross stuff, the better.

"You okay, Rose?" he asks, once they're hovering a safe distance above the ocean.

She squeezes his hand, smiling. He realizes, suddenly, that he can suddenly see a lot better. The darkness still continues on in every direction, but -

"Are you glowing?"

(it has been far too long since someone shed some light on this situation. i fully intend to do so posthaste.) It is very reassuring that Rose's mental whisper can still sound as dry and snarky as her usual tone, even after all this time. Meanwhile, the pale yellow light that fills in her outline slowly begins to ripen to a warm, goldenrod hue, and the light illuminates more and more of the darkness. (it will notice me and arrive soon, actually. right about -)

̅̿͆ͦ̒ͥ̓̌ͥ̒̓Gͯ͌̈́̔͑ET̈̔ ͌O̔U̅͗ͯ̌̿̈́͆̎T̈ ̈́̈́̋͐̓̓ͤȌ̋̾͑̊̏Fͩͦͣ̐ O͂U̎͗̿̾̌̿̂̐̽Rͪͤ̑͂̑ ̈M̆Ĭͫ͑̂N͋D͒̐!

(- now) Rose finishes.

And then the Horrorterror looms out of the dark.

It is an incomprehensible being. His mind tries to comprehend it anyway, and he suspects those two irreconcilable concepts could drive people mad when they look upon the many-angled ones.  Most of the impressions he gets, before he has to tear his eyes away, his brain burning as though splattered with more acid, is that of a tangled bundle of intertwined tentacles, with multiple gaping, beak-like mouths that drool inky black ooze and dull purple blood. It is larger than the space they are in, larger than the endless ocean, and rises up before them until all John can see is the writhing mass of thorns that make up the bulk of the Horrorterror.

Rose is unaffected by the sheer scale of the monster. She drops John's hand and floats forward under her own power. All the while, she shines with brighter and brighter light.

(how dare you. HOW DARE YOU) she says, her voice quiet and cold as it echoes throughout the darkness. The Horrorterror stutters to a halt, its massive tentacles actually drawing back away from the aura of light Rose is putting out.

John doesn't blame the Horrorterror one bit. Once Rose is truly riled up, she's a force to be reckoned with.

It's been three years since he last spoke with Rose Lalonde, and before today he never knew she was a hero, never knew she was the Seer of Light, with all the powers he's read about in the newspaper reports. And yet, he still instinctively knows exactly what is about to happen. He grins so hard, his lips feel like they're going to crack.

Because today, the Horrorterrors made the worst mistake possible.

They pissed off Rose Lalonde.

And now -

(this is MY MIND. MINE.) Rose spreads her palms outward, floating upward as two white-hot stars light up in each hand. She is no longer a fragile, immaterial outline, worn thin by the acidic grimdark tide. She is supersaturated, burning so bright John can see every thorn lining the Horrorterror's chaotic tentacles, the diminishing flow of the ocean tide below, and the stars that gleam in the night sky overhead. (GET YOU HENCE. YOU HAVE MY PERMISSION TO DWELL HERE NO MORE.)

Ṅ̈̓̋̏͂̐̆ͦO̍ͩ!̽͌  The Horrorterror writhes, shrinking back from the light. It almost looks like it is draining away in an attempt to escape, down into the dwindling ocean below.

No wonder it had to keep Rose submerged in that ocean. Now that she's free, it doesn’t stand a chance.

Rose sniffs, and combines the two lights in her hands into one that she cradles before her chest, a miniature sun. (ALLOW ME TO PUT THIS AS BLUNTLY AND CLICHÉLY AS I CAN. AFTER WHAT YOU HAVE PUT MY CITY THROUGH TODAY, I HAVE EARNED THIS LINE.)

She pauses for dramatic effect. John approves. Seriously, this is some excellent heroic monologue execution. Comic book writers could learn a lesson or three from Rose Lalonde.

(LET THERE BE LIGHT)

John closes his eyes just in time. The radiating light still burns through his eyelids, lighting everything up until there is nowhere left to hide. When he blinks his eyes open at last, seeing afterimages everywhere he looks, the Horrorterror is gone. Rose continues to burn like a torch, surveying the evaporating ocean beneath them. John hovers up alongside her and touches her shoulder gently. She meets his eyes, and smiles. "Your thoughts, John Egbert?" she asks, and her voice is no longer a half-heard whisper in the dark.

"That was basically the most awesome thing I've seen all year," John tells her, meaning every word. "Seriously, I'm pretty sure nothing is going to top that."

Rose shakes her head, her smile rueful and quiet before it falters entirely. "People have died, John. My city is in ruins at my hands, by the will of an abomination I allowed into my mind." She closes her eyes, the light dimming slightly. "I am not sure you're quite justified in praising me for anything I have done on this day."

"I don't believe that," John says. He folds his arms over his chest, then thinks better of it and just hugs Rose. She's skin and bones and golden light, and her forearms are too sharp when she hugs him back. Yeah, he doesn't care what Doctor Lalonde's excuses are, she is getting a very stern lecture when they get Rose to safety. "Yeah, people are dead, and let's face it, the clean up bill for New York is gonna be awful. But come on, And you're not allowed to think for a second this is your fault. I'm pretty sure at some point in every hero's life they have to deal with a super-powered dark side. It's like, a universal law or something."

Rose snorts into choking, inelegant laughter, shaking so hard as she tries to repress the laugh that John nearly takes a forehead to his chin. "I will do my best to take your view on the subject into account, then, John," she says bemusedly, releasing him. "You are, after all, the resident expert on heroism. Now then. Let's get you back into your own skull, shall we?"

"That would be awesome," John says. "I - uh, not that your brain isn't cool when you're not all possessed by evil and all that, but the last time I checked, we were kind of falling to our deaths. So. We should probably wake up soon. And not die."

"Oh, of course," Rose agrees, that snarky smirk back in its rightful place as she raises a hand to tap on John's forehead. "Thank you, my old friend."

He might have imagined that last part. It's the faintest whisper, and then he's occupied with blacking out -

-

John wakes up flat on his back.

Bro Strider is hunkered to one side, leaning over John, and he raises an eyebrow when John mumbles something incoherent. "Welcome back to the land of the living, kid," is all the Puppeteer says. "Should I be concerned? Any new fresh hell on the way?"

"...Magic," John manages by way of explanation, sitting upright and regretting it immediately. Out here, his shoulder is still dislocated and ow ow ow -

Bro's eyebrow goes a little higher; then he shrugs and leans over the limp form of Rose Lalonde lying to John's right. "Is Dave alright?" John asks, twisting around and trying to figure out where they are. It looks like they're on a roof - seriously, what is it with Striders and roofs? - and they're all huddled by an air conditioning unit. Dave is propped up against the unit itself, his head still hanging forward and unmoving.

Bro grunts. "The bleeding stopped. Kid's down for the count, though. Sleepin' like a baby."

"You're a fuckin' liar, Bro," Dave says, his words slurred. He has his shades on again as he raises his chin by way of greeting, revealing the collar once again on his throat. It is battered and twisted, and John could swear he sees what looks like exposed wiring along the right side, where someone has reconnected the ends of the wires in a shitty patch job. He wonders what exactly the collar does that someone - presumably Bro - bothered to fix it in the middle of a battlezone. "John. Fuck. Man. Next time you say we go on a road trip to fight your evil temporarily possessed best friend - no. Just. No. Not even once. I am so in charge of our honeymoon, I swear to god, EB, fight me, you are forbidden from ever choosing a destination ever again."

There's something really weird about Dave's voice. John has noticed sometimes he can hear a faint buzz under all Dave's long, rambling tangents, but he's only really been listening to the guy speak out loud for a prolonged period of time for the past night and day. Now, at the end of sentences, his voice will trail off and drop to a whisper, or his voice will crack and shoot up a register.

Then John is ready to slap himself on the forehead. Dave still has a massive makeshift bandage sopping up blood on the side of his throat - of course he's going to have trouble speaking after taking a tentacle to the carotid and having his own collar nearly crush his trachea. Urgh. John is an asshole.

"I surrender all future vacation planning to you, Dave," John says, rolling his eyes as he flops back on the roof. "Are you okay? What happened to you?"

Dave is silent for a long moment. "Hell if I know," he says at last, his voice outright crackling with the strain. "One minute I'm rescuing the shrimps from the museum, the next tenta-Rose is all over me. What can I say. Even tentacle aliens can't get enough of my sick fires. They are just lining up to bask in the presence of my righteous bod."

"Oh, good! You got them out!" John sighs with relief. In the insanity of trying survive the Horrorterror, he hadn't had any opportunity to even see if the children he heard inside the Guggenheim had made it out safely. "Um. Bro? I'd ask Dave, but - can you get my shoulder? I don't want to fuck it up from this angle -"

Pain shoots through his shoulder as the joint and bone are shoved back into place and John kicks with one foot as he yelps, caught completely unawares. "Oh my god, couldn't you wait until, like, the count of three or something first! Agh!" he growls at Bro, who simply continues to hold John's shoulder in plae until, with a pop, the pain subsides, leaving only the aching soreness of strained muscles and his extremely aggravated collar bone. John wouldn't be surprised if the break has worsened significantly after that dislocation, which means even more time in the sling than he'd anticipated. Gross.

The Puppeteer just shrugs, and slouches over to Rose again. "Deal with it, kid. I don't molly-coddle."

Dave and John look at each other and say "Such a dick," at the same time.

"Adorable," Bro says, smirking.

Yeah, John is just going to quit while he's ahead before he starting rage-teleporting all over the place. Clearly this is a battle that cannot be won.

Rose bolts upright a second later. "I require a waste receptacle," she says, gasping. The grey grimdark taint has vanished from her skin, though her clothes are still dyed black, and her hair sticks to her forehead in sweaty, strawberry blond streaks. If she weren't pale and going kind of greenish at the edges, she'd look almost normal.

Bro produces a trash can. John seriously needs to learn how the elder Strider can move so fast. "Your receptacle, Little Lalonde," he says, straight-faced as he holds it out for her.

"Oh, thank you. A moment, please." Rose swallows rapidly, leaning over the trash can. "Oh, this is going to be unpleas -"

She begins to retch and vomit into the trashcan. The vomit is black and smells like blood, which is just, wow, the most disturbing thing John can imagine coming out of someone's stomach.

"Just let it all out," Bro says sagely, patting Rose awkwardly on the back. "Get that shit outta your system, kiddo." After a choking wave of black ooze, he actually starts gingerly grabbing strands of Rose's hair and pulling them out of her face, using his fingers like tweezers with an expression of utmost intensity.

"Oh my god, Bro being motherly. I've seen it all. That's it. I'm going blind. There is literally nothing else worth seeing in the world," Dave babbles. "Pinch me or something, John."

Yeah, this whole situation is just really fucking weird. John scoots over next to Rose too, and takes over from Bro. He's seriously concerned judging from the expression behind the Puppeteer's shades that the older man is about to give himself an aneurysm. He almost looks...concerned.

"We do not speak of this," Bro says, with the voice of a man prepared to enforce his words with a really sharp, pointy object.

John shakes his head wildly. "Nope," he agrees.

"I wish I had my camera. That was fucking priceless," Dave continues. "I think I actually feel a tear welling up. Finally, I have witnessed the mythological Bro Strider in parent-mode. Glorious."

"Kid, the only reason I'm not kicking your ass is because you're delirious from blood loss," Bro says wearily, pinching at the bridge of his nose. "Seriously. When we get home. Such an ass-kicking."

John just shakes his head again, and focuses on Rose. "How much of that gunk is in your system?" he wonders, bracing Rose's shoulders with an arm as a final retch wracks her too-thin frame. When is the last time she ate?

"I believe that is all of it," Rose replies, wiping at her mouth and grimacing as she shoves the trash can full of grimdark vomit away from her lap. "Good lord. It tastes as though I've been swilling seawater, alcohol, and liquid evil. How...fitting."

ͬh̍̽̔ē̔̍h͒e̽͋͌h̋ͦ͆ͯ...ha̿͂͗̈͆̏...fͫ̔o̒̋͐͑̋ͮő̂ͥl̊̇̆̒͊ͥs͗͌

Everyone freezes.

It's Bro who finally says it. "Little Lalonde. Is your goddamn evil upchuck talking, or has Dave's unbelievable capacity for dumbassery finally driven me into insanity?"

"I heard it too," John says quietly. He offers Rose an arm and she takes it, and they both crawl backward, getting some distance between them and the trash can.

͊ͤ͗̏a̎̈́t ͪͤle̎a̾̾s̅͑̍̆̒t̊̅̎ ͨWͭE̐ ẅ́̂͌̓oͣu̎̈̋̈l̄d̅̅̋̒ h͊̔̇a͐̓͂ͦv̂̆̊̽̚eͭ͂̌͑̃ͧ̑ k̽i̔ll̓̐e̋̐̊ͭd ̽yͧo͑̿uͣͩ ̔͐͌͗̽quǐckͥl̊yͤ̈͆͂ͤ  the tangle says, longingly.

"Well. No, it's not vomit, Puppeteer," Rose says, still eyeing the can with a practiced, analytical gaze. "Technically, it is a portion of the Horrorterror tangle that controlled large sections of my nervous system, ejected from my body by a cleansing spell. And I'm afraid that one portion is just as much a part of the hivemind as a full tangle."

"Oh, fan-fucking-tastic," Bro says, as Lil Cal crawls its way up his arm and onto his shoulder in jointed movements.

ẁ̿e̎ͨ̽ͤ͋͑ wͭ͛̌̿̄̓̋̍oͯ͂u͊ͯl͂ͭdͯͯ͊ al̚l ̏̏͑h̋̒̆̇àv̍̔̎ͪ̿e͛ͮ̏ b͋eĕ̿̊n̆ ̒̌T̔̅Aͪ̿ͣN̈́̈́͑Ǧ͗͊ͨͥL̎͐̒EB̒ͣ̍̈́UD̎͋͌͛̌D͒ͥĪES̅ foͦ̋rͯevͥ̋̂ͪe͆r ȧ̊ͫͨnd̔ͩ̆ Eͫ̅̅V͆͗̑̑͆ͨE̎̽̑Ȑ̆̎ͥ̑̎̋̈͌. The pleading tone of the grimdark tangle is lost as it growls hoarsely on the word 'tanglebuddies.' Dave hiccups, and John tears his watchful gaze away from the fragment of Horrorterror long enough to see a new streak of blood working its way out of Dave's nose. Oh no.

"I think you're just a sore loser. Loser," John shoots back, just trying to make it stop talking. Not his best work, but hey, he's had a long day. "Rose kicked your ass."

The grimdark begins to creep up the edges of the trashcan, and John tenses up, gathering in a breeze in case the tendril proves capable of more than just talking. n͑ͦ̈o̊ͮwͪ̿̑̌ͪͯ͊ ȳͮ̈́̑͐̑oú ͋͑͊̾͆wͬ̈ͬͥillͣ̌ͮͤ ͑a̅l͛l ͗Ŝ̾̿Ǘ͊̏FFE͒̐Rͦ.  ͭͦͦD̅Oͭ̾N͆̇͆ͣ̅̾'T͂ ͐ͩ͐Y͊O͛̐̑Uͦ͑̍ K̆̎͒͗N̑ͨ̈ͥO̽̊̂̾Ẅ́?̎̔̎̚ ̊̓ͥ̒̄HE̾̄̄ ̇ís̍ c͗̈ͨ̇ôͯmin͋g̿ͣ͋...ȍ̂ͦr͋̇ ̐͒m͒a̍̓̈ͩ̏͊̆̇y̏̓͛ͫ̈̌b̆̎e͗ͬͪ͐...HE̐̅ is͗ ͗̒̔ͦ̚̚al͂r̈ͭea͌d̚y͂ HERE.

The Horrorterror breaks down into mind-shattering giggles, and John winces, covering his ears. It just keeps laughing and laughing, until finally -

"That is quite enough of that," Rose interjects. She snaps a finger and a spark of light appears above her hand. She shoves it into the trash can and grimaces as she holds it there in the middle of the writhing black tendril. A whine grows in pitch until, with an audible VWOMPH the trash can disintegrates in a burst of light. There is no trace of the grimdark tendril left as Rose delicately wipes her hand on the gravel of the roof. "It feels good to be able to do that again," she says, sighing contentedly.

"Awesome." Bro whips a cell phone out of his pocket and hits speed dial, hitching a hip on the edge of the air conditioner by Dave's head. The puppet has already disappeared. "Siddown, kids, I'm calling the getaway driver. You three all look like shit, and I sure as hell ain't carrying you."

John doesn't have the strength to argue. Heck, he doesn't even know what he'd be arguing about at this point. He's really tired, that must be why he's stopped making sense. He leans back against the AC unit with Dave. Rose joins them a second later, staring off into the distance with an expression of intense thought on her face. Knowing Rose, John thinks blearily, she'll have figured out a working hypothesis for what the fragment of Horrorterror meant by all that bizarre chatter at the end, that stuff about a 'he' and 'suffering.' Rose is good at making sense of things.

Yeah. Important things.

He feels, vaguely, a heavy weight land on each shoulder as Dave and Rose slump against him. But by then, he's already halfway asleep himself, and he can't do more than let his head fall back to rest against the air conditioner.

It really has been a long day. They still have to get Rose to Doctor Lalonde, and at some point, John has to figure out exactly when he's going to be able to fly home to Seattle. He's been gone for almost a full twenty four hours at this point, and if nothing else Karkat is probably going to notice he's gone, soon.

He'll worry about all that later, though.

For now, he thinks he's earned some rest.

---

"We left the plane in England!" Jade sobs, hugging WV, nearly choking him out in her distraction. "Oh noooo!"

They have relocated to sit inside the Sydney Opera House, which is currently unoccupied aside from a janitor who walks by the entrance to the main concert hall every few minutes to check on the distraught hero and make sure the hall is still in one piece. He knows better than to confront crying girls who look like they could floor him with their pinky finger. Jade and Bec between them have teleported all of the contents of the lab onto the stage, and Bec lies beside an uprooted spectrometer, silent and unconcerned in sleep mode, while Jade lounges in the audience seats and pouts over the loss of her nuclear biplane.

To be fair, it was a really awesome plane.

Having indulged herself for a good five minutes, Jade sits upright, a half strangled WV still tucked in a chokehold. "Well, we'll just have to keep going without it," she sniffs, patting the tiny carapacian on the head.

Unfortunately, he has had quite of this manhandling, apparently. When she goes to give him a noogie, he flails at her with both hands, irate exclamations escaping his throat. He manages to push off and land on his butt on the floor, and then he scurries off, his loud bursts of noise and the occasional crackle of green space-altering radiation echoing in the excellent acoustics.

"Oh no! Wait, Mr. V, don't run away!" Jade calls, zapping after him. She lands in front of him in at the top of the stairs running up to the back of the room, and clasps her hands together before kneeling. "I promise I'll stop! I didn't mean to piss you off!"

He squeaks irately, then smacks his own head with his fists in frustration, probably at his inability to speak. Jade can't tell if it was her kind-of unorthodox method of stabilizing him in time and space or if he had some kind of preexisting damage to his vocal cords that has caused this muteness, but it's clear the Variable hates it.

"I mean it," she adds, pleading. "Please don't run away yet - I still haven't figured out your green thingy!"

WV hunches in on himself, spreading his claws before his face as though inspecting each finger carefully. From this close up, Jade can see the edges of wide scars that wrap along his claws. There's a matching triangle of scar tissue that cuts along the side of his smooth face, just barely missing his right eye, and she can see more markings on his legs. They look like old burns, but the shiny scars blend in so well with his already gleaming black carapace that it's hard to see them from a distance. She wonders what could cause such widespread scarring.

Shaking his head vigorously, WV lowers his hands and clacks them together, then flings himself at her. His head rams into her chest as he hugs her.

I guess that means I'm forgiven! Jade thinks cheerfully, hugging him right back and just barely refraining from giving him another noogie. It would be mean to keep doing it when it clearly bothers him so much, and she can't abide the thought of being mean to the little guy; he's just so adorable!

She does wonder about his hands, though. Sometimes, usually after he goes all green plasma like Bec, he looks at his claws as though he'd like to cut them off, an old and weary fear creasing his face.

There's something up there, something weird, but WV can't talk, and if he's using a carapacian sign language it's not working because Jade doesn't understand it. It's all so frustrating. Ever since that impossible teleport from Britain to Australia, her head has been pounding in her skull.

Jade snaps her fingers. "Ohhhh! I know what we need, WV!"

He tilts his head at her quizzically.

"Food! It's lunch time! That's why we're both so grumpy and blah!" She picks him up as she stands, and he crawls onto her back obligingly, sitting on her shoulders like they're playing chicken. His carapace is too light and hollow for Jade to even feel like there's any weight there, and for a scary moment she has to look up and see WV's white eyes blinking down at her before she can believe he hasn't just disappeared again, vanished back into quantum superposition. Wouldn't that suck!

For a moment, she looks up at the lab equipment spread out on the stage of the opera house, and then she shrugs. "Into the sylladex with you all!" She opens up the pocket dimension and teleports onto the stage, WV squeaking and grabbing at her hair as she does, and then she begins to shovel delicate lab equipment into the sylladex. Nothing has ever come out of the sylladex pocket damaged or anything, so hopefully the breakable stuff won't be hurt either! Jade doesn't even understand half of what her space powers can do, and she's the one using them!

WV hops down off her shoulders and begins digging through the last of the equipment while she's shoving the larger pieces into the sylladex, nearly falling on his face as he digs through the pile of random lab stuff and emerges with a tiny squeak of triumph. In his hands he clutches a long tan metric ruler, and he gives it a few experimental swings and stabs before he trots over to her side. Apparently if Jade is a riflekind expert, WV likes rulers! How cute!

Once all her lab crap is stowed away, she stretches her arms and plants her hands on her hips. "Well, I don't know anything about Sydney. I guess we can just wander around until we find some place with lunch stuff. We're out of here, Bec!"

The wolf looks up from where it has sprawled out on its belly, and sniffs at her.

"That means he's ready to go!" she tells WV, chipper. She spies the janitor passing by the open door at the back of the theater and waves. "Goodbye, nice janitor man! We're going now!"

"Finally!" The man bursts into wrenching sobs. Jade has no idea what that could all be about.

They beam out in a wave of Bec's green fire. Left to his own devices, the janitor staggers over to the stage and weeps over the huge indents left in the wood by the hard impact of several thousand pounds of lab equipment. He has absolutely no way of explaining the damage to his supervisors, and expects to be fired over this incident within hours.

-

They end up at a small café on Knox Street, a really tiny place with short tables and stools instead of chairs that are pretty much the perfect size for WV's legs! Jade is the perfect host. It is her. The food selection is kind of tiny too, but she's sure it will still taste delicious. They sit outside in the afternoon sun, and it's so warm it's almost like home.

Jade orders avocado on toast, curious, and then a giant-ass chocolate milkshake because heck yeah, milkshakes. Best thing invented by mankind. She doesn't know how she survived the first seventeen years of her life without trying one. WV frets over the menu as the waiter stares, fascinated, at the carapacian, and then finally WV starts stabbing at what he wants while Jade repeats the order aloud. She's really confused when WV starts flipping the fuck out and demanding five cans of TaB soda by holding up five claws emphatically, but hey, Jade has money to burn. If TaB is WV's thing and he hasn't been able to drink it in who knows how long, who is she to deny the poor deprived little guy.

The first sip of that milkshake is like having liquid, chocolatey happiness dancing on her tongue. Jade hums happily and proceeds to drain the glass. The resulting brain freeze is sooo worth it.

Her reaction, however, is nothing compared to WV's literal tears of joy when the waiter sets a tray of five soda cans before him. He doesn't even wait to pull open the tab; he just chomps down with glinting black teeth and swallows the chunk of aluminum whole before chugging the entire can's worth of soda in seconds. He nearly falls off his stool with excitement.

Whooo, boy. This is going to be one hell of a sugar rush when he's through gorging himself. Jade sits back and watches, fascinated, as WV loses his adorable shit over a pretty average soda brand. Soon he's tossing back two at a time, and she admires his ability to coordinate the flow of two different torn-open soda cans into one mouth. It's pretty impressive. The poor TaB never stood a chance against WV's onslaught. Her toast arrives in the middle of this sodasscre, and she munches on it. It is, indeed, delicious.

After nearly ten minutes of extreme soda drinking (there should be a game show for that or something, because WV would win hands down), the carapacian slows his pace, savoring the tenth can the waiter has brought over for him. After the last of the soda glugs down his throat, WV slams the can itself down his gullet, swallowing the metal can whole. This seems to be the end of the ritual, because he doesn't eat the rest of the cans, just that one.

All in all, it's pretty hilarious. Jade doesn't think she's ever seen anyone get that worked up over soda.

"So, I've been thinking," Jade says at last, as WV slows down the insane pace of his TaB consumption. "I intended to fly over to Washington to see John right after we finished up in the lab. I really need to knock some manners into that guy. So. Despite this detour, we could, theoretically, just catch a regular-people plane across the Pacific. It's too far for me to hop it straight from here to Seattle, even with islands along the way."

She doesn't mention the fact that it had been a further jump from Britain to Australia. She has no idea how that worked, and no way is she betting their lives on her uncertain new ability to cross half the world in seconds. Even with Bec helping, she'd be anxious about that kind of risk. The last thing they'd want is to end up stranded in the middle of the ocean.

Besides. Er. She has another idea.

"Or," she says slowly, tapping her fingers together as a grin spread across her face. "We could, you know. Go on a quick tour of South America, first. Reeeally quick."

Bec, as usual, has no response beyond wagging its tail. WV appears to consider the idea, and at last shrugs.

She'll take that as a total yes. Awesome! One last road trip with her oldest companion and her new best friend, and then she can finally meet John! This is going to be great! "Ready, WV?"

"Aaand, we're off!" Jade says, closing her eyes. In her mind's eyes, Jade begins to plan the series of teleporting hops they will need to make to cross the Southern Pacific Ocean, and after a few seconds, twists the space around her and makes the first jump.

-

Cerro Azul, Chile

They touch down at around 35°39.0′S, 70°45.64′W, judging by Jade's internal GPS.

Jade realizes her mistake when this lands them almost right on top of an active volcano.

Clouds of ashy smoke billow out into the air above a tall, snowy peak, and a moment later the ground rattles and jumps beneath Jade's feet. She waves her arms wildly and manages to keep her balance, but WV falls backward, tripping over a tree root when he tries to regain his footing, and she has to catch him. Bec appears to be unaffected by the shaking of the ground, not even a single hair in its pelt trembling in the ashy breeze. Bec is weird like that.

"Wow! That looks like a doozy!" Jade exclaims, as another earthquake rocks the ground beneath them. With this much tectonic activity, the volcano that rears up into the sky above them must be thissss close to erupting! This probably isn't the safest place to be right now!

But, she thinks, switching out her travelling clothes for her hero outfit of the day, first she has to make sure any and all civilians get away too! How sucky would it be if she just took off and left anyone too close to the volcano behind to die? The answer is very sucky, thank you very much. Now clad in her hero-mode lab coat (the difference between this coat and her science work coat is pretty much zero. They are the same coat. Science is hero-work too!), Sharpshooter pulls on her gloves and spread out her awareness of the surrounding area.

She soon feels the movement and mass of a small village around the other side of the capricious volcano, but she needs to get closer if she wants to be able to sense more detail than that. "Come on, WV, we can't hang around here," she says, holding out her hand to the carapacian. He takes it, and she whistles for Bec to follow as she warps into a clear space in the center of the town.

It is about as chaotic as one would expect a town in the blast zone of a huge-ass volcano would be in such circumstances. Screams fill the air, particularly those of the small children who cling to their parents. The poor kids probably don't understand why literally everyone in town is rushing around piling carts with all their worldly belongings and high-tailing it down the dirt road out of town. As Sharpshooter watches, a slim troll woman dips down to scoop up a wailing little girl and begins to drag her family's cart behind her with a single hand, her human husband bearing two little boys on each hip as he follows grimly at her side.

And yeah, there are a good nine hundred people here. Sharpshooter lets go of WV's tiny claws and whirls around in trepidation, taking in all the movement with a keen eye. Even if she wants to just teleport everyone out of here, that's a lot of matter that would have to be shifted, and a lot of these people wouldn't be willing to stop moving in the middle of a disaster, even if they'd be safer for it. It has baffled Sharpshooter since she first started interacting with large groups of people on a regular basis, how stupid the combination of large crowds and imminent danger can make people. It seems to be a universal quality.

For a silly moment, she considers having Bec help her teleport the entire volcano and its contents into the sea. As fun as that would be, though, it wouldn't do anything about the simmering underground caldera full of magma that would then be exposed when it was previously contained under the weight of an entire mountain.

Darn! The science involved would have been so interesting! What to do now?

Oh well. If she can get one person's attention, she can use them to help her figure out how best to interact with the community at large. They don't have a lot of time, though; the earth continues to rumble and heave every few minutes, and the tremors seem stronger on this section of earth than where she'd landed. "Stay right by me, okay WV?" she says urgently. The carapacian nods vigorously and clutches at the tail end of her lab coat as she jogs over to the nearest house, tripping and catching herself as she goes every time the ground shudders. The man at work outside has gone grey with age, his face a mask of lines and wrinkles. He barely spares the arrival of a strange girl in a lab coat more than a second's glance before he begins throwing things onto the back of a rickety cart. Two domesticated llamas are already hitched to the front.

Sharpshooter clears her throat. "Excuse me, sir? You guys seem to be having some trouble. Do you need any help?"

The elderly gentleman shoots her a harassed look, tossing a chicken in a small cage onto the back of his cart. “No entiendo una palabra de lo que dices, niña loca!" He continues to mutter as he hurries back into the house, while Jade blinks after him.

Okay, that's weird, usually her automatic translator would have - oh! Right. Sharpshooter removes her universal translator collar from her sylladex, where she'd placed it while at work in Grandpa's lab. It's gotten a lot of use over the past year or so, as she's crisscrossed the globe! It really comes in handy. She knows a lot of French, Latin, Greek, Russian, and Chinese, but that was all she'd had time to master over the years in between all her training to be a crime fighter. She's still working on the Spanish module, and she doesn't want to mess around with her questionable speaking skills in the middle of what appears to be a volcanic eruption.

Once it's on and operational, locked around her neck above her vocal cords, she grins at the old man when he emerges from the house with a stack of canned goods and tries again. "Sorry! What seems to be the problem? Why is everyone running around?" This time, her words have an echo, as the translator analyzes her verbal sounds and translates them into Spanish.

The look he gives her now is even more unimpressed than the first. This guy just seems to be 120% done today! Jeez! “El maldito gigante volcán va a entrar en erupción, niña tonta!"

Yeah, and okay, Sharpshooter understood that one. She does suppose that having your village be right downhill from an erupting volcano might put a damper on one's mood, but there's no reason for him to be ruuude! Silly girl, my ass!

"Well, I'm here to help out now!" she tells him. "Sharpshooter is on the job! Natural disasters, giant robots, and weird mutant monster attacks are my heroic specialty! Just tell me where you need me!"

The old man throws up his hands, and turns to yell in her face. “No tengo tiempo para sus preguntas. Tengo que sacar a mi familia a un lugar seguro!"

Sharpshooter pouts, folding her arms over her dark green catsuit. So he won't help her until his family is safe? That...makes sense, she guesses. "Too easy. Coming right up, mister shouty face!" She analyzes the house and the people taking up space within the house using her spatial sense, and then nods to Bec. "Here boy! Can you take these guys to a safe place?"

The white wolf looks away from the smoldering volcano for the first time since they've arrived and teleports himself next to the house. “Oh, dios míos, ¿qué es ese monstruo! Mantenga ese infierno-perro lejos de mí!" the old man yelps, stumbling away from the wolf, who comes up to his waist and completely ignores his silly shenanigans.

"That's Becquerel! It's my trusty dog sidekick!" Sharpshooter chirps, grinning at the horrified look on the man's face. "Watch! Bec? Rescue!" She snaps her fingers.

Bec erupts into green fire. The old man shrieks and falls to his knees as the house vanishes in a wave of crackling green flames. All that remains is a smooth patch of dirt and a single confused chicken that Jade must have overlooked. Oops.

Unfortunately, she probably should have explained what Bec was doing better, because she thinks she kind of freaked the fuck out of this poor guy! "It's okay, mister! Bec took them to the other side of thaaaat mountain!" Sharpshooter tells him, pointing at a mountain far off in the distance, in the opposite direction of the active volcano. Even as she does, Bec reappears, tail wagging. "See! And now that they're safe, you can help me get everyone in the village to listen!" She beams at him.

He just stares up at her.

This is taking too long. There's something swelling on the edge of Sharpshooter's senses, a massive upwelling of magma that continues to press against the thin layer of rock between the volcano's interior and the open air. Any second now, that rock layer could crack, and all the pressure will explode outward. She grabs the man and shakes him. "Snap out of it, dummy! You have to help me get everyone else out of here, too! Pull! Yourself! Together!" She punctuates each word with a slap.

Naturally, he obliges, his eyes widening as he nods. Then she loses his attention again, his gaze drifting to the side, and she nearly facepalms until she sees who he's looking at.

The old man holds out his hands to WV. "Yo - Yo no puedo creerlo. Un caparazón! No había pensado en ver a uno en mi vida!"

Uh. Okay. At least he's not in shock over his family vanishing before his eyes anymore, even if he is looking at Mister Variable as though he's the second coming. "Yeah, me and WV here are bbfsies! And we're totally here to save you guys, so you should really help me out here and focus. Right, V?" she asks, turning to smile down at WV.

The carapacian salutes her and trills an incomprehensible reply as he waves his skinny arms and his new ruler specibus above his head. He really does do that a lot, and Sharpshooter has no idea what it means. Oh well.

She notices what happens next from the corner of her eye. It isn't a strange movement that normally would have triggered her defense protocols, so it takes her a while to notice. No, it's the absence of movement. This entire time, they've been surrounded and buffeted by the furious rush of an entire village racing to flee before the onslaught of a volcanic eruption. Suddenly, all that motion and activity has ceased, even as the ground rumbles ever more furiously beneath them.

The hairs of the back of her neck prickling, Sharpshooter slowly looks around at the village.

Everyone has stopped. Everyone. As one, they have all turned towards the small group standing before the empty spot where the old man's house used to sit.

But they aren't looking at her. They're looking at WV.

“Alabe los dioses dieciséis!" the old man says, reverent as he bows his head.

WV just looks up at her and shrugs. Apparently, he doesn't get what's going on, either. The only thing Sharpshooter is getting out of this is that apparently, carapacians are a really big deal? Maybe? Uh. No, she's mostly just confused. She shrugs back.

Because at least now, everyone is paying attention. And heck, that's all she wanted in the first place. Cupping her hands around her mouth, she shouts, "Oooookay, everybody! Now that I have your attention -" She hesitates, sees that only a few people have really turned to listen to her, and adds, "- I come in the service of the carapacian you see before you, as his voice and as his ally!"

There we go. WV glowers at her, tugging hard on her coat, but she ignores him and maintains a brilliant, too-wide smile as the villagers turn their eyes on her. Heck yes. She has this one in the bag. She is the loyal acolyte of WV. It is her.

"We are here to help transport you to safety. We have already begun with this man's family!" She gestures grandly to the place where the house used to be. After a pause, WV spreads his arms and gestures toward it as well, and a low murmur of awe emerges from the crowd more than a few heads nodding. WV puffs up visibly, not understanding the weird awe but certainly happy about it.

Sharpshooter claps her hands together to get their attention one last time. "All we ask is that you stay very, very still," she instructs, beginning to spread out her senses. Now that everyone has stopped, gathering in a huge crowd with WV as the focal point, she can get a grip on everyone's mass much more accurately. They just have to maintain this for a few more seconds. "Bec! Can you target everyone while I push us?" she asks, mind racing.

The wolf huffs at her, as though to ask how she could ever doubt it. As long as Bec can keep these people's mass and position locked down for her, Sharpshooter will be able to teleport everyone as far as they need to go. It's how they manage most mass transports. Sometimes Bec provides the raw power when they need to move a single heavy object, but the wolf is really good at linking targets, too!

"Alright then -" Sharpshooter begins.

That's when the volcano explodes. The burst shatters the air, as the ground below rocks continuously and refuses to stop. Sharpshooter looks up, and can see without her scope that enormous chunks of rock are flying everywhere, while rich red lava shoots forth in explosive waves.

The order and stillness caused by WV's weird aura of celebrity breaks down as everyone screams, toppling to the ground as the earthquakes. People begin to scramble to their feet, clutching at their neighbors, but shit shit no she can't let them move, fuck it, they're doing this live -

She reaches out her hands and tugs.

She realizes too late that she can't feel the guiding influence of Bec's sensors, that there is nothing linking the targets together so she can ensure she's grabbing everyone.

It's too late. She yanks them all sideways, everyone she can cradle in her mind, and they land hard in a mountainside clearing tens of miles away from the erupting volcano.

The effort drains her, and Sharpshooter sinks onto her knees, panting. Bec appears a moment later, and she scowls at it. It is oblivious, and curls up on the ground beside her, unconcerned. WV sits up from where he landed, rubbing his head with both hands as bright green light flickers through his carapace before settling down.

Heart sinking, Sharpshooter reaches out to check the damage. How many people did she miss? How many bodies of mass did she accidentally drop on the way here because Bec failed to help her target them as one? Soon the people will begin to shriek and cry, cursing her for forgetting their loved ones in the shuffle, and she'll have failed them -

Her eyes fly open, and her heart stops for a long second. She can't really believe what she's feeling.

They're all here.

All eight hundred seventy three villagers are clustered around her in a wide spiral, shaking themselves off and practically collapsing into relieved embraces. A few shake their heads and point over at the volcano on the horizon as it puffs and erupts in the distance. "Mi esposa! Mis hijos! Mis llamas!" the old man cries, flinging his arms around his family, including the two very bored-looking llamas, still hitched to their cart.

She didn't miss anyone.

This should be impossible.

But then again, she muses, throwing her head back and laughing, soaking in the relief and happiness that fills the air, so was that strange trip to Australia all the way from Britain. Maybe her powers are still growing, in ways even Grandpa hadn't predicted!

She doesn't even care. Everyone is alright!

Amidst the frantic celebration and cries of relief, the old man breaks away from his family and takes Sharpshooter's hand. “Gracias, Francotiradora," he says, pressing his palms to hers. “Le debemos nuestras vidas. Pero usted también abandonó todo nuestros hogares a ser destruidos por el volcán."

Oops. She'd known she'd forgotten something. "I - uh, sorry. I think it's too late now. I didn't even think about your houses! I get kind of forgetful when there's a volcano exploding over my head."

He appears to think about this for a long moment, and then shrugs. “Sí. Yo comprendo."

Besides, it's too late now, Jade thinks, ruefully watching as debris from the volcanic eruption begins to reach the point on the slope far off in the distance where the village sits. But what really matters is that she got everyone out alive - buildings can be replaced. She sits down on the ground to watch the explosion from a distance, watching with interest as pyroclastic clouds of hot gas and rock flow down the sides of the volcano. If the villagers had still been standing on that mountainside when those flows hit, they're have died in the rapid flow of 1,830 °F heated debris.

But they hadn't, because Jade had been there to help. A warm glow fills her belly at the thought. Sometimes, these incidents are the brightest moments she can think of - times when she arrives at a place purely by accident, and manages to save good people. It's the most fortuitous, hopeful kind of event, and it warms her inside and out.

After a few moments of sitting back and watching the villagers celebrate, Jade rolls her shoulders and sits up, stretching with a yawn. "Alright. Our work here is done," she tells WV, patting the little guy on the head. "Way to work the crowd, WV! My man!"

WV covers his face with his hands, blushing adorably. Jade just laughs and gets to her feet, brushing the dirt and ash from her catsuit and the tails of her lab coat. "Gotta run, mister," she tells the elderly man cheerfully, adjusting her glasses on her nose. "There's a guy I gotta go see. He owes me soooo many pesterchats! I can't just let him get away with ignoring me anymore. I'm glad you guys are alright."

The old man hesitates, looking at WV for a brief moment before focusing on Jade. “Buena suerte, Francotiradora. Alabado seas, Caparazón vagabundo. Espero que usted encuentre el niño que busca, y es posible que ambos levantarse.” The old man bows his head to WV again, and smiles hesitantly at Jade.

Even with the universal translator, Jade doesn't really understand the context of half of what the old man is saying. But she gets that he's wishing her luck, and so she smiles and shakes his hand in reply. "Glad we could help. Good luck with the relocation!"

WV grabs her hand before she even turns to offer it, and she smiles. He smiles back. Bec whuffles and lurches upright, at the ready, and Jade forgives the wolf in that moment for letting her handle the mass teleport on her own. Bec always knows what's best.

"Let's go, guys. Let's get this show on the road," Jade says, grinning.

All three vanish into thin air.

Heck yes.

-

Diamonds Droog detests the rain. One of her more loyal, trusted retainers holds a black umbrella over her head while she slowly types out a message on her phone, but that does not prevent the damp in the air from slowly undoing all that a regimen of hot curling irons, bobby pins, and hair spray worked so hard to achieve to keep her kinky black hair in a controlled chignon at the nape of her neck.

Britain, she thinks darkly, and then shakes her head. While the state of her hair is rapidly deteriorating, she has no more time to dwell on it. The intel coming out of New York City over the past hour has been most...enlightening. Official news reports remain as muddled and inaccurate as ever, but her little couriers have a little more context to work with than your average, fumbling reporter. She sent them in forewarned that they were dealing with children of extreme interest to the boss, and all but five have reported in thus far. Not a bad turnover rate.

All of her couriers have confirmed the presence of Flashstep and the Puppeteer, also known as the despicably elusive Brothers Strider, but only two have correctly offered speculation on the identity of the third hero to confront Dark Star and take her down.

To be fair, she did not share some of her more privileged information with them; none of them knew that Heir had been recently relocated to Houston. But only two of her birds managed to connect a flying hero in goggles with the Heir recently giving Hearts hell in Seattle? Clearly, she will have to put the rest of her couriers through their paces. They're getting sloppy, and Diamonds shall not abide sloppy work.

She reserves a private grimace for the name 'Dark Star.' Really, does the American media juggernaut have nothing better to do than creating sugary early morning talk shows and giving new superpowered beings ridiculously dramatic, inelegant nicknames? Surely they have more significant news to report, like the actual death toll from the villain's rampage, or the current price of wheat in Canada, or the recurrent political instability in the Novaya Ukraine?

When she finishes checking and rechecking the spelling and grammar of her electronic missive to the Doctor - it would not do to send anything less than a perfectly crafted message to the boss, after all - she breaks the disposable device in half and tosses it into a nearby trash can. The Doctor is always quite adamant that members of the Crew who travel abroad to Europe or Asia must follow the strictest security protocols. While the Midnight Crew may be slowly gaining infamy in the Americas, they are little more than a blip on Eurasia's radar, a faint whisper in the ears of the foreign black markets to which they provide selective goods, and that is just the way the boss likes it.  They have never even made the international news, despite numerous intrepid crime reporters' attempts at writing exposés of the Crews activities. One of Diamonds's more tedious ongoing missions in life is the solemn duty of hunting down such detectives and ending their investigations rather abruptly - and permanently.

Unfortunately, her fellow Crew suit members do not make that task easy. Honestly, she swears, she is surrounded by dumb chumps. Jack Noir is easily the most competent out of any of them, and that's only because she's never seen or heard from the man in her life, and, in fact, for the record she would like to express personal doubt that he even exists as more than a figment of the Doctor's imagination, a horror story that lower ranking Crew gossip about when work is slow.

Hearts may be good for blowing things up and other brute force jobs like robbing banks and running stolen goods in and out of the country, but he's useless for more elaborate and subtle schemes. And then -

Oh, dear god. And then there's - urgh! She doesn't even want to think the name!

Diamonds shivers in her heavy, furred coat. Clubs.

And what's worse is, Clubs Deuce is the troll she has come to meet today. It is, in fact, his fault that she is currently standing on a London street enduring an unfathomably foggy spring day, her hair slowly springing outward into uncontrolled chaos as she waits on the arrival of the dimmest member of the Crew ever to make suit status.

"Oh! Diamonds! It's you!"

Balls. Speak of the hopeless little devil, and he shall appear, tripping over the too-long hems of his suit pants as he races across the busy street. Clubs Deuce is panting and waving, the tiny black club symbol on his lapel stitched haphazardly with large stitches that Diamonds can see from a mile away because he used grey thread.

She swallows back tears of righteous fury. She had learned years ago that yelling at Clubs did nothing to improve the situation. Nothing improves the situation. The situation with Clubs is beyond improvement, and may in fact function as a kind of black hole into which all hope of self-improvement is sucked and never seen again on this earth by sane men.

The problem with Clubs is not even that he is stupid, exactly. He certainly seems to understand orders, and he follows them through to the letter. He even, on rare and celebrated occasions, has demonstrated a single-minded talent for completing missions that no one else in the Crew ever deemed possible. But Diamonds prefers to assign the success of those missions to sheer dumb luck. The fact is, Clubs can take even the simplest of tasks and transform them into world-spanning missions that manage to end in impenetrably dull failures.

He is earnest. He is good-natured. And he is entirely unsuited to a life of crime. Diamonds is baffled on a daily basis by the short troll's very existence, and finds his strange, chipper enthusiasm for criminal activity to be completely at odds with a troll whose personality would be far better suited to work as a bumbling children's show host, earnestly teaching toddlers their ABCs.

Which is why, when he stumbles up to her, beaming with nubby teeth and squinting his dull brown eyes to peer up at her from under rounded, three-pronged horns, she can only heave a sigh laden with the resigned despair of those long oppressed by the fools that surround them. His suit is ill-fitting and cheap, and now drenched by the curtains of rain he just raced through without an umbrella to protect him. Clubs is not an inch over five feet tall, even including his stumpy horns, and Diamonds is forced to conclude that the universe laughed and laughed and choked on its laughter and died alone and unloved when it decided to make Clubs Deuce and Her Imperious Condescension herself almost the exact same height.

"How are you doing, Diamonds?" Clubs asks, bouncing up and down on his toes with unnatural good cheer. "What brings you to London, sir?"

"Ma'am," Diamonds corrects wearily. This is an old exercise in futility, but she lives in the hope that one day the lesson will sink in.

"Ma'am," Clubs says agreeably, though she knows he will forget the correction within moments. Clubs isn't offensive on purpose; he just truly is that absent-minded. "You just missed out on all the fun! Sharpshooter was here, but now she's in Australia! I was just on my way to the airport in hot pursuit! We're not sure how she got there, but I think maybe she's the Witch! Do you think so, Diamonds?" He gazes up at her earnestly, the genuine curiosity in his eyes just plain pitiful.

Oh, do not be perverse. Not the troll version of pitiful. She feels nothing but good, condescending, non-romantic human pity, thank you very much.

Diamonds rolls her eyes. "There is absolutely no doubt in the boss's mind that the child you have been wasting all of our foreign affairs weapons budget on is indeed the Witch. While I wish I could order you to cease making a nuisance of yourself, I have long since resigned myself to the fact that you are physically incapable of such a feat. And the boss...wishes you to continue to pursue the girl."

Clubs's eyes go wide. "Really?! You really mean it, sir?!" He clicks his heels together.

She must repeat: he clicks his heels together.

Diamonds just wants to cry at this point. But Clubs would only offer up a sodden handkerchief and politely ask what was bothering her, and the cycle of madness would continue.

If only he weren't so damn genuine! This would all be so much easier to bear if Clubs set out to antagonize her on purpose!

"Y-es," Diamonds grits out, rubbing at her temples with her fingers. She can already feel the customary Clubs-type migraine developing behind her eyes. "You are to travel to South America, which is where you would know she has already reappeared if you thought to check the memo updates for once in your short little life."

He doesn't even react to the cheap shot about his height, a last ditch effort by Diamonds to provoke some kind of negative reaction from the troll. "Sorry about that, Diamonds!" is all he exclaims, fiddling with his hat nervously. "If you say so!"

Show some backbone! she wants to shriek to the heavens. All she does is pinch the bridge of her nose and shake her head slowly. "In addition, the Doctor has altered your mission parameters. You are to take the girl alive and as functionally unharmed as possible, and bring her back to headquarters without delay," Diamonds rattles off. Her loyal retainer surreptitiously offers her a gun, but she shakes her head. The retainer is loyal, but he is new, and not yet familiar with the intricate dance involved in dealing with a mob of cultish lunatics and damned idiots on a daily basis.

Still, she appreciates any courier who keeps spare specibi on hand and knows when to offer them. Ten out of ten execution, Marlowe. You may yet be promoted from umbrella-holder to suit-ironer. Not many reach that level of trust in Diamonds's eyes.

"And are you going to help me, Diamonds?!" Clubs chirps. "Oh good! We haven't been able to work together in so long, sir!"

"Never again," Diamonds says vehemently, fighting the sudden painful flashbacks that threaten to overwhelm her. Oh, she remembers her last shared mission with Clubs, alright. She's still in therapy for the post-traumatic stress she developed due to the event. "And ma'am. Ma'am."

"Oh. What a shame, ma'am! Well, I suppose I should tell my guys we're heading to South America instead, before they all get on the plane and show up in Australia!" Clubs whips off the abomination of a hat Diamonds has been carefully ignoring for the sake of her already-bleeding eyeballs, and replaces it with something...that defies logic. Clubs's obsession with bizarre, elaborate headgear continues to baffle. This one appears to have been knitted out of a rainbow of coarse yarn thread, and comes to a haphazard point nearly a foot above where his horns end. "Do you think the boss will mind if I take the giant robot?"

Dignity. She must. Maintain. Her dignity. Even if everyone else in the world around her insists on unrelenting foolishness. She will maintain the dignity and reputation of the Midnight Crew single-handedly, if she must. "I am certain that the good Doctor will continue to fund your pointless exercises in tomfoolery until the day I die," she says, sighing heavily and staring off into the middle distance. "He seems to believe you obtain useful results, even if they are not necessarily the results you were sent out to achieve, in the traditional sense."

"That's great, Diamonds! What are you going to be doing, then? You didn't need to come all the way out here just to see me!" He beams at her. Clearly nothing would make him happier in this world than for Diamonds to replace her personality with that of an insipid, simpering little twit and tell him that yes, because they are just such wonderful friendcolleagues, she did come all the way to Britain just to see him.

Thankfully, she does not pander to the whim of buffoons. "No. I didn't. I have business of my own in Cairo. It was simply quicker to ensure you received your new orders in person than to trust in your dubious mastery of the group memo. Good day, Clubs."

"O-oh! Yes! Don't worry, Diamonds, I'll bring the Witch back in no time! You and the boss will be so proud of me!" Clubs exclaims. "Have fun in Cairo!"

Fun, he says. Well, yes, hunting down possible witnesses and beating the living shit out of them until they talk is rather fun, she supposes. But she understands that not everyone considers such extracurriculars fun. "Yes. Fun," she agrees, smiling slowly. She even condescends to wave back when the tiny troll rushes off down the street, waving a farewell. Several raggedy Crew members intercept him and usher him into a waiting taxi. Clubs's men often act more as handlers than underlings. They try to control the situation until Clubs's innate incompetence renders their efforts moot. Poor souls.

"Come, Marlowe," Diamonds says as the taxi disappears in the grey fog. "I have no desire to fly out of the same airport as that fool."

"Yes, ma'am," the umbrella-holder replies. He maintains an unerringly steady grip on the umbrella all the way to the waiting black Porsche and holds it as Diamonds folds herself into the car - her legs are long enough that this is a delicate process if she wishes to keep from brushing her pants against the wet side of the car. "Shall I readminister the tranquilizers to our guest?" he offers, bowing slightly with a glance at the unconscious body laid out in the cramped back seat of the car.

Diamonds twists in her seat and raising an appraising eyebrow at the unconscious man. She peels back his eyelid with a fingernail and inspects his pupil. "Oh, I believe he should be alright until we reach -"

A phone rings, and she reaches into her pocket without looking, drawing out her next disposable phone. She answers, nodding at Marlowe to enter the driver's side, as she prepares to trace the call and hunt down the unknown caller. "However did you get this number, darling? I'm very curious. Not many can contact me so easily with such a secure phone," she drawls.

I know all of your numbers, Droog. It is one of the perks of being almost omniscient. I do thank you for obliging me by utilizing disposable devices while abroad.

Diamonds stiffens and sits upright, heart thumping at the unexpected shock. "Boss. I wasn't expecting you to call so soon."

She hadn't been expecting a call at all. The boss prefers emails filled with lines of impossible to read white text when he can't hold meetings in person. She'd anticipated an email in response to her recent report when she reached Cairo, and no sooner. This is...unusual.

And unfortunately, she knows exactly why it's happening. Wincing, she yanks the black sheet of cloth back down over the unconscious man's scarred, slack face, trying and failing to think of anything other than his presence in the back seat of her car. If she doesn't think about it, maybe the Doctor won't -

A valiant effort, Droog. But I knew about your little kidnapping attempt hours before you set it into motion. I only allowed you to take our good friend Stitch all the way to London because I require his services there, and by transporting him across the Atlantic in the cargo hold you saved on air fare.

Diamonds feels sweat drip down the side of her face. She laughs shakily, one leg jittering a little with nervousness. Damn her compulsions! The last thing she'd wanted was to antagonize the Doctor again, but how could she resist? "Please, sir. He's already done such excellent work on repairing some of my favorite suits. He is...indispensable. A remarkable talent. He is wasted in that foul green basement."

Be that as it may, I do have plans for our good friend Stitch. However much you may wish it, you cannot have your own personal entropy-reversing tailor, Droog. Simply be thankful that I take you three and your compulsions into account when I have Clover balance the books for the monthly budget review.

To be placed on the same level as Hearts and Clubs - you three, indeed! - is humiliating. Diamonds worries at her lip, head bent in shame. "I - yes, sir. I shall release him to your custody."

Oh, just drop him off at the train station on your way to the secondary airport. He has places to go when he recovers from the chemically-assisted kidnapping. Thank you so much for your cooperation, Droog.

"Yeah - yes, sir," Diamonds says. "Of course, Boss."

Do have fun in Cairo. You are correct that it is a good starting point to initiate your search. I won't spoil the surprise of where you'll have to seek out Spades next!

He hangs up on her.

Ass.

"Standsted airport, ma'am?" Marlowe asks, putting the car into gear. He has patiently waited for her call to end, picking up on the sensitive nature of the call. Another checkmark for you, Mr. Marlowe. Diamonds might not even have to whip out the cue stick today.

"Yes, Marlowe," Diamonds replies, eyeing the man in the backseat with wistful disgust. It truly was foolish of her to take him. But what can she say? Once she set him to work sewing some good quality suits instead of those felt green duds, he perked right up! A little kidnapping that hardly hurt anyone!

But she dares not disobey a direct order from the Doctor. He would know. He always knows.

It is a shame. Stitch is a truly excellent tailor, even if he is a member of the Felt.

"Stop by the first train station you see," Diamonds orders, folding her legs and switching the disposable phone over to the latest private Scofflaws memo her couriers are using to pool their nonstop flood of information. "It hardly matters which, it will be the correct station no matter where we drop off Stitch. Infuriating, isn't it?"

"May I ask how that is possible, ma'am?" Marlowe asks, timid, as he begins to maneuver through traffic.

"No." Diamonds begins texting out rapid directions to her couriers in Australia, who all need to be repositioned in more advantageous stations now that the country has lost its priority status. Running an international spy network is a complex business, and Diamonds is pleased to say that hers is one of the best in the world.

The fact that so much of the Doctor's activities slip beneath her radar remains infuriating. The man is inscrutable.

Hopefully, she will have a better time of it hunting down this Spades Slick character. He first came to the attention of her network when he began probing into Crew affairs several years ago, but has since dropped off the radar entirely.

He is, however, a carapacian. And carapacians are rare enough that he cannot hide from Diamonds forever. Once she spread out her couriers, seeking news of carapacians with unusual scars, more than a few reports had begun to trickle in from Egypt. So she will begin there.

And, apparently, end up flying elsewhere in her search. She grimaces, remembering the Doctor's offhand, smirking comment about Cairo only serving as a starting point. Whatever carapacian her spies noted in Egypt, the news is clearly out of date.

No matter. She has worked with less, before, and still completed the objective promptly and with grace.

Oh yes. She will find this Spades Slick, no matter where he hides.

And she will make him rue the day he crossed the Midnight Crew.