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Like One Sundered Star

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It's a little after three in the morning when Karkat admits that the night has been a total shambles. He stops a few random muggings on his way back to the base camp in the library, keeping to the shadows so no one can get a good look at his fucked up costume and see the candy-red flush to his exposed gills, but aside from that he just heads straight back and changes out into his regular clothes in the circulation room.

He fucked up. His shitty temper ripped right through Hemogoblin's cool, controlled persona, and he fucking blew it because he's an impulsive, stupid shit when he's angry. Note to self, apparently being blown up turns Karkat into a rage-blinded worthless little fucksponge. He'll make sure to avoid that in the future. By the time he collapses onto the back seat of the late night bus rolling back out to Maple Valley, he's worked himself into enough of a shame-frenzy that he has to stuff his hands into his hoodie pocket to keep from slapping at his head with his fists like a goddamn thirteen-year-old troll on a ragebender. The regular night bus driver already probably thinks Karkat's some kind of teenage drug dealer who commutes to the city to do shady shit every night, no need to make him think Karkat's completely pancracked on top of that.

His mood deteriorates further when his phone gets a signal again after the bus drops him off five miles from his house. He thumbs through both the text messages and the Pesterchum app with the faint, stupid hope that John will be awake for some reason and available to talk at four am. Even if he couldn't tell John any details about why he feels so fucking shitty, it would be good to just talk. But John hasn't said a word since EB: i'm sorry i caused you and my dad so much trouble! i'm going to be volunteering most of tomorrow to make up for how little i can do with this collarbone, so i might not see you until sunday. good night karkat! and great, now all Karkat's managed to do is remind himself that he probably won't see John all day today, either. What does that little shit think he's doing, anyway, working with a royally fucked-up arm? What, does the community center use slave labor or something these days?

Karkat has the distinct feeling that he's being irrational again. He crawls over the fence into his backyard and scales the wall to his bedroom window to avoid walking by Crabdad, and dumps his backpack full of ragged neoprene and Kevlar on the ground. He's probably going to have to burn the ruined uniform or something - he can't just throw that kind of thing away in the trash for some crazy dumpster diver to find, not now that it has his blood crusted all down the side. Resigning himself to idiotic bonfire shenanigans, Karkat strips down to his shirt and boxers and buries himself in the recooperacoon.

All he wants to do is sleep. Unfortunately, his brain is a perverse, unreasonable little shitstain that decides that this moment. Right now. This very moment. Would be the very best moment to replay every single mistake he made trying to recapture Hearts Boxcars.

Groaning, Karkat gives in and pummels the back of his head with a frustrated fist, faceplanting in the sopor slime. He breathes out through his nose and tiny, sluggish bubbles form in the sopor. His face burns with a shamed, cringing flush, and he struggles to just put it out of mind. If he keeps harping on about his mistakes like his brain automatically wants to, he won't get any sleep at all.

Around seven in the morning, after a few fitful snatches of sleep here and there, he gives up. The insomnia isn’t going away any time soon, and his body has become so adjusted to staying up late and waking up early for school that his fuckass brain probably thinks right now is the prime time for the end of a sleep cycle he never got to have. He's tired enough that the exact details of the chase down at the dock is an unpleasant blur that he can skim over mentally.

It's a really shitty victory, but he'll take any success at this point, not matter how pathetic. Suck it, Karkat's brain.

He showers off the sopor and puts on his four-years old Batman shirt, a pair of sweatpants gone grey from being washed too many times, and a tired hoodie that's two sizes too large for him instead of the usual one size. He stills feels awful and claustrophobic and irritable, and fuck his day job, they can go without his superior managing skills for one day. He tramples downstairs and into the kitchen, not caring that Crabdad rises with an ear-piercing shriek from its pile at the sound of the commotion. There is exactly one thing that can possibly alleviate this mood right now, and it's buried in the back of his thermal hull. Crabdad scuttles in with a serious of obnoxiously loud, curious clicks, and Karkat grabs the last tray of iced roe and winds up, one eye twitching as he flings the tray. It smacks the lusus in the middle of its face hard enough to crack the plastic tray. Crabdad just squeals with ecstasy, racing off with its prize in one claw.

Good. Karkat has no intention of sharing the next food item he pulls out of the freezer. He hid it underneath a package of frozen corn, the one thing in the household Crabdad is basically guaranteed to abjure with all the disgust in its fatass shell. He pries off the plastic cover protecting the delicate confection within. Crabdad has no idea that this pie right here is the true prize of the hour.

This fucker has two solid inches of fluffy white merengue, flaky crust that still looks fresh after being horded in a freezer for weeks, and a thick filling of chocolate fudge. Tiny chocolate sprinkles cover the merengue topping, and Karkat has it on good authority that the fudge contains not just chocolate chips but solid chunks of Hershey's chocolate and the crumbs of broken Oreos, duly sacrificed in the name of crafting the single most disgustingly unhealthy pie in the history of piekind.

"I call her 'The Chocapocalypse,'" John had said reverently, eyeing the pie embodiment of joy and happiness for all man and trollkind with the all of the awe and respect owed to a truly godly pie. "Please don't tell my dad."

It’s not John himself, but it's a really fucking close second, okay.

And he is going to sit on this couch.

And eat it.

Curling up into a ball of misery and fury on the couch with a blanket wrapped around him to complete his lazy day shame costume, Karkat settles in for a day of watching some godawful rom-coms and eating his feelings. He has spent the past year and half in intensive training to get into trim fighting shape, and fuck the haters he has earned this goddamn pie.

After the first bite, he regrets none of his decisions. None of them. This pie is fucking glorious. Licking at merengue that sticks to the corner of his mouth, Karkat digs between the cushions of the couch for the remote and turns the television on. Before he puts on a movie, he sits back to devour more of this pie, scooping up forkfuls of filling and merengue that barely fit between his jaws. Maybe John isn't as oblivious as Karkat occasionally curses him for being, he muses woozily as the chocolate buzz begins to set in. Because this pie tastes like a shooshpapping mixed with chocolate ambrosia, and Karkat hadn't even realized you could moirail long-distance through pie. Truly, John is a thoughtful and considerate palemate.

He's so lost in a haze of chocolate that he's content to sit there listening to the news for a few minutes, rolling his eyes and muttering under his breath as the usual news blurb about the situation in Novaya Ukraine (shitty as per fucking usual) lingers on the screen. They have new aerial shots of the white sheen of toxic chemicals that apparently now covers the entire southern half of the old Ukraine, which, alright, is pretty fucking interesting, even if no one can seem to give a straight answer as to what the panwasted fuck the stuff is, but other than that they just report that eighty percent of the international task force sent in have officially been recovered.

They say recovered, but Karkat has frequented some of the creepier parts of the internet, and he's seen photos of what happened to some of the soldiers they sent in to stop the genocide, the ones who came back wrong. A lot of the time, what they claim 'recovered' isn't really human afterward. Whatever those grubfucking assholes did to create this toxic pollution in Eastern Europe three years ago, Karkat's just glad the entire oligarchy turned up dead so no one could recreate it. This planet is a fucking shitsack of a world sometimes.

Yeah, this is just getting him irritated again. He scrapes at the bottom of the tin in a section where he's demolished the majority of the pie and begins to reach for the remote again.

"...And we're bringing you the latest on the destruction in New York City, where we have just received word that three as-yet unidentified heroes appear to be confronting the villainess. Experts believe two to be Flashstep and the Puppeteer, heroes normally based out of Houston, but the third remains anonymous -"

Karkat chokes on his mouthful of pie and wastes a good minute not dying, unable to take his eyes off the screen as he jabs at the volume button.

It may be go-the-fuck-back-to-sleep o’clock on a Saturday here in Seattle, but in New York it’s almost noon. Of course, he can’t tell that from the video they’re playing because the sky has gone murky and purplish with heavy, low-hanging thunder clouds, to the point that it almost looks like night again. He checks the scrolling banner across the bottom of the screen to make sure, but yeah, the new crew is definitely claiming this is a live feed from New York City. Even as he watches, the source of the darkness, a cluster of pitch-black and sulky purple thorns tangled around a female human body, races across the screen, in hot pursuit of a tiny blur of crimson and white, shattering the sides of buildings as she slams through them to reach the fleeing figure.

When another camera view from a helicopter pops up, with a closer view of the two people flying away from the roaring tangle of thorns, Karkat is glad he's too distracted to take another bite of pie, because - because, seriously, what the actual ever-loving fucking fuck is he looking at here?! He cannot possibly be witnessing this miserable excuse for a hallucination!

That’s Heir.

The hero is in some bizarre red outfit, his goggles have black frames instead of the usual pale yellow, and there's no sign of Heir's signature warhammer. But no other hero in the states has that kind of control over the wind, darting through the air like he’s part of the breeze himself rather than just riding it. Karkat's obsession with Heir borders on the unnatural, and he knows that's Heir.

Jesus fucking Christ, he thinks distantly, no wonder Friday night had been fucking insane for Hemogoblin; Heir just somehow manages to show up halfway across the country with the Puppeteer and Flashstep to take on this crazy chick? How had Heir even known to be there?! Is there some kind of heroic grapevine Hemogoblin hasn’t signed up for yet? A mass fruity asshole rumpus memo they neglected to sign him up for? Hemogoblin had thought they were meant to be partners now, but Heir apparently feels free to drop off the face of the earth and hightail it to New York overnight without so much as a ‘fuck you very much.’

Seriously, what the actual blithering fuck?!

Karkat is so very, very torn because on one hand, the Hemogoblin part of his brain is pissed off beyond comprehension because three heroes decided to team up without even giving him a heads up. On the other hand, OH MY GOD HEIR HAS TEAMED UP WITH FLASHSTEP AND PUPPETEER.

It takes about two seconds for the nerd half to win out over the pissed half and suddenly Karkat keens loudly, setting a skree in response from Crabdad, and rolls off the couch, squirming forward with the blanket still wrapped around his legs to get closer to the TV. The pie somehow lands unharmed on the floor as he presses up close to the television and whips out his phone, breathing unevenly as he starts frantically texting John because holy shit that kid needs to stop this volunteering bullshit right now.

-- carcinoGeneticist [CG] began pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 8:13:01 --
CG: JOHN
CG: OH mY F UCKING goD JOHN GET YOUR ASS ON THE COMPUTER OR THE PHONE RIGHT NOW
CG: I AM HAIVNG A FUCKING CRIS SE
CG: I CAN'T EVEN FUCKING TYPE ANYMORE FOR THE LOVE OF TROLL JESUS
CG: IF YOU MISS OUT ON THIS INCOMPREHENSIBLE PILE OF EPIC CURRENTLY GOING DOWN IN NEW YORK YOU WILL NEVER FORGIVE YOUR SELF AND I'LL HAVE TO LIVE WITH YOUR GUILT-RIDDEN ASS FOR THE REST OF OUR LIVES
CG: DBONSANV DSF DID HEIR JUST TELEPORT UFCKING FUCK THE FUCK IS GOING ON
CG: JOHN, TURN ON YOUR FUCKING TELEVISION I'M GOING CRY LEGITIMATE TEARS HERE AND YOU ARE MISSING IT
CG: THIS IS IT THE WORLD HAS JUSTIFIED ITS EXISTENCE. WELL DONE WORLD. YOU HAVE MY PERMISSION TO CONTINUE EXISTING. MY UNGODLY RAGE HAS BEEN FOREVER ASSUAGED.
CG: THAT WAS A FUCKING JOKE JOHN
CG: OH OF ALL THE TIMES FOR YOU TO GO COMPLETELY OFF THE FUCKING GRID
CG: SHIT I SET THE TV TO RECORD. IT'S OKAY, I HAVE YOU COVERED
CG: I AM THE FUCKING KICKASS MOIRAIL, IT IS ME, BLAH BLAH BLAH, YOU CAN PAY ME BACK LATER
CG: I'M HAVING A GODDAMN ANEURYSM FROM THE AWESOME OVER HERE JOHN YOU ARE GOING TO OWE ME THE MOTHER OF ALL PILES WHEN THIS IS OVER BECAUSE I WILL CRASH SO HARD AFTER THIS AND YOU'RE NOT HERE YOU FUCKING DUMBASS
-- carcinoGeneticist [CG] ceased pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 8:19:20 --

By the time the news crews have relocated where Heir appeared and begun tracking the fight in earnest again, Karkat is literally rolling on the floor, the blanket getting more and more tangled around his body as he stares at the television screen from as many different angles as possible. Flashstep has apparently been out of the game for a while now, and the purple-and-black villainess, who the media reports keep referring to 'by the working name of Dark Star, until an official alias is announced,' uses that to her advantage, targeting the unconscious hero deliberately whenever Heir and the occasional flicker of the Puppeteer get close enough to take a slice at her. The villainess's shrieks are weirdly distorted, to the point that Karkat can't understand a word she's saying, and neither can the reporters, apparently. It's clear from some shots that Heir is trying to talk back, daringly moving in close to the wickedly sharp tentacles of darkness that writhe around Dark Star, but it's just as hard to hear his shouts with the poor quality of the video feed's audio.

Heir gets in a good shot, nearly toppling the tangle of thorns and tentacles over on its side. The villain must be getting tired or something, because her movements are getting progressively sloppy and slow.

Or at least Karkat thinks so, until, in a single liquid movement, a tendril of darkness wraps around Heir's arm and wrenches it backwards. Heir cuts himself free a moment later, but his arm hangs at a horrifying angle when he floats up where the helicopter cam can see him.

Karkat is so fucking emotionally invested by this point, his eyes are bugging halfway out of his skull, and he tears at the hair around his hornbed frantically. Oh my nubbing fuck, how he is expected to handle this kind of intense action sequence?! It's starting to hit him that he could very well be watching Heir be seriously injured any second now. That this is a villain who means business.

Aishgaosdnf, he is not okay, dammit!

CG: JOHN I AM HAVING AN EMOTION OKAY I AM HAVING A LOT OF EMOTIONS OVER HERE
CG: THIS IS UNA-FUCKING-CEPTABLE AND I BLAME YOU FOR THIS
CG: YOU ARE GETTING SUCH A GODDAMN LECTURE ON WHEN IT IS AN APPROPRIATE TIME TO LEAVE ME ALONE TO HANDLE THIS KIND OF SHIT BY MYSELF WHILE YOU'RE OFF FROLICKING AND PLANTING DAISIES AND SAVING THE HOMELESS LIKE A DUMB CANDYFUCK AT THE COMMUNITY CENTER
CG: HERE'S A GIANT FUCKING HINT THE ANSWER IS NEVER. IT IS NEVER AN APPROPRIATE TIME FOR THOSE THINGS. EVER.

The next part is blurred when the helicopter has to veer out of the way of a building, and the news channel has to switch to the godawful footage being broadcast by some lunatic filming on his camera phone from within the Met. Karkat is enraged by the lack of quality, and is aware that he has begun make a high-pitched whining noise in the back of his throat. Crabdad, who has joined him by the television for some reason and yet is somehow not being an annoying piece of shit about it, is making a similar sound, trilling occasionally and screeching at intervals. Karkat can't even bring himself to care.

The noise in Karkat's throat cuts off with a strangled gurgle as Heir and Dark Star freeze in place. The camera zooms in a little, but it's just too far away to see exactly what's going on, and Karkat is scratching at his skull now in frustration -

Abruptly, the darkness vanishes. Almost all of it - the clouds above remain, and the severed limbs the Puppeteer and Heir have been hacking off continue to lie in the streets, but the writhing tangle immediately surrounding the villainess, as well as the longer tendrils reaching up to the sky and down toward the ground, flicker out of existence as though they were never there.

The two figures hovering where the black thorns used to be fall to the ground, which doesn't make sense because one of them is Heir, and the only reason he'd fall, ever, is if he was unconscious or worse or -

Both falling bodies disappear. The phone cameraman, coughing and hacking on dust off-screen, frantically scans the area, and finally finds them again. The Puppeteer is crouched on the street with the two under his arms, one a girl in black and purple, the other Heir, who is still not moving. He stares at the camera behind his trademark pointy shades, and then disappears in a blur of movement. The news station fumbles for the next five minutes as both the phone camera and the helicopter above somehow manage to completely lose track of the heroes and the villainess.

It takes ten minutes before Karkat is willing to admit that maybe, just maybe, that's it. That's all the closure he's getting, and by closure he means fuck all. His stomach is clamped down, and the noise he's making may not be at a frequency audible to human or trollkind.

There’s absolutely no way for him to find out if Heir even survived, or if the hero fell because he was dead – not unless Heir shows up on patrol whenever he returns to Seattle. If he didn’t survive the fight, Karkat may never know, and the thought terrifies him, leaves him cold.

"IT CAN'T END LIKE THAT! NO. NO!" he screams. Crabdad shrieks back and pats him in what is no doubt intended as a reassuring slap on the back with a meaty claw, which naturally has the exact opposite effect on Karkat. "UNACCEPTABLE!"

-

After almost two hours spent frantically skipping between news channels, trying to suck the last drops of excitement out of a few different camera angles, Karkat has to admit defeat. It's noon, and he's probably starving. He says probably because he's still too worked up to feel anything but knots in his stomach. There is a brief moment of excitement that makes him drop a fledgling peanut butter and grubsauce sandwich flat on the ground when Karkat skrees and Karkat has to race back to the television. He's just in time to watch as channel 5 news plays the traffic cam footage from the road alongside Central Park, as four figures, two of them supported by the Puppeteer and Heir, all pile into one unmarked, nondescript van. They take off just ahead of the emergency crews, and after several minutes of absolutely appalling street racing technique they drive into an area where the traffic cams have been destroyed by Dark Star's rampage, and vanish for good. It's time stamped at two hours ago, and there's been nothing since then.

To Karkat's unending disgust, the news proceeds to dissolve into a frenzied free-for-all as reporters and hero researchers all scramble to analyze the fight and toss their opinion in the ring as to what the fuck had just gone down in New York. Karkat has to turn the television off after the fourth person speculating as to whether the ‘mysterious flying hero’ is a new member of the Houston team – obviously it’s Heir, come on, asshats! Are they fucking blind? This is just driving him batshit up the fucking belfrey.

Now he's just pissy, coming down off the high of watching the fight scene live on the television, and a little more of his righteous irritation is starting up in the Hemogoblin half of his brain. Maybe not irritation so much as disappointment - but Karkat does disappointment like an enraged, pissy crab anyway, so there's effectively no difference. He's heard the 'crabby' pun enough from John (oh karkat don't be karabby :))) I SWEAR TO GOD JOHN I WILL RAIN VENGEANCE UPON YOU LIKE THE FURY OF 1000 SUNS. totes crabby ;)) that it no longer even bothers him. The unfortunate side effects of being raised by an insane, idiotic crab lusus - the puns flow like water, and after a while they wear away at your rageglands until you lose the ability to get truly angry about it.

Making a new sandwich and stuffing the remains of the last one in Crabdad's gaping maw, Karkat sits down to have lunch at around one. He checks his phone and frowns. He wonders if John even knows about the massive showdown that just went down - Karkat is nerding out massively, and while John is weirdly neutral about the Heir of Breath, he's a total geek for Flashstep, and Karkat can't imagine the fact that Flashstep apparently took one to the throat before the fight even really got started will stop John from voraciously hunting down every second of Flashstep footage available.

Still. John usually has his phone on him at the center, even though he can only spare a moment to answer during his lunch break, but there's been nothing at all from him since last night. And as Karkat slowly munches on his sandwich, mourning the unspeakably glorious chocolate pie that had been devoured by Crabdad in his hours of distraction, he can't fight the feeling, deep in his gut, that something is wrong.

In hindsight, something has felt off since Friday, when John’s Dad had called Karkat’s home phone and asked, his nervousness concealed behind a jovial front, if John had gone to Karkat’s house, as though Karkat hadn’t literally just dropped John off in front of his house and watched him walk inside. Yeah, that had been a little strange, and Karkat had flipped his shit really embarrassingly in front of John's dad for a while. But then John had texted Karkat around midnight to tell him he was fine, but wouldn’t be able to make it to anything all day Saturday, wanting to make up for his inability to work to full capacity. Not an unusual turn of events; this soup kitchen where John works has a fuckload of emergencies every so often due to low funding or some shit. But Karkat is irate, still wondering what kind of fuckpuppets would make a man work with a broken collarbone doing whatever the hell John actually does for these people on a regular basis.

Whatever. He'll give John until four, and by then the kid will probably emerge from his goddamn volunteering coma and realize just what he's been missing out on. Then Karkat will swoop in with his five hours of recorded news reports and ten tabs of YouTube videos to save the day. This is a fucking flawless plan.

No doubt this sense of wrongness is just Karkat's troll hindbrain getting all hormonal and bitchy again, pining for a moirail that can't be there every moment of the goddamn globefucking day.

Yeah. Right.

-

Five in the afternoon rolls around.

Karkat's rage has been steadily growing over the past few hours. Though he is aware that crashing around the house slamming cupboard doors and doing laundry with the kind of violence usually reserved for war arenas or troll football accomplishes nothing more than to aggravate Crabdad into near hysterics and piss Karkat off further, he can't seem to stop himself.

John's volunteering generally ends at four, and he's home by four thirty, sooner if his dad picks him up, and in the meanwhile he'd be texting Karkat all the while. There is still no sign of him on Pesterchum, and on a day in which apparently the entire continental United States (or at least New York, the rational part of him whispers) has decided to go batshit insane, Karkat is Not Happy.

He finally snaps - not like that ever takes very long to happen. He picks up one of the dishes he's emptying from the dishwasher and launches it into the cupboard hard enough to crack it, and then whips his phone out of his pocket to dial John's number. He gets diddly fucking squat, and snarls when John's recorded voice chirps out the answering machine's message before hanging up. He tries the home number.

When no one fucking answers that, he forces himself to list all the logical reasons why both John and his usually reliable custodian would both have gone radio silent, again. It doesn’t work, and by the time he’s out of the respite block he can barely put his phone down long enough to struggle into real clothes that aren't three fucking years old and falling apart at the seams, trying John on the Pesterchum chat app one last desperate time. His claws are almost too jittery to hit the keys, and his head throbs in time with his heartbeat. These are all probably symptoms of some kind of godawful troll disease slowly killing him from the inside out, but he can't even be assed to care anymore.

-- carcinoGeneticist [CG] began pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 17:25:11 --
CG: JOHN
CG: JOHN YOU ASS IT’S BEEN ALMOST 24 HOURS SINCE I LAST HEARD FROM YOU
CG: AND LET ME BE CLEAR ONE PISSANT TEXT MESSAGE OVER THE COURSE OF 24 HOURS IS A PRETTY SHIT RATIO
CG: YOUR DAD HAS STOPPED ANSWERING THE HOME PHONE TOO I SEE OH THAT’S JUST FUCKING FANTASTIC YES THAT IS EXACTLY THE KIND OF RESPONSE THAT REASSURES ME THAT THE TWO OF YOU ARE STILL FUNCTIONING, BIOLOGICALLY VIABLE SPECIMENS OF THE HUMAN RACE
CG: JESUS FUCK JOHN IF THIS IS SOME KIND OF JOKE IT STOPPED BEING FUNNY APPROXIMATELY TWO SECONDS AFTER YOU GOT IT STUCK IN YOUR THINKPAN THAT IT WOULD BE FUNNY
CG: YOUR SENSE OF HUMOR IS AN INSULT TO THE VERY CONCEPT OF HUMOR AT THE BEST OF TIMES BUT CONGRATULATIONS YOU HAVE OUTDONE YOURSELF I WOULD APPLAUD YOU IF I WEREN’T BUSY NOT FREAKING THE FUCK OUT
CG: I’M COMING OVER TO YOUR GODDAMN HOUSE JOHN I SWEAR TO GOD IT BETTER STILL BE STANDING
CG: IF YOU’RE THERE PREPARE YOURSELF FOR THE IMPENDING ARRIVAL OF MY RAGE-AVALANCHE
CG: IF YOU’RE NOT THERE PREPARE YOURSELF FOR THE IMPENDING ARRIVAL OF SAID RAGE-AVALANCHE ANYWAY BECAUSE I WILL HUNT YOU DOWN TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH AND DRAG YOU BACK HOME BY YOUR PITIFUL EARS AND UNLEASH TRUE UNADULTERATED FURY UPON YOUR PUNY INCOMMUNICADO ASS
-- carcinoGeneticist [CG] ceased pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 17:32:43 --

He receives absolutely no response. Karkat runs out of the house, then power walks to John’s house, refusing to let any prying neighbors see him distressed and racing off to John's house, again. He has a goddamn reputation to maintain, for Chrissakes, no matter how determined his moirail is to completely ruin him.

-

Several minutes after Karkat leaves the house, the news station switches back over to the local news.

He isn’t there to hear the heated discussion of the Midnight Crew’s escape from lockup.

He doesn’t hear about the new evidence and blood samples detectives found on the top of the police station.

He doesn’t think anything of it at all.

-

The Egbert’s car is parked in the driveway, which is both totally normal and really worrying. The only good reason Karkat has for Dad Egbert not answering the home phone is because he got called into an emergency at his work place; but the car is here, which means Mr. Egbert should definitely be on the premises. Hesitating, Karkat scuffs his foot and ducks back behind a tree, calling the landline one last time in the hopes that maybe Mr. Egbert had just been unable to reach the phone in time.

This time, he gets a busy tone. Someone is at home, thank god. Karkat jogs the rest of the way up to the front door and knocks with more force than he usually allows himself too, shifting his weight restlessly from foot to foot as he resists the urge to kick the door in.

He can hear a faint murmur of voices from within, which means whoever’s using the phone is at the line right there in the front hallway. A low growl rumbles in the back of Karkat’s throat, the annoyance aggravating his already pretty fucking phenomenal temper to true form. Come on, all he needs is for John to open the door with that dopey, apologetic grin, and Karkat will give him the strongly-worded lecture of the century on how one does not blow off one’s troll moirail for an entire day without extensive prior notice, and then they can get back to their regularly scheduled Saturday afternoon activities.

Karkat is so far gone in his vindictive fantasy that the sound of the door swinging open surprises him. He gets his mouth halfway open, teeth bared, before he sees that Mr. Egbert has opened the door, not John.

Karkat has never seen Dad Egbert anything less than totally put together; the man cycles through any number of respectable, perfectly ironed and starched white suits combined with a completely proper and very nice hat no matter what day of the week it is, and he never has a speck of dirt or food on them even after he’s spent an entire evening baking assorted delectable confections. Even the night before, the man still had his button-up shirt on, though his hair had been ruffled.

So it’s like a sharp punch to the trachea when Mr. Egbert appears with his white suit jacket missing, the usually pristine undershirt wrinkled as though slept in, his face haggard and – holy shit is he unshaven shit fucking fucker fuck something’s wrong, John is hurt, John is sick, fuck, that’s the only reason why Mr. Egbert would look like today is the end of the fucking world –

John steps out from behind Samuel Egbert, and Karkat can't stop the howl of pure fury that rips out of his throat as he reaches out with a hand and yanks John into a hug.

“Ahaha-ow, uh, hey Karkat!” John laughs, and Karkat feels a hand pat him awkwardly on the back. “What’s up?”

Karkat is too relieved and infuriated to answer. He eases his grip on John after that quick ‘ow’ and looks the dumbass over at arm’s length, teeth gritted as he takes in the still-present sling and the way John has to arch his shoulder a little to keep it at a comfortable angle. John can look as chipper as he fucking wants when he smiles at Karkat; he’s still got purple-black bruises under his brown eyes.

For an instant, Karkat feels disoriented, as though something about this picture is even more skewed than the obvious fact that his moirail is exhausted and injured and as dumb as a sack of hammers. But he looks again, and it’s just John – dopey, confused John who is totally fine with Karkat giving him a thorough inspection with his claws clamped around John’s arms to keep him still.

“You are absolutely forbidden from doing anything. Just. Anything at all. Why are you even moving?!” Karkat demands, pushing his way into the house without looking Samuel Egbert’s direction. Yeah, he made himself look like a complete overprotective maniac yesterday, and today’s not exactly shaping up to give a much better impression. Too fucking bad. “What the fuck could those idiots have you doing with a broken arm that’s so strenuous that you can’t text me all day?”

John looks confused, and then shifty, and Karkat knows the next words out of this kid’s mouth are going to be complete and utter bullshit. Not outright lies, but John has this thing where if he thinks the answer will hurt someone, he’ll tone his words down so much that the answer turns on a diagonal and become unrecognizable. “And none of this ‘my arm isn’t all that broken, Karkat, and I only lifted like a couple thousand pounds worth of bullshit at work today’ dipshittery, John, I swear to god,” Karkat adds before John can even get started.

John blushes, abashed. Good. As he should be, Karkat thinks with a sniff of triumph as he ushers John toward the stairs. The front door creaks closed behind them, but John’s dad doesn’t say a word about the Karkat Invasion, just walks down the hall to his office with heavy footsteps while Karkat glowers up the stairs at John’s back, half-braced in case the kid collapsed or something unfathomably horrifying like that. “I left my phone at home again,” John says sheepishly. “Which was really stupid after I did the exact same thing after school yesterday, too. I haven’t even had time to sit down and look through all your messages. Don’t tell me, don’t tell me – I’m dumb. Soooo dumb.”

“That is, in fact, the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” Karkat snaps, but some of the anger is already leaking out of him. Great, now he can’t even maintain a proper rage in John’s presence anymore; he’s getting all…leaky. Bleh. “Goddammit, John, sometimes I wonder how you wander around all day without me and still manage to survive. Seriously, where would you be without me? You probably totally missed out on New York, right?”

By the time they reach John’s room, Karkat’s tone has gone all gruff and weird, and he’s smiling a little as he shoves John around gently to start maneuvering around the kid’s messy bedroom. Weirdly enough, half the stuff on John’s desk is turned upside down, and his covers are piled up at the bottom of his bed, topped with half the laundry from the basket by the closet. Amazing. Even more chaos than usual. Who even knows what thats all about. Karkat just takes advantage of the half-made pile and yanks the bedclothes and laundry onto the floor. He concedes for John’s injured sake that they need more soft things, but he also starts tossing textbooks onto his own side. He has an image to maintain, after all. He is a fucking badass, okay, he needs more pointy objects in his piles.

“New York?” John says, startled. He goes to grab a pillow from the head of his bed but Karkat flails at him with a glare until the human lets him take care of it. As though Karkat expects an injured moirail to overstress himself by lifting pillows and shit. What does John think Karkat is, a totally insensitive asshat? Honestly.

John has another weird look on his face when Karkat looks up, a cross between confusion and faint recognition. “Oh, right,” he says, laughing uncertainly. “Something went on over there, right? Wow! Talk about some shenanigans, am I right?”

Karkat glares at John and grabs him by the collar of his shirt, shifting him bodily until he’s lined up so Karkat can shove him backward into the pile without feeling guilty. “You’ve got absolutely no fucking idea what I’m talking about, do you?” Karkat says in disgust, rolling his eyes.

John looks almost anxious as he gives a halfhearted laugh, eyeing Karkat with trepidation. “Uh…”

Karkat flings up his hands. “There was a giant fucking showdown between three heroes and some batshit crazy lady that took out half the nookchafing city!” he yells, stomping over to the desk. “It’s basically the greatest, most epic thing to ever happen this entire bugfucking year, and you missed it, John!” He’s left his laptop at home with all of his saved YouTube searches, but he can remember most of the better quality links. He drags John’s computer across to the pile, the wires stretching to accommodate the move, and starts typing rapidly after John hurriedly logins in and closes all his waiting Pesterchum windows. Karkat’s block of solid grey text fill up pretty much the entire screen, but Karkat catches a flash of red and pale orange, and maybe even purple text before John closes out of the program. He doesn’t think anything much of it.

“I mean, Heir was there. Heir was in New York City!” He is babbling by this point, some of his disbelief and irritation at John’s unmatched capacity for obliviousness wiped out by the remaining emotions from earlier. He pulls up the phone camera feed – the quality is shit, but it also managed to get a more continuous stream of the entire fight than the helicopter, which had to keep fleeing and cutting out when the raging battle in the sky drew too close. The video already has a million views and counting; major heroic showdowns always get massive amounts of attention. “I mean, how?! How did he even know to be there? That’s halfway across the country from where we are!”

“Wait, wha – how do you know it was Heir?” John leans forward as Karkat perches on the edge of the pile, balancing his injured arm on his knee with a faint huff. Without looking, Karkat reaches behind him into the pile and withdraws another pillow. He lifts up John’s arm gently and sets the pillow underneath without a word. “Uh, th-thanks Karkat,” John stammers out. Dope.

“Because I have a serious problem. It’s an addiction. You should probably hold an intervention for my own good, except don’t you fucking dare Egbert, there is nothing wrong with me.” Karkat sweeps the shitty quality video for when the Puppeteer first shows up, and then Heir a moment later. “Shit. Looks like this one doesn’t start until after Flashstep gets his shit wrecked. I know you’re a massive fanboy over that guy, but he only lasted like ten minutes, tops.”

“They got that on video?!” John says, genuine concern spreading across his face. Yeah, the news that Seattle’s resident hero has up and skipped out to New York barely fazes the kid, but oh fuck, Flashstep is in trouble? Crisis mode. Fuck, John has weirdass priorities.

“Not very well,” Karkat concedes as they watch the chaos unfold onscreen. “No one really noticed they’d showed up until after this maniac started tearing up the Guggenheim. And by the time they ID’d everyone, Flashstep was already out of the equation.”

The balance of the pile shifts a little too far forward, threatening to smoosh over to one side as John peers intently at the screen, his eyes glinting in the artificial light as he watches the fight. It’s less intense for Karkat this time around, but his bloodpusher still seizes in a dull panic when Dark Star and Heir, for whatever reason, fall together out of the sky, despite the fact that he knows the Puppeteer will be there to catch them. He shudders and leans into John’s side, trying to shove the morbid thoughts out of his thinkpan.

John shifts a bit, then sits back when the video cuts off, scrubbing at his face with a hand. When Karkat takes a better look at him, he can see John is exhausted, a faint twinge of pain tightening the corners of his eyes. “Were you seriously working all the fucklong day?” Karkat asks, kicking the mouse away from John’s hand when the kid goes to click on another video. “You do know that the goddamn arm will just keep bothering you if you don’t let it rest for once. Seriously, tell your job to fuck right off next week. You’re a volunteer, they can’t fire you. You’re going to hurt yourself more than you’re helping anyone at this rate.”

“…Look, maybe you’re right, Karkat,” John says, one hand still pressed to the side of his head. Karkat wonders if John even realizes how tired and utterly fucking pitiful he looks like that. “But I already had to miss some…days over this stupid arm thing. I just hate that my routine is all messed up because of a stupid injury.”

“Too fucking bad. It’s only been like, three days. It’s going to get worse before it gets better, you dumb shit.” Karkat logs off the computer over John’s protests. “No, look at you, this is the most exciting thing to happen since the Scourge Sisters broke up and had a fucking blackrom free-for-all through downtown Chicago, and you can barely keep your eyes open.”

John mumbles something that sounds suspiciously like “But I have work tonight,” which is just patently ridiculous, unless he’s talking about homework or something idiotically Egbertian like that. Karkat pushes John backward out of his hunched over crouch and mashes the kid’s face into a pillow. John growls at him halfheartedly, but he keeps his face turned into the pillow, his eyes slow to blink and heavy in the light of the desk lamp. Karkat probably should have just made the pile on the bed, but the computer wouldn’t have reached them at all, then. Whatever.

Karkat makes himself comfortable, avoiding John’s broken collarbone but tucking his head against the hollow of the opposite shoulder, patting at John’s face with a hand. “Yeah?” Karkat mutters. He makes sure to keep the rising, clicking purr at the back of his throat muted. How fucking embarrassing would it be if he broke out into full-on palerumbles after five fucking minutes in a pile? Christ, learn some self-control, Karkat. “No, I don’t fucking think so. No work for you. Congratulations. I, your lord and master and moirail, fucking forbid you from anything even remotely related to work. Not even work’s creepy human-incest cousin, volunteering. Can’t do it.”

John squirms and an elbow catches Karkat in the side. Little shit. Karkat waits with the patience of a goddamn saint while John figures out how he wants to adjust himself, until abruptly said patience runs out because who are we kidding, the Karkat equivalent of patience is basically just a slowly increasing rage gambit. He paps at John’s face again and wraps an arm around his waist until the kid has no choice but to lie still and fucking relax.

Karkat honestly can’t believe he’s the one doing the calming for once in this relationship. The universe is probably slowly feeding itself into a supermassive black hole in a suicidal attempt to end this backwards land madness.

“Just go the fuck to sleep,” Karkat mumbles, sticking his nose into John’s hair. John even smells off, like exhaustion and ozone and bizarrely like the ocean, but underneath that is the usual chlorine and baked goods and shampoo and human sweat smell that is John, and that’s fine. That’s fan-fucking-tastic.

-

By amazing (and by amazing he means disgustingly exasperating) coincidence, Karkat’s emergency ‘wake the fuck up you lazy shit you’re missing hero work’ alarm and Samuel Egbert’s hesitant knock on the door occur within seconds of each other. “MNAGH,” Karkat says coherently, narrowly avoiding being hit by John’s nose as he ducks his head to tear his phone from his pocket and crush beneath his heel. “Dad?” John says blearily, rubbing at the spot on his left temple that means he has a headache. “What’s up?”

“Ah. Karkat still in there with you, son?” John’s dad asks, and holy fuck how can he sound so fucking cheerful and upbeat when he and Karkat’s alarm are literally the devil incarnate right now. No one who isn’t working for some angel of double-death could possibly sound that chipper while waking Karkat up from a really fucking not-stressful cuddlenap, the first real sleep he’s gotten in days. Seriously, pretty much everything on this planet stresses Karkat out, and now this? In the middle of embarrassingly soppy palecuddles?

It’s official. The universe wants to murder Karkat Vantas slowly, with feeling.

The lamp is still on, though its dim yellow light may as well now be the equivalent of the white-hot intensity of the sun to Karkat’s sore eyes. Sleeping with the temporary contacts in and his glasses still on – the worst fucking idea. The worst. He finally manages to jab the alarm off, sees that they’ve only been asleep for about four hours, and raises his arm to fling the phone at John’s wall, teeth bared in a snarl. John catches him around the elbow before he can follow through, papping blindly at Karkat’s face with his eyes squinting. John’s glasses fell off at some point, and without them his face looks much younger.

And Karkat’s heart stops because he’s still half asleep and a younger john is walking down the corridor and he won’t listen, he won’t turn around, there’s blood dripping from the walls but john won’t stop -

“Uh, yeah, Karkat’s still here,” John calls back, fumbling through the blankets and pillows and comic books until he relocates his glasses and shoves them onto his nose. That breaks through Karkat’s moment of piercing horror, and Karkat starts breathing again, a little shaky. What the actual fuck?

“I see.” Samuel Egbert’s voice is totally neutral through the buffer of the door. “Is he staying overnight, then?”

“I don’t -” John breaks off and looks at Karkat, biting the corner of his lip. “Um. Karkat?”

Karkat takes a moment to answer, still thrown by whatever fucked up image just flashed through his mind. He can only imagine that his face has gone deathly pale, but hopefully John is still too disoriented to notice Karkat just nearly had some kind of horrorstroke. Has his thinkpan finally, officially cracked? Where the fuck had that come from?

There’s also the fact that he’s very aware that Heir is probably still not in town. Hemogoblin would be a pretty pisspoor hero if he didn’t patrol tonight to cover the slack from the other hero’s impromptu field trip, even despite the lingering fury over Hearts Boxcars’s escape. He can’t let his emotions overrun him as a hero. Last night made that pretty fucking clear. He flipped the fuck out in true Karkat-class and look at what it had gotten him – several lungfuls of absolutely foul bay water filtered through his shitty, still-irritated gills, and fuck-all to show for it. And emotions include the overwhelming desire to stay with John, to take just one night off. He shakes his head. “Nah. Crabdad is probably flipping his shit right now,” Karkat says, hoping John doesn’t probe any further than that. There’s absolutely no reason for Crabdad to flip out – more than usual, anyway – if Karkat stays with John, but he’s still too woozy with the aborted nap to think up a concrete excuse to bail.

Disappointment flickers across John’s face before he smiles and scratches at the back of his head. “Aw. Okay. Should probably not make the poor guy worry. You only have a few weeks left with him, right?”

Karkat can feel an old migraine approaching. “It’s an it, John, not a he. It’s just a lusus. It worries when I so much as close the fridge door the wrong way, or leave the window cracked open at night, or if I fail to organize my rom-coms in order of the box’s color rather than actor or title, both of which would actually make goddamn sense, because it’s fucking senile.”

“Yeah, but he still cares about you,” John says, yawning so widely his jaw cracks. He gets to his feet and stretches, and Karkat reluctantly does the same, stuffing his satanic phone back into his pocket. “You’re his kid! You should definitely spend some of his last few weeks together!”

John just has this thing he does where he overpersonalizes lusii. He doesn’t get that custodians can cycle through anywhere from five to ten wrigglers, depending on their lifespan, and thus there is no permanent emotional bond as there is between human parental units and their spawn. It is most likely a human thing, since their ancestral system is so much more direct and immediately accessible, as opposed to the incestuous slurry and centuries-spanning gene maps that link trolls. Karkat has resigned himself to it. Shaking his head, he steps around the abandoned computer and heads for the door. “Yeah, yeah, okay, John, I’ll pander to the fatass crab for what little time I have left to put up with it before I’m free at last.”

“That’s good. And we can get together and do something awesome tomorrow afternoon, okay, Karkat?” John promises as they stumble to the front door. “Like go to the park! The weather should be nice enough for the park, right?”

“You always think the weather is nice enough for the park. It could be negative fifty fucking degrees outside and we could piss ice in the open air and you’d still think there was a nice breeze going,” Karkat says.

John pouts at him, his eyes still all bruised with exhaustion and his shoulder hunched up. Fuck.

“Yes, fine, we can go to the park.”

Yeah, he’s having a harder and harder time telling John no.

-

Karkat goes to work that night, and he doesn’t think about what he saw when John’s glasses came off.

He doesn’t try to remember what he dreamed about during few fitful bursts of restless sleep he got in the ‘coon early Friday morning, what he saw in those last few confused moments of sleep after that nap in the evening.

He absolutely does not see flashes of the same images painted across the backs of his eyelids as he rides home at three in the morning, rainbows of blood streaking down the walls of the bus when he blinks and he jerks his head up, startling the nursing student who always sits across from him. It takes a moment to reassure himself that he’s awake, he’s fine, but fuck no, he’s not going to sleep well tonight, either. There’s a cold sweat breaking out along his skin that makes him tug down his sleeves and pat at his face surreptitiously with the inside of his sweater hood, to obscure any unnatural red tint that might seep through his skin.

He’d rather it just think of it as a new bout of insomnia. At least insomnia, he knows how to handle. He’s been handling his sleepless paranoia his whole life.

The dream, he can’t handle. He can’t.

-

Karkat dreams –

He stands in the center of a cavernous hallway, his eyes sliding over the words painted on the walls. He wants desperately to be able to read what they say, but he isn’t allowed to focus on them, his gaze drawn back toward the door at the end of the hall no matter how many times he tries to jerk his head toward the painted words.

He doesn’t feel time pass, but after a moment he is convinced, with that utter certainty that stems from the illogic of dreams, that a millennia has gone by. The hallway is unchanged because everything here is sealed in against the threat of the vacuum of space. The construct is no longer in space, of course, but the filtering and preservation systems run steadily on and on. Even the bright color of the painted words remains unchanged. Motes of dust are sucked into air recycling units before they have a chance to form more than the lightest layer of dull grey on the floor. When Karkat tries to move his feet, he sees that he has left no footprint in the dust.

At the end of the hallway, there is a resounding clang. The door dents under a single blow, and then another, and another. Finally, the vacuum seal gives, and the door crashes open, fresh air blowing through the hallway for the first time in centuries.

John walks in.

(This makes perfect sense at the time, though later Karkat will be utterly baffled. Seriously, what the hell is the context of this dream?)

John has a giant, oddly shaped lime green hammer in his hand, but it vanishes a second later as he looks around the hallway, his face quizzical. Karkat is baffled, unable to place exactly what is so strange about his moirail until John wanders down the hallway and walks by Karkat as though he isn’t even there.

This John doesn’t even reach Karkat’s chin. He can’t be more than thirteen years old.

And his eyes are bright, clear blue.

Karkat can’t move to touch John, and he is absolutely certain even if Karkat could speak, John wouldn’t be able to hear him. There’s a sense of inevitability and Karkat is resigned to the fact that all he can do is watch.

That becomes a problem when John stops, considering the painted words on the wall with his head tilted to the side. He traces one of the grafitti’d phrases, underlining it with his finger, and then shrugs. He clearly doesn’t understand what the words say.

Karkat, able to focus on and read the words for the first time, can understand. It’s messy and the paint dried in smeared splotches, but it’s pretty basic Alternian script, and he doesn’t understand why John, who’s in AP Alternian Language this year, can’t read it.

you’re gonna die motherfucker

Karkat goes cold. John keeps one hand on the wall as he steps around fallen computer equipment and piles of broken dolls, horns, and machine parts. Gradually, more of the writing on the wall comes into focus as John walks away, out of Karkat’s reach, and each message frightens Karkat more and more, until all he wants to do is grab John and shake him and fling him back out the door he came in, because at least out there he’d be safe.

YOU REALLY DON’T WANNA DO THIS MOTHERFUCKER

if you keep going you're not gonna like what you see

TURN BACK RIGHT THE MOTHERFUCK NOW

:o(

:o)

what are you MOTHERFUCKIN’ BLIND?

John, John look at me, Karkat screams internally. His oblivious moirail keeps walking away, his shoulders tiny and his thirteen-year-old frame skinny as a leaf, and he looks so, so fragile, even more frighteningly fragile than current-John with his battered arms and constant exhaustion.

He’s walking right into a trap.

Karkat can’t move.

As John passes over the mantel into the vast inner computer lab, he turns back, blinking over his shoulder, and hope jolts through Karkat with the thought that maybe one of his mental screams somehow caught John’s attention.

Blood trickles out of John’s nose, a thick red line that trails down over his mouth and drips off his chin. John stumbles and raises a hand to touch his forehead as he shakes his head, dazed, making no move to wipe at the blood.

Don’t go don’t go it’s going to kill you don’t go

When John raises his head, he closes his eyes and starts walking again, his sneakers squeaking too-loud in the echoing, hollow space beyond the hallway. Soon he’s out of sight, and Karkat still can’t move, can’t chase down his moirail and drag him back to safety. He’s absolutely certain, with a sickening knot in his stomach, that John is not coming back from this.

The words painted in an arch over the doorway slide into focus.

he’s gonna tear you apart

HONK

honk

:o(

From the room beyond, a monstrous roar rattles the entire structure, and the sound of claws scraping against metal pierces into Karkat's ears until they bleed.

And John screams, and screams, and screams -

-

Karkat wakes up.

He doesn't sleep again that week, though if he asked himself, he couldn't really remember why.

He just remembers there was so much blood.

---

The isolation tank is an exercise in futility.

Perhaps it worked once before, in Rose’s youth, to soothe her after that grimdark breakdown she can barely recall. But the grimdark event in her childhood had been no more than a fleeting moment of horror; like being pushed down by a wave on the beach, she had experienced a brief moment of breathless loss of control. Now that she is no longer a child – now that she has endured hours drowning slowly in that endless, crushing sea – there is no palliative balm to be found by lying in a lightless, soundless tank of salt water. There is no change in the darkness when she opens her eyes or when she closes them, and the earplugs she wears to keep the salt water out of her ears renders her incapable of breaking the silence even with her own voice. The skin temperature warmth of both the water and the air around her renders the desired meditative state impossible; all she can focus on is sucking in breath after breath through her nose, half-anticipating that each breath will bring the scent of bloodbrine. How can she be expected to relax and meditate the last of the grimdark from her mind when every breath, every blink, sends her flashing back to that place where her mind had trailed off into the dark spaces between the stars?

She lies within the tanks for four hours, and only then does she concede that remaining within the tank may in fact be damaging her further rather than healing her. It is a difficult to admit such weakness, even to herself, but Rose has always prided herself on her ability to objectively analyze the psyches of those around her. She is painfully aware that she has already failed to apply this clarity of vision to herself thrice before. She failed to admit that her drinking was a problem; she failed to admit that she could no longer distinguish her own thoughts from the whispersong of the Horrorterrors; and finally, she failed to admit that she hated her mother for what she had done, until all three failures came crashing to a head.

Thus, as experience has proven, when Rose represses things, people die. She cannot afford to lose sight of herself again.

Once she has established that remaining in the isolation tank will only promote the encroachment of unpleasant memories and breath-stealing panic attacks that wring her heart and leave her hard-pressed to maintain her composure, she reaches out, trembling, to feel for a wall that she is no longer certain will be there. Perhaps she was never in the tank; perhaps she is still in that icy, grimdark sea with nothing to cling to but the tangle that burrows its way into the back of her skull, licking at her eyes and wrapping around her throat and –

Her fingers hit the smooth interior of the tank, and she is shaking in earnest now as she twists her body so that both hands press against the wall, fumbling and sliding along the smooth surface until she finds the panic button and mashes it down with the palm of her hand.

She is not sure if that last flash of panic had been simply her imagination, or a true hallucination. She makes a firm mental note to monitor any further such mental slips closely.

She must not lose sight of herself again.

When the lid clicks open and folds back, letting light spill into the tank, Rose feels tears sting at her eyes. She blinks them away before they can fall, and gasps for breath as she sits up and gets her feet beneath her, her movements sluggish in the dense, Epsom salt-laden water.

There is no one to greet her or assist her as she clumsily hoists herself out of the tank, water sloshing as she levers her legs over the rim. Monitor me only if you wish to be killed by me, she had told her mother, unable to look at Rue Lalonde’s face for fear that the surging hatred would clear a new channel for the grimdark. I am not a child, mother. I do not want your eyes upon me.

A crude warning, perhaps, but a necessary one. When the white carapacian calling herself the Personal Motorist had escorted them to the rendezvous in Newark, the sight of her mother’s angular frame and tailored white lab coat had caused such pain and fury to swell in her chest that she had been forced to bury her face in John’s shoulder as she clenched her teeth against something unspeakable. John, the same adorably naïve sweetheart that he always has been, even after three years of Rose thoroughly neglecting their friendship, had just hugged her again and asked if she was alright before frantically retracting the question. He is well aware that she is not alright.

And then, of course, John had been forced to leave. His elucidation of the situation had been jumbled and full of John’s usual chattering tangents that occur whenever he confuses himself and continues to babble regardless, expecting Rose to keep up with his wild, mutable chain of thought. She has, naturally, gleaned that John is Heir of Breath, a hero based in Seattle whom she has psychoanalyzed in passing to spend the time in years past. (That much seems almost obvious, in retrospect, and Rose is not entirely sure how she failed to recognize John behind a pair of goggles and mask for all these years. Perhaps the same way John never knew the Seer for Rose when she waltzed about in broad daylight with no more than a thin mask.) However, John himself seems uncertain of what sequence of events could have caused him to arrive without reason in Houston, somehow meet up with Flashstep and the Puppeteer, and then convince the other two heroes to join him in a race to meet Rose in New York. The journey to Houston alone should have taken John hours, but he is quite clear when he says that it took him mere seconds.

She will simply have to pester him on the subject posthaste, once she has retrieved a new laptop. Her old computer no doubt still resides at the Lalonde mansion, if it managed to escape the explosion of power that had occurred when the tangle took over Rose’s body. She never had a cell phone, had not seen the need to purchase one while trapped alone in her house with no one but the Noblest Gods for company. Somewhere along the line, Rose had convinced herself that there was no point in communicating with old friends and colleagues, and slowly reinforced the isolation of the manse through her own lack of action. She could have reinstated the postal service to the mansion; she could have used any number of social media websites to reach out to John, despite not knowing his chumhandle.

Now, she can only wonder if the grimdark had already begun to seep, cold and subtle, into her skull as early as three years ago, directing her with subconscious urges to cut herself off from those like John and Kanaya who might have been able to ease her psychological distress. She will obtain a cell phone now, in addition to a new computer, even if she must submit to her mother’s disdainful scrutiny to do so. If there is even the slightest chance the Horrors of the Furthest Ring intentionally pushed Rose to isolate herself, she will do everything in her power to prevent repeating those mistakes.

She will not lose sight of herself again.

The air of the isolation room is unpleasantly cool against her bare flesh, and Rose shivers as she collects herself, sitting on the edge of the tank for a long moment to adjust to the dim light of overhead lamp. She plucks the ear plugs from her ears, and relishes the sound of her own panicky breathing. That is most likely a bad sign, and she makes another mental note of her symptoms. She must be vigilant.

There is a small shower in a corner of the room, with towels and a bundle of white garments folded up on a table to one side, the void restraints lying on top of the clothing. Stepping carefully with wet feet, Rose strides to the shower and twists the knob until steam rises off the hot water pouring out of the showerhead in thick waves. It burns her skin when she steps under the stream, hot enough to hurt, but it is neither the sticky, sharp burn of acid, nor the icy shock of dark water, and thus infinitely preferable to any other temperature. She rinses her hair with white vinegar from an ostentatious porcelain jar that rests next to the shower, perservering through the unpleasant smell and sensation in the name of removing the excess salt from her hair.

Then she is faced with the hospital gown that is all her mother has left for Rose to wear. Clearly, her mother’s design in providing these garish, shapeless white garments is to provoke a reaction from Rose. She can practically hear the taunt underlying the gentle suggestion in her mother’s voice even now – let’s try to change our perspective a little, dear, perhaps something a bit brighter will improve your mood and help with that little anger problem, hmm?

In retaliation, Rose pulls on the clothing without protest, not letting even a fraction of her distaste curl the corners of her lips. She folds the heavy white cloth over her chest and buttons it up the side of her leg and across the diagonal cut of the collar. For a patient’s gown it bears a remarkable resemblance to the angled jaunt and flare of her mother’s usual abominable dresses; just another gauntlet thrown down in the ongoing cold war between mother and daughter. The sleeves hang baggy and ill-fitting on Rose’s shoulders, and she takes deliberate, vicious delight in ripping off a strip from the gown’s hem to use as a makeshift belt around her waist.

The only problem is the very white, very fluffy slippers that sit on the floor. White or no, they are precisely the kind of luxurious slippers that Rose thinks would feel exceedingly comfortable right now. Her mother most likely knows that these slippers would appeal to Rose, and placed them here as yet another deliberate ploy. Unlike the hospital gown, which is something Rose would never wear even in her darkest hour, and was obviously meant to provoke her ire, these slippers pose the opposite kind of trap: they are intended to sooth, a peace offering of the most sickeningly refined brand of passive-aggression: here, my lovely girl, you can at least have these; you like them, don’t you? I knew you would. They look very…cozy.

Rose does not put the slippers on.

Rose stares at the cuffs for several minutes, weighing her options. Her mother is adamant that the entire laboratory complex is thoroughly shielded with her personalized Void technology – “to ward off the wandering eyes of certain undesirable malefactors, my dear” – and that shielding provides some measure of ambient protection against the grimdark. Even now, Rose can feel how the ever-present awareness of the Horrorterrors that resides in the back of her mind, much weaker ever since she threw off the tangle’s grip, is now suppressed completely, so that the only thing she can sense is her own mind.

But until she can meditate properly and shore up her shattered mental defenses, she cannot take the risk. She clamps the restraints onto each wrist. Anything that assists her in maintaining her individual sense of self and warding off the assimilation of the grimdark is desirable at this point.

Combing her fingers through her hair, she does not look in the mirror. Her mother and her lackeys have failed to provide any of Rose’s customary supplies anyway. Her face feels uncomfortably exposed as Rose goes out into the hall. Still barefoot, the intolerably appealing slippers hooked on the fingers of one hand to discard in the first waste receptacle she finds, she pads down the hallway and begins her scouting run.

She wants to know exactly what work could possibly have so damningly vital as to have driven Rue Lalonde to leave Rose without a word, without a note, for over three years.

She is intensely curious.

-

Rue Lalonde has three doctorates. Rose knows her credentials by heart, because on the occasion of her mother's birthday - oh, five years ago? How time flies - Rose had the certificates declaring the three degrees rewritten in Japanese calligraphy, framed in garish, bright orange frames and hung like family portraits over the hearth in the living room. It had been a glorious reposte in what had, at the time, felt like an endless but mentally stimulating war between Lalondes. And Rose therefore recalls quite clearly that Rue's degrees are in astroparticle physics, unorthodox physical cosmology, and quantum mechanics.

Thus far, Rose has investigated an inorganic chemical lab, a room that reeked of burning plastic in which a troll used robotic controls to engrave grooves on a magnified computer chip, and a fully operational surgical theater, empty at the moment but with an array of surgical tools lined up neatly on a rolling tray, apparently left over from the last major surgery. None of these disciplines lie within Rue Lalonde's purview.

This, then, is more than just her mother's new personal lab. This is a fully operational research facility, spanning more than a few thaumaturgic/alchemical fields and almost every branch of the sciences that Rose can imagine.

Rose has to sit for a long moment in the hallway, her legs crossed in a meditative fold as she leans her head back against the wall. When she has regained her self-control, she is able to acknowledge the fact that her mother has a life of her own, a successful one in fact, and that it is a life that has no open slot for a daughter to fill.

This epiphany simply wearies Rose. It is strenuous work to loathe and love and grieve for someone for three years, not knowing if they are alive or dead, and more arduous still to maintain that level of hatred after having the rage multiplied a thousandfold in a hivemind and weaponized by ravening eldritch abominations. No, Rose thinks she can look upon the face of her mother, now. The brief hours spent in the sensory deprivation tank did that much good, it would seem.

The clicking, rapid patter of feet on tile rouses Rose from her contemplation. She raises her eyes to see a familiar carapacian trotting down the corridor, the floppy grey hood of her neutral carapacian garb bouncing with each step.

PM: Oh! Hello Seer! You are awake!

PM: I'm glad!

"Personal Motorist," Rose says, smiling faintly. She, John, and Flashstep had all dipped in and out of slumber during the discreet egress from New York City, but Rose remembers the first few moments when the Puppeteer had bodily tossed the three of them into the back seat, informed them that 'seatbelts are for fucking pansies,' and then promptly buckled himself up in the passenger's seat and told PM to 'put the pedal to the metal.'

PM had, unfortunately, obliged. The first five minutes of the drive had been five minutes of high octane terror as the carapacian floored it, taking every turn on two wheels, barreling over any pile of debris that she couldn't avoid, soaring over an abandoned police road block by using the chassis of an overturned truck as a ramp, and executing one particularly flawless handbrake turn that had sent all three teenagers flying against the opposite side of the vehicle, screaming as the van skidded sideways for nearly fifteen feet. All the while PM had hunched over the steering wheel with her elbows out, squinting out from under the brim of her hood as she sought out the next most dangerous method of exiting the city.

John, still the most able-bodied person in the vehicle other than the smirking Puppeteer, had then taken matters into his own hands and forcibly buckled Dave and Rose in, just in time for PM to catch sight of approaching news crews and evade them with a violent bootlegger turn in order to peel off in the opposite direction.

It had been...an experience.

PM: Oh, no, Seer. I am not a Personal Motorist anymore!

PM: I am a Protégé M-Mediator! That is my usual title these days. Being a Motorist was a temporary designation.

"Ah. Of course. My apologies, Protégé Mediator," Rose says, rising to her feet. Rose herself is of average height, but the pale carapacian barely reaches her sternum, tilting her head back to look up at Rose with beady black eyes, her claws clacking together in the nonverbal portion of carapacian telepalogue.

PM: I wanted to seek your audience to apologize in person, Seer.

PM: It was I who delivered the Doctor's missive to you. And then I saw that when you opened it, a terrible thing happened! An awful thing!

PM: I was just so happy to be a Parcel Mistress again, I didn't realize you would be hurt! Please forgive me, Seer.

By the end of her apology, PM's face has fallen, and she clasps her claws together in jumbled shame. Rose shakes her head, somehow contorting her lips into an expression of forgiveness, when her instinct at the moment is to suppress all emotion until she can meditate in earnest. PM does not deserve to suffer undue guilt; Rose knows that there are only three beings responsible for her loss of control, and one of them is in fact an ageless, tentacled hivemind seeking nothing less than the entropic death and assimilation of all life in the universe. "Do not blame yourself for what happened, please. You have said yourself that you were only the messenger - you could not possibly have known what the letter contained, or that my reaction would be so...uncouth. There is no need for youto apologize."

The carapacian perks up visibly, her eyes crinkling in a genuine, whole-hearted smile.

PM: Thank you, Seer!

PM: You are quite right of course. It would have violated the sacred precepts of the M A I L for me to have read the letter before I delivered it.

PM: But I still wish that I could have spared you all that pain. If you ever require any assistance from a humble Protégé, please do not hesitate to ask! I would be happy to help!

"Thank you, PM. I appreciate that." Rose sees no need to turn down the offer. She is in the heart of her mother's domain, and she intends to accumulate every tactical advantage she can to preempt any unpleasant notions Rue Lalonde may get into her head concerning Rose's future. "At the moment, I seek a computer with external internet access. I wish to reconnect with a few dear friends who I owe...more than I can say, and the last computer I located seemed to be engaged in nurturing a fledgling artificial intelligence with only restricted access to the laboratory intranet. Would you be able to aid and abet me in this endeavor?"

The Mediator goes entirely still, as a dreamy, almost manic grin crosses her face.

PM: Oooooh! You wish to send...messages.

PM: Oh, yessss. Follow me!

From within her grey wrappings, the Protégé Mediator withdraws a battered, faded navy cap. She places it lovingly upon her head, and then points dramatically down the hallway before taking off at a quick trot. Rose follows her more sedately, unable to keep her forced smile from graduating into true amusement. It is hard not to be cheered in the face of such genuine, endearing enthusiasm. Rose is not certain what PM is training to mediate, but her Parcel Mistress roots are most evident.

-

The laboratory truly is a maze. In Rose's short wanderings she made sure to keep track of what turns she took so she could at least keep the isolation room a fixed point in her mind, but without PM guiding her she has no doubt she would have become hopelessly lost in the endless span of labs and offices. The fact that the complex is at least three stories tall, and delves who knows how far down into the earth, means that Rose could easily have ended up in another building in the complex entirely before finding herself in the computer café. PM presents the open doorway to Rose with a flourish of her claws, and Rose steps in to find herself in what appears to be a computer café. More than that, this is an outside room, with windows that actually open up on a view of the lake and forest beside the compound, and the moon rising above in the night sky. It is a refreshing change from the windowless, closed in anonymity of the articifially-lit hallways.

It is night, and yet Rose feels no need to meditate. For the first time in years, it seems, the Horrorterrors are so stymied by the Void restraints that they cannot reach out, not even to brush at her mind and lick at her sanity. It is...a welcome change.

Rose strides to the nearest desk and lifts the computer monitor, messing with the wires until she can haul it down onto the floor with a huff, setting up her new base of operations on the ground behind the desk. She sits ramrod straight with the desk pressed up against her back, a reassurance that she has something solid at her back, and boots up the computer. “Thank you, PM,” she murmurs, watching the faint glow of the computer screen avidly. Unlike the artificial intelligence's incubator, the internet connection is unfiltered, though she suspects not unmonitored, and she is able to download the Pesterchum application in minutes. “Yes, this will serve well.”

The carapacian claps her hands together in delight, sitting down opposite Rose with a thump.

PM: Wonderful!

PM: May I ask who you are trying to message?

“You may indeed ask me such a thing,” Rose says, unable to resist. “Are you going to?”

PM just blinks at her quizzically, hands faltering.

PM: ?????

Rose takes pity on the carapacian. She doesn’t know how well admittedly trifling word play translates when one of the conversants makes use of a primarily telepathic dialogue system. “I am attempting to contact an old friend of mine, and a slightly newer friend who I have similarly neglected in recent months. You met John earlier – he wore a most magnificent pair of swim goggles.”

PM: Ohhhhhh. The Heir!

The Mediator nods sagely. Then she frowns, little furrowing cracks appearing between her eyes, and taps at her chin with a claw.

PM: That makes sense.

PM: It is good to stay in touch with your friends, Seer! Communication is very important!

PM: If the Heir was here, though, why didn’t he just stay? You al– friends are much stronger together than they are apart!

Rose raises an eyebrow. “Words of wisdom, PM, but I'm afraid John has an alias to maintain in Seattle,” she says, smoothly concealing the rest of her surprise. Could it be that PM here knows more about what happened this morning than she lets on? Perhaps, if Rose cannot pry candid answers from her mother, she can probe PM’s knowledge base and see how much the carapace knows. It could, after, all have simply been an offhand comment, a pithy truism, and no more, but for that slip of the tongue. You all? “You may remain if you wish, but I will most likely be occupied with mending my rather derelict relationships for the foreseeable future. There’s no need for you stay with me if you have other business to attend to.”

Almost immediately PM springs up, claws clenched before her chest in excitement. Her eyes fill with far-off awe and respect, and she is clearly enraptured by something Rose can’t see.

PM: I should go see where my teacher is.

PM: You should meet her, Seer! She is very Wise! How do you say – she is my ‘idol’!

“That sounds lovely, Mediator,” Rose says politely, but her attention is now being drawn back to the Pesterchum app as she finishes logging in to her account. There is a single name in her chumroll, and instead of being greyed out as Rose had half-hoped it would be, it is currently lit up in jade green. Kanaya is online, then. Rose hesitates, the cursor hovering over the name.

She has not been good to Kanaya. Perhaps, with John, her neglect has been more prolonged, but Rose is hideously aware that Kanaya has been forced to witness Rose’s descent into willing alcoholism, to watch Rose slowly wear away at herself until nothing remained. The very thought of rereading the endless pesterlogs of green text begging her to see reason, fruitlessly offering personal assistance through any recovery process Rose desired, makes Rose cringe.

Truly, she is a coward.

A thin, clicking hand touches her arm. Rose jolts with surprise as PM thumps her heartily on the shoulder.

PM: Don’t worry!

PM: I am sure everything will be alright! I have faith in you!

Then, without waiting for a reply, PM scurries away.

Despite the encouragement, when the Mediator patters her way out the door, her telepathic hums of delight still echoing in Rose’s mind, Rose closes her eyes and shifts her cursor to type ectoBiologist in the ‘Find New Chum!’ search engine rather than open a window to pester Kanaya. Strange, that; she would have thought John’s tendency to use ghostyTrickster for literally every forum and video game account he’d made in their middle school years would have at least prevailed until the release of Pesterchum a few years ago. Perhaps he changed it at some point.

The fact that she is not acquainted with something as simple as the circumstances surrounding John’s new handle is simply another stone to weigh heavy on her chest.

At least with John, unlike Kanaya, Rose has the advantage that the hardest part is over. John has seen her at her rope's end, and still been willing to take her hand and lead her away from the brink. He had told her his chumhandle frantically as he boarded the jet to rush home; when she had wondered aloud if he even wanted to truly hear from her, he had just knocked his forehead against hers, saying “Roooooose!” with a laugh.

Ah, the friendship rituals of the demonstrative wild Egbert. He hasn’t changed a bit, except in all the ways that he has.

She pushes through the last of her reservations and adds ectoBiologist to her chumroll. When the chat window pops up, she goes to type immediately. No matter what John may claim, she owes him a true apology, and a long overdue chat, and she is determined to fulfill that obligation. She owes him more than an apology in fact, but John is not in the habit of taking life debts seriously. He’s too good natured.


-- tentacleTherapist [TT] began pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 20:14:05 --
TT: John, I

Rose stops. The pink letters taunt her from the screen, and she feels bile rise up in the back of her throat. Pressing a hand to her mouth, she leans over the trash bin under the computer desk and rides out the empty spasms. She still has not eaten anything today, and nothing comes up but pinkish saliva, but the dry heaves wrench at her stomach painfully until eventually she is able to calm herself.

Well. Scratch that, then. Her first order of business will have to be the creation of a new chumhandle.

She does not know what she was thinking when she chose a handle like – that, all those years ago. She remembers queasily that she has used some variation of tentacleTherapist for all of her fanfiction and forum accounts over the years. Perhaps she had chosen it as a humorous, even tongue-in-cheek reference to the grimdark creatures she meditated away every night, in itself a most metaphorical brand of tentacle therapy; perhaps she had simply wanted to give them the metaphorical middle finger.

Whatever the case, the sardonic handle no longer amuses her. It just turns her stomach.

She chooses a hasty new handle, and restarts the chat window. There is no doubt John will have noticed her slip, but she can do nothing about that now. With luck, he will understand, and let it pass without comment.

-- thoughtfulThaumaturge [TT] began pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 20:16:23 –
TT: John.
TT: Allow me to begin again.
TT: Nothing I say can truly mitigate the wrong I did to you.
TT: When my mother disappeared three years ago, she removed the house from all postal listings and municipal records. As far as the mail was concerned, my home became a nonentity.
TT: I could have remedied this situation any number of ways. I could have purchased a discreet post box. I could have relisted us in the records. I could have sought out your handle on any number of our old forums or contacted you on here.
TT: I did not.
TT: I chose to let our friendship cut off with no explanation, no farewell, no attempt to revive it.
TT: I can only apologize, and assure you that it was no fault of your own. It was no mistake of yours that spurred this cessation of communication. Not in any way. I can in fact think of no logical reason to have isolated myself the way I did.
TT: This regrettably leaves only the illogical reason. The grimdark one.
TT: I tried to style myself a Seer of Light. And yet I failed to see how, slowly, the Noblest Gods encouraged me to cease communication with anyone who could have interfered in their grip on me.
TT: Naturally, I understand if you do not wish to revive our old camaraderie after I failed so unequivocally in holding up my end of the accord.
-- ectoBiologist [EB] has joined the chat! --
EB: hey rose!
EB: whoa, no, it’s okay rose i swear, i get it.
EB: i’m just glad that you’re alive! i mean for a while back then i thought maybe you got hurt or something and that’s why you stopped answering. which would have sucked.
EB: i even made my dad try to get in touch with your mom one time, but all your guys’ numbers had been cancelled.
TT: I am not surprised, I’m afraid. If the house did not run on alternative, self-sustaining energy resources, no doubt she would have cancelled the electricity service as well. My mother has much to answer for.
EB: seeeriously! :(

At least in the realm of exposing her mother's faults, Rose is on familiar ground.

EB: she claimed it was because the midnight crew found you guys, but then she didn't explain why that bunch of thugs would be looking for you in the first place!
EB: she just said 'they want her power just like they wanted dave's' and none of it makes any sense rose! bleeeehhhh!
EB: i'm home now and trying to get answers from my dad, but he's being really weird about it
TT: I see. It would appear you possess considerably more information about the situation than I do. What ever would a widespread criminal enterprise do with a time-stopping hero and a girl with access to all the power of the Horrorterrors of the Furthest Ring?
TT: Oh wait.
EB: yeah, that's not a very reassuring thought either...
EB: did you know your mom knew dave's bro when we were little? apparently you guys knew the striders for like three years before the crew attacking them
EB: i guess he thought maybe your mom caused the attack? or that she accidentally gave their location away? idk no one will just explain what happened!
TT: I see. The plot thickens.
TT: So from what you have pieced together, essentially, my mother and the Puppeteer knew each other, during a period in both my and young Dave's lives in which we would have little to no recollection of the event.
TT: However, my mother no doubt single-handedly caused a falling out between the two, somehow involving this Midnight Crew, under suspicious enough circumstances that the Puppeteer continues to mistrust her. She has a unique talent for that sort of thing.
TT: After which we eventually ended up in Seattle in time to meet you, John, yet another child who would grow up with a hero complex and rather unique powers.
TT: Does that summary seem to cover it all?
EB: yeah actually, that makes a lot more sense when you say it like that!
EB: oh, and the puppeteer gets really stupid about the midnight crew.
EB: it's basically how this whole mess started. :P he seriously pissed me off telling me to run away instead of confronting them, even though they're blowing up buildings in my city! he's super paranoid about it.
EB: i get that they're dangerous, yeah, but he really suggested i should just give up without even trying
EB: and that's how we found out i rage-teleport
EB: which, um. yeah, i guess - i'm sorry i never mentioned the whole hero thing? what exactly am i supposed to say?
TT: Oh, no need to worry yourself, John. As you can imagine, bringing up the fact that you possess unnatural reality-altering power and intend to use it to run around the city in a mask is hardly the way to set the tone of a potential friendship. I obviously sympathize. There was no reason to trust each other with such dangerous information when we were children, but the point is moot now.
EB: whew! thanks for being cool with it. we're both heroes, anyway, and i guess i just worry this will still make you a target. but then when i think about it apparently we're all targets anyway, so the worry is getting kind of dumb and redundant.

Rose opens up the Cetus internet browser and keeps her chat window with John visible to one side of the screen as she begins to search 'Midnight Crew' in Google. A crude method of obtaining information, clogged with the detritus of pandering, insipid news stations, but Rose has connections she can contact once she has a better understanding of the subject. Assuming they haven't forgotten her in the months she's spent a drunken wastrel, she will begin to research these Crew in earnest when she is no longer using a device no doubt monitored by her mother. No need to let Rue Lalonde know all of Rose's secrets.

Though Rose fully intends to familiarize herself with some of Rue's secrets. Her mother has much to answer for.

TT: Well, I shall attempt to draw out my mother's side of the story, though she will no doubt persist in this stonewalling that seems to characterize our guardians at the moment.
TT: But it is useless to speculate without further data. As intriguing as this is, let us put it aside for now. How have you been in my absence, John? I expect to have a complete psychological workup by the end of our session, naturally. Spill.
EB: haha, oh, wow. uh.

There is radio silence on John's end, long enough that Rose's quick glance at a police scanner transcript potentially related to Crew activity in Los Angeles transitions into a full-on analysis before she realizes John has been silent for nearly two minutes. Shaking her head, she hesitates and bites her lip before continuing the conversation.

TT: Unless, of course, you do not feel comfortable engaging with me as your unofficial psychotherapist anymore.

At the bottom of the chat window, the prompt command reads 'ectoBiologist is typing…' for another long minute, and Rose can imagine John on the other end, flailing and randomly backspacing as he fumbles for the words to let her down gently. She is surprised by how heavy the resignation feels in her chest; her pseudo-analysis of John's psyche has always been in jest, to watch John squirm and frantically deny all her accusations in good fun, but it had also been also one of the ways in which they genuinely communicated. The thought that she may have lost the right to that aspect of their friendship permanently by putting such insurmountable distance between them hurts more than she expects it to.

EB: no way! i just don't really know where to start.
EB: except i guess with total honesty! yeah! because if i know all about your secret grimdark unintentionally crazy, uh.
EB: i guess you deserve to know about my total mental breakdown?
TT: ...Come again?
EB: fuck
EB: i knew telling you about this would be a bad idea!
TT: Calm down, John. 'Mental breakdown' is simply an incredibly nonspecific term with no formal definition that could correlate with any number of extreme psychological stressors or events. I simply wish you to elucidate more specifically on the subject.
EB: no, i can tell i freaked you out! you always use way more weird words when you're freaked out! agh!
TT: John, breathe.
TT: Please tell me what happened. If you have experienced significant psychological distress, I wish to understand. Not for the sake of my curiosity, but because you are, and always have been, my friend, and now I am greatly concerned about you.
TT: Your silence would only worry me further.

She is making use of unsophisticated measures again, but John responds better to honesty and forthrightness than to subtler tactics. It is simply the kind of person he is.

EB: basically it was I guess two years ago? hadn't heard from you in about a year at that point, and i thought i was getting used to it
EB: and then i just
EB: school was hard. not like the classes were hard or anything, just that i would go in everyday and have to sit there for like six hours and there was no one to talk to.
EB: and then slowly everything started to seem like a huge federal fucking issue. like i couldn't work up the energy to really care for a while, and every time i went to class it felt like the ceiling was crushing down on me, until i almost just threw up in class one time because i was just so
EB: miserable
TT: Oh, John.
EB: and the work at night kind of made up for it, but then that started feeling really hard too! :/ i just kept thinking about how it was because i had the work i had no time for friends? and so that kind of felt like being trapped, too, even though i really like being able to help people all the time and get out in the fresh air! so after a while, i started to think it was just kind of hopeless, like no matter if i was flying or with friends i would still just couldn't win.
EB: we figured out later it was kind of this depression thing in my head, but at the time it was like everything was a great big ball of dumb and blah and i got so tired of being tired.
EB: and that's when i ran away to houston!

...And that is just enough of a plot twist to break Rose out of her stunned silence. Because, come again? That...that made no sense. John must have skipped over something rather significant, because why else would he aim for such a random destination?

TT: What.
TT: John, what on earth would possess you to go to Houston?
EB: i know, right? :P
EB: idk, i just kind of took off flying. my dad totally chewed me out for it later, but i had my goggles on and everything, i wasn't that stupid.
EB: and i considered flying to new york and checking out your house, but i had kind of resigned myself to thinking you'd want nothing to do to me? i figured you had other friends by then.
EB: so when i just started veering south i didn't really think about it, and then i ran out of energy by the time i hit colorado, so i started walking a bit until i could make it the rest of the way to houston.
EB: i totally punched out this criminal without realizing dave was like right there.
TT: And obviously, you two both being enterprising young heroes, you then proceeded to bond by arguing over jurisdiction?
EB: uh, no
EB: i kind of started crying all over him.
EB: it was embarrassing, and then i had to punch out the car-jacker again because he woke up while i was being all weird and depressed
TT: I see. I will admit, I did not see that one coming.
EB: well neither did i, and dave didn't get it either because striders aren't really all that big on emotions and things. but then we just kind of talked for a bit.
EB: and i started to feel a lot better! i guess i just really needed to get that stuff off my chest with someone who knew about the hero thing, too, someone who wasn't my dad. i mean dad means well, and he tries really hard, but he's also the one who trained me to be a hero, and i was being all weird and pissy about that too. dave was just this unbiased second party and that helped a lot.
EB: and even after i felt okay enough to come home, we kept talking a lot through pesterchum!

Rose feels a pang of jealousy, jealousy she does not deserve to feel. She buries it.

TT: I am sorry, John. I'm sorry that I was not there to help you through this. That my abrupt absence no doubt helped trigger what sounds like a significant depressive episode.
TT: I shall have to speak with Dave as well. It would appear I owe him my thanks for being there for you when I could not be.
TT: I am glad you found someone, John.
EB: agh, no rose, that's not how i meant it! you're always gonna be my first choice of psychoanalyst! dave goes on a lot of tangents about rapping and apple juice and weird mixed metaphors a lot, so it's mostly just that he's a lot of fun to talk to!
EB: and it's really probably not your fault, i'm sure of it! depression apparently has a lot of brain chemistry stuff too, so if it wasn't that it might just as well have gotten kicked off by something else entirely.
EB: and now i have a hero partner here in seattle and a friend at school, too. that seems to have helped a lot. and now you're back! :D
EB: so everything is fine! between all of us, we can tooootally handle the midnight crew no matter what bro says! right, rose?

Rose can only stare at the screen. She thinks her eyes may be too wet, but she cannot take her fingers off the keys to wipe it away.

Has John always sounded so...fragile?

She knows well that he tends to skim over darker emotions, downplaying anger and sadness in favor of maintaining an unfathomably cheerful disposition with flashes of sarcasm and over-dramatic groans of annoyance that can be easily dismissed as jokes. She'd teased him about said defense mechanism more than once in their childhood. But this is - there is a note of almost desperation in the blue words on the screen. As though behind them John is one wrong word away from shattering.

And Rose cannot fight the feeling that her actions played more than a little part in driving him to this precarious state.

TT: Yes, John.
TT: Trust me. Now that I am aware that supposedly this Crew poses such a strangely targeted threat to us, I am most interested in assisting you in taking them down for good.
TT: I may not be at my best at the moment, but rest assured I am more than capable of researching these hooligans most thoroughly until I am assured of my control.
EB: horray! i knew i could count on you, rose! this is going to be awesome!

She tells him what he needs to hear. It also happens to be the truth, but she neglects to mention that she does not know when, if ever, she will have true control ever again. The worst case scenario is that she remains confined to the Void wards for the rest of her life, if she cannot reconstruct her mental shields properly.

And that possibility, no matter how horrifying, is more likely than Rose likes to think. She has never suffered such a complete incursion of grimdark before. It is possible that next time the Horrorterrors sing to her, she will give in even more quickly than before, made susceptible by her first descent into darkness.

John does not need to know such things. Not now, not when their relationship is still balanced on the knife's edge of both their sanities.

The door of the café is open, and that is how Rose hears the tell-tale clack of a too-familiar stride clicking against the tile floor of the hallway. It has been three years, but she still knows her mother by that confident stride. Time to bring her discussion with John to an end, then. She wishes she had more time to process this new revelation about her oldest friend, but there is no way her mother would ever pass up a chance to mock Rose at a time like this, and she does not want John caught in the crossfire.

TT: My mother approaches.
TT: It would appear that the opportunity to interrogate her is at hand. I trust you will be well if I leave you for the moment?
EB: yeah, totally, rose!
EB: just, uh
EB: message me later, okay? :)

Rose closes her eyes and rides out the guilt that clutches and claws at her heart. Oh yes. John has a right to be cautious about believing that she will contact him again. She deserves every modicum of distrust after what she put him through.

TT: I shall. It is a promise.
TT: Shall I swear it on my family name? Perhaps not - I am not overly partial to being a Lalonde at the moment. But maybe upon my light magic? Whatever would reassure you, John. I have no intention of falling into that state of isolation again.
EB: oh man, rose, i think you've been reading too much over-dramatic wizardfic again!
EB: don't worry, i believe you! we can maybe even start a memo with dave and see what he can get from bro! it'll be awesome! i think you two would like each other? or maybe just start arguing and then never shut up, i can't decide which.
EB: talk to you soon!
TT: Farewell.
-- ectoBiologist [EB] has left the chat! --
-- thoughfulThaumaturge [TT] ceased pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 20:42:12 --

The footsteps in the corridor have come to a halt, and Rose can hear the low murmur of her mother's voice, and the sound of another person answering. Rue is not alone then, but once she has finished that conversation, she will no doubt come to bother Rose.

Well. If her privacy is almost at an end, she has nothing left to lose. She doubleclicks Kanaya's chumhandle and the window pops up.

-- thoughtfulThaumaturge [TT] began pestering grimAuxiliatrix [GA] at 20:44:53 --
TT: Kanaya.
TT: I do not have much time.
TT: I apologize. That was a lie. I promised that I would not lose sight of myself, that I would not lie to myself anymore. That I would not allow my mistakes this past year repeat themselves. And so I find I cannot lie and tell you that I do not have much time.
TT: I have a choice. I have always had a choice, and it took an unspeakable transgression for me to realize that I had made the wrong ones.
TT: I am ashamed, Kanaya. Sometimes I do not know whether there is an end to the offences I have committed against the two people I cared for the most, let alone what I allowed to be wrought in New York.
TT: No doubt you have seen the news, and understand why I left our last conversation so abruptly. Suffice to say that every light casts a shadow, and my shadows falls longer than most, to the point that certain Horrors find it a most accommodating channel to work their ends. And because I did not guard myself, because I did not listen to yours or my own better judgment, perhaps thousands have died or been maimed. Millions are going to be homeless, at least.
TT: And so when I tell you I do not have much time, I do so because I am a coward, and I shrink from facing the consequences of what I have done.
TT: I would understand quite well if you did not wish to hear from me again.
TT: But I have seen what occurs when I fail to adequately communicate with those other than the Horrors at the edge of my mind.
TT: And if nothing else, you deserve better. You deserve whatever closure or apology or revenge you require.
TT: I wronged you by dragging you into this. Perhaps more so than I have wronged anyone else.
TT: …
TT: Goodbye, Kanaya.

Feeling sick to her stomach, ready to throw up again but repressing the urge vigorously, Rose closes her eyes and peers through the desk behind her with a different type of sight. Her eyes sting with pain, and the sight itself resolves slowly into focus, but it comes nonetheless, and she is able to see through to the auras of the people who have just entered the room.

With a mental recoil, she recognizes the inherent lack that is her mother, the unsettling void rimmed by the faint haze of alcohol, the only real impression Rose has ever been able to perceive of Rue Lalonde with her magic. It plays a significant role in rendering Rue Lalonde so gallingly inscrutable in her whims: the doctor strides about in her alcohol aura and knows that Rose will never see through to the woman within, a perpetual advantage in their ongoing strife.

Beside Rue is the crackling, ticking pulse of Flashstep, the boy John had called ‘Dave’ without a care for confidentiality or secret identities. To be fair, Dave himself had seemed equally unconcerned. And Rose knows well enough thanks to the slight curiosity imparted to her by her youthful association with John, a major hero fanboy, that neither Flashstep nor the Puppeteer seem to care that they fight crime with their faces totally exposed.

She does not, however, sense the Puppeteer. Strange – when the elder brother had announced abruptly that he intended to have ‘goddamn words’ with Rue, he had seemed equally adamant that Dave not ‘dick around’ and hang around Rue unless –

Rose stills, twitching, and directs her extra sight forward.

Bro Strider is hunkered down right in front of her, leaning over the top of her borrowed computer monitor with his arms folded on the edge, unreadable behind dark sunglasses. She hadn’t even felt him enter the room, a remarkable feat in and of itself, but now that she can see him, she doesn’t know how he managed to conceal himself. If Dave is a strangely familiar, steady pulse of life, marred by the occasional skip where the beats don’t quite match up, the Puppeteer is a bright, intensely warm flare, fluttering along at nearly twice the tempo.

Rose suspects this blaze is just as much an obscuration as her mother’s unsettling vacuum. She can see -nothing past the flare, can discern no details of Bro’s emotional state, his power levels, or his future intent. Even in the glow of his soul, the Puppeteer remains enigmatic and emotionless, the epitome of the impassive coolkid.

Too quick to see or stop, a gloved finger stabs out and flicks Rose in the center of her forehead, just short of bruising strength. Startled, Rose’s second sight destabilizes, and she comes back to herself. “Got a wandering eye there, little Lalonde,” the man grunts.

He has called her that before. Immediately after her breakdown, Rose had been too shaken and exhausted to register it. Now, with her wits mostly restored, she stiffens, biting back a furious snarl. Her emotions remain too volatile for her to trust them.

When the rage clears away, Rose can see that the Puppeteer is watching her intently. His body language is subtle enough to be nigh unreadable, but she can see the slight tension in his hands, the way they angle toward the sword he hides beneath his shirt, along his spine. Oh yes, he caught her moment of blind fury, and he is prepared to counter it.

Rose is not offended. She is…reassured. Even as the rage fades, it gives way to something almost like gratitude. “Thank you,” she tells him simply, honestly.

The man’s eyes widen fractionally behind their concealing frames and he tilts his head to the side. “Nothin’ to thank me for, kid,” he mutters, and then he’s gone. When Rose logs off the computer and rises to her feet, dusting off her skirt and resting more of her weight than usual on the support of the desk, she sees the Puppeteer has wandered to one of the wide glass windows that line the computer café, staring out at the thick forest beyond.

Point to Rose, then. But her smile dies before it can really begin when her mother hitches a hip on the edge of another computer desk, studying Rose with her usual contemptuous, critical stare, the corner of her mouth quirked in a perpetual smirk. Mother always knows best, after all. “Rosie,” she begins, folding her arms elegantly around her ribs, tapping long, manicured nails unsuited to a scientist who does real work against her coat. “I’m surprised, darling. I thought you’d need more of a rest after all that excitement earlier. Are you sure you’re feeling quite recovered?”

Rose wonders, with the vague weariness of having dealt with this simpering tone for a lifetime, whether Rue Lalonde was born with a unique talent for being this condescending, or if it was an art she had personally learned from the trolls’ great Condesce in some twisted, patronizing apprenticeship. “Quite recovered, Mother dearest,” she replies sweetly, the effect ruined by low, hoarse scratching of a throat shredded by the screechsongs of the Furthest Circle. She perseveres. The key to holding one’s own against Rue Lalonde in verbal strife is to never show weakness. This is, Rose finds, the key to holding one’s own in most any situation in life, really. “You couldn’t tell? It’s like you hardly even know me.” Rose slides smoothly into her next play before her mother can reply, turning to smile graciously at Dave. “Flashstep. A pleasure to meet you again, with both of us in a better frame of mind.”

“Fuck, why do we even pretend our names are a secret anymore. Why is that even a thing. Seriously, is there anyone in this room who doesn’t know my name by now?” Dave says, monotone, with any real irritation he might feel hidden behind too-large shades. “Like fuck man, I need to start handing out business cards or something. Business cards with some kickass calligraphy for my name and alias. Can’t let anyone forget a name like mine, they’d waste away not knowing. Christ.”

Rose must be a little off her game. She can’t tell if she legitimately triggered some dormant irritation in Dave, or if he merely prefers to veer off into elaborate metaphorical tangents on a regular basis. She’d need further opportunities to observe him if she wants to gather the data needed to properly analyze him. “Dave, then. John and I were just discussing you. It would seem that I owe you a considerable debt.” It seemed to be a day for establishing these things, after all.

Dave freezes up. It is a fascinating process to witness because he is clearly fighting it every step of the way: his muscles twitch as he forces them relax back into a slouch, but he can’t stop the tension from stringing along his shoulders as he hunches them forward, defensive. His hand goes to the shape of a cell phone barely visible in his suit jacket pocket, though he stays himself before he removes it and stuffs his hand into his pants pocket instead. He is not nearly so practiced at emotional suppression as his elder brother, then. As much as he’d like to hide his reactions, he remains vulnerable.

“What. No, what. John what the hell. Talkin’ about me with random snarky broads,” Dave mutters, mostly to himself but loud enough for anyone to hear. “I don’t remember any of this. I was busy being unconscious this morning, passed out like a hella lightweight, dead from the goddamn neck up. The fuck have I ever done for you, Lalonde?”

“Do not call me that,” Rose cannot stop herself from growling, the sound ripping through her vocal cords raw and ragged and too close to horror for comfort. By the window, a puppet with gleaming blue eyes peers over at her from the Puppeteer’s shoulder, though the man himself doesn’t move an inch. The puppet itself is reassurance enough. Rose never thought she’d be so painfully grateful to have someone who could kill her in seconds, if the need arose, in the same room as her. She clings to that reassuring thought as she rides out the fury. Rose closes her eyes, breathes meditatively, and lets the tension flow out of her body. “I find that I would prefer Rose at the moment,” she says to the open air, careful not to look anywhere in her mother’s direction. She can stand to be in the woman’s presence, it seems, but clearly Rose’s assumption that she had grown too fatigued for anger has proven false. She must tread carefully.

Dave has his hands raised in some gesture meant to convey ‘calm the fuck down,’ no doubt. “Hell yeah. Rose it is. Ain’t no thing.” His voice is even, but Rose can see the wariness in him.

Sensible of him. Rose is, after all, one of the terrible things.

“John and I have been catching up,” she continues, trying to brazen her way past her vulgar outburst. “He has informed me some of what went on approximately two years ago, and the circumstances that led you two to become acquainted. With John being John, I am certain he glossed over a troubling amount of detail to save me from the full onus of my neglect. He is foolishly kind that way. But he was quite clear when he said that you assisted him in dealing with certain consequences of my desertion. And for that I owe you more than you know.”

Dave relaxes minutely, and there is a moment, Rose thinks, of accord between them. The bond of having torn and mended John Egbert, respectively. Then he tenses up again, and she can just barely glimpse the slight hostility that grips him. “Yeah, whatever,” is all he says. “Guy needed a bro to educate him in the ways of cool; who am I to deny a supplicant when the dude comes to me on his hands and knees, all penitent and shit, requesting the humble privilege of studying under my tutelage. My tutelage is in high fucking demand, I’m telling you, but EB had true need. I still can’t break him of the goddamn unironic hero shirts. I think it’ll be my life’s work or some shit. Could write a fucking autobiography about my struggles with that kid’s hero fetish.” By the end acid almost drips from his tongue, and his hostility is clear on his face.

Ah. Rose is beginning to understand. Perhaps Dave would like to think he can obfuscate as well as his enigmatic brother, but the truth is quite the opposite. He can maintain that flimsy pokerface all he likes, but the key to Bro Strider’s stoicism is his relative silence, the choice manner in which he eliminates all non-necessary communication except through the medium of raised eyebrows, monosyllables, and truncated sentences. Because of this silence, he need never concern himself with Freudian slips or similar tells.

Dave might believe that his reflexive, rambling tangents produce the same effect, but he is quite wrong; Rose can read more and more of his emotions as time passes, plucking out his insecurities as he babbles frantically in an attempt to obscure them. It is a classic example of reaction formation: the coolkid persona is how Dave chooses to channel anxiety or any other strong emotion that he doesn’t want to acknowledge into an acceptable impulse. Being raised by a relatively emotionless elder sibling, Rose can’t imagine that Dave feels comfortable expressing any strong emotion at all. It can't be a healthy state of mind.

They are, all of them, such broken creatures, aren’t they, Rose thinks grimly.

In this case, with the help of the prior knowledge she gained from her conversation with John, she can see clearly through the chinks in Dave’s armor, the unspoken challenge behind his words: John needed help, and somehow he came to me, and I was all he had. He was desperate and he felt so much and I couldn't just tell him to change who he was and bury it; I had to acknowledge all those emotions people have and it sucked but then he was my friend and I couldn't leave him.

You weren't here, but I was. And I will continue to be.

There are inklings here of a fiercely protective friend. At least now Rose can be sure John has been in good hands, if not the most emotionally adept ones.

"John has been quite enraptured with heroes since we were both children," she acknowledges, raising an eyebrow and trying for a snarky smirk. She may or may not succeed. "In hindsight, I am unsure why I ever thought he'd end up pursuing any course in life other than hero work, powers or no. I'm afraid that it may indeed be the work of several lifetimes to ever bring irony and heroism together in his mind. I wish you the best of luck, of course."

Dave's eyebrow flies up in response, and she can see that he remains, if not hostile, at least still tense. She has most likely confused him by meeting his hostility with acceptance, but she has confidence that after giving it some thought, he'll figure it out.

I know John, have known John. I know how his mind works, and I can see that your friendship is valuable to him. He has chosen to befriend us both, and if you are willing to be quite civil, there is no reason we can work in tandem to keep him safe and sane and whole.

No need to elaborate further. She has said what she needed to say. By the end she feels stable again, as though the mere act of utilizing her analytical mind on the fly to read Dave has helped settle the rage that continues to plague her mind. Even when she turns to her mother and looks upon the impenetrably smooth, fine features of her face, she is able to control the anger. It might be safer for all involved if Rose took the time to properly meditate first, but Rue speaks before she can excuse herself. "Would you mind if I had a word with my daughter alone, Ambrose, Dave? I understand you intend to leave soon, but I would like to see you off at the runway when the jet returns. For old time's sake."

Typical. Of course Rue would want to keep Rose off-balance during this confrontation, even by such low-handed tactics as playing the game while Rose must work twice as hard to keep her emotions in check. How disgustingly petty of the woman.

"Ain't my fucking business, Lalonde," the Puppeteer mutters from where he is now leaning with his back against the window. "If you ain't there when we leave, 'm not waiting on you."

"I wouldn't expect anything else," Rue replies sweetly, with a note of that passive-aggressive hostility she usually reserves for Rose. Hm. Intriguing. John had said the two had a rather checkered past - now Rose is left wondering just what their relationship had been. "Rose, do come along, darling. We are quite overdue for a nice, long, heart-to-heart chat, I think."

Oh, Mother mine. If you believe you'll be the one controlling this conversation, you had better think again.

"Oh yes, Mother. Let us talk," Rose says, with a faint smile. "A pleasure, Dave," she adds as she walks by him follows Rue Lalonde out into the hall.

-

"That was rather rude of you, Rosie," Rue Lalonde admonishes the moment they leave the computer cafe. They are no doubt still within the Puppeteer's hearing at the least, and Rue knows that, which means that she is deliberately speaking so that Rose is embarrassed by it. As though that is a tactic that works against Rose anymore, after all these years of inuring herself to its stings. "Snapping at the poor boy - it was unkind of you. Particularly for such a silly reason. I thought I raised a young lady."

"Well, three years is no doubt a long enough span enough to put paid to even the best laid plans, I suppose," Rose murmurs.

Rue just sighs, her heels clicking almost like PM's patter on the floor as she leads the way past yet another research lab. "It was necessary for your continued security, my dear. I apologize for being unable to explain beforehand, or contacting you until so recently, but I'm afraid our enemies have certain resources that even I cannot counteract consistently."

"Our enemies!" Rose snorts. Rue blinks and looks almost startled in the corner of Rose's eye. Excellent. John's forewarning of their guardians' strange obsession with the gang has already given Rose an advantage her mother didn't anticipate. "These Midnight Crew? I have read of their misdeeds. They are nothing more than a rabble of brutish thugs, a criminal syndicate of some skill but nothing so organized and targeted as an 'enemy.' Perhaps you have begun to grow paranoid in your old age, Mother."

"Ambrose Strider was only twenty one when they attempted to kill him," Rue says. Rose can see the way her fingers twitch as though closing around the stem of a martini glass, and is actually surprised that her mother hasn't already plucked a fresh appletini from some convenient counter throughout this conversation. In the old days, Rue Lalonde was quite literally never more than three feet from a source of liquor. "Dave was three, and from what we know now, he was the primary target. Three years old, Rose. What reason would a mere criminal gang have to target a child?"

"You are speculating," Rose insists. Not that she truly doubts her mother; it's clear enough that something is highly unusual about the Midnight Crew's shenanigans. But the more stubborn Rose plays at, the more secrets Rue will spill in an attempt to win Rose's belief. It is one of Rue's few weak points - she plays this game to win, and for a scientist, there is no greater victory than proving oneself right.Even at the expense of any pompous conspiracy she'd like to maintain. "I highly doubt that they would just walk up and announce that they wanted to kill a toddler before trying to complete the attempt -"

"They didn't try to kill Dave. They tried to take him." Rue clenches a fist, though she attempts to conceal it in the folds of her lab coat. "They attacked Ambrose only because he wouldn't stand aside."

Confirmation, then. The Crew wanted Dave, most likely for his rather unique time abilities. This fully correlates with what little John has learned. Now, Rose just has to root out why. Why on earth would a seemingly ordinary gang specializing in robbery and other mundane heists suddenly turn its attention, at least all those years ago, towards such a divergent goal? Could it really be so simple an aim as to obtain those time powers for criminal enterprises? Or is there something more, something all three guardians want to keep very well hidden?

Rose intends to find out.

They are now in a totally unfamiliar section of the laboratory complex, nowhere near either the isolation room or the computer café, and Rose activates some of her sight to better orient herself. She is very aware that in this complex, she is at the mercy of her mother's whims. The rooms around gleam with motes of light, other types of magic that Rose is familiar with from her studies. As far as she knows, her exclusive manipulation of light is unique among thaumaturgic styles, but the most basic shields and fortune-telling spells are quite simple for anyone with the mental fortitude and the correct teaching manual to utilize. It's just not common knowledge.

Rue doesn't speak again until they pass through a crowded, busy engineering lab, with a team of humans and trolls clustered around something behind a Plexiglas shield. Rose cannot see through to the object of their scrutiny, but she can feel the tingle of spells in progress, shields against possible radiation leaks and to promote quantum instability within a fixed point.

This - quantum-level experimentation - is far more along Rue Lalonde's line of expertise. They must finally have passed through to her personal labs, the heart of this isolated forest sanctum.

"I know you, darling," Rue says at last as she slides open the door to a cluttered office. The décor is the same functional, chic design as the majority of the labs' furniture, but the plush swivel chair behind the four large computer monitors is a fantastically vibrant shade of fuchsia. "For that matter, I know me. We could dance this way until the world burns around us. If there is something you mean to ask me, Rose, just ask, for once in your life. It has been three years since I've seen you and I would rather not play these games."

Rue is trying her best to sound sincere, but Rose naturally knows better than to trust her. Just enough condescension remains in the doctor's voice to verify that this is just a new brand of the same underhanded tactics as ever. Rose matches Rue, tone for tone. "Oh, of course, Mother," she drawls, folding herself into the chair on the other side of the desk, hands clasped in her lap. "Since you're so interested in clearing the air between us, then why don't we talk about John and Dave? Let's chat about how throughout the course of my childhood, you've managed to connect us to two other families with heroes, both of whom have had to or currently are dealing with said Crew? I'm so. So. Curious." She pretends to inspect her nails, but by the end her voice has gone totally flat.

"I knew them," Rue replies airily, picking absently at the strange model on her desk, her eyes hooded as she taps on one of the rings and sets the whole device spinning. Some of the hinged segments begin to weave in and out, and Rose sees at last that the model is of a series of spirographs, each layered within the other in ever smaller circles until the center, a tiny orb of metal around which the rest revolve and flip and dance.

Rose would have thought nothing of it – would not have even known the symbol’s name – if not for the fact that the Horrorterror had been so obsessed with the design, and yet loathed it as well, the boundless hate only a hivemind can achieve. Even as Rose sweeps the room with her eyes, she catches a stylized spirograph emblazoned in the top right corner of a file folder stacked on Rue’s cluttered desk. Perhaps Rose had simply missed it when they arrived – she had still been drifting in and out of consciousness when they arrived at the laboratories, after all – but she can see now that the ‘o’s in ‘Lalonde Laboratories’ are both tiny, simple spirographs on the header of her mother’s stationary.

"Ambrose was an acquaintance even before he began to raise Dave, and Samuel Egbert's mother - John's grandmother - was one of my professors in college before she retired." Rue meets Rose's eyes, her eyelids still half lowered. She's concealing a lot, enough that both Rose and Rue are aware of how much is not being said behind such innocuous words. "Neither I nor Ambrose saw the attack on Dave coming. While Ambrose fled to Houston, I sought out my old mentor, only to learn she had passed away, survived by her son and grandson. Seattle seemed distant enough from Atlanta, and once there it wasn't difficult to deduce from Samuel's behavior that John possessed unusual powers. We guardians like to think that we're subtle, but there are tells that another such guardian knows to look for."

Rose does not give away her interest in the symbol. Bad enough that she must now so crudely extract answers from her mother, with no elegance or subtlety; no need to extend the torment beyond what is strictly necessary. If the spirograph is so significant a shape, Rose will surely be able to research it at her own discretion and find the answers she seeks. Certain other matters, however, may be resolved only through a brute-force interrogation. There are too many blanks in the picture, too many spaces where the narrative does not run smooth upon a second review, and Rue Lalonde may hold all the missing pieces.

"Astounding. And you do not find it an amazing coincidence that you had these connections to them at all?" Rose says mockingly. She multitasks by attempting to read the names of the file folders upside down. She can pick out 'paradigm,' naturally, and the names of other scientists listed beneath Rue's own. But there is one word, one she just isn't familiar with, no matter how she squints at it.

What on earth could 'Skaian' mean?

"Not at all," Rue replies, running a hand through her hair and idly adjusting the arrangement of her curls. "Ambrose and I were close enough when we began to raise you and Dave that it was inevitable that eventually one of us would catch the other's charge in the middle of power-related antics. And it is not as though I went deliberately seeking out other parents with empowered children. Two does not a pattern make, Rose! I have sought the answers to these questions and others like them for years, and found no real explanation beyond coincidence and chance. You may like to think me some chess master, manipulating you in some inexplicable cold war of wits, but I assure you Rose, I am no such thing. You ascribe too much foresight to me than I truly have, and it is blinding you."

Rose just smiles. Her sight is working in full force by now, and though her mother may be a void, Rose can see how the edges of Rue Lalonde's shields are wavering, thrown into turmoil by Rose's pointed jabs. Oh no, Rose is not blind. She can see, better than Rue will ever know.

"I think I ascribe just enough," Rose says. Her mother is growing truly impatient now, a flush of color rising in her perfect cheeks. Just a little more, and Rose will be able to strike at her real target, the one that plagues her more than any other query thus far, though it remains linked to her earlier questions. "Are you sure you're feeling well, Mother? You seem quite flushed. Perhaps I hit too close to home for your comfort?"

"And you, Rose?" Her mother's voice is outright harsh now, as she draws forth a flask from within her lab coat. Well, that much is new - but Rose supposes a flask is far more easy to conceal around a laboratory full of one's subordinates than a martini glass. "How are you feeling? That is, after all, why I wished to speak with you in the first place - out of concern for your wellbeing. You think I am oblivious after a few years' absence, but I know the isolation tank did nothing for you. Four hours? No, that's not nearly enough for proper meditation, which begs the question of why you left that tank?" Rue sips, a single gulp that remains neat and tidy despite the slight tremble of fury in her fingers. She swallows roughly and continues. "You've grown over-proud, daughter. Do you think you're still in control of them, Rose? How much longer do you think you can keep the voice of the gods out of your head?"

The words sting. But they are precisely the questions Rose wanted to provoke, no matter how painful. She grins ferally, because she has won this round. “Oh no – you’re asking the wrong questions, Mother dearest!” Rose closes her fist around the arm of the chair and feels it crunch beneath her grip. “The question is not how long I can keep the Horrorterrors suppressed. The questions is, why can I do it at all.”

Rue Lalonde sits back, looking first startled, and then despicably pleased. It becomes clear she has misunderstood Rose’s vehemence when she proceeds to say, “Well, Rose, I have always hypothesized that your power of light-based thaumaturgy provides you with the clarity of mind needed to maintain your sense of self, even in the face of minds far more vast and multifaceted than your own, and utilizing that ability in conjunction with my Void -”

“You mistake the question yet again, Mother,” Rose says coldly, and the doctor’s mouth clamps shut, her red lips twisting. “I did not have the strength to remain distinct anymore. I was able to alter the pattern the tangle meant to complete, but then I resigned myself to assimilation. By the time we reached New York, they had sapped enough of my strength and claimed enough of my mind that I had no ground to stand on. I was dying.” She pauses, then shakes her head. “And then John arrived, and I was suddenly able to hear, to speak. I knew he was there not because the tangle recognized him, not because I recognized him through brief glimpses of a masked face, but because the light told me. The light that should not have been there.”

"You underestimated yourself, my love," Rue replies, shrugging smoothly as she reclines further in her chair. Rose can see the sharp glint of intelligence in her eyes, but also that of uncertainty. "You had that strength all along; you just needed to realize you could still access it. I knew that when you saw John, he would be able to reach you, to inspire you to fight back. You two were such good friends, despite how coldly you cut him out of your life -"

Rose forces it out. “Wrong. The moment John – and Dave too, perhaps – confronted the Horrorterror, I began to regain myself." She keeps her voice steady and collected. She cannot panic. Not now. "They did not inspire me, in some pithy burst of renewed hope, to try to reclaim myself. They simply arrived, and I could access my senses once more. After mere minutes, I was able to sneak in my own command prompts and speak to John directly.” Rose shakes her head. “It should have been impossible. It is impossible. But his and Dave’s presence increased my own personal powers, in a way not even the grimdark could prevent. It was a measurable, distinct increase, an amplification of my magic that had already been consumed by the sea.”

She pauses again, gasping for breath. She is speaking too rapidly, and Rue’s face has gone frightfully blank, but she can’t stop now, not when so much else does not add up. “And then I learned that all three of you – you, Ambrose Strider, Mr. Egbert – all three of you have known each other. Three random families scattered across America, and somehow you, Mother, managed to bring us all into contact. At the very least, the strength of my powers is directly linked to John's. I cut him out of my life, and within a year he was teetering on the brink of depression. Who does he end up running away to? By sheer coincidence, Dave Strider."

And Dave, an emotionally repressed, untrained teenager obsessed with being cool, had been able to soothe John out of a full depressive episode in the space of a day. Real therapy took weeks, if not months, to take effect, and required more than just scattered pesterings at a distance to maintain. John's recovery is unrealistic, impossible.

Unless, as PM had almost said, you all are much stronger together than you are apart.

When Rose broke John, Dave picked up the pieces with uncanny ability. When Rose broke herself, John and Dave together had been able to empower her with little more than their presence. John had spent more of that battle in New York fleeing with Dave's unconscious body than he had talking to Rose, and she had still steadily gained in strength, as though power had been flooding into her from an outside source, bypassing the Horrorterror entirely.

None of this is normal, and all of it is somehow connected to Rue's antics in their childhood.

"Rose, stop." Rue crushes the flask in her hand, lurching up out of the chair and leaning heavily on her desk, her eyes haunted. "Rose, you -"

"If you think I cannot see there is a pattern here, you vastly underestimate me. And so I will ask you one time, and one time only. What are you not telling me, Mother?”

"Rose. Rose, breathe," Rue commands, reaching out to touch Rose's face with a seeking hand.

All Rose wants to do is tear that offending limb off and paint the walls with the blood that pours forth -

And -

I've gone too far.

The full weight of her rage smashes into Rose then, and she gasps with it, wrapping her arms around her waist as her stomach knots itself in unspeakable fury. It feels as though she's being torn in two.

She must leave, before she does something she will truly regret. Standing up so quickly the chair topples over backwards, Rose uses a wild wave of magic to slam the glass door of Rue's office aside, shattering the glass. The cluster of scientists beyond yelp and scatter as Rose half-runs, half-staggers out of the office, ignoring her mother's shouted, desperate orders. She is off-balance and lurching as she races through the labs and out into the main hallway, veering too close to walls and corners as she darts her way to an empty lab and closes the door behind her.

Her information gambit has failed entirely. She may have won a round or two against Rue Lalonde, but in the end it is clear the gambit falls to Rue by default. Rose cannot control herself enough to finish the game.

She stumbles into a corner, getting a wall to her back to lean on, and folds her legs, sucking in uneven breaths through her nose. Sweat plasters the hospital gown to her back, and she rests her head in her hands for a few long moments before she can sit upright. Everything feels tight and closed in, and she cannot distance herself from what she perceives - the cold of the tile floor, the whir of the fume hood running two labs down the hall, the rustling movement of the trees outside that she shouldn't be able to see from in here. The last of her filters and shields have cracked, and everything is a nonstop stream of light and information and incomprehensible gibberish. She cannot put this off anymore, not when all she wants to do is teleport back to that despicably cluttered office with its insipid pink chair and tear that woman apart, that woman who reminds Rose of herself in all the worst ways.

Aren't they, in a way, exactly the same? Isn't that why she and her mother clash so spectacularly - both of them striving and clawing and sniping at the other because they are the exact same?

Maybe that is why Rose hates so much. When it comes down to it, to the barest, basest, ugliest facts, Rose is no better. Because when John needed her most, she severed him from her life, lost in her waking nightmares and her delusions of heroism and her haze of prideful, spiteful independence.

She did the same thing to him that Rue had done to her, and she had not even spared a thought to the hypocrisy of it all.

Like mother, like daughter.

If this is some innate quality of Lalondes, some genetic proclivity for discarding old loved ones like so much cast-off trash, then she wants no part of it. If this is how a Lalonde loves, in fitful, stumbling, careless bursts that trail off into nothing, into a void, then Rose does not want to be a Lalonde anymore.

Swallowing another sob, Rose shuts herself off from the waking world, and plunges into the internal visions of her mind. With shaking hands, she forces herself to take up the trailing, unraveling edges of her shields, and begin to slowly, carefully knit them back together. The needles in her hands look like wands, and as she slowly sinks her mind into the shields and strings them around her mind, across the Void-blocked channel to the grimdark, she falls into the familiar pattern of meditation. Not even the anger can reach her here.

And yet, she has never felt so lost before in her life.

One thing is quite clear. No matter how the Void of Lalonde Laboratories may ease the presence of the many-angled ones, Rose cannot stay here any longer. She cannot rest here, not as she needs to. And New York is no longer an option.

She will consider her options further when she is no longer on the brink of falling apart all over again. For now, she knits and knits in the corner of the lab, piecing her mind back together from the inside out.

---

By the time they get home, the collar is completely fried. The exposed wires burn along the side of Dave's neck, right on top of the ever-present throb of the giant fucking hole the Horrorterror ripped through his neck and shoulder, and he endures it with a stoic face for as long as he can. Longer than a smart person would have, maybe, but no one has ever claimed common sense was Dave's specialty.

"Kid."

"I know."

"...Kid."

"I fucking know. Fuck."

He wants, more than anything, to still be with John. Heck, even that Rose chick would be great to hang out with right now. He just wants someone to fucking talk to, while he still can, but instead he's stuck with Bro in this shitty private jet. And of course this is Bro; the man thinks talking is so lame, speech deserves to be devoured by a fucking mountain lion in the name of natural selection. No way is he desperate enough to call the stewardess over and yap at her, though; he has standards still, okay.

Just. Fuck. It feels like his throat is going to catch on fire, and he hums to himself, staring out through the window and trying to think of a song, any goddamn song, that isn't by Katy Perry so he can sing or mix out loud or something without Bro giving him shit.

"You're gonna fucking hurt yourself, you dumb shit," Bro informs him. He's perched himself on top of the back of the seat across the row, and stares down implacably like a giant bird of prey. Lil Cal, perversely, is safely buckled into the seat, one floppy gloved hand wrapped around a glass of ginger ale. The level of ginger ale has been steadily decreasing ever since the stewardess delivered it, and that wouldn't unnerve Dave so much except that he can usually sense when Bro is manipulating his puppets, and Bro hasn't moved a fucking inch. Yet every time Dave blinks, watching this spectacle from the corner of his eyes, the glass empties more.

Yeah, he's basically shitting himself with terror over here. He has put up with that fuckass clown puppet for too long, and it's finally driven him insane. "Dude, I want that thing banished from our household, like, yesterday," Dave mumbles, sparks fizzling against the side of his neck. "Our ancestors frown upon it, and I'm pretty sure it's single-handedly responsible for the fact that all of our rice crops failed this year. Get rid of it or I fucking disown you and you can go join the army disguised as a man to support your sick homicidal possessed puppet fetish, alright? Are we clear?"

"Kid, you're not even makin' sense anymore." Bro adjusts his shades, but doesn't immediately move to ritually disembowel Lil Cal, which means he's being a rebellious daughter and needs to be taught a lesson in Han dynasty respect. "You're trying to make Mulan ironic. Mulan is not ironic. Mulan is a piece of cinematic genius. Take off the collar, you're just being a stubborn little prick now."

"Oh my god. Fuck you. Wait, what else was I going to say? Right. Fuck. You." Dave digs into his empty glass of apple juice for one of the previously pointless ice cubes. He presses the ice to the side of his neck and nearly punches through the wall of the airplane to express his extremely manly, extremely stoic relief. Hell yes.

The next second, the ice has been ripped out of his hand. When he looks up, mouth open in a too-dramatic grimace, he sees Bro has confiscated the entire glass of ice as well and is now popping ice cubes into his mouth. Whole. "What the fuck."

"Stop swearing, you foul-mouthed barbarian. Do I need to rinse your mouth out with soap or some shit?" Bro places an ice cube by Lil Cal's hand. Dave refuses to look and see what happens to it. Enough of the puppet. He is so fucking over the puppet. "You heard littl- Rose. Talks like a properly educated young lady. Where the fuck did I go wrong with your punk ass?"

Dave stares.

Bro stares back, completely impassive, as he loudly crunches down on an ice cube.

Dave can't even tell if this is irony anymore, or just some sick, sick game for Bro's perverted pleasures and they're all secretly on Smuppets Live, in which case, no. "Give me back my ice." When Bro raises an eyebrow and wiggles it, Dave grits his teeth and forces out, "Please. Oh my fuck never make me say that again."

"Don't get your goddamn feathers ruffled. You're not getting this back. It's mine now, little man," Bro says, still sticking his fingers into the glass of ice and come on, man, who even knows where those hands have been?!

(The answer is, they've been up puppet butts. The answer is promptly deemed too horrifying to contemplate further and is erased from the memory of paradox space.)

"Stop being a massive douchecanoe."

"No. You were letting ice water melt all over a bunch of exposed wiring, just how dumb of a fuck are you?"

Yeah, Dave honestly hadn't considered that. Well, shit. He can't back down now. "Just give it back."

"No."

"I will pry that glass out of your cold, dead anime gloves," Dave says, tensing. Are they seriously doing this here, thirty thousand feet in the air when they're basically thirty minutes from Houston?

Bro swallows an ice cube whole, apparently with the intent of eating the entire freaking glass and in doing so win the coveted title of 'World's Biggest Fucknugget.' "You could try, little man," he drawls.

Dave stops time and flings himself out of the seat. It's go-time.

Bro knows the attack is coming of course, and somehow prepares himself for the assault even before Dave twists time to a halt. This always fucking happens. When Dave is forced to let time go, his fist inches from Bro's face, there is a blur of movement and then Bro wraps an arm around Dave's wrist, tucking Dave's punch under his arm and bringing the attack to a dead halt.

Coolly pissed, Dave uses the rest of his momentum to slam a knee up into Bro's side during the next stopped moment of time. He thinks it connects, until time starts up again and he sees that Lil Cal has taken the blow and wrapped its spindly puppet limbs around Dave's leg.

He screams hoarsely, with a piercing note vaguely reminiscent of a little girl. He refuses to be ashamed of this, particularly not when he can blame the shitty sound quality on the collar currently burning a ring through his throat. He wastes his next free moment peeling the puppet off his knee. Lil Cal's blue eyes arrest him, and Dave can only stand there, motionless, one arm still pinned by Bro, and meet that horrific gaze before punting the puppet back at Bro's face.

Bro tosses Dave to the side. Dave skids, the flimsy carpet ripping up in a huge square under his feet. This time he aims straight for the glass of ice, which Bro still holds in one hand. Victory doesn't have to include punching Bro out for the first time in Dave's life; he'll take any kind of win at this point, before the pain of the collar fizzling against his neck takes him out of the fight. The burning isn't anywhere near as bad as the kind of havoc travelling back in time plays with his throat, but it's going to start doing some real damage, soon.

In one smooth motion, Bro tosses the glass of ice up in the air and tries to palmheel Dave in the nose. Dave stops time, grabs the ice cup, and lunges backward.

His back slams right into Bro, who has finally abandoned his perch on the back of the seat and waits in the middle of the aisle for Dave to bring the glass back to him.

The most humiliating part? Bro hasn't taken out his sword. He's not even taking this seriously. Nope, Dave's in such shitty condition, even Bro is taking it easy on him. Fucking fuck.

"Okay, you dipshits, we will begin our final descent at Hobby Airport in ten minutes, so siddown and stop tearing holes in my ship!" the pilot bellows over the intercom.

With a smirk, Bro shoves his foot down into the back of Dave's knees and reaches out with a long arm to yoink the collar off Dave's neck before he can react to defend himself. Dave catches himself and whirls to face Bro; Bro just twirls the crumpled piece of metal around his finger, raises an eyebrow, and kicks Dave in the chest so hard he goes flying ten feet through the air. Dave rolls awkwardly because the plane is tilting at an unholy angle by now and comes up in a fighting stance, sword drawn at last as he uses it to stab into the floor and halt his tumble. He's just in time to watch Bro down the last remaining chunks of ice in one ungodly chug. It looks like he swallows the ice whole.

Oh my god. Why. Dave could have gone his whole life without that mental image to haunt him.

For a moment, Dave considers going back in time to steal the collar back. Bro, as though reading Dave's mind, proceeds to shred the wiring out of its metal casing with expert fingers. Dave breathes out hard, not quite able to process the act of desecration going on right in front of him. Bro then dumps the remains of the collar in the empty glass of ginger ale that sits before Lil Cal; the puppet is propped up in its seat as if it had never moved from the spot. This basically guarantees Dave is too freaked out to try to retrieve the parts. Not that he could have recreated the inner workings now that Bro's torn it apart, anyway - Bro's the freaky mechanical expert, not Dave.

"You're a fucking asshole," Dave goes to say, rubbing his throat and feeling the hum of his vocal cords beneath his skin. As always, there's that faint, stupid hope that this time it'll be different, this time, it'll work -

Nothing comes out of his mouth.

Seriously? Fuck everything about this.

-

Dave doesn’t sign a single word all through the trip home from the airport. He can’t bring himself to admit defeat, not even to sign one of the choice sick burns directed at Bro that he’s steadily accumulating in his head. The urge to talk, on the other hand, lodges like a tumor in his throat, a constant pressure whenever he opens his mouth and then snaps it shut. Bro, being Bro, probably doesn’t even notice anything has changed as he leads the way back home from the airport – it’s not like he ever paid much attention to Dave’s rambling tangents in the first place. Dave catches the sideways looks he’s getting, though, and knows that Bro is thoroughly unimpressed by all this first-class, grade-A sulking.

Too bad. Dave is mute again for the first time in years, and he reserves to right to throw the mother of all silent tantrums when they get home. That collar had still been working perfectly fine before Bro decided to crown himself the king of all puppetfucks and rip it apart, and Dave is fucking pissed.

“Kid, are you seriously going to be a little bitch about this?” Bro says wearily when they reach the top floor of the apartment. Dave flashsteps right past him and shoulders his way into the apartment, keeping his head down and his eyes fixed on the floor. It’s three in the morning and he’s been wearing the same blood and sweat-stained outfit for the past nineteen hours, after jetsetting halfway across the country to get his brain chewed out by fucking tentacle monsters and his speech simulating collar fucked seven ways to Sunday. And. Fuck. He needs to claim the shower before Bro does or he’ll be absolutely foul by the time the man’s interminable shower ends.

A smuppet comes flying at Dave's head from a diagonal. It's an obvious distraction, but Dave can't handle taking a smuppet to the face even on the best of days, so he wastes precious seconds whipping out his sword and slicing the bright green plush abomination into quarters. Bro inserts himself between Dave and the bathroom, leaning on the door frame as he folds his arms and continues to stare pointedly at Dave.

“Get out of my way, Bro,” Dave tries to say. He fails miserably; his vocal cords flap, and air rasps out through his lips, but no sound emerges. There’s a faint, breathy hiss, and that’s it. Just. No. Fuck this. He stops time and ducks under Bro’s arm, but before he can slam the door Bro hauls him back out by his shirt collar. Dave lets out a stream of curse words that don’t make a sound anywhere but in his head, and within seconds he just shuts down because what's the fucking point.

Bro keeps a grip on Dave’s shirt, silent, and Dave tenses up under the scrutiny, staring at a shitty poster hanging on the wall instead of meeting his gaze.

"Fuckin' brat," Bro mutters after five minutes of silence.

Yeah, Dave doesn't have to put up with this shit. He rips his shirt out of Bro's grasp between one second and the next and huddles up his shoulders, slouching away as he heads for the kitchen. "Fine, have the fucking shower first," he wants to say, even though he knows that's not what Bro is on about. Fuck, can't a guy just brood over the fact that he's mute for two fucking seconds?

When he glances back from the kitchen, he can see Bro's hands moving. Dave intends to pointedly ignore the sign language, but he grimaces and ends up looking anyway, trying to hide it behind the cover of his shades. 'Look, I can get new parts in a month. I'll go hit up my dealer abroad,' Bro signs, the movements of his hands deft and sharp, like he's cutting the air with the signs. 'Stop dicking around and suck it up, you whiny little beanpole.'

"Don't pander to me." Dave shoves both hands through his hair, accidentally brushing his shades halfway up his forehead as he does so. He's just wheezing and flapping his lips at Bro at this point. Not even getting angry can make the words audible, and he knows that, but he keeps trying anyway because he really is a dumb fuck who doesn't know when to stop.

'It's not pandering, dipshit, it's me making sure you haven't actually forgotten the fucking language you use when you can't talk.' Bro shakes his head. 'Sometimes I wonder about you, kid.'

Dave returns to ignoring Bro, shoving aside a pile of empty video game cases and letting them fall onto the kitchen floor as he hunts through the debris. He's so sick of Bro's stuff lying around everywhere (never mind that half the stuff is nominally Dave's, too) and is seriously debating the ironic merits of going on a soundless cleaning spree to usher in the new era of Silent Striders. It would be like taking a vow of silence and training in a mountaintop dojo to become some kind of badass ninja monk who uses cleaning techniques to shank people.

...No, he's not doing this, man. He's not making this happen. He's too fed up with fucking life right now to be that motivated, and where the fucking fuck is his apple juice.

In the space of five frenzied seconds and all the pauses in-between, Dave tears the kitchen apart. Bro could've stopped him at any point, but he just watches as Dave runs out of hiding places to search.

There is no apple juice. It's not in any of his usual stashes, or any of Bro's funky hiding spots. It hasn't even been poured out of its usual containers and poured into beer bottles just to fuck with Dave - he would know, he does taste tests. It's not anywhere.

The last of Dave's meager, childish hopes and dreams wither and die. Life is awful. All of the light has literally gone out of the world, as though the sun can never bring itself to shine on a world without AJ ever again. Or maybe Dave's just closed his eyes and started banging head against the side of the fridge. One of the two. He's willing to bet cold hard cash on it being the former. The absence of AJ is something to be universally mourned. The sky itself weeps and thunders out a booming elegy for the amber elixir - no, no, that's still just Dave pounding a new dent into the fridge with his forehead. Close enough.

"...Is that Morse code?" Bro asks aloud, sounding almost thoughtful. "For...AJ? Oh my god, kid, you have a problem."

Dave lets out a strangled wheeze of fury and removes his head from the side of the refrigerator, bypassing the bathroom entirely as he darts into his room. Bro could be signing any number of things at Dave as he stomps by, but Dave doesn't look up. He's not deaf, god fucking dammit, his voice may have pulled a fucking Ariel but his ears are working just fine. If Bro starts going around signing all the time out of some perverse desire to mock Dave's mourning (which let's be honest, is pretty fucking likely), the man's just going to have to deal with being ignored all the time. Bro might not say a lot, but when he does talk, he gets all pissy and bitchy when people ignore him. Too bad. Dave refuses to fall back on the old instinct to keep a person's hands in sight at all times except in combat situations.

He kicks his door shut. Bro probably has cameras in here but Dave stopped expecting personal privacy in this place way back in the infancy of irony. These clothes are so fucked, and he'd like to not get pulled over by the cops on the street, so he just strips as he goes and then pulls a dull red sweater over his head against the almost-cool night air drifting in through the hole in the wall. Pants are overrated as fuck, but he puts them on anyway. Oh, the sacrifices he's willing to make in the name of apple juice. He fishes his phone out of his torn work uniform's pocket and grabs his wallet before exiting the room. Still seething inwardly, he heads for the front door. He still smells like ozone and blown up buildings and creepy secret labs, but he can probably pass for normal long enough to retrieve the goods from the convenience store.

Commandment one of the Faith of Dave - thou shalt not suffer a dearth of apple juice in thy household. It is law.

'Where the fuck do you -' Bro begins in sign language, then switches over when Dave doesn't turn to indulge Bro's weird new signing fetish. "-think you're going?"

Out, Dave thinks loudly. His throat scrapes dryly as he swallows down words, and he leaves the door hanging open behind him and flashsteps all the way downstairs. Bro doesn't come after him, which is - fucking typical. Sheesh, Dave's eighteen goddamn years old, he doesn't need permission to go out at night. Or three in the morning. Jesus fuck. And if Bro really wanted him to stay indoors, Dave wouldn't have even made it out the door.

He supposes he could also get some cleaning supplies while he's out. Showing John around the pigsty that is the Strider household had been more than a little embarrassing at the time, what with all the gross puppets everywhere, but of course that has nothing to do with why Dave would want to clean a little. No, this would be a purely ironic exercise.

...Yeah. Hell yeah. AJ and cleanliness. He's making this a thing, goddammit.

-

He's about five blocks away from the apartment when he remembers that he meant to pester John. Fuck it, his phone didn't have service on the plane, but it does now. Dave zones out and lets his feet go wherever the road takes him, removing his phone from his pocket and opening Pesterchum. John's handle is greyed out, but that doesn't mean shit with him; on top of the hero thing, John is a total goddamn dweeb. Homework is like that kid's crack cocaine. Dave would bully the shit out of him if he weren't a total sucker for the kid.

-- turntechGodhead [TG] began pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 03:21:30 --
TG: john
TG: i know youre missing me already
TG: like 'fuck, that strider guy'
TG: 'he was just too righteous'
TG: 'how do i go on without him in my life'
TG: 'hes ruined me for all other brohombres'
TG: 'that handsome asshole'
TG: im sorry john i cant help being such a liferuiner
TG: sorry im not sorry
TG: shit, no, that was lame
TG: fuck
TG: forget i said that i have a reputation to maintain
TG: i blame the internet they dont let shit die there
TG: that saying should be taken out back behind the shed and shot
TG: then we can stuff its rotting corpse and burn it in effigy
TG: its a fucking plan, my man, am i right? we can invite all our derpy little friends to the corpse party
TG: …
TG: why does this always happen
TG: why do we always end up here
TG: me pouring out my fragile, manly heart to you
TG: you ignoring my finely crafted overtures of brohood
TG: why must you string me along this way EB?

Wait. Shit. It's 3 in the morning here, which means it's 1 in Seattle, right? The last time he saw John, the kid had a new sling and massive bruises all up and around his shoulder; surely he couldn't have gone out and done the hero thing right after a tentacle monster smackdown?

Yeah, who is Dave kidding. This is John he's talking about. The kid doesn't have the common sense of a fucking red shirt, though so far he's got a better survival rate. He's probably trying to pitifully elbow some rando in the kidney with his crippled elbow. Dumbass.

TG: awesome
TG: ill have you know i can sense your dumbshit life choices from here john
TG: and i am stating for the record that any choice that does not involve talking to me is a shitty life choice
TG: but
TG: i am a generous brohort and i know that one day you shall return to my bosom
TG: shhh no words now
TG: just bosoms
-- turntechGodhead [TG] ceased pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 03:37:11 --

Yeah, he's just going to shut up while he's ahead. Yikes. Thumbing out of the Pesterchum tab, Dave looks up just in time to see himself slouching out of an alley up ahead.

Oh great. Time fuckery. Exactly how Dave wants to top off this shitty evening sundae, with the cherry of temporal inevitability. Now he's facing a morning that, depending on how far back future-Dave tells him to go, could very well end up lasting another twelve hours longer than it should. Time travel is all cool and shit in theory, but in practice, Dave has found it anywhere from baffling to tedious to outright stupid. But then, isn't that basically life?

The other-Dave is carrying a bunch of plastic grocery bags on his arms, so at some point Dave at least makes it to his intended destination, which is a fucking relief. Half the time these temporal tangents send him halfway across Houston and he completely fails to get his original job done. Future-him huffs and shoves the plastic bags up into the crook of his elbows to free his hands and start signing. Weak. Looks like Dave gives in at some point tonight, which is fucking dissatisfying. He is personally disappointed in himself; he's really let himself down this time.

'Oh my fucking god are we a whiny little shit,' other-Dave signs, glowering. His shades are off, hanging by one folded arm from the collar of his sweater, so the furrowed brows are really obvious and exposed. 'Bro is right. This is obnoxious. Stop that right now. Stop proving him right or so help me God I will punch us in the dick.'

He'd ask how future-him knows what Dave is thinking, but the answer is pretty obvious. "Go ahead," he mouths, stuffing his hands in his pockets. "You're the one who'll have been feeling it all night long."

Other-him grimaces. 'It's almost worth it. Almost. Whatever. If you don't shape up, BQ will think we're idiots and she won't let us all in on Operation Investigashenanigans and Detectevasion.'

"There was a line. You just crossed." Dave rubs at his face with a hand, not quite a facepalm but pretty close because holy fuck, did they seriously just graduate to double portmanteau mission names? That's it. He is so done right now.

Future-Dave just smiles. 'Okay, first I was just going to not tell you because that was how I remembered it happening. Now, I'm just not gonna tell you because witnessing you boarding the struggle bus over something as obvious as those wordsmashes is almost the equivalent of that dick punt I seriously considered earlier.'

"Why. We swore, you asshat. We swore the struggle bus wouldn't become a thing." Dave pulls a facepalm 2x combo. "We fucking swore. Ugh. Everything about this morning is awful and it's barely three."

'Welcome to the struggle bus. Next stop, pointless agonizing over a shitty portmanteau like the little bitch we are.' If future-Dave could talk, he'd be using that flat monotone they use whenever they're maintaining a flawless pokerface. The execution is excellent, Dave will give himself that much. 'It's totally a thing now, man. And speak for yourself, I've had a fan-fucking-tastic morning.'

He doesn't need to take this kind of abuse from himself. "Just tell me how far back to go," Dave demands silently, almost managing to pronounce the vowels in a wheezy kind of way. If vowels sounded like angry breathing. "Let this end."

'Two hours.' Future-Dave shakes his head, hands still fluttering like birds. 'I like how I'm always so much more well-adjusted by this point. Past-me is always so pissy whenever we have to run loops, have you noticed that? Dude, just chill, they're not that bad.'

Dave has no idea what could possibly make him so disgustingly cheerful in two nonlinear hours from now, and he has no interest in having this obnoxiously good mood rubbed in his face while he's personally still 'pissy.' He turns away and heads for the alley, blatantly staring away from future-Dave's hands.

So he misses the warning signs before a hand lands on his shoulder. Dave flinches, nearly shanking his future-self by reflex. He really should know better than to startle himself when he's got a sword on his person. "Dude. What?" he doesn't say.

Future-Dave rolls his eyes and dumps a small container in Dave's free hand. 'For the road, man. You'll thank me later.'

Dave doesn't get it, until two seconds later when he does a double take and everything in the world fades away. His vision tunnels in on that precious green cardboard container resting in the palm of his hand.

...Oh my god. Future apple juice.

AJ.

From.

The future.

It's like a religious epiphany, dawning over an unseen horizon, and this. This is what enlightenment feels like.

Holy fuck, how the hell has Dave not been abusing this power to hell and back all this time? He could have built up a one-man monopoly on the import and consumption of apple juice in the Western hemisphere by this point, and he's been wasting time powers with useless shit like fighting crime? Fuck all this noise, he could have his own apple orchard by the end of the night if he plays his temporal loops right -

'Yeah, I'll get started on eBay when I get home,' future-Dave promises, a tiny smirk tugging at the edge of his lips. 'We're doing this, man.'

'We're making this happen," Dave agrees with his hands, too awed by this glorious new vision of the future to stay on the struggle bus. Because hell yeah, he'll sign if it means he gets to start his own apple juice empire.

He has seen the future.

And it involves him owning a personalized apple juice company, goddammit.

-

Thanks to the BQ’s whims, Dave has been out at night more than usual, but he’s still not used to going all hero mode when it’s dark out. This early in the morning, even Houston’s humidity levels have calmed their tits and sunk below 50%; Dave’s sweater almost tips the scales from painfully ironic to actually suitable for the current temperature, which is just weird.

Dave and the Badass Quandary don’t have a set meeting place or method of arranging their rendezvouses. Dave had suggested it once.

Once.

BQ had just sneered at him, and began mocking him for his ‘utter incompetence in the realms of subterfuge and subtlety,’ which Dave felt was pretty fucking unfair. He is subtle, okay. He is like the sex guru of subtlety. Ninjas come to him for tips. Spies don’t have shit on Strider quality cunning, alright? He is stealthy as fuck. He just doesn’t think it’s too much to ask for a little goddamn order in the shitstorm that is his relationship with the Quandary.

He doesn’t even know what this dame wants. It’s been nearly two years since he first ran across her, and Dave still doesn’t understand what the carapacian gets out of this alliance. She has the whole enigma thing down; like shit, this woman could make Bro himself fucking work for it. For whatever obscure reason, she wanted Dave to time travel – she wouldn’t fucking shut up about how ‘pausing’ time was moronic and that he should be ‘working in quantifiable paradox loops, you damned fool.’ But after he nearly killed himself to get the hang of going backward in time, she just seemed smugly pleased, and then shut him the fuck down. And she did it in a way that made Dave look stupid for wanting to know the little things, like, you know, how the hell the BQ found out his regular identity anyway, or how she knew enough about his powers to encourage him to expand them past flashstepping.

These are pretty huge concerns, okay? But she just keeps putting him off with misdirection and condescending sarcasm.

So the apple juice only goes so far in placating Dave as he shuffles along the street two hours earlier. He sips it slowly through the straw, trying to savor the last dregs at the bottom of the carton. Meetings with the BQ are becoming pretty useless, and more than once over the past few weeks he’s wondered just why he keeps this up. If he can’t make any progress with the dame tonight, he decides, he’ll just cut himself loose. He doesn’t owe her shit if she can’t be bothered to make sense. He’s not in the mood to have another unfathomable authority figure in his life, goddammit.

He launches the empty juice carton at the nearest trash can with flawless accuracy. His skin prickles and before the carton lands on top of the trash within Dave has his shitty sword out, holding it at the ready as he scans the area.

The only thing he can detect on the road around him is a feral lusus, something beetle-shaped and clicking that is scrounging through the trash outside a Chipotle. Not exactly a normal sight – most rogue lusii get picked up within hours of losing their shit and running away – but not unusual enough to have triggered Dave’s internal alarms. Something is up, but he can’t pinpoint where the sensation is coming from.

Which means this is pretty much like every ironic horror movie he’s ever watched. Shit, does that make him the dumbass blonde who can’t see the fucking murderghost hanging over his head –

Dave looks up.

A smooth white sphere hovers five feet above his head. It looks, he thinks inanely, almost like a cueball.

…But it’s a fucking murderghost. Obviously. A flying cue ball would just be stupid.

“Oh, fuck,” he mouths. Not being an idiot, he then uses his badass reflexes and immediately flings his piece of shit sword (why the fuck did he leave the cold iron at home?!) at the unholy spirit like a spear up. He proceeds to run like hell. He does turn to see if the sword makes contact, but only after stopping and crouching behind a parked car so he doesn’t trip and lay himself out like a four-course Strider buffet for this ghostly fuckface.

The white sphere blinks out of existence before the sword can make contact, and the sword itself clatters to the street a moment later. It snaps in half like the piece of shit it is, naturally.

Dave very quickly does a 360 degree spot check. He refuses to relax afterward though, and continues to glance around until he realizes he looks like a twitchy, paranoid junkie and huddles inward, clamping down on his movements as he walks back to the sword. He kicks at it gingerly and flashsteps back, waiting to see if the broken metal has been contaminated with unholy spirit juice or some bullshit like that. It appears to still be just a regular old piece of shit sword, but he’s not taking any chances.

BQ: So, his eyes have found you at last.

Dave nearly climbs the nearest streetlight like a fucking cat, and in fact has on hand on the pole before he yanks himself to a halt. It’s just BQ. Shit. Fuuuck. He nearly gave himself a heart attack, Christ.

The Quandary steps a little ways out of the shadows, the beetle lusus scuttling out of the way of her arching heels. She’s as elegant as ever, with the clicking, careful grace of limbs that stretch just a little too much to match human proportions. Her narrowed white eyes glance over the spot in the air where the murderghost previously hovered, and she adjusts the folds of her dark trench coat with plucking fingers.

BQ: The Crew has been circling in, of course, for a while now. They’ve always known you were somewhere in the Houston area. But it would appear that whatever you thought to accomplish by flying off to New York, you have drawn down his eye.

BQ: What did you think you could accomplish there, by the way? I am dying of curiosity. Your stupidity has reached new heights, and I simply must know how you’ve managed it.

Dave opens his mouth and starts noiselessly wheezing, “That was not an eye, it was a murderous hellspawn come to target hot blondes like myself in the name of cheap jump scares and horrible sequels.”

The BQ stares at him, nonplussed. When her claws clack out the next message and her telepathic voices blooms in his head, she sounds completely put-out.

BQ: I…what nonsense are you saying now, boy?

BQ: That is not a human tongue. By the gods, have you gone eldritch as well? No, I would have sensed that.

BQ: Speak English like the uncouth, mouth-breathing verbalizer that you are, child. You test my patience.

Well, fuck. Carapacians can’t read lips? Dave does suppose that a species that relies on mental communication, verbal clicks, and sign language in conjunction would probably have a bit of a cultural block when it comes to purely verbal speech – hell, BQ complains about English all the damn time – but he doesn’t know how that translates to an inability to read lips.

Guess he knows now why future-Dave was signing away like a regular little kiss-ass. Dave could walk away right now, but BQ would just shank him in the kidney for turning his back on her. Here’s to hoping she likes regular human ASL more than she likes English, then, because he knows for a fact that carapacian sign language looks fuck all like ASL. For all he knows she could be just as flummoxed by human sign language as by noiseless wheezing. Sighing, he clamps his jaw shut and reluctantly raises his hands. ‘Look, lady, I really hope you can understand this, because I have had a shitty day and this is all I got right now.’

BQ stills, the stillness of a predator catching an unknown scent, her head tilted to the side as her eyes glint with a rush of vulturine understanding. When she speaks again, her movements are slow and deliberate. Like she’s signing to a four year old.

BQ: …

BQ: Boy.

BQ: You are communicating with the silent tongue of American Signs.

BQ: Are you still able to understand my end of the dialogue?

‘Yeah, yeah, it’s like a goddamn finger fiesta up in here.’ Dave would have growled that. If, you know, he could still produce that kind of noise. Fuck, this is inconvenient. Most of the emotional nuances in sign language have to come across in body language and facial expressions, and naturally Dave has no intention of sacrificing his gorgeous pokerface just so the BQ can pick up on his sarcasm. ‘Fuck lady, I can still hear you in my head, I’m not incompetent. Just. Can’t talk at the moment. We’re not all weirdly arbitrary telepath people.’

BQ: Intriguing.

BQ: I did not anticipate that you would remain so damaged.

BQ: Paradox echoes are to be expected, but such a level of trauma would not normally manifest itself this obviously.

BQ: Truly, this is a new game we play.

He jabs a finger at her. The effect is lost when he immediately has to retract it and start signing. God, he feels disabled or some shit. 'See that? This game bullshit you keep going on about? Explain. Now. I am so over this and I am walking away right now if you don't start rapping out your secrets or something in the next five seconds.'

BQ: It is a metaphor.

BQ: Obviously.

BQ: Ha. Ha. Ha.

'We agreed you'd never do that again. That totally fucking sarcastic deathlaugh. Stop it.'

BQ: And I am certain that I have, more than once, requested that you cease your inane tangents and focus on remaining hidden.

BQ: Yet I arrive this evening to learn that you have in fact rushed headlong to confront Horrorterrors in full view of the public eye.

BQ: Before making an utter disgrace of yourself in front of however many thousands of your human and troll brethren chose to watch the live footage of the event, and revealing yourself to the Midnight Crew long enough that they are now able to track you without Void interference.

'What can I say.' Dave shrugs. 'When a man's best bro needs help reeling in his tentacle girlfriend, you can't leave him hangin'. Even if it does mean taking a bunch of grimdark feel-good vibes straight to the frontal lobe.'

Not that he remembers that part much at all. After hearing his own voice distorted beyond recognition - something he doesn't really want to think about - when the grimdark Rose started talking to him directly, everything goes kind of blank. Which Dave is surprisingly cool with. Seriously. He'd be fine with forgetting everything about that embarrassing fight sequence entirely. Not recalling the exact, horrifying, no doubt painful details of having Horrorterror voices trying to 'pry their way into his brain,' as Rue Lalonde had termed it, is pretty much awesome with him. He is totes okay with this whole situation being wiped out of his memory for good.

BQ: Do not get me started on the sheer folly of the Heir's actions -

BQ: Wait, what did you say?

The Quandary has been wandering slightly, pacing in deliberate circles beneath the spot where the ghost appeared. Now she stops, and with a slow creak, cracks her head around to face him. Then in two swift steps she strides to him and clasps his chin between two pincer-like claws. Normally Dave would dodge that kind of move pretty easily, but the BQ is fucking fast when she wants to be, okay? You wouldn't expect it from such an elegant broad but she can fucking move. Then she uses her other hand's claws to yank Dave's shades up on top of his hair and jabs at Dave's exposed eyeball and holy fuck not cool not cool -

BQ: Stop. Squirming. Mortal.

'Stop threatening my goddamn eye with your pointy goddamn claws!' he signs back, but he's pretty sure the carapacian dame is so all up in his business that she can't look to see his hand motions anyway. He's got his hands up in a guard that's a little shaky, but his hands waver before they can reach up to grab the BQ's wrists and rip them away from his face. He's too afraid to move in case the two claws delicately peeling his eyelids apart decide to stab forward and start puncturing vulnerable eyeballs. Holy fuck is this not okay. He's in serious danger of adding 'half-blind' on top of the whole mute thing. When a claw needles a little too deeply into the hollow of his eye socket, prodding at the underside of his eyeball, he starts to lose his shit. 'Augh! Get off!'

Eventually, the Quandary shakes her head and steps back, slowly curling her claws up as she goes. Dave nearly trips backward in his haste to get some space between them. He doesn't even try to hide his mild concern as he pokes at his eye to make sure everything is still in one piece before yanking his shades back down.

BQ: Unbelievable.

BQ: You appear to be untainted.

BQ: The luck of the stupid runs strong in this universe.

Dave grunts, and is inwardly pleased when the action actually produces a sound. It's not much, but it's something, alright? 'Tainted? Are we about to have another one of those conversations where you explain nothing relevant to the actual questions I ask?'

The BQ rolls the tips of her fingers along the palm of her hand in a clicking drum, closing her eyes for a long moment. The carapace of her smooth face is unnervingly blank without the dim light of those pale, narrowed eyes, broken only by the white scar running along her closed right eye.

BQ: The Horrorterrors are...unpredictable elements.

BQ: Once they were merely distant threats, half-heard songs echoing from the Furthest Ring.

BQ: Of late, they have been more - forward. Aggressive. As though they have been riled up by something, and now actively seek out victims.

BQ: You in particular would be vulnerable to their advances, though perhaps not so much so as the Seer.

BQ: She has had more prolonged contact with them, of course.

BQ: But you hear them more clearly than most, and once you hear them, they have a way in.

BQ: You do not want to let them in.

Dave's mouth drops. He puts a shaking hand to his lips, eyes widening as he pretends to simper and freak out. 'O-oh my god. You just answered a question. And the answer almost made sense. I - Am I dreaming?'

The BQ just scowls at him.

BQ: Obnoxious whelp.

BQ: This is not a subject I can afford to spare your negligible remaining sanity by judiciously selecting what information you can handle with your poor traumatized brain.

BQ: Horrorterrors are insidious, and they will do more than destroy you if they take command of your body.

BQ: Bad enough they were so easily able to take the Seer again. Can you imagine them with a Knight of Time immersed in their tangles?

Dave facepalms and doesn't respond. After several minutes, he motions with his hand. 'I'm waiting.'

BQ: ...For what?

Dave knuckles at his forehead. 'Further explanation. Like. Knight of Time? Congratulations, you have added Random Unexplained Topic #413 to your list of unexplained bullshit. I can't actually imagine some random ass knight getting all cuddly with tentacle monsters without this little thing called context. You can clear this all up any day now.'

BQ: My job is not to explain things to you.

BQ: You have no idea what function I serve, really, which is just as well.

BQ: I do not think it really applies anymore, anyway. This universe is despicably perverse.

BQ: You are a Hero of Time. Your formal title is Knight.

BQ: What a wonderful explanation I have provided, out of the generosity of my black heart.

BQ: Ha.

Dave nods, considers her words, and then shakes his head. 'You forgot to mention just who the fuck made up that formal title. Like. Are there more titles? Is there a system here? Who the fuck thought I would make a good knight? That's just stupid. Why am I not the Ninja of Time, goddammit?'

BQ: Ninja is not a recognized title.

BQ: And no one decided on the system.

BQ: It simply IS, and always shall be.

BQ: You already know other titles, anyway. The Heir and the Seer are far more in tune with themselves than you and the fourth, oddly enough.

BQ: The Seer is meant to understand, of course, but I cannot imagine how the Heir could have such insight into his true nature this early in the game. That is a far more intriguing line of inquiry than your idiotic questions about topics beyond the purview of your tiny mind at this point in the game.

No. This needs to stop. Dave can feel one of his eyes twitching, and he honestly wants to start banging his head against the pavement in frustration. 'Okay, no, this isn't working. I was wrong, I was so wrong, you explaining things really does just make everything more awful. Why do I keep putting myself through this. I am done. I'm out of here.' He shoves his hands into his pockets, then reconsiders. He reaches up, fixes his shades again, and then gives the BQ a most lofty middle finger. Then he turns and starts walking away.

BQ: Then I suppose you are not interested in hearing about the secret mission?

Damn future-Dave. Damn him for making this inevitable, with his smug future knowledge of whatever the hell this secret missions might be. And damn current-Dave for being instantly, disgustingly intrigued. No, seriously, fuck both those guys. 'No, I don't think so,' he signs, but he has to turn to face BQ so she can see his hands, and he knows that's more than enough of an admission of interest for her to know he's paying attention. 'Sorry. I think I'll just grab my AJ and be on my way. It's been real, BQ, k thanks bai.' He has to spell out the last part with individual signs but it's so worth it to see the moment of bafflement cross the BQ's face as she struggles with the mild language gap.

They're both motionless for a long moment, and when Dave awkwardly finds he can't bring himself to continue walking away, a smile smirk eventually creases the Quandary's face. Yeah, fuck, she knows she's won. Dave's a sucker.

BQ: The eye of the Crew has only just now found you, but they have been in this city long enough to have an established presence.

BQ: They will wait to assess the situation, but they will begin to target you deliberately.

BQ: Unless, of course, we attack first.

BQ: If we can destroy the cue ball and infiltrate their base, we would not only root out the insufferable pests, but we may, in fact, also find answers to some of your questions.

BQ: You know, those interminable questions that you refuse to believe I can't actually answer.

BQ: ...Answers, child.

BQ: Answers I say -

'Okay, okay! Fuck, lady, you win!' Dave groans and slaps at his face, trying to ignore the BQ's triumphant, brain-melting laughter.

But seriously, with a proposal like that, how could anyone expect Dave to say no? Not only does he get to go on some sicknasty secret mission, he might actually get - gasp - answers?!

Not that he really believes her, of course. He's maintaining a healthy skepticism here. He is the king of skepticism. He's been burned before; he may never trust her promises of answers ever again -

Except oh god how awesome would it be to actually get a straight fucking answer for once.

Shiiit. He's so in. This is embarrassing.

'Where do we start looking?' he asks, before a thought strikes him. 'Shit. I need a new sword first. Don't worry, I can literally do this in two seconds.' He's never tried a time loop within a loop before, and for all he knows that kind of timeception could punch a neat hole through the fabric of paradox space, but this is worth it.

The Quandary shakes her head, and leans up against the same streetlight that almost served as Dave's escape route. She removes her weaponized cigarette holder, which makes Dave tense up even more than he already has, what with all this excitement. She proceeds to not flick out the thin blade, but to take an actual, legitimate cigarette from her pocket, followed by a match that she strikes against her own carapace to light.

BQ: Absolutely not.

BQ: Now is not the opportune moment to strike out.

Dave can't even believe this. All the tense excitement rushes out of him in a huff. 'You're kidding, right.'

BQ: I intend to begin this mission in approximately three weeks.

BQ: And to assuage your unending curiosity before you begin to plague me -

BQ: My reasons are twofold: first, I wish to scope out the situation alone, to determine the best method with which we may infiltrate their base. Second, I do not trust that you have emerged from the Horrorterrors unscathed. If nothing else, they have left their mark upon you physically, and that is reason enough to be concerned.

She gestures to his neck with the still unlit cigarette holder. Her hands have been too occupied with sign language to bring the flickering match to the cigarette. Dave instantly gets defensive (he refuses to think the word 'self-conscious') and hunches his shoulder up to block off the edge of the bandages that peek out from the edge of his sweater, barely covering the ring of bruising that his collar left around his throat when the thorn ripped through. 'Fuck. I can still fight. This thing barely stings.'

That's lie, kind of. But Dave's just not so much of a wuss that he can't work through the throbbing ache of the wound - he's been functioning just fine all day since the doctors at the lab sewed him up, thanks very much.

BQ: It concerns me nonetheless.

BQ: Three weeks, Knight. Three weeks and we will commence this mission. This is not debatable.

BQ: And if you see the cue ball - try to make an effort to destroy it. I could not judge how strong its connection to its master ran before it vanished from sight, but now that it has noted your presence, it will be able to track you. Your generalized Void shielding will weaken steadily under its powers of observation. End its scrutiny if you can.

There's just so many questions Dave could ask. He could fill a fucking four-hundred page novel with all the questions he has. He only asks one, the most relevant. 'About that. What cue ball are we talking about?'

The BQ pauses in the middle of lighting up her cigarette, letting the pitch black match burn out against her claws without even a flicker of pain as she shakes her head at him.

BQ: The cue ball that you attempted to impale with a sword.

BQ: A goodly effort, if misguided. They are more vulnerable to explosives than to cutting implements, unfortunately.

Ohhh. She's talking about the ectoplasmic apparition that Dave saw earlier. He had thought it looked a little like a cue ball -

But honestly, that's still the stupidest thing he's ever heard of. A spying cue ball? Seriously? He shakes his head dramatically and shrugs his shoulders. 'Yeah, sorry. I’m pretty sure that was just a murderghost.'

BQ just stares at him. Her fingers twitch on the cigarette holder, as though she's giving serious consideration to the idea of whipping out the hidden blade and stabbing him in the eye.

BQ: What.

BQ: No, this -

BQ: No. I refuse to be caught up in your endless cycle of stupidity.

BQ: Trust me when I tell you that there is no such thing as...what you said.

BQ: I refuse to repeat it.

Time for some payback, goddammit. She practically walked right into this one. How can he resist such a sweet opening? He will have vengeance for his thousands of unanswered questions. 'Aw, don't hate on the murderghost. It could be the first of its kind you know. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe it just wants to be loved. I shouldn't have thrown the sword at it; what if I hurt its feelings? Shit, I could be responsible for the world's first murderghost with self-esteem issues. I feel like a fucking dick now.'

The Quandary shudders and throws the ashes of the match away. Looking almost sick with disgust, she tosses the unlit cigarette away as well, stows her cigashank, and rubs at her temples with both freed hands.

BQ: Cease at once.

BQ: It is a cue ball. It serves as the eye of one who should not be named in an unshielded area. End of discussion.

BQ: It takes a great deal of power to destroy one, but I have faith in your ability to accidentally destroy things, if nothing else.

'Hey. That was a shitty sword, they snap like fucking twigs, okay -'

BQ: Three weeks. I will contact you beforehand. Until then, try to lay low.

BQ: Now excuse me. I have business to attend to. Business that does not involve continuing this cycle of self-flagellation that is trying to deal with questions.

BQ: Farewell.

She gets eaten by the thin shadow of the streetlight before Dave can even raise his hands to reply, which is her favorite method of ditching out on uncomfortable questions she doesn’t want to answer. She doesn't even try to be subtle anymore.

Dave steps on the cigarette the BQ never even got started on, and cracks his neck, smiling thinly.

Of course, if she thinks Dave motherfucking Strider is going to wait three weeks for her permission to do awesome spying shit, the BQ had better think again.

Smirking to himself, Dave starts off down the street as he begins to plot.

Fuck yeah, plotting.

-

Having concluded his business with the BQ, Dave walks with a spring in his step to the convenience store. Outside the florescent lighting that pours out of the automatic front door, he considers his options, then takes off his shades and folds them up to hang on his sweater collar. Squinting in the harsh light, he steps inside.

Behind the counter, Gerald just sighs. "Kid, I don’t even know why you bother sometimes," he mutters. Dave has no idea what he's on about - Gerald is always mumbling about 'useless disguises' and how 'it's so obvious, for Pete's sake,' but Dave thinks the old guy is just going a little senile. Yep. That's Dave's story, and he's sticking to it.

Anyway. Dave hefts a several containers of apple juice and flashsteps to the corner with his bounty in hand. Almost as an after thought, he adds a bottle of Windex to the pile, and Gerald gives him a weird look. Windex cleans things, right? Dave is sure he's heard rumors of that, somewhere.

Slowly, he puts aside thoughts of Operation Investigashenanigans and Detectevasion aside and begins to contemplate his future apple empire. He's changed his mind. Everything is no longer awful. Things are actually looking up. He continues to smile a little even as he heads to go meet past-Dave, cracking open an AJ for himself as he leisurely strolls through the streets instead of rushing along, for once.

Houston had better get ready.

Shit is about to get real.

---

John sleeps straight through the five hour flight from Newark to Seattle. It's the middle of the day in New York, edging towards the middle of the morning in Seattle, but he barely has time to hug Rose and Dave goodbye before he's stumbling up the jet, wearily kicking off his shoes and buckling himself into a seat before passing out.

He wakes up with his face smooshed up against the wall, a little trickle of drool sticking to the side of his chin. He coughs and sits upright, trying to discreetly wipe the drool off on his sleeve, and looks around to see if the stewardess from earlier is around to see it. There's kinda sort of a line of more drool that runs down the wall from where his head rested, and he starts digging into the pile of napkins next to the glass of water someone brought for him and wipes at the drool furiously. He's kind of blushing too. This is so embarrassing! Bleh!

The air in the jet is recycled and tired, but it still ruffles through his hair when he gives it an absent tug. Grimacing, John rubs at his face and stands up to go to the bathroom. He feels grosssss. He's still a mess from the massive fight earlier, and his mouth tastes like pizza gone horribly wrong because that's all he's really eaten all day. His stomach would probably be making some noise about this, but sometime during that nap he shot right from 'grumbling hunger' to 'starvation mode,' which is when his stomach goes dead silent. Yikes. He makes a mental note to steal peanuts or pretzels or something from the back of the plane because wow is he hungry.

"We will be arriving in Seattle shortly," the stewardess mentions after John has finished splashing water on his face and trying to wake up properly. Her horns curve back with a slight hook, and she just hands him the entire basket of pretzel snack packs when he asks. "We'd have sandwiches and other food options, but we were not given time to stock the plane fully before being redirected to Houston," she apologizes. "Take as many as you like."

Yeah, she probably shouldn't have given him that kind of permission. There aren't even going to be pretzels left when John is through here. He sits down at one of the seats with a table in front and starts ripping open packages to dump their contents into an empty mug. "Who does this plane belong to, anyway? Is it Doctor Lalonde's?" John asks, glancing around. Privately he thinks there isn't enough alcohol present on the plane for it to be the doctor's, but that's just his opinion based on a pretty outdated impression of Rose's mom.

For example, if you'd asked him just a day ago, he'd have told you Rue Lalonde was sort of weird and should probably look into AA meetings or something, but was still a pretty good mom, no matter what Rose said.

Now, he's not so sure. He tries to reconcile the Doctor Lalonde he knew all those years ago, and the desperate, enigmatic woman who had abandoned Rose to a lonely, empty house to fend for herself without contact with the outside world, and he comes up totally blank. He just can't accept that ditching Rose was the only possible choice Rue Lalonde had, and somewhere inside, he thinks he's starting to hate her, a feeling like sour milk curdling in his gut.

He just keeps remembering how fragile and skinny Rose felt when he hugged her, the way she had collapsed inward into a quiet, exhausted jumble of thin bones and too-pale skin after she finished driving the last of the grimdark out of her head. Rose is so, so strong; she's always been one of the strongest, smartest people John knows. And now he thinks she might be broken inside, in a way that might not be fixable. And a large part of that is due not just to the Horrorterrors, but to Rue's neglect.

He hates hating people. He avoids it as much as possible. But Rose got hurt because of this. Thousands of people got hurt in New York because of this. It's going to take a while before he can judge objectively whether or not Doctor Lalonde made the right decision. Until then, he's just going to have to stay in contact with Rose (this time for sure!), and send the doctor some...very sternly worded letters in the event she starts hurting Rose again, even if it's just by accident.

"Oh, no. Doctor Lalonde simply has emergency privileges," the stewardess says, patiently waiting by the side of the table and sweeping each depleted pretzel package into a trash bag. John begins to stuff pretzels into his mouth while she continues. "We still serve under the Harley Foundation. Of course, there hasn't been much need for a private jet since our founder died under mysterious circumstances, but we freelance as transportation for executives and politicians."

"The Harley Foundation?" John repeats. He wants to say the name is familiar, but he can't place it at all. He focuses on not choking on the mugful of pretzels he pours into his mouth. Agh. So much salt! "Where have I heard that before?" he says, covering his mouth with a hand so crumbs don't fly out everywhere.

The troll stewardess eyes him appraisingly, her green eyes sharp. "Not many have heard the name at all," she admits, stuffing another armful of pretzel wrappers into the bag. "For the most part, the core foundation simply provides funding for several enterprises that caught the founder's interests in his later years - there is no real Harley Foundation brand, per say. For example, much of the funding for Lalonde Laboratories is drawn from the Harleys. Our founder was very intrigued with the doctor's work before his unfortunate demise."

"Doctor Lalonde's work? On what?" John finishes opening the last of the pretzels. Wow, that took him a grand total of five minutes. It barely makes a dent in the cavernous hollow that is his stomach, but it's a start, anyway. "I thought she did stuff with atoms?"

The stewardess just shrugs as she tucks the empty pretzel basket under her arm and walks back to the kitchenette. "I couldn't tell you, sir. I only know the old company byline, from when Mr. Harley was still around. He was very interested in the sciences. He'd promote anything from major research think tanks to individual roboticists if their work caught his eye." She continues to talk, even when she moves out of John's line of sight and starts dumping the trash bag into a disposal unit. "He was a nice old man. Very spirited. 'Lots of gumption,' is what he'd always say!"

John rests his head on his hand as he leans on the table, frowning. "How weird. I can't think of where I've heard that name before," he says. It's on the tip of his tongue; it's the most frustrating thing in the world, but he just can't figure it out!

"I'm sure you'll remember eventually, sir," the stewardess says. She sounds like she's just saying it to be polite, though. "You may want to buckle in -

"We are beginning our final descent into the Seattle-Tacoma area," a mildly irritated male voice says over the intercom. "Siddown and buckle up, pretzel murderer. Yeah, that's right, I saw that. Asshole. You too, Marie."

The stewardess just rolls her eyes. "He's always this grumpy," she whispers, winking at John with a faint smile.

John feels a pang in his chest, and he can only half-smile at the stewardess in reply before he lets it drop. He's just been reminded that he hasn't seen Karkat in, what - more than a day? Usually even when they can't see each other, they're texting all the time, and of course John hasn't been able to do that since his phone got left behind in his room. It's 4 in the afternoon now, and even if his dad is already at the airport to pick John up like he'd promised he would be, and if they don't hit any major traffic on the way home, it'll be nearly 5 before they get back to Maple Valley. John's not even sure Karkat will be available for those few hours between now and when John wants to get out on patrol, no matter how much John kind of misses him.

It sucks. He couldn't help the circumstances that led to this (who could possibly have seen rage-teleportation coming?!) but he still feels like a sucky friend. He's the worst.

Not to mention the fact that John has no idea how his dad is going to react when John disembarks. Samuel Egbert has sounded tired and tense the few times John has spoken to him over the course of this little misadventure, and John has a sinking feeling that he's gonna be in a looooot of trouble when they get home. Like, actual 'you're literally grounded' levels of trouble. Head-exploding levels of trouble. Soooo much trouble. Augh.

By the time the plane taxis to a halt, John has such a headache.

-

Fortunately, this trip is a little more legal than the illicit run out of the Houston airport - instead of having to go full hero-mode and sneak off the busy landing strip past a bunch of guards, John is expected this time, the pilot having had the time to actually report their arrival ahead of schedule. He walks past the security guards and into the terminal, feeling dizzyingly out of place in his borrowed, too-fancy getup. He's ditched the really obvious suit jacket and everything, but he's still wearing most of the hero outfit Dave let him borrow (he hasn't even figured out how he'll return it all to Dave, yet - oops), and he fights the urge to pull on his goggles in the middle of the crowded mob of people that swarms through the wide terminal hall. That wouldn't solve anything at this point - it would only call attention to him.

He's feeling kind of light-headed, actually, and his breathing is erratic. He's freaking out a little yeah, because there's so many people and the crowd keeps jostling him as he ducks his head and heads for the exit, but he's so exposed in this eye-catching uniform and god he really needs some fresh air. Like. Right now. Right now right now right now -

The crowd diminishes slightly as most of the people clustering around him peel off to wait by the luggage carousals, and John pushes his way through the exit door with a gasp.

Thankfully, John's first, refreshing breath of brisk Seattle spring air clears his burgeoning migraine right up, as though the clean wind runs through his mind and drains the heat out of his pounding temples. After suffering through Houston's humidity, the bloodbrine of the Horrorterror's storm, and the recycled monotony of the airplane for the past day, John is relieved when he stretches his free arm outward and the breeze that wraps around him in greeting is sharp and clear, with the metallic hum of the airplanes taking off and landing around them to give it a little zest. He sighs happily, letting his head fall back so he can look at the late afternoon sky.

He has a sneaking suspicion that he'd nearly freaked himself out enough to teleport just then, right in the middle of a crowd of witnesses. The thought sobers him a little. He still has no idea what teleportation has to do with his usual windy thing, but it seems to be triggered not just by rage anymore, but by panic, too. The fight with a grimdark Rose had proven that well enough - he hadn't been furious at the grimdark tangle, just terrified it would snatch Dave away from him, and that had been enough to send him teleport-spamming all over the place. At the time he'd been too caught up in the fight for Rose's body and mind to really notice it; in hindsight, John realizes he's going to have to analyze this new ability with his dad pretty extensively. This is going to have a pretty big impact on his hero work, particularly if he can't get a handle on his weirdly volatile emotions. It'd suck hardcore if he freaked out while stopping a robbery or something and suddenly ended up in the middle of a house fire halfway across the city, after all!

He also wishes it would stop hurting so much. The intense, stabbing pain that wracks his chest is always gone afterward as though it never happened, and doesn't generally stun him for long, but while he's in the process of working himself up into a distress-teleport, it feels like he's actually, literally dying. That's a pretty big flaw in the way the power works. Like, seriously, is this going to end up giving him a legitimate heart attack? Should he be worried about this?

He stands there for a moment, enjoying the feel of fresh air in his lungs, until a honk breaks him out of his reverie. He realizes a familiar white car has pulled up to the curb before him, and through the barely tinted windows he can see his dad's totally classy fedora. Sucking in one last breath to try to steady himself, John bites his lip and walks over to the car. He opens the door and slides into the passenger's seat, staring at his hands in his lap for a long moment after he shuts the door behind him. Having braced himself, John looks at his dad.

There is a brief moment of limbo, in which Samuel Egbert is totally expressionless as he twists to face John. He's unshaven, John notes dizzily, and his eyes are almost as underscored with shadows as John's, and he doesn't think he's ever seen his dad in this bad of shape, not since -

Well. The last time John had taken off to Houston.

John's been so busy with all the frantic action, he hasn't really considered his dad's reaction to John vanishing again. Sure, he expected to get a good stern lecture because obviously running all the way to New York without permission was kind of dumb, but… Well, he just hadn't thought how this would look to his dad. How Samuel would feel, in those long, drawn out minutes between John disappearing and when John finally got his hands on a cell phone at the Striders'. How he'd been tricked into thinking that his own son could be anywhere, could have been kidnapped, or worse, could have legitimately run away again in another fit of depression, one he might not have come back from. How badly would Samuel beat himself up for thinking that he'd failed to see John fall into depression again? How well could John have expected his dad to sleep with all that on his mind?

Oh gosh. Shit. John is the worst son. The worst.

"John."

Oh man, his dad's voice is perfectly neutral, just like his expression, and John can't tell if it's a good neutral or a bad neutral. He hangs his head, but the car continues to idle in place by the curb instead of moving until John looks up and meets his dad's eyes again.

"How long have you been communicating with Flashstep?" he asks, his tone still too gently balanced for John to interpret any anger out of it, which just makes him more anxious. "Since...last time?"

John nods, fighting the urge to drop his head entirely and stare at his fingers. After a nod, his dad turns his attention to the road and John can drop his eyes with relief, turning them to face forward. The air conditioning runs over his face as they finally pull out onto the road and Samuel starts to maneuver their way out of the airport.

"I kept meaning to tell you," John says at last, swallowing hard. He lets his vision zone out as he stares at the spinning wheels of the car ahead of them in the right-hand lane. "But it was just - a really bad time. And then as things got better I started talking to him less and less, so I stopped thinking it would matter so much. I never meant to keep him a secret from you." He winces inwardly, because that's where he really went wrong with this - keeping secrets from his dad. That whole point in his life had been a mess of secrets and depression, and he's still riding out the aftershocks to this day. It just doesn't go away when you think you're better.

"I see. I still wish you had told me about him." Samuel signals a right hand turn with more force behind the tug on the signal handle than he usually uses. He sighs then, scraping at an unshaven cheek with one hand. Every move just makes John feel more guilty. "You told me over the phone that you were careful to keep your chats confidential, but it was still extremely irresponsible of you to discuss that kind of sensitive information with someone over the internet. We can't control what may or may not have gotten out that way."

"I know," John rasps. He clears his throat before he goes on. "I'll try to be more careful from now on."

"I'm not saying you have to stop speaking with him entirely. Far be it from me to come between you and your friends. But promise you'll only go on speaking with this boy if you've clearly thought through the consequences of your actions, and if you know you can keep compromising details out of the chat."

"I promise." John closes his eyes again. It's both more and less than how he expected his dad to react, and he can't fight the relief that seeps into him. He doesn't have to give up on Dave. "I'm also going to try to keep in contact with Rose, too," he adds, shifting in his seat. "The impression I got was that the reason the grimdark got such a hold on her was because she had no one to talk to. At all. Her mom just totally left her alone, Dad." This last part is said with more than a little pain in it, and he can't help darting a glance at the side of his dad's impassive face. At a personal level, that may have been the part of this whole ordeal that struck John as the most horrifying - that Doctor Lalonde, who had seemed like such a nice lady, could abandon her own child that way.

And it's stupid and dumb and irrational of him, but now he has a sinking feeling in his stomach, fueled by the kind of thoughts like 'if she could leave rose why couldn't he leave me just as easily?'

See? So dumb. So stupid. No matter how angry his dad got, there's no way he'd ever just ditch John!

Yet he can't stop that primal, childish fear from churning in his gut - because surely Rose thought the same thing about Rue, and she'd been proven so wrong. So very, very wrong.

"Of course, that's fine too, John." Is that a note of slight reassurance in Samuel's voice? John still just can't tell. His dad sighs. "Rue called me and explained what she'd told you. I suppose you know by now that she knew about your powers when you were little."

In a way, it's almost more shocking to hear his dad admit it in such a casual tone of voice than it had been to hear it off-handedly from Rue. John freezes up with the shock, and then shakes it off. "Y-yeah," he says, looking at his dad properly. He and Rose both had sworn to question their parents about the circumstances of their meeting, but it appeared Samuel, unlike the enigmatic Rue, might be more willing to open up about it of his own accord. "Why? What made you trust her with that? And why did you never tell me and Rose?"

"To be honest, I didn't intend to trust her with anything," Samuel says, changing lanes. "You and Rose had only played together a few times in a controlled setting, and the next day Rue approached me and asked how long you'd been able to control the wind." He shakes his head, and John actually catches the faint hint of a smile on his mouth. John doesn't get what about this is amusing, but it's still better than seeing nothing but emotionless disappointment. "You can imagine the look on my face when she just burst out with the truth like that. I'd been supervising you two the whole time and never saw you break cover once. But Rue is nothing if not a genius, even when she's not sober. More than once I've underestimated her simply because she was drinking heavily at the time, but her skills at observation and inference are remarkable."

"And then?" John asks. This is pretty much how he'd imagined the explanation would go - his dad is too much of a stickler for confidentiality and anonymity to have let the cat out of the bag for no reason, but Doctor Lalonde is definitely to type to swagger up to you with a drunken slur and inform you that of course she already knew about your fantastic grade on that English assignment, it's obvious from the way you're holding that pencil.

No, seriously, one time she knew John had beat Rose on an English essay before John had even said a word to Rose about it. It had been the one and only time John ever mysteriously beat Rose out in the realm of writing, but Rue had apparently deduced the slight smugness in John's smile barely five seconds after the two of them stopped by the Lalonde residence for cookies. Doctor Lalonde is scary good.

"She informed me of Rose's powers. We agreed to keep you both ignorant of each other. I thought personally that you were both too young to be able to keep that kind of secret together - you would be more prone to discussing it at school, around other children, if you got too comfortable talking about it with each other. It was too much of a risk." Samuel sighs. "Rue, on the other hand, was of the opinion that having an ordinary friendship to ground you both would be more beneficial for your social development while you were young. And...well."

The look how well that plan turned out goes unsaid. Maybe his dad didn't really mean it that way, but John hears it anyway, and he can't help the tiny inward flinch.

He can't deny it, though, can he? Rose lost her mind to Horrorterrors, and John lost his to depression. And maybe they're both recovering from that, but the fact is that neither of them turned out totally fine, did they?

All they can do is move on as best as they can.

After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, Samuel speaks again. The faint note of amused reminiscence is gone, and he's totally neutral once more. "Let's talk about New York. Go over it with me, move by move."

And okay. John can handle this. This is a briefing, the standard post-rehearsal they go through after every night John is out on the job. His dad may still have bags under his eyes, and he may still be using that flat tone of voice, but this is routine. This is something familiar, and that means that no matter how angry his dad might be, it's not bad enough yet that he's going off script. John relaxes a little back into his seat, the fingers of one hand tapping along to the faint hum of classical music coming from the speakers as he begins to speak.

They merge onto the interstate and begin to make their way through the traffic. Samuel never drives too fast or too slow; he is always precisely at the speed limit, with effortless accuracy. Karkat, in comparison, drives like an old lady with all the inner rage of a troll-circuit WWE wrestling champion.

...Nah. Not even the humorous rage comparison is lightening John's mood. He still feels awful.

It's not until a half hour later, though, when they're driving along the familiar streets of suburbia, that John's dad breaks the really sucky news. He's probably waiting until the stern fatherly lecture sinks in before launching into something different, which John appreciates immediately when he hears exactly what happened last night while John was stuck in Houston.

"They did what?!" he yells, clapping a hand over his mouth when his dad raises a disapproving eyebrow. "They blew up the police station?!"

"No one appears to have been seriously hurt," Samuel concedes, waiting patiently at a stop sign as a mother with two children crosses the road in front of the car. He waves back with a faint quirk of a smile when one of the little kids waves at him frantically, in stark contrast to the grim tone of his voice as he speaks to John in an undertone. "They could have produced a much more destructive incendiary if they truly wanted to harm anyone, but the goal appears to have been to produce a smokescreen allowing Hearts Boxcars to escape. Some of the lower ranking members were recaptured a few blocks away, but there's been no sign of Boxcars."

John runs both hands through his hair, aware from the fact that there's a faint breeze stirring in the car that he should probably try to calm down. But holy crap, how did everything manage to go to hell in the space of one night? First Rose, now this?! Jeez! "And let me guess. None of the ones they captured are talking?"

"Not a one," his dad says, pulling forward. They're almost in their section of the neighborhood, and John automatically starts watching for Karkat's house in the corner of his eye. "Naturally, the police are a little wary about letting their legal counsel in after the last lawyer apparently brought in the bomb materials, but they can't deny them the right to legal representation entirely. My contact at the station says they're checking over each new lawyer thoroughly."

"I doubt they need to worry. Explosives seem to be Hearts's thing, but I doubt he'd send help for one of his underlings. Not when there's a good chance they'll get out on bail, again," John mutters. He leans his head against the window, his eyes flickering over the side of Karkat's house with considerably less enthusiasm than usual. Now he feels bad about that, too. Wow, and he'd thought this day couldn't get any more depressing.

A thought strikes him. "Wait, what about Hemogoblin?" he asks, whipping his head around to look at his dad again. "Was there anything about him in the reports? Do you think he'd get there in time to try to stop them?"

Samuel just shakes his head solemnly. "I'm sorry, son. If Hemogoblin was around, no one in the papers reported it. My police contact remembered seeing him after the explosion, but there's just no telling if he would have been able to catch up to Hearts in time. If he did and he was successful, no doubt he would have phoned in the capture already. I think we have to accept that Hearts Boxcars is gone for now."

"Or they could have hurt him," John mutters, gritting his teeth. It's a serious possibility, and he sees his dad nod his head in reluctant agreement. They still have no idea what the full extent of Hemogoblin's powers are, how well he can fight one-on-one against someone of Hearts Boxcars's caliber. The other hero is fast and flexible, but Hearts can hit hard. And there's also the high possibility that more grenades could have been involved in any ensuing showdown.

Yeah, that's a worst case scenario. John is definitely concerned about his hero partner, now. He's patrolling tonight no matter what; even if he didn't desperately want to get back into his regular routine and make up for missing Hearts's escape, he has to get in contact with Hemogoblin somehow and make sure the other hero is alright.

They pull into the driveway a few minutes later. After his dad parks John gets the mail by reflex before following Samuel inside. He's still kind of out of sorts, and the regular routine of little things like getting the mail seeming really...weird. Then again, when you start out the day by fighting an otherworldly horror, it's bound to make regular things like getting the mail a little bizarre in comparison.

"I'm going to get changed," he tells his dad, tugging at the shoulder of his slightly too-tight shirt with a grimace as he toes off his shoes. Everything he's wearing right now is still Dave's and yes, Dave is a skinny little shit. Seriously. Everything is too tight.

Everything.

"Probably a good idea," Samuel agrees, hanging his slightly wrinkled suit jacket on the handle of the closet where they keep the ironing board. He probably means to iron later - it looks like he's wearing the same suit John remembers from yesterday (though it feels like a lifetime ago), and John feels a renewed stab of guilt that his dad was worried enough not to put effort into his usual dapper appearance. "Karkat will no doubt be over within hours," he adds, raising an eyebrow. "He is a remarkably persistent friend. And just as remarkably observant."

John just rolls his eyes in agreement. But it's true. Holy heck, what if Karkat saw the fight in New York on the television? He should have had work today, but Karkat has an uncanny sense for finding news about heroes - Heir in particular. And while it's up in the air (hehe) if anyone recognized Heir in New York, since John hasn't actually seen the news reports yet, if anyone would notice someone resembling Heir in the middle of a major battle it would be Karkat.

"And son?"

John pauses at the stairs, glancing back at his dad. Something in his stomach tightens a little.

"You did very well today. You're growing up to be a one hell of a hero." Samuel Egbert smiles at John, and then disappears into his study.

For a long moment, John can only stand at the bottom of the stairwell, eyes wide as he tries to absorb what just happened. It takes a while, and then finally his brain offers up its gloriously intelligent analysis: he's still proud of me.

We're going to be okay.

Grinning widely, John starts up the stairs two at a time, undoing the buttons of Dave's borrowed shirt as he runs, and practically catapults into the shower still half-dressed to get all this grime and blood off himself.

Karkat could be here any minute!

-

That night, after Karkat heads home, Heir goes out to patrol. It has been nearly three days since his last night at work, and that had been the night he confronted the Midnight Crew and this tedious, annoying cycle of injury and exhaustion had kicked off. John is determined not to let his broken collarbone keep him out a third night, not when there is all the chance in the world the escaped Hearts Boxcars may still be on the loose in his city.

…Yeah. That. That is a thing. That is still a thing that might actually be happening. Heir grimaces to himself as he flies over the outermost streets of Seattle, ready to start his usual grid pattern sweeps.

Hearing about the explosion at the police station and the Crew’s ensuing escape from custody…had hurt. Heir understands why his dad hadn’t mentioned it when they had spoken hastily this morning before John went out to confront Rose in New York; his dad may have disapproved of the unauthorized shenanigans John got himself into, but he’d still recognized that a crazed eldritch magical creature tearing up New York posed a wayyy more significant threat than one criminal, however dangerous, escaping police custody. By that point, John wouldn’t have been able to do anything about the Crew anyway – he would only have been needlessly distracted by pointless guilt while trying to calm Rose down, and they all could have died for it.

Now, though, he has to deal with the fact that while he’d been enduring stupid teleportation shenanigans with Dave and his brother, three police and two civilians had been injured in the blast, and Heir hadn’t been around to prevent Hearts from making a clean getaway. He’s also worried about Hemogoblin, with whom he still has no reliable means of communication, and so cannot confirm hadn’t gotten caught up in last night’s chaos without Heir to back him up.

They really need to figure out a way of getting in touch that doesn’t rely on Heir’s connection to the wind guiding him to where Hemogoblin may or may not be. Seeeriously. This is starting to get old. Maybe they can get awesome heroic walkie-talkies! That would be classic!

The thought manages to draw a chuckle of Heir as he tries to imagine Hemogoblin with a bulky walkie-talkie strapped to his waist. It would look totally ridiculous. He should suggest it just to see the outraged look on the troll hero’s face.

That is, at least, if Hearts Boxcars hasn’t taken advantage of Heir’s unplanned absence to take out the other hero. Instead of letting the wind waft him gently over the city and alert him to crime, Heir sends out a whisper of intent, pressing his need to locate Hemogoblin into the breeze until he’s sure the wind understands that finding Hemogoblin is a priority, too.

The response is surprisingly immediate. The wind buffets Heir in the small of his back in its haste to rush him over the roof of a sprawling mall complex, and though Heir keeps an eye below him for whatever potential crime could catch the wind's attention so completely, it soon becomes clear that his request has definitely gone through.

He ends up hovering over the Seattle Public Library. The area is dark and quiet, and Heir starts to get confused when he sees that the streets and alleyways are all relatively empty. The only sign of life he finds is a rat digging through a split open bag of garbage, which Heir absently levitates into the dumpster it fell out of.

Wait. Oh my god. Yes. It’s finally happened. Heir can’t believe it takes so long for this moment to finally arrive -

He is quite literally cleaning up the streets of Seattle.

Cackling to himself, Heir rises into the air again, just in time to catch a flicker of movement in the corner of his eye. The wind yanks him almost sideways, overexcited and enthusiastic in its haste to reach its target. Err, maybe Heir put a little too much spirit into that request to locate Hemogoblin; he doesn’t think the wind has ever been this forcefully earnest before, except in his defense. He hovers back over the street beside the library and this time, when he scans the seemingly-empty shadows, he spots a sleek form flitting between one shadow and the next, two points of luminescence just barely visible from here.

He does wonder what Hemogoblin is doing on the ground rather than on the roof, as he floats downward. But mostly, he's just happy to see the other hero looks to be in one piece! "Hello, Hemogoblin," he says softly, letting the wind drop him to the ground just outside the edge of a lonely street light.

The other hero presses a little further into the shadows, his candy red eyes widened a little more than usual under his mask, but other than that, he doesn't show any other sign that Heir's appearance has startled him. "Well, well. Look who came back to our neck of the woods. And here I thought you'd be occupied with things on the East coast," Hemogoblin murmurs, one hip hitching up slightly as he folds his arms.

Uh.

Ooooops.

John had been so concerned about Karkat having seen Heir on the news, Heir had completely forgotten that Hemogoblin is probably in possession of a TV, too. And totally not blind or stupid. Uh. Oh man.

"Ahahah?" he laughs nervously, and immediately wants to slap himself. Could he sound any more uncool?! Come on, pull it together! "Yeah, that was kind of an unexpected detour. Like, I honestly have very little idea how I managed to get there in time."

How does one explain that one's powers have suddenly extended into the realms of teleport-spamming that ranges across the country? Seriously, is there some kind of hero manual Heir can read about this sort of thing, because he needs to brush up on hero etiquette or something.

One foot is brushing the ground slightly, and the troll's eyes have gone slightly hooded. It's making Heir's mouth kind of dry, and he feels as awkward in comparison as ever. Hemogoblin seriously has this svelte, seductive thing down, and it's as intimidating as it is alluring. "You're telling me you ended up at the scene of some super villainous breakdown all the way across the country...by accident?"

Oh no. Hemogoblin is pouting, his lip just a little pursed. It is doing things to Heir. Augggggh.

"It's a new thing," Heir hastens to explain. He's flailing a bit with his arms, and probably looks like a total spaz. Thank god his mask covers up the faint flush of embarrassment working its way across his face. "Uh, I don't know how much you saw of it - a lot of the news crews were getting wrecked before we arrived, and I don't know how technology really reacts to all that grimdark R-the villain was putting out."

Oooh man. He has no idea what people are calling Rose's super powered evil side! He nearly said her actual name! He really is off his game, here.

"They seemed to catch most of it," Hemogoblin says, raising a slinky eyebrow. Is everything about this guy...slinky? "After a while they started to avoid Dark Star's immediate vicinity, and the quality went down, but I saw enough."

Dark Star, huh? Well, Heir guesses if you had no idea for the context of how the Horrorterrors worked, it made as good a name as any. "Uh. Then you probably saw the uh" - Heir twirls his fingers in circles which has nothing to do with anything oh my god this is embarrassing - "teleporty thing?"

Hemogoblin's eyes light up, and his back straightens. "I might have noticed it," he says, staring at Heir intently. "I wasn't sure it was you, after that. Something new?"

Well, he can't exactly share all the details of his cross-country tour from hell, but he can give the barest details. Hemogoblin does deserve an explanation. Kind of. "Ended up in Houston last night," Heir says, shrugging. "I knew how to get in contact with Flashstep, so I hung out with him while I tried to figure out how the whole teleporting thing worked. And then in the morning we heard about uh, Dark Star, and we grabbed the Puppeteer and hauled ass up to New York. It was all really improvised - trust me, I did not intend to be out of town last night." He folds his hands together to make them stop flailing, and gives Hemogoblin the most apologetic look he can muster. "I heard about Boxcars and everything. Seriously, I am so sorry I wasn't here to help. Did you hear anything more about that?"

Hemogoblin stiffens up and draws back again, grimacing outright. "Yeah, that whole thing was a mess. I managed to track Boxcars to the docks where we fought them before, but he got away on a ship before I could catch him."

Heir shares a sympathetic grimace. It's both better and worse news than he'd thought he'd hear. "So he's left the city entirely, you think? What are the odds he'll come back after all this mess?"

"No idea." Hemogoblin sighs, his claws drumming along the smooth plane of his arm. "After those explosions at the station, I'm sure it'd be hard for him to keep a low profile if he were to come back to Seattle. But there's still a few Crew members in the city, I'm sure, and who knows what they'll get up to with him gone."

"Nothing we can't handle!" Heir replies, trying to drum a smile. "Now that we're both on the job, they should be easy to pick off if they try to pull anything. It sucks that Boxcars got away, but if he ever decides to show his face in our town again, we'll be all over him!"

Hemogoblin smirks a little in response, his eyes still troubled.

But. Hang on. Explosions, plural? "Wait, explosions? I thought it was just the one."

The other hero winces, his folded arms tightening almost defensively. "Ugh. Yeah. Don't remind me. The media has just been lumping it in with the first explosion - but yeah, there were two. See, Boxcars didn't know you were out of town, either. So when I realized there was trouble, I checked the roof, since that was where they left a message for you, last time. I thought maybe Boxcars couldn't resist one last taunt that might give away where he was headed."

Heir can see where this is going, and he doesn't like it. "And there was an explosion?! Are you alright?" He scans Hemogoblin's body - not that way - frantically checking him over for some injury Heir missed earlier. Surely even with the way Hemogoblin seemed to control his blood, he would have taken some serious damage from a bomb!

"Nothing I couldn't handle," Hemogoblin says flippantly, his confident smirk returning to his face as he gives Heir a knowing look. Yeah, he so noticed the onceover. But it was totally not sexual! That's Heir's story, and he's sticking to it. "It slowed me down a bit, but I wouldn't be here if it really worked me over."

"That's good," Heir says, a genuine smile creasing beneath his mask for the first time all day. Today's just been full of weird mood swings and ups and downs, and to hear that his partner dodged a bomb like this is a pretty good note to end it on, actually. He is totally okay with this turn of events. He bobs back on his heels, which are still balanced in midair. "But again. I am so sorry I kind of ditched out the night after we officially became partners. And then the night after that I ended up in Houston. I can honestly say this is the first time in my hero career that this kind of thing has happened - I have a much better attendance record, usually!"

"I believe you." Hemogoblin stretches a little, unfolding his arms and rolling his shoulders, his eyes flashing as he moves in and out of the radius of the streetlight. It's kind of hypnotic but Heir is totally not thinking about that right now. "I'm fairly sure having a major mob invade the city and start bombing everything is a pretty unusual turn of events. And no one saw Dark Star coming, obviously. Maybe now that Boxcars has left town, things will settle down a little."

"Hopefully," Heir agrees. "Alright. You like patrolling the east side of town, right?" Heir rises up a little higher, feeling a faint tug from the wind. He's getting an inkling of some crime that is only slowly becoming urgent. He's probably going to have to take off soon. The two of them can't just stand around here all night chatting, after all! They have jobs to do! "I want to drop by the police station, but then I can probably take the west."

"Sure. And maybe when we both have a spare moment, you can tell me about New York, and show me how this new teleportation thing works?" Hemogoblin arches an eyebrow, his head tilted to the side as he follows Heir's slow ascent.

"Oh. Alright," Heir agrees, shrugging. "I can't really do it on command yet, so I probably need to work on that, anyway." He'll probably want to practice in the privacy of the Egbert house, first and foremost, somewhere he can keep himself contained and where his dad can help him out with the fine details of how the power works. But after that, Heir's definitely going to put this new ability to use in the field -

"It's a date, then."

What.

Whaaat.

Heir's face explodes into a massive blush, so bad he can feel the burn in his ears and across his forehead. Oh jeez, his entire face is red. This is so mortifying! "Th-that's - uh, no, that's not what I meant," he babbles, his hands springing apart from the death grip he's had them laced into in order to resume their flailed, protesting gestures.

"Hmmm. Too late," Hemogoblin sing-songs, backing away with a full, luscious grin. "Mind giving me a helping hand, Heir?"

"Whaaat?!" Heir just smacks his hands over his mask, his fingers spread so they're covering his eyes as he fumbles to cover his blush. Ow! Fuck! Agh, he's such a klutz! "Mnagh?!"

Hemogoblin's smile couldn't get any wider as he juts his hip out and points a thumb up in the sky. "I could use a lift to get to roof-level. It would take so much more time if I did it all by myself..."

He winks.

Heir basically curls up inwardly and dies at this point. He's completely incoherent. "Y-yes, uh, sure," he squeaks, his hands actually jittery as he reaches out with his connection to the breeze and spools a second veil of wind to lift Hemogoblin, too. Luckily, the wind doesn't really get stuff like extreme sexy-overdoses, so it just raises both heroes smoothly into the air, responding to Heir's thought of 'up.' Once they're above the roof across the street from the library, Heir sets Hemogoblin down, too nervous about landing him fully on the ground in case he uses too much force in his mortification. Instead, he lets the troll drop a few inches above the roof. Hemogoblin lands delicately, taking the slight gap in stride. "I, I guess I'll see you around? Maybe?"

"Perhaps. See you later, Heir." With that and a final luminous crimson wink, Hemogoblin is off, taking a running leap off the roof. He actually does a backflip midjump, cutting it so close to the edge of the building that Heir raises his hands instinctively, a gale rising up to reach down and catch Hemogoblin if he loses his precarious balance. But the troll hero has absolute control of the flip and lands in a handstand on the next roof over, his body arching with amazing flexibility as he then kicks down onto his feet and takes off running.

Heir watches the other hero go far longer than is strictly necessary. With Hemogoblin's immediate, overwhelming presence gone, he can calm down a bit. Calm down a lot. Appreciate the view.

And yeah, he was a total spaz just then, and Hemogoblin totally saw the spazzing. It was a thing. But Heir regrets nothing about this last part of their meeting.

Nothing at allll.

-

John's arm and collar bone are aching by the time he calls it a night. His dad had gone over the muscles and tissue before John took off for the night, and declared the collar bone no better and no worse for the wear after the battle in New York. He'd been a little worried about the damage that might have been done by the Puppeteer's emergency field op on John's dislocated shoulder, but the fix had been done with such precision that Samuel could find no sign of deeper tissue damage. It's just the usual ache John is going to have to expect for the next few weeks as the bone heals, because he refuses to take off the time from work to wait for it to heal through rest. He's already going to have to skip out on swim practices for appearance's sake - that's enough of a break from his usual strenuous routine.

And tonight was a good night, anyway - it sucks that the Midnight Crew seems to have gotten away as they did, but on the other hand it means far fewer explosions in John's future, which he can appreciate for the sake of his poor city if nothing else. As long as nothing more difficult than the usual muggings and other petty crimes turns up, he should be solid.

When he climbs in through his window, he hesitates in the center of the room, the breezes that carried him home still tugging at the seams of his clothes. He pulls off his goggles and mask, pauses again, and tosses them on the bed rather than opening up the safe in the wall. He opens his door instead and tiptoes softly down the hallway, to where he can see a thin line of light under his dad's bedroom door. Swallowing a little, John knocks carefully on the door and whispers, "Dad? I'm back."

He gets nothing but silence in response for a long moment. He hears floorboards creaking under his dad's feet, slowly approaching the other side of the door. "Welcome home, son," he says at last, something more than pride muddling his voice.

John nods and blinks hard, his eyes kind of stinging, and walks back to his room. He thinks maybe they've reached equilibrium again, that he's been forgiven for all the shit he hadn't even realized he'd put his dad through yesterday. The bitter edge of guilt that's been gnawing at his stomach all night long eases at last. His dad doesn't hate him, isn't disappointed in him, and that means everything is going to be alright.

It's with a much lighter heart that John changes into pajamas. He's still got some energy from all the naps he's been taking over the past few days, so he boots up his computer and logs in. It's way later in Dave and Rose's time zones, but Dave at least has always kept the weirdest hours, staying up all night mixing music and making ironic comics, sleeping in until noon, and then (presumably) spending all afternoon as Flashstep patrolling the streets of Houston.

John winces when he sees the group chat with Dave and his brother is still open on the screen. His computer automatically goes into sleep mode after a few minutes of inactivity, which is why his dad hadn't been able to see the context of John's disappearance in the chatlog.

He doesn't know what makes him read the last of the chat before closing out the window to restart by pestering just Dave. Maybe it's the fact that he rage-teleported before he saw Dave and Bro's reaction to his total meltdown, and he can see that the red and pale orange extend past John's Karkat-style rage rant.

EB: I SWEAR TO ANY GOD LISTENING I AM GOING TO
TG: whoa what
TT: shit
TG: john you know caps lock?
TG: were those weird troll swear words because i got maybe half of that
TG: john?
EB: WKSHRISEHSKW
TG: oh my fuck what was that
TG: did you just keyboard smash in rage
TG: I swear to gog bro if you broke my fucking friend i will end you
TT: shit

John freezes, and then scrolls back up.

EB: WKSHRISEHSKW

Wait...what the hell? He never typed that! Dave's comment is right: it looks as though John just smashed a bunch of keys in his caps-locked ragefest...but John never did that! He just remembers being so angry - and then the pain had hit, clutching at his heart and clawing through his chest. In his shock, he'd been unable to finish whatever embarrassing threat he'd planned to fling at Bro (talk about awkward); instead, he'd wrapped his arms around his chest, certain he was having a heart attack of some kind, and pushed back away from the desk, staggering to his feet before the teleport hit and he suddenly appeared three feet above a pile of swords in Houston.

His hands had been nowhere near the keyboard. And there's nothing on the desk that could have fallen over and hit the keys in the wake of his abrupt disappearance. So what gives?

Shaking his head, John takes a screencap of the inexplicable extra comment and saves it to the desktop for future reference. Enough weird stuff happens to him that he doesn’t really take anything for granted anymore. 'Don't delete anything' is kind of Dave's motto, and one he always badgers John about - but Dave has also been raised by the Puppeteer, who from the looks of their apartment is a total packrat when it comes to dangerous weapons, robots, and rainbow puppets with odd noses.

Anyway, if Dave had his way all the time, John would be carrying Casey along at all hours of the day, including to school. The Striders are just bizarre sometimes. But occasionally Dave gives good advice!

So! John pulls up a new pester window, and sees that Dave had already been talking in an individual chat window about three hours ago. John makes a face at the mention of a corpse party - seriously, Dave can be sooo weird sometimes! - and is chuckling quietly to himself by the end. He starts typing.

-- ectoBiologist [EB] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG] at 04:13:01 --
EB: dude, as awesome as your bosom probably is, no thanks :/
EB: and i don't know what you're talking about, man, i make great life choices! the best life choices!

Yeah, that's probably not true. At all. But he couldn't just let Dave go around impugning the Egbert life choice-making family honor!

TG: fucking lies man
TG: you totally went out heroing all night long didnt you
EB: so what if i did? :P that's my job!
TG: jfc john i swear you have no survival instinct at all
TG: rule one of strifing if your arm is fucked you dont go around swinging a giant goddamn mjölnir rip-off
TG: you sit at home and eat ice cream and watch ironic romcoms okay this is first grade shit EB
EB: haha, CG would probably be all for that plan.
TG: CG? oh christ
TG: it's the other guy isnt it
TG: that asshole who thinks he can steal my man
TG: screw chat initials tell me this guys name
TG: i have to evaluate this fucker
TG: see if hes worthy of my bros attention
TG: this is serious fucking business EB theres a whole interview process this guy totally skipped over
TG: like a group interview to weed out the weak followed by a background check and several drug tests and an essay
TG: i have yet to consent to this troll friendship business i did not sign off on this
EB: argh! dave, you type way too fast!
EB: and come on, whatever happened to confidentiality :/
TG: we screwed that one over the minute you decided to share the bed of one dave strider
EB: what.
TG: its too late man you have warmed my bed
TG: you have slept between the same sheets as me
TG: basically
TG: i own your ass now
EB: daaaaaaaaaaaave!!!

John is rapidly losing control of this situation. This always happens with Dave. Always. Must...focus…

EB: none of that has anything to do with CG
EB: and his privacy is important too, okay??? i can't just give out his handle to someone without telling him first!
TG: bullshit john
TG: i would be so discreet im telling you
TG: he wouldnt even know i was in his head until it was too late
TG: all of his secrets would be mine
TG: i wouldn't even tell him how we know each other if you dont want me to i know you get all bashful and shit man
EB: look. we're super awesome friends, dave.
EB: but there's just too much risk of cross-contamination if you and CG started talking.
TG: harsh man

Wait. Did that actually hurt Dave's feelings? John squints at the screen. It's too hard to tell when Dave is just being Dave and when he's actually trying to cover up hurt feelings by being even more Dave.

EB: i mean it would be soo awesome if you guys could be friends too!
EB: but i also think you might hate each other because CG just kind of pretends to hate everyone by default and you would probably think that's obnoxious
TG: what thats stupid
TG: does he pretend to hate you?
TG: if the fucker is making you feel all unloved and shit i will drown him in apple juice so help me god i have that power now
EB: yeah, this is going pretty much exactly how thought it'd go
EB: wait what apple juice
EB: dave, what are you doing...
TG: stuff
TG: things
TG: you know EB the usual
EB: wowwww, that's just vague enough to make me reeeally suspicious.
TG: so much aj john
TG: so much
TG: ill send you a case when the brand label is finished being copyrighted so you can try some of this elixir
EB: i still have no context for this
TG: just wait man. ive been pretty fucking busy all night long running some time loops
TG: so many irons in the fire rn
TG: my empire will span a modest-sized galaxy

John is so confused. But if he's reading this right...

EB: i leave you alone for a half a day and you start an apple juice empire?!
TG: dont worry as my honorary first bro-husband in the strider harem youre first in line to inherit
TG: like fuck would i bequeath this empire to bro hed fuck everything up
EB: i
EB: you know what? okay. i accept. no take-backsies. time loops?
TG: fuck yes
TG: i mean wait uh
TG: yeah, i guess i didnt really ever mention that part, huh
TG: i can do more than stop time now
TG: i can go back a little, too
EB: really??
TG: been runnin some loops for a while now, getting used to it
TG: hurts like a son of a bitch before it works but it hasnt killed me yet so
TG: ive run through like twelve hours now tonight in the space of three linear hours getting this empire started
TG: so worth it
EB: that’s so sweet dave! why didn't you try that in new york tho?
TG: i totally did bro
TG: got all those kids out of the museum
TG: just in time for tentarose to wreck my shit
EB: :(
TG: not my proudest moment okay
EB: wait, you said it hurts?
EB: when did this whole thing start?

John is frowning again. I mean, wow, it's really neat that Flashstep will have a new power in his lineup, according to his inner hero nerd, but this is all kind of...weirdly coincidental? A new power, accompanied by sudden pain? Has Dave been having these weird pseudo-heart attacks too?

He also has two flashing Pesterchum windows in the bottom corner of the screen. One is thoughtfulThaumaturge, which is Rose's new handle, and the other is carcinoGeneticist. Jeez, everybody is up late tonight! John can't even imagine how Karkat could be up so late when he usually stops pestering John a little before 10...Maybe he got caught up in a movie marathon? It wouldn't be the first time.

But oh man. Managing three pesterlogs at once is gonna suck. John isn't used to being this popular! He has to watch himself with Karkat especially, because he's the only one of the three who doesn't know John is Heir. He can't afford to make stupid mistakes!

Biting his lip, John makes an executive decision. He'll wrap up with Dave before he replies to the other two. It's late, and he doesn't want to risk it typing in the wrong window.

TG: idk a little before you decided to drop by?
TG: time gets a little weird when you keep adding a few extra hours to your day
TG: theres like three different daves in this room atm helping me out at different points in the timeline
TG: and it feels like im getting choked out or stabbed in the throat or something
TG: its fucking annoying as hell but you get used to it
TG: except not really fuck that noise its not even halfway ironic its just stupid
EB: huh
TG: yeah enough of me being a whiny little bitch about this
TG: why do you ask
EB: it's just weird, that's all
EB: my teleporting thing hurts too!
TG: are you seriously saying we both got painful new abilities within like a week of each other?
TG: too real, EB
TG: our bond is transcendent
TG: now gimme his chumhandle i wanna interrogate this CG character

John's face slams into his desk. It hurts and when he sits up to stare at the computer screen in vague horror his cheekbone throbs. He can't believe this is actually still a thing.

EB: what no we're having a serious conversation here! i think this is really significant!
TG: i think your new biffle is pretty significant
EB: omg you have a one track mind
EB: did you just seriously say biffle?
TG: come on
EB: noppppe
EB: not happening!
TG: tell me
EB: no!!!
TG: goddammit man i am your internet husband tell me or i make lil cal my successor, god help me
EB: fuck you, you didn't put a ring on it dave so it doesn't count!
TG: …
TG: ………
TG: …………
EB: no.
EB: whatever you're thinking dave, no
TG: ringofirony.jpeg
EB: goddammit i'm not opening that
TG: do it
EB: no
TG: youre breaking my heart EB
EB: this is so dumb
EB: you need to go to sleep dude. i think we both do, this is the silliest conversation we've ever had.
TG: hellyeahamotherfuckingbroposal.jpeg
EB: i am so not opening that one either
TG: you know you want to
EB: i really don’t
TG: youreallydo.gif
EB: oh no

John opens them. In true Dave fashion, all three images are completely shitty, and John is pretty sure the hellyeahmotherfuckingbroposal picture is just those two badly drawn characters from Dave's ironic webcomic with their hair slightly redone and set up as though the one in red is offering the supremely shitty ring from the first image to the one in blue. It is, indeed, a motherfucking bro-proposal.

This is all incredibly stupid. John can't stop laughing. He starts wheezing as he crams half a fist into his mouth to make the horrible barking seal noises stop, his whole body shaking with giggles. The third image is of a jpeg face, scrambled with artifacts from being saved too many times, animated as a gif with one eyebrow going up and down in an 'ironic wiggle'. John thinks he's almost crying at this point.

EB: oh my god this is awful
TG: isnt it great?
EB: i think you broke me i cant breathe
EB: yeah it's definitely time to go to sleep
TG: fine EB go to sleep
TG: you opened it thats like a yes right there
EB: whateverrrr dave :P
EB: don't stay up all night! your apple empire can wait until morning
EB: also i'm pretty sure you can't patent a label unless the patent office is open and its still the weekend
TG: what no that cant be
TG: fuck
TG: what is this shit i could have owned my own factory by noon tomorrow now youre telling me i have to wait until Monday to set these gears in motion?
EB: sucks man! talk to you later!
TG: what no you cant leave me in my time of need
-- ectoBiologist [EB] ceased pestering turntechGodhead [TG] at 04:37:12 --
TG: god fucking dammit john

Yeah, conversations with Dave are kind of interminable unless you just cut your losses and run. John yawns widely as he opens up Rose's window. The sight of her pale purple text reassures him a lot, in the part of his mind that had been kind of morbidly convinced that once Rose signed off earlier in the day, he'd never hear from her again. But obviously that had been the irrational depressed part of his brain, and he tries not to think that way too much anymore!

-- thoughtfulThaumaturge [TT] began pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 04:26:32 --
TT: Ah, John. I see you have logged in.
TT: It would appear that neither of us are quite able to sleep tonight.
TT: And as promised, I will keep in contact with you, John.
-- ectoBiologist [EB] has joined the chat! --
EB: hey rose! you're back!!! :D
TT: Indeed. Unfortunately, my attempts at obtaining more in-depth information from my mother proved less than fruitful.
TT: She persists in the theory that the connection between our childhood and Dave is merely coincidental.
EB: really? blehhh. it's kind of obviously not, doctor lalonde! :P i wish i could say my talk with my dad went any better. mostly he was just kind of disappointed in me for taking off to houston and then new york, which i guess i can't really blame him for.
EB: i think i'll have to try again when he's not so worried still. i really gave him a scare yesterday and i feel pretty bad about that :(
TT: Understandable. And it is not as though it is particularly urgent that we obtain these answers immediately. My attempt at interrogating my mother went poorly, perhaps because I attempted to rush it. In my haste, I nearly undid all of the work I did to recover this afternoon.
EB: oh no! are you okay?!
TT: Better, actually. I completed a proper meditation cycle and even ventured to sleep for a few hours. It has been a long time since I last slept. The nightmares were predictable, at least, and simple to manage.
EB: i, uh, guess that's good? :/ sorry you had nightmares though
TT: It is no less than I expected. If the grimdark hadn't been enough to provoke the terrors in my subconscious mind, the destruction I caused in Albany and New York City would have provided ample fodder.
EB: none of that was your fault rose! i told you before, i won't let you blame yourself for what a bunch of tentacle monsters made you do!
TT: I do appreciate the sentiment, John. It is just...difficult for me to accept that.
TT: And I fear that remaining here with my mother will only cause my mental turmoil to worsen. This is not an environment conducive to serenity, not when I still feel such rage towards her.
EB: you really hate her now, don't you? before you were always so mad because you thought she was all passive aggressive and stuff, but now i guess you really do have a reason to hate her.
TT: It is difficult to analyze myself objectively, of course, but I must keep up the attempt. I must not lose sight of myself again. And what I feel when I look upon my mother is
TT: Maybe if she could be bothered to explain herself properly, to provide the answers to the questions we so desperately want answered, I would be able to impartially accept that her actions were necessary, and work to restore our relationship at least to the point of our old standoff.
TT: But she refuses. She continues to sidestep me and treat me as though I am a child who cannot see through her pitiful fraud. And for that, I can have no respect for her. Simply being in the same room as her reduces me to the most vulgar, unfettered fury. Fury that I cannot afford to feel, not with my mind still so uncertainly balanced.

John pulls a face. His stomach is all knotted up in sympathy, but he doesn't know what words would make the situation better! Rose's relationship with her mom is all messed up now, and he's starting to think they're never going to be able to reconcile. When he tries to imagine being that angry at his own dad, even hypothetically, it just makes him heartsick.

EB: i guess i can't really reassure you that everything will be alright, cause i'm not sure it will be.
EB: but if you really think you can't stay around her anymore, you can always come here! there's no way my dad would ever turn you away, you know that!
TT: I...thank you, John. Though I'm certain your father would be a little more wary about welcoming me into the Egbert household after yesterday's events.
EB: no way! if he doesn't get that it wasn't you, i'll make him understand!
EB: i'm pretty sure he gets it, i spent all yesterday morning explaining it to him on the way to the airport :P
EB: but seriously rose, if you need a place to stay, come here!
TT: We will see. I may already have other contingency plans in place, but it may be a few days before I can set them into motion.
TT: I wished to get a better idea of what my mother is working on here, but I'm afraid my guide has gone missing, and I trust no one else to give me an unbiased account of the goings on in this laboratory complex.
EB: a guide? who?
TT: you would remember her as the Personal Motorist. She has assured me however that she prefers Protégé Mediator.
EB: ohhh, PM! she was really cool! and an awesomely terrible driver! :D
TT: Quite. She was very helpful earlier in showing me to a computer room, but I seem to have lost track of her since I had to retreat into meditation. She said she wished to introduce me to a mentor of hers, and I have not seen her since.
EB: darn. i'm sure she's still around though! what are you trying to figure out about your mom's work?
TT: I am certain that there is something here she is hiding from me, something that concerns our pasts. Her work has always been focused on the quantum scale; I am curious as to why she left to take the helm of such an extensive research factory, with so many irrelevant scientific and thaumaturgic fields at play.
EB: i see. i wish i could help more from here. there is one thing, i guess
TT: Hmm?

John gnaws on his lip, then nods to himself.

EB: something the stewardess said on the flight back to Seattle. she mentioned that the company that owns the private plane, the harley foundation, also helped fund a lot of science initiatives, including your mom's lab!
EB: i don't know, maybe you can look around for clues about that to help direct your search.
TT: I'll look into, John. It is certainly more than I have managed to garner from my feeble attempts at questioning my mother.
TT: One last thing before I must tend to other matters - tell me, John, are you familiar with the term 'Skaian'?

John reads that word.

That word.

And then there's just PAIN -

Whatever the hell hits him just then, it royally flattens him. John is pretty sure he's only out for a few seconds, but he opens his eyes almost in tears, spots flaring over his vision as he pressed his hands to the sides of his skull. It feels like something is trying to claw its way out of his head, and he has to hunch his head forward and lean over his knees, sucking in breath after breath in an attempt to settle his racing heartbeat.

It's nothing like the pain of teleporting. His eyes have trouble focusing as he stares down at his legs, but he can see tiny drops of red dripping slowly from his nose onto his pants. He laughs a little, while his vision tilts sideways. This is wrong wrong wrong and god does he hate that word -

No. No, there's nothing wrong.

Everything is completely

and

totally

fine.

He skims over the word Rose has typed in her lilac font, absently wiping the blood off on his pants.

Nope. As long as he doesn't look at that (hateful fucking word) there's nothing wrong at all.

EB: i - no i don't tihnk ive heard that word befor
TT: ...John? Those were rather gratuitous typos.
EB: yeah, i know, i think i just need to go to sleep. all the new teleporting shenanigans are really wearing me out, i think
EB: you should have seen me and dave earlier. we were completely out of our minds by the time we stopped chatting, it was just absurd
EB: sorry about that word, it just doesn't sound very familiar at all! except maybe it sounds like that one god from greek mythology?
TT: Gaia, the earth goddess. Mother of all. My thoughts exactly. But I can find no connection between the two words, and can find no etymology for something like 'Skaian' at all. Just another mystery I must ferret out in these labs, it would seem.
EB: good luck! i can ask my dad about that word too in the morning maybe :)
EB: night rose! er, or morning now, i guess
TT: Sleep well, John.
-- thoughtfulThaumaturge [TT] ceased pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 04:51:11 --

John shakes his head. There are some drops of blood on his pants when he looks down, and he touches his nose in surprise, coming away with little smears of red on his fingers. Bluh! How gross! He stands up real quick and stops by the bathroom, running some hot water to wipe off the blood. Jeez, when did he start getting such bad nosebleeds for no reason? He wipes at his face with a hand towel, careful to get the little smears of blood that just barely trickle out of his ears, and then he smiles at himself in the mirror.

It would be stupid to go to bed all covered in blood, after all! That task finished, he heads back to the computer, rolling his eyes over such a stupid delay.

And now there's just Karkat! By this time Karkat's probably been waiting fifteen minutes or something, which John would feel bad about, except he strongly suspects Karkat will have fallen asleep in that interval anyway. To his surprise, though, Karkat's name is still highlighted in the main Pesterchum app. Humming faintly to himself, John closes Rose's chatlog with more force than is probably necessary, and opens Karkat's window.

-- carcinoGeneticist [CG] began pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 04:31:06 --
CG: JOHN
CG: WHY THE FUCK ARE YOU EVEN AWAKE
CG: I CAN SEE YOU'RE LOGGED ON AT THIS UNGODLY HOUR SO EXPLAIN YOURSELF
CG: …
CG: YOU SEE THOSE THREE DOTS RIGHT THERE? THEY INDICATE THAT I AM WAITING IMPATIENTLY ON THE EDGE OF MY SEAT FOR THE FORTHCOMING EXPLANATION
CG: YOU HAVE TO FULFILL YOUR HALF OF THIS IMPLIED SOCIAL CONTRACT JOHN OTHERWISE THE GOVERNMENT WILL REVOKE YOUR STATUS AS A CIVILIZED HUMAN BEING
CG: …
CG: WHAT IN THE FUCKING FUCK COULD BE SO MUCH MORE IMPORTANT THAN PANDERING TO MY WHIMS JOHN THIS EXPLANATION HAD BETTER INVOLVE GODDAMN LASER SHARK TORNADOS CHAINSAWS AND PIE
EB: hey karkat! :D
CG: DON'T YOU 'HEY KARKAT' ME JOHN EGBERT. HOW THE FUCK CAN YOU BE SO CHIPPER AT 4 IN THE MORNING.
CG: WHY ARE YOU EVEN ON PESTERCHUM THIS LATE WHY IS THIS A THING

Oops. Better think of a cover. What would make John wake up and get on the computer at 4 in the morning, usually? Other than the hero thing. Uh...what would make a normal teenager stay up this late?

Come on, John, think!

EB: ahahhaha
EB: my uh
EB: my collar bone was just acting up a little. no biggie!
EB: and i thought some mindless internet surfing would pass the time until i felt tired again!
CG: WHAT
CG: WHY DIDN'T YOU TELL ME YOU WERE HURTING
CG: WHAT IS THIS SHIT DO YOU NEED TO GO TO A FUCKING HOSPITAL
CG: WHERE IS YOUR GODDAMN CUSTODIAN WHY ISN'T HE TAKING CARE OF YOU JESUS FUCKING CHRIST FORGET HIM I HAVE A CAR I'LL DRIVE YOU MYSELF
CG: DON'T MOVE DON'T EVEN MOVE YOU DUMB FUCK I'LL BE THERE IN LIKE TWO MINUTES

No, what, no! That was stupid! Agggh! How did John walk right into that kind of set up?! It would appear he needs a distraction, or he's going to have a wild Karkat battering down the front door any second now. Quick, uh, what would Rose say?!

EB: whoa whoa karkat! i'm okay, seriously! i just needed to consume an analgesic before my shoulder would calm down
CG: WHY THE HELL ARE YOU TYPING LIKE THAT
EB: like what?
CG: LIKE A POMPOUS UPPER CLASS DOCTORAL CANDIDATE WHO'S READ TOO MANY SHITTY HIGH FANTASTY NOVELS

...Okay, obviously John is thinking too much like Rose. Because wow, spot on, Karkat!

EB: because it's four in the morning and i'm medicated :P
EB: dude, you try typing normally when you're on the good pain meds. half the stuff that's coming out on the screen barely makes sense when i type it!
CG: THIS IS NOT REASSURING ME JOHN THIS IS THE OPPOSITE OF ME BEING REASSURED
EB: i'm about to fall right back asleep, trust me, the meds are working. they just made me kind of loopy for a bit.
EB: why are you up, karkat? this is really late for you too!

There. Flawless topic change.

CG: GODDAMN INSOMNIA CAN GO FUCK ITSELF RIGHT IN THE LOADGAPER
EB: aww, that sucks man :( i thought you said it was getting easier to sleep?
CG: WELL MY FUCKING THINKPAN DECIDED IT WOULD BE FUCKING HILARIOUS TO RENDER ALL THIS FUCKING SOPOR USELESS
CG: CONGRATULATIONS RECOOPERACOON YOU ARE HEREBY DEMOTED TO THE LOWEST RUNG OF THE ECHELADDER YOU ARE IN FACT THE MOST USELESS PIECE OF SHIT EVER CONCEIVED OF BY TROLLKIND
EB: i can stay awake with you until you think you can go to sleep if you want!
EB: but it might help if you know you actually put down your phone and put your whole head in the 'coon :P since that's kind of how it's designed to work.
CG: NO GO THE FUCK TO SLEEP IF YOU CAN, YOU PANADDLED DUMBASS
CG: JUST
CG: JUST LOOK
CG: HAVE YOU HAD ANY WEIRD FUCKED UP DREAMS LATELY

Uh. Well, that one came out of left field, even for Karkat! John scratches at his scalp, trying to recall the last time he dreamed at all. It had always been the bane of Rose's psychoanalytic sessions that John never dreamed much, even as a kid. No nightmares, but no good dreams, either, leaving her nothing to analyze for Freudian imagery. John can't help it though! If he does dream, he doesn't remember any of it when he wakes up.

EB: nope! why do you ask? did you have a nightmare or something?
CG: OR SOMETHING
CG: FORGET IT IT'S NOT IMPORTANT I DON'T EVEN KNOW WHY I ASKED SUCH A STUPIDFUCK QUESTION.
EB: you toootally had a nightmare, i can tell. you want to talk about it? i'm not a super awesome therapist dream analyzer but i think i'm pretty good at listening?
CG: I
CG: FUCK
CG: LOOK I'M NOT TRYING TO KEEP ANYTHING FROM YOU
CG: YOU'RE MY MOIRAIL AND I TRUST YOU BUT FUCK
CG: I DON'T THINK I'M LETTING MYSELF THINK ABOUT THIS. I CAN'T REALLY REMEMBER DETAILS, I JUST KNOW I DON'T WANT TO GO BACK TO SLEEP AND SEE IT AGAIN.
CG: SO THIS IS IN NO WAY A REFLECTION ON THIS MOIRALLEGIANCE OKAY THIS IS A FACT THAT I AM STATING FOR THE FUCKING RECORD PLEASE BELIEVE ME
EB: it's okay karkat, i believe you!
EB: if it's really that bad of a dream it's probably natural that you don't want to go to sleep again. but you should try anyway, you probably won't have the same dream twice in a row! and if you do, you can call me! or something like that.
EB: and we can talk!
EB: uh
EB: that all made sense, right? i think i'm actually not making sense anymore. there were a lot of exclamation points involved...
CG: LOOK I'M OBVIOUSLY KEEPING YOU AWAKE WHEN YOU'RE PITIFULLY HALF-ASLEEP
CG: GO TO SLEEP JOHN
EB: are you sure?
CG: YES I'M SURE. I'LL SEE YOU TOMORROW AND WE'LL GO TO THE GODDAMN PARK AND EAT SNOWCONES OR SOME SHIT
EB: yay! :)
CG: YOU ARE ABSOLUTELY FORBIDDEN FROM TRYING TO CLIMB THAT NOOKCHAFING TREE WITH A BROKEN BONE THOUGH I AM PUTTING MY GODDAMN FOOT DOWN
EB: yes sir! i'm not dumb karkat :P it's not like i'm going to look at the first tree we come across and think 'HAHAHA I MUST CLIMB THIS TREE RIGHT NOW' :P
CG: I KNOW YOU EGBERT. ADDICTION IS A POWERFUL THING.
EB: i totally only did that once! you're just paranoid karkat.
EB: see you tomorrow!
CG: ANYWAY
CG: …
CG: <>

Oh, no. Don't don't don't don't -

EB: uh
EB: <>
-- carcinoGeneticist [CG] ceased pestering ectoBiologist [EB] at 05:02:21 --

AUGH.

Kicking himself inwardly, John logs off the computer and bangs his head on the desk a few times.

The worst part, he thinks blearily, is that he really, really does like being Karkat's best friend. A lot! The only problem here is his stupid hormones, which would very much like Karkat to be something other than friendly, and John can't seem to shut them off. So every time John thinks he should maybe sort of mention to Karkat that , he automatically freezes up. On the one hand, he feels bad that Karkat thinks they're moirails when secretly John is over here totally taking advantage of all the cuddling for a different reason. On the other, there's no way he would ever want to risk losing Karkat's friendship entirely, and who even knows how Karkat would react to that kind of advance! He seems totally content with them being palebros, and John...John wants Karkat to be happy.

Even if that means being moirail-zoned for the rest of his life.

Confused and kind of just tired, John stuffs his uniform into the wall safe and goes to bed. He's got two hours to try to sleep through the quadrant confusion before it's time for his morning exercise routine, and he intends to make the most of them.

-

He doesn't think about that word again.

He doesn't think about it at all.

---

Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

Jade intends to cross over into the US at the border between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso. She could have asked Bec to help her coordinate jumps that would have brought her into the States within a few hours of landing in Chile, but it’s so much more exciting to be able to stop and meet people and eat good food along the way! And it’s not as though she has a set deadline for when she wants to meet up with John anyway, aside from the vague idea of meeting him before summer starts. So it’s taken her a couple of days to work her way up the backbone of South America into Mexico. Bec ends up with a poncho in bright green, orange, and rust red yarn somewhere in the mountains and it remains pristine even as they hack through some of the rainforests in Central America just for old times’ sake. It reminds Jade of the jungle back home on the island, and they have a lot of fun! WV seems to have slightly less fun, as he gets all huffy and crackles with green irritation whenever the undergrowth is too thick for him to scamper through as his usual speed, but he always perks up when there’s food involved.

It’s late in the evening by the time they arrive in town. The air is cool enough, with just the last remnants of the day’s arid heat lingering as Jade plants her hands on her hips. She had traded out her longer coat for a short sleeved uniform as they teleported from town to town throughout Mexico, but she’s still broken out into a sweat that clings to her forehead and chin. The air isn’t as muggy and thick with the scent of lush plants growth anymore, so she’s no longer feeling as nostalgic for the heat of her old island.

“You hanging in there, WV?” she asks, grinning down at the carapacian. She doesn’t worry about Bec – it can take the heat – but while WV seems to be alright with pretty high temperatures, he does get a little weird after a big teleportation hop. She’s not sure that it hurts him, exactly, and he can’t speak to explain why he sometimes has to curl up and breathe frantically for a few long moments after a major leap. It’s yet another reason why they walked a good part of the trip on foot – Jade still doesn’t know why stabilizing WV’s quantum state blew the three of them all the way to Australia, particularly when she wasn’t trying to teleport them anywhere. If WV starts to show signs of regressing into an invisible half-existence once more, they may be forced to travel on foot the rest of the way to John’s city until Jade can find another of her Grandpa’s labs to run further tests in.

WV salutes her with a hiccup, his favorite meter stick still clutched in a rickety claw. His feet are flashing with green pulses of energy, but it doesn’t seem to be hurting him, which is good. He has a bright blue poncho on, one that Jade had bartered for along with Bec’s in Peru when WV had spotted the sky blue stripes and proceeded to totally flip out and try to tear it off the wall. The covering is a little too long on him, draped over his sharp shoulders and falling down around his bony shins like a cloak. Between the bright yellow ruler, the green plasma flares, and the blue poncho he’s a riot of very different, very bright colors, but she doesn’t have the heart to tell him he looks a little silly. Especially not when he still looks so adorable!

“Awesome!” Jade claps her hands together and whirls to glance around them. “Alright! This city can get pretty violent, so stay close, guys!”

The wall to their right explodes.

“Oh my gosh!” Jade yells, holding her arms out in front of her without thinking. At her side Bec is on its feet in a heartbeat. Jade feels the control of her impromptu teleportation yanked out from under her as Bec takes command, and she stumbles awkwardly when they land on the rooftop of the building across the street. WV lands hard as well, squeaking as he falls over sideways. She’d intended to jump them a few hundred meters south, but Bec seems to have other ideas. Righting herself, Jade rushes to the edge of the roof and looks over at the street below.

From up here she can see that it was not just the wall that exploded – the entire building has caved in, the walls blown out by the force of the roof collapsing in on itself. Some of the residents stumble out as Jade watches, but she can still sense movement in the breach. “We have to get them out!” She reaches out with her sense of space to try to pin down how many people are still trapped in the collapsed building –

Whoa. Uh. “That’s new,” Jade says, pulling her hands back hesitantly. Miraculously, she can’t feel any human sized bodies still taking up space in the wreckage, which means that somehow everyone got out okay. But the movement she’s sensing now is weirdly familiar.

It feels like one of Grandpa’s old caretaking and training robots from the Harley residence on the island – but bigger.

Much…bigger…

Jade’s eyes widen and her jaw drops a little as the giant robot straightens up, emerging from the billowing curtains of dust and debris kicked up by its harsh landing. It looks like a fairly standard bipedal model, with an enormous black club sign emblazoned across the chest plate and a strange addition to the head section that looks almost like a triangular hat with a circular pompom on top.

A surprisingly cheerful voice with the underlying gravelly rasp typical of a troll echoes over the speakers. “Hello, Miss Witch! I, Clubs Deuce, have orders to capture you!”

Jade blinks, and looks around. Bec is as silent as ever, but WV meets her eye and points at Jade. Jade quizzically points at herself, unsure, and WV stamps his foot, nodding his head violently.

Huh. How weird. But WV seems pretty certain. “Uh, I guess you’re talking to me, Mister Giant Robot?” she says dubiously, shouting to be heard. Her voice sounds thin and confused to her ears, and she clears her throat once before starting again in a much more determined tone. “But my name is Sharpshooter! I don’t have a magic theme! Soooorry!”

“I – uh – you don’t?” the voice says, startled. The giant robot begins to tilt slightly to the right, and Jade gets the impression that the driver within is too distracted to pay attention to what his robot is doing. That’s a good sign – for her, at least! Over the speakers there is a faint crackling sound, as though someone is frantically shuffling through a pile of papers. “What about space? Do you do the spacey thing?”

“I’m not telling you about my powers, stuuupid!” Jade sticks her tongue out at the robot, though who even knows how well the troll within can see it. “You totally just crushed that building with people still inside, and that means you’re a bad guy! I’m not telling you diddly squat!”

“Oh no,” the voice of Clubs Deuce sighs. “But you do look like the Witch of Space! And we tracked the spatial distortion all the way here. So I think that means you are her!”

Jade’s hackles go up, and she bristles, scanning the robot with her powers again. She’s not sure she can talk someone this dense out of a fight; she wants to know where any potential weak points in the hull might be. It’s not the exact same construction as one of Grandpa’s old devices, but the basic metal skeleton feels relatively similar… “I really don’t think that was me. I’m not a Witch! Your tracker thingy must be broken.”

Another pause ensues, during which Jade can hear more than one person muttering incomprehensibly on the other end of the speakers. Eventually someone exclaims, exasperated, “Sir! Sir, please, the loudspeakers are still broadcasting!” and the system clicks off with a flurry of apologies.

Jade trades a look with WV. He shrugs at her, just as confused.

Jade just knows that these guys are bad news. They know about her space thing, even if they got the name completely wrong, and she’s willing to bet that anyone with the funds for a space-to-ground missile launcher would similarly have the cash to burn on an awesome giant robot project. Jade approves of that last part, if nothing else. She starts to change out of her travelling and adventure clothes one piece at a time, pulling on her good fighting gloves and switching out her shorts for a battle skirt from the sylladex pocket that’s slit up the sides for freedom of movement.

The loudspeaker starts up again. “Ah, I think you’re trying to be sneaky! My associates tell me that the tracker thingy is not broken at all! All three of you are lit up like – like – like tiny green dots on my screen! And – hang on, did you change your outfit?”

“Yup!” Sharpshooter cracks her knuckles, and flicks a nice rifle out of the strife pocket. She lets her zoom lens fall over the right side of her glasses, and turns on one of the old mods from the days when she’d had to fight training robots all the time. “As cool as your giant mecha is, you still used it to flatten that poor house! I can’t let someone with such reckless disregard for public property and people’s lives wander around without facing the consequences!”

Aw yeah. Naaaailed it!

“You want to fight?” Clubs Deuce’s voice sounds almost…disappointed? “Really? You seem like such a nice person though! Don’t you just want to – I don’t know, come quietly? I have a game of Parcheesi set up in the containment cell and everything!”

From over the loudspeaker, Sharpshooter is certain she can hear the sound of multiple hands slapping against multiple foreheads. She stares at the robot’s unmoving metal face, perplexed. “Why would you try to blow up my house, send crazy ninja bombers to attack me, and now bring along a giant fighting robot if you didn’t want to fight me?” She points an accusing finger at where she can sense the most human movement within the robot body.

“Oh, the missile was just to say hello. And now I’ve said it. Hi!”  Clubs sighs. “And I couldn’t send actual ninjas to you – Diamonds doesn’t let me have clearance to use them, anymore. He gets so cross sometimes! Between you and me, sometimes I just want to give him a great big hug and shoo-”

“Sir! Stay on topic, sir!” someone begs in the background, sounding as though they are close to tears.

Clubs coughs, kicking up feedback on other end of the speakers. Sharpshooter winces, and Bec twitches by her side, its nose still trained on the giant robot across the street “R-right! Well! A fight it is then!” The robot straightens up and lumbers its way to the middle of the street, trailing clouds of broken concrete. “And Parcheesi later, I guess. If we have the time.”

"You guys ready?" Sharpshooter demands of WV and Bec. Bec whuffles through its nose and WV salutes again, a tiny frown furrowing between his eyes. It's a shame. She totally meant to officially induct WV in as her sidekick or something before their next huge emergency job, but it looks they'll have to put off the Awesome Supercool Induction Ceremony and Accompanying Fireworks/Dangerous Explosives Display until later!

A giant robot hand reaches out toward the rooftop. As though she'd actually stand still long enough for them to grab her! Sharpshooter launches herself through the air, a floating jump that sends her in an arc right over the Deucebot's hat. There is a crunch of rock behind her as the robot hand collides with the roof where she was standing. Chuckling, Sharpshooter lets herself fall behind the giant robot's back. She has faith in Bec's ability to get WV to safety at least, but WV's not too shabby either now that he has a body again!

Sharpshooter halts her descent somewhere around the side of the Deucebot’s knee joint, and ducks around behind the leg entirely as an enormous mechanical hand clumsily swats at her general location. Leveling her rifle, she fires five times in quick succession, letting the recoil send her tumbling backward through the air. Thankfully, the armor isn’t as thick as she’d feared, and Sharpshooter swings the rifle along her back to free her hands. Grabbing onto the leg, she rips the bullet-riddled panel off with her bare hands and thrusts her hand into a network of tangled cables and gears. She clenches a fist, and then opens it forcefully, and the space around her hand reacts. The inside of the leg explodes outward as the burst of space shoves all the inner parts away from Sharpshooter’s hand in a perfect sphere, and when she kicks off, teleport-hopping her way backward from the miniature explosion of circuitry.

The robot staggers, but doesn’t fall. Instead, it leans more heavily on the other leg, and veers around to limp toward her once more, arms reaching out with twin mechanical whines. Sharpshooter begins ducking and teleporting out of the way, searching for another opening with her rifle in hand. For such a large machine, the Deucebot has some fairly good reflexes! The SCIENCE part of Jade begins excitedly trying to calculate just how advanced the robot’s programming would have to be to command such large mechanical parts to move in tandem that quickly.

Bec is popping in and out around the robot’s viewscreen, green plasma flaring and pulsing in an attempt to disorient whoever is manning the robot’s controls. Over to the side, she catches a glimpse of WV as the small carapacian clings to one of the Deucebot’s arm guards. The arm attempts to shake him off. She can’t hear whether WV is squeaking in pain or panic or not from here – he’s just too quiet! – but when he balances himself with his stubby legs tucked into a section of the armor and begins to whack repeatedly at the elbow joint with his meter stick ruler, she decides he’s probably doing juuuust fine! Even if he probably can’t do much damage with his cute little attacks, he’s distracting that arm from pursuing Jade, which is a big help!

Without warning, WV bursts into green flame all over. This time she hears his whimper of pain, and he begins to flail his arms, the meter stick flying away and spiraling down toward the ground below. WV will fall next, if he doesn’t catch himself soon. “WV!” she yelps, yanking herself to a stop, her rifle spinning on its strap, and she reaches out to focus on snatching the carapacian to safety.

One of WV’s swinging limbs bangs awkwardly against the joint of the giant robot’s elbow. Sharpshooter’s ears pop with the sudden burst of spatial displacement that ensues, and when she blinks, the Deucebot is missing its elbow. The now-detached bottom half of its arm crashes to the ground with a resounding boom of metal on pavement. Sharpshooter feels exactly when and where the elbow and WV reappear – about ten yards to the right and up twenty degrees, on top of a roof. She glances up just in time to see WV yank himself up on top of the giant metal joint, his carapace back to its normal glossy black hue as he stares around in evident confusion. He spots his meter stick lying on the road below and claps both claws to the sides of his head, banging repeatedly in frustration.

…Whelp. That’s new. But hey, she’ll take it! Seriously, WV is going to make the best sidekick ever!

But distracted as she is, Sharpshooter fails to sense the rushing, incoming mass of the hand that comes at her from the side until it is almost upon her. Suddenly, the space to her right is completely occupied and she barely has time to turn her head and yell in surprise as a giant robot hand slams into her.

She’s more resilient than most people, but it still hurts when the hand knocks her down against the road. "Oof!" Her ribs creak dangerously and she barely manages to halt her fall before her head hits the ground too. If nothing else, the fact that the Deucebot doesn’t immediately crush her against the pavement confirms the fact that Clubs Deuce is trying to capture her alive rather than kill her. It takes a moment for Sharpshooter to reorient herself, her head spinning from the abrupt, unplanned change in altitude.

Then, with a blink, Sharpshooter growls and appears above the hand, levitating into an upright position before floating up along the robot's arm. When she reaches the shoulder, close to where Bec is still putting on a strobe lights show, she swaps out the rifle for a grenade launcher, aims down at the shoulder joint, and pulls the trigger, before putting a good amount of air between herself and the explosion that ensues.

Heck yeah.

When the smoke clears, the arm is still attached but the metal is twisted and blacked, with raw, ragged edges. She drops inside and starts pulling at wiring and coil tubing at random, teleporting out vital pieces of the circuitry in wide swathes whenever she can get her gloved hands on them.

All the while, she keeps an eye on her secondary sniper lens attached to the side of her glasses. Even as she kicks out her feet and starts bashing the last twisted remnants of Deucebot's shoulder joint off its hinges, the program running the data along the side of her vision finishes rendering.

A 3-D image of the Deucebot loads on the lens, with a two foot wide red sphere marked in the center of the giant clubs sign on the chest, encased in other moving parts.

It's hard for Sharpshooter to pick out a robot's internal engine when the robot is in motion, and all the parts are rattling along, creating aftershocks and vibrations that confuse her space sense. It's a lot easier to just let her nifty 3-D rendering program map it out for her, and go from there. It takes some time to load, but it's worth it! Zapping in front of the robot's chest plate, Sharpshooter finds herself upside down, her hair falling over her face, but she doesn't bother righting herself. Instead, she frames that blinking red sphere with her fingers like a box and tugs.

With a shriek of metal, she drags the Deucebot's primary engine out through the chest plate. The giant robot shudders to a halt - not that it had been able to do much, with both arms incapacitated - and, with a creak, topples over as its one remaining functional leg loses the power to make up for the knee she blew out. Bec teleports out of the way, and reappears on the street corner, absently sniffing the robotic fingers of the arm WV had detached.

Unconcerned, Jade inspects the engine in her hands, then dismisses it. It's a pretty sloppy engine, with none of the finesse she saw in her Grandpa's machines. There is no new SCIENCE to be learned from this piece of garbage. Shrugging, she tosses it over her shoulder and floats to the ground to inspect the fallen Deucebot's head. "That's what you get for trying to mess with me, you total dorks!" she informs it. No one replies, and for all she knows the lack of power has shut down the microphones that would have let Clubs Deuce and his friends hear her from within the cockpit. Ohhh well. "You should just stay in there until the police arrive," Jade calls loudly, giving the armored robot head one last kick for good measure, sending the whole thing rolling back into the house the robot destroyed earlier. There is no reply from Clubs Deuce or his cohort, but she can feel them moving around in there, so they're okay.

But she's dispensed her justice - a robot for a building is basically just, right? - and it's up to the police in town to arrest them if they want to. Maybe it's different for other heroes, but Jade just likes to knock the big baddies down a notch or two. Arrest records and incarceration don't mean much to a girl who grew up on a deserted jungle island. "Alright guys, let's blow this popsicle stand!" she calls to the sky. Bec appears by her side, but WV waves frantically from the other roof before running in a panic along the edge of the roof, trying to keep her attention. Smiling ruefully, Jade snaps her fingers and goes to retrieve the carapacian.

-

Crossing into the US after that is a cinch, of course. Grandpa always insisted that passports were overrated and dumb and only served to delay adventure, a delay which he of course refused to have any truck with. So instead of doing it the boring legal way, Jade just has Bec teleport them into the center of El Paso for their next jump, and viola! Problem solved. After WV stops crackling in a sympathetic reaction to Bec's powers and the galaxies sink back under Bec's white fur, Jade decides to celebrate their successful defeat of the Deucebot and their recent illegal immigration into the States by treating them all to midnight tacos.

Because they're worth it.

The tacos, procured from a run down Taco Bell with minimal effort, are delicious. Jade and WV finish off ten between the two of them, while Becquerel looks on with a blank stare until Jade fishes one of the last pre-irradiated steaks from her sylladex and tosses it for him to catch. She doesn't really see him catch it in the bright green light show that follows, but she feels the irradiated burp of energy that escapes the wolf's muzzle two minutes later. It's a good thing steaks are more of a treat than a form of real nourishment for the wolf; the plane with all her extra stuff is still safe in the airplane hangar back at the estate in Britain, but also inaccessible from here. Jade really wishes she had time to pop back over the Atlantic and save some of the perishable food that might or might not go bad in the hold’s pocket dimension, but she has a lot of her clothes and stuff in her personal sylladex, anyway! She misses her guitar and her squiddle plush collection, but it’s not like they’re necessities. She doesn’t want to backtrack until she has a chance to meet John for the first time!

She doesn't realize they're still being followed until Clubs Deuce flies in through the window of the Taco Bell. Why would she think anything of the random movement of people walking around outside the building? It may be past midnight, but Taco Bell is always open. Always.

So there they are, innocently devouring inhuman quantities of taco, WV practically inhaling them with his head tilted back so he can chug his standard liter bottle of TaB at the same time, when the window above the table beside theirs shatters inward. Glass goes flying everywhere and Jade, startled, holds up a hand, freezing the glass shards in place before they can go stabbing people willy nilly. Jeez! Talk about someone being inconsiderate!

She blinks at the squat, wide-eyed troll who sits up on the table next to theirs, where he landed after crashing through the window like a living cannonball. "Oh dear! That was exciting!" he laughs, sitting up and beaming at Jade. He waves at her frantically with a claw, his muddy brown eyes gleaming. "Hello, Witch of Space! Are you ready to come quietly, now?"

If the weird nickname hadn't been enough, Jade would have recognized him by the chipper, slightly confused tone of his voice. "Clubs?" she says incredulously, staring at his horns in a way that would usually have been a little rude.

But they're literally shaped like clubs! Like nubby little clubs from a deck of cards! No way that happens naturally! He has to have gotten work done.

"It is me!" he replies, grinning with all his teeth. He doesn't even look vaguely menacing, like most trolls would upon baring all their sharper incisors - he just looks weirdly happy and overly eager. "I told you we could track you, Miss Witch - you and your very scary wolf-beast!"

"Wowww, and that's not creepy at all," Jade replies, sipping on her soda loudly with just the corner of her mouth. She rests her hand on her chin. "Come on, mister, I already beat up your giant robot once, and it was a total letdown. Go bug some other space hero, I'm trying to eat tacos here."

Clubs just looks puzzled. "But I have orders to capture you and bring you back to base," he says slowly, his brow furrowing with deliberate thought. "So, I'm very sorry, but I think you have to come with me! Yes! That's right." His frown vanishes as he makes up his mind, and he nods deeply. "No other space witch will do. The boss told me that very specifically." He scoots his way to the end of his glass-covered table and stands up, coming over to fold his arms with a pout on his face.

"If you people are going to fight, please take it a la calle," the man behind the cash register says. He sounds just as bored as when he took Jade's taco order, and goes back to flipping through his magazine after giving his token warning.

Jade huffs, and swallows the last of her taco. "Noooo. We're leeeaving. Come on, Bec."

The wolf stirs where it has been lying beneath her's and WV's feet under the table, and Jade pulls down on her bottom eyelids to make a gross face at Clubs before Bec teleports them across the city.

She guesses they'll have to do some special maneuvering to make Clubs lose their trail. It'll be a pain, but hey, it's not like John is expecting them to arrive at a specific time. Sometimes Jade even wonders if John is expecting her at all! He's so bad about answering her pesterings!

-

Four hours later, Jade is worried. Genuinely, truly worried. She's also absolutely starving. She worked off all those delicious tacos within the first hour of desperate teleportation, and she feels absolutely cheated because she didn't get to savor the meal.

Because as it turns out, Clubs Deuce isn't kidding when he says he can track their space powers. If anything, he seems to be getting better at it with every passing minute. Jade had tried to lose them in El Paso, but he kept turning up around every corner! What's more, his lackeys are with him, and they have no qualms about enforcing Clubs's bizarre will by tossing the small troll bodily through windows and blowing up walls whenever the three heroes try to hide in an actual building. Jade had tried resorting to the desperate option of having Bec dump all three of them in the middle of the desert, but Clubs had arrived in a helicopter a little under a half hour later, that damned tracking thingy humming away in his hands. Jade gave serious thought to teleporting the mysterious machine off the tubby little troll's arm, but when she reached out, wrapping her awareness around the device, she found herself unable to focus on it. It's almost as though the tracker is quantumly unstable; half the time, it feels like the tracker is actually a playing card, before it switches back into being a machine.

Soooo inconvenient!

Jade has tried everything. Even when Bec teleports them a few hundred miles back over the border into the Mexican half of the Chihuahuan Desert, Jade can only look at the green lightning that accompanies the jump with a vaguely queasy feeling in her stomach as she flops down on her butt to rest. Bec is tireless, of course, but it also puts out a lot more energy when it teleports them anywhere. Jade has jumped so many times on such short notice that she's starting to feel a little light-headed and dizzy. And the last thing she really wants to do is go messing around with the fabric of space when she's not all there, mentally.

She's also beginning to get an inkling of what they need to do to get this dumb troll off their butts, but she reeeeally doesn't like it. Splitting up the party is never a good idea - but when Bec gives another compulsive flash of green energy that sets off WV in turn, she makes up her mind. They need to minimize how much spatial distortion Clubs is tracking, and the easiest way to do that is to get rid of the atomically powered wolf leaving huge spikes in radiation whenever it teleports from point to point.

"Bec? Becquerel?" She kneels to be on the wolf's level, and scratches behind its fluffy white ear. She clasps the guardian wolf around the neck, hugging it. "Bec, you need to go," she whispers, scratching at the ruff of fur above the top of Bec's spine. "I'm sorry, but we need to try to confuse him. Can you head over into Arizona for me to throw him off the trail?" She kisses him on the nose. "Don't come back until I call you, okay, boy?"

Bec twitches its tail a few times, but makes no move to leave until Jade lets go of its neck and steps back. The wolf gives no real sign of acknowledging the order, but a few seconds later it hovers into the air, its fur going glossy and green in the darkness, and vanishes.

Separating from Bec feels wrong, but it's the only thing Jade can think of to do. "Come on, WV. Let's head north," she says weakly, her stomach feeling a little hollow. The carapacian takes her hand when it's offered, and they start walking along a dried out river bank, further into the desert.

-

What started as a single encounter with a crazy giant robot guy is rapidly turning into a nightmare. After Bec leaves there's an hour's pause in which Jade dares to hope they've finally managed to lose Clubs for good - only for him to tunnel up from beneath the desert in second giant robot shaped like a drill. After dispatching that robot with significantly more effort than the first one required and kicking the entire robot hard enough to send it and its troll commander blasting off into the distance, Jade resigns herself to another teleport, jumping her and WV back into Ciudad Juarez. They land in an alleyway, away from the main roads, and Jade leans over with her hands on her knees, closing her eyes against a tension headache knotting itself in her mind.

She's trying really hard not to think that things couldn't get any worse, for fear of jinxing herself, when WV collapses.

WV slumps against the wall, his pale eyes scrunched up with what could be exhaustion or pain or both; Jade is too stressed to tell. There’s a faint, sickly lime green glow pulsing along his arms, but it’s not the plasma lightning that usually crackles around him or Bec after a teleport – instead, Jade thinks she can see the outline of thin blood vessels through his carapace, which she is pretty sure is one of those things that is Not Good. At least she can still see him – she doesn’t know if she has the focus left to stabilize him again if he desynchronizes with reality.

Eventually she shakes her head. They’re going to have to walk again. The only way to really throw Clubs off their trail thus far has been to travel on foot, and even with Bec gone she gets the feeling that between her space powers and WV’s aura of distortion, the tiny troll will still be able to track them even if they stop teleporting altogether. They just give off too much natural distortion to turn it all off.

This totally sucks! Seriously, who is this guy, and why does he want to take her somewhere?! He throws missiles and giant robots around like they’re chump change and he’s disturbingly persistent, but he acts so innocuous and good-natured in person that Jade can’t imagine he’s actually the real villain in charge of these shenanigans. Someone is giving him orders, and she is really curious about who that could be. Whoever they are, she’s gonna owe them such an ass-whupping for all this hassle!

“Come on, WV,” she says, shoving her hair back with her hands and scrubbing at it, redoing the lazy pony tail that she tied the masses of hair into back in El Paso. She steps away from the wall and then pauses, looking back at WV.

He doesn’t stand up. Instead, wheezing, he squints up at her and shivers.

Uh oh. Jade squats down, hair sticking to her face as she presses the back of her hand to WV’s forehead. Generally, the carapacian is about the same temperature as Jade, if not a little cooler; now it feels as though she’s touching a hot water bottle, almost warm enough to burn. “Oh no,” she whimpers, grabbing a water bottle from her sylladex and twists off the cap to offer to the overheating carapacian.

Too late, she realizes what she’s just done. “Oh nooooooo,” she groans again, smacking her forehead. Using the sylladex dimensional pocket probably just sent out a huge wave of space distortion for Clubs Deuce and his men to track. Jade just uses these powers without thinking, and now it’s totally biting her in the ass every time they try to hide from him. “Come on, WV, drink a little water. Then we have to get moving again,” she says, coaxing the carapacian forward and keeping her ear tilted at the sky. Clubs seems to be favoring a helicopter at the moment, so she should at least be able to hear him coming.

Urgh. She just really doesn’t want to lead this guy to John! How rude would it be for her to meet her brother for the first time with some random midget troll villain harassing her?! Even when she’d knocked Clubs unconscious that one time, he showed up a half hour later as though nothing had happened!

WV reaches out and takes the water bottle with both hands, a little water trickling out the corners of his mouth as he gulps it as wildly as he would a can of soda. But even when he’s finished it off and lets the water bottle fall to the ground, he continues to wheeze heavily, green light literally burning beneath his carapace. When he goes to stand, his legs give out. Jade stumbles forward to catch him before he falls, patting at his head when he makes a noise of frustration. “Hey, don’t worry, I’ll get you out of here,” she promises, hoisting him up onto her back when it becomes clear he can’t walk anymore. His whole tiny, shivering body radiates heat like a furnace that Jade feel even through her uniform, and when he wraps his arms in a chokehold around her neck it feels like breathing through a fire.

He needs an ice bath or something to lower this awful temperature, but they just don’t have the time or resources, and Jade doesn’t know what to do! Agh! Hitching her arms under WV’s shrimpy legs, she dashes down the alleyway and deeper into the city.

It's only a matter of minutes before Clubs starts to catch up again. "Miss Witch," a by-now infuriatingly familiar voice calls from behind, still steadfastly calm and polite despite all the chasing and beatdowns that have ensued over the past several hours. "Please stop running! My boss is going to be very irritated if I'm late bringing you back to base!"

Jade picks up the pace, but she can still feel the too-familiar movements of Clubs Deuce as he scurries through the alleyways hot on their trail. Her spatial senses feel absolutely fried from being on high alert, and she feels every movement Clubs and his lackeys make run through her bones like tiny explosions. WV is burning a feverish streak along her shoulder, a tiny mumble of pain escaping his mouth. He's not sparking anymore, just smoking a little at his fingers, and Jade thinks that isn't a good sign. If something is up with WV on an atomic level because of all this teleporting around, it's her fault. She needs to get him into an ice bath or something to lower his temperature - can carapacian brains be damaged by fever? - but oh look, they're on the run in the middle of the night in Mexico.

Jade feels a little miserable as she ducks down a new alleyway, her head aching as she pauses to lean against the wall and adjust WV's limp form in her arms. All the strength has gone out of his arms so he can't hold on to her neck anymore, so she hugs him around the waist and tucks his head over her shoulder. He's just light enough that she'll be able to carry him like this for a while, she thinks -

“Looks like you could use some MOTHERFUCKING ASSISTANCE, my little hero-sis.”

For a wild moment, feeling half crazy, Jade glances around.

The alley is empty.

Then she looks straight in front of her, and sees a troll peel himself out of the shadows.

He had not been standing there before. He can't have been! She should have been able to sense him taking up space, at the very least, and the fact that she hadn't sets her on edge. "Who are you?" she demands, stepping away from him and clutching WV a little tighter.

His baggy clothes hang limply on a gaunt, long-limbed frame; he is taller than Jade by a good foot and a half, if not more, with another eleven inches of tightly wavering horns on top of that. For a moment she thinks his mouth is split up the sides in a ghoulish grin on a too-pale face – then she recognizes the face paint for what it is, a caked layer of greasy white that smudges and smears messily over the usual dark grey of troll skin. Perhaps at one time the paint formed a clownish mask, but it looks as though the pattern hasn’t been repainted in weeks, reducing the face to a pale, sickly blur. His claws are tucked into the pockets of low-slung, spotted pajama pants, but he has all the stillness of a stalking predator, and Jade gets the distinct feeling that with the length of his gangly limbs, she is still well within arm’s reach for the stranger. She fights the urge to instantly teleport away and get out of this guy’s range; she’d only give Clubs Deuce another wave of space distortion to track her down with.

But seriously, this guy is giving her the creeps!

“I know a little motherfuckin’ something that could WRECK THEIR SHIT if these MOTHERFUCKERS be botherin’ you,” the troll continues. There is something wrong with his voice, something that sets Jade’s teeth on edge and prickles at her spine. She can hear an extra grate, something deeper than the usual growl of a troll’s voice. It’s almost as though, when the troll isn’t raising his voice to a startling, reverberating thunder, there are two voices emerging from his throat, and one voice is just enough out of sync with the other to strike a note of brain-melting disharmony.

“I think we’ll be okay on our own,” she babbles, wincing as she stutters over the first few words. This is not the kind of guy she wants to expose weakness to, but the longer they stand here in the shadows, the more edgy and apprehensive she feels. She can barely keep her hands from trembling, and she hugs WV closer to reassure herself he’s still there. “We don’t want any more trouble, thanks. If this is your territory or something, I’m sorry if we intruded by accident!”

“Ain’t no thing, my hero-sis. Not a single thing,” the troll drawls, with what he must imagine is a reassuring grin. He shows far too many teeth for Jade’s comfort, the sharp incisors flashing beneath the muted purple gleam of his eyes. She doesn’t think she’s seen such a dark, almost bruised-black purple hemotype in any of the trolls she’s met in the past year or so of travelling the world, and it unnerves her. “I’m all for doin’ favors for a sister in the business of doin’ the hero thing.”

A trash can topples over by the corner of the alley, and Jade whirls to see Clubs Deuce hopping over the fallen metal can. "There you are!" he says cheerfully.

By now, the sound of his voice is enough to send another spike of horror through Jade, and she almost whimpers. Forget everything she said earlier, the scary clowntroll is nowhere near as terrifying as this guy. Clowntroll just has unfortunate taste in makeup. Clubs, on the other hand, is an abomination. He just. Won't. Stop. "Just leave us alone!" Jade yells, grinding a palm against her temple. WV's head lolls against her shoulder, and remembering the pitiful state the poor carapacian is in because of Clubs's incessant chase just fires her up more. "I don't want to go with you or fight you or anything anymore! Congratulations, you're awful! You're the single most awful person I've ever met and I don't want anything to do with you! You are so frustrating!"

Clubs pouts. "Why are you yelling at me?" he asks, sounding almost timid.

"Why won't you leave me alone?!" Jade shrieks. She flings up her only free arm and shoves. Clubs goes flying backward with his mouth gaping, and crashes into the garbage can again. She lives in a brief moment of hope that this time, he'll take the hint and crawl away back to his 'base' without her.

Two seconds later, Clubs rolls up onto his feet, shaking himself vigorously and ignoring the brand new tear Jade's latest attack has torn through his much battered, dust-covered, shabby black suit. "That wasn’t very nice, you know," he admonishes.

Jade feels like she is going to lose. Her. Shit. Deep down in her torso, it feels like she's going to explode. "Stop it!"

Abruptly, the tall, gangly troll steps up in the corner of Jade's field of vision, and she flinches away from him too. How could she have forgotten he was there? "Ain't cool to be all distressin' a chill heroína, MOTHERFUCKER," he says, blinking languidly at Clubs Deuce. It's more clear than ever from this perspective that Clowntroll is almost four whole feet taller than Clubs, not counting his horns, and the contrast between the two is bizarre. "I think you should listen to the girl when she MOTHERFUCKING TELLS YOU TO STOP."

"Oh - oh dear? Who are you?" Clubs says worriedly, clasping his claws together. He takes a little step back, clearly intimidated by the sudden appearance of a purple-blooded juggalo, but Jade can see Clubs's handlers rounding the corner now. Any second now she and WV are going to be outnumbered, because she doesn't count Crazy Clown as being on her side.

She doesn't know what teleporting again will do to WV, but she doesn't think they have a choice. Sobbing a little, she bites her lip and tries to focus on some other empty space in the city. They don't have to go far, just away -

Fear lances through Jade like a cold spike in the base of her skull. It abates a moment later, fading in her mind like the stain of an old nightmare that she can't quite remember, but she falls to her knees anyway from the shock. She drops WV in her panic, and he curls up against the ground with his own little murmur of pain.

What the heck was that?!

A wide, skinny claw pats Jade on the back, jolting her forward. She jerks out of reach, panting a little with the shuddering fear that keeps building up in the back of her mind, but the clown-faced troll doesn’t even really seem to notice or care. She follows the direction of his gaze, and can only stare.

Clubs Deuce stands transfixed where Jade had thrown him. His eyes are wide and rolled back, the brown of his irises completely hidden so that only the yellowish sclera are visible. The rest of the men and women in black suits that just turned the corner in pursuit are similarly frozen, and one female troll begins to froth at the mouth and tremble, her eyes still rolled back as she shakes.

Jade looks back and forth between the trembling group of thugs and the purple-blooded troll. And she knows, with another frisson of terror that combs through her skull, that the clown caused this. This is some kind of power, but she can't say with any certainty that it's a heroic one. This is...terrifying.

Clowntroll just tilts his head at the transfixed shorter troll and smiles with lazy eyes, the eyelids so low and hooded that the purple of his irises is barely visible. He rolls his head to look at her after a moment, his tangled mass of hair hanging over his eyes as he smiles bemusedly in her direction. “All clear, hermanita,” he says. His grin is a lot easier to bear now that he’s not baring his teeth like a strung-out maniac. “The SHORT LITTLE MOTHERFUCKER will be occupied for a spell. If you’re gonna run, you better DO IT NOW.”

It's terrifying, and Jade can still feel the excess fear in the air bleeding into her own brain, but no way is she going to question the help of some random whimsical clown hero-villain who could probably incapacitate her with a thought. If he wants to help her escape Clubs, then she is tooootally not looking a gift-troll in the mouth. "Uh. Oh, uh, thank you?" she manages weakly.

"Don't forget the SHORT MOTHERFUCKER," the troll replies, jerking his chin slightly at WV's curled up form.

"Ah, noooo, I won't," Jade says. She's still feeling kind of woozy as she scoops her arms under WV and hauls him up into a fireman carry. "Thanks again!"

Another member of Clubs's gang begins to seize up. The clown just smiles and smiles and smiles. "Not a problem, hero-sis."

And yeah. They are so getting out of here. And they're doing this properly. "Bec!"

The wolf reappears without fanfare. She genuinely wonders if it ever really went to Arizona as she requested, or if it simply hung around just out of her spatial range, carrying out its eternal mission to guard her. Whatever. "We're getting out of here now, okay Bec? One last jump, right to some place cold." She touches WV's forehead, and while he's no longer smoking and burning like the sun, he's still too warm. Jumping again will probably restart the fever, but this time, with Bec's help coordinating, she should be able to aim for someplace with ice. "A freezer room in Texas somewhere, they have to have one of those in a restaurant somewhere. Can you pinpoint that, Bec?"

Bec huffs and then - freezes. Its head jerks to face Clowntroll, and Jade tenses in response. The troll isn't doing anything different now; he doesn't even look toward Bec, seemingly occupied with whatever he's unleashing on Clubs and his people. But by her side, Bec whines, and Jade doesn’t think she’s heard that kind of plaintive sound escape the wolf’s muzzle before. Bec doesn’t attack, and it doesn’t attempt another teleportation to whisk Jade and WV to safety, which would usually mean that the wolf didn’t consider the troll before them an immediate threat.

Now, Jade isn’t so sure. She has never once, in all her years, heard Becquerel sound afraid.

"Nos vemos," the clown says, apparently indifferent to Bec's whines of terror. He waves a slow hand at her, a farewell that would have been a lot less totally scary if his claws hadn't sharpened to a deadly edge she can clearly see outlined by the moonlight.

"Bec, let's go let's go let's go," she chants, until Bec rises up in the air and a bubble of green electricity envelopes her and WV -

And they are gone, gone, gone.

-

They reappear in the freezer of a frozen yogurt shop, somewhere in Dallas. Jade spends the next few minutes calming WV and shoving him facefirst into a pile of ice to cool off the green fire on his head while he flails and squeaks in indignation.

She hooks an arm around Bec in greeting, and narrows her eyes as she watches WV roll around in the ice of his own accord.

"Yeah. Let's go visit John, boy. I'm sick of travelling and dawdling," she says, muttering against the wolf's neck.

In the darkness of the chilled freezer, a pair of green lights that might have been eyes gleam beneath Becquerel's eternal ruff of fur, and then darken again, though Jade does not see the strange transition. She has too much on her mind, and too little mental focus left to handle it all. She shoves Clubs Deuce aside for now - all she can do is try to put as much space between them and Clubs as possible, end of story. Nothing more or less. And the Clowntroll probably just happened to be passing by. Yeah. Totally. That was his territory she stepped on, and now that they've cross back into the US, she'll neeeever see him again, right?

The most she can decide is that their next stop will be Seattle, Washington.

After all these unnecessary shenanigans, Jade is quite ready to finally, at last, give John a piece of her mind!

-

Prospyet, Kazakhstan

MP is tidying up the kitchen when the Midnight Crew arrives.

She is between names at the moment – though the man who lives above persists in calling her Ms Paint, it is an old name, a tired name. Sometimes she thinks even her initials feel ancient, old in the bones. They are the oldest and most sacred aspect of her identity, but is this not an era of change? If the White King himself can become a Grey Protector, a title so different as to be nigh unrecognizable, might she not also transform herself to suit this new world?

Sighing, MP shakes her head softly and begins to stack the dried dishes on the counter. She is a carapacian once of Prospit, and they require less food than the humans and trolls that populate this planet they have found themselves on. But the man who lives above was human long ago and far away, and he still needs a unnatural amount of nourishment before he is at full strength. The kettle on the stove-top whistles, and she adjusts the tea set she has laid out on the counter before removing the kettle from the stove. After completing those finale preparations and wiping off her hands on a pink towel, MP adjusts the ring that hangs on a thin chain around her neck so that it lies flat and begins to retie her apron.

There is still a bowl of scotty dogs on the counter closest to the front door. They do not sadden her; they remind her of her love! How could that make her sad? Spades is far from home and roaming, and no doubt putting himself in simply idiotic amounts of danger, but she has faith he will return. And he shall have scotty dogs when he returns. So many scotty dogs.

If he doesn’t, of course, she’ll drag him back kicking and screaming if need be. She has lost more than enough dear friends to last a thousand lifetimes, and she will not let the one dearest to her spin off into the ether. She has seen the pale sheen of madness still tracing its way through Spades’s thoughts, the way a subtle poison might thread itself through a man’s veins before slowly inundating his heart. It has always been his way, to balance madness and greatness in kind. In one world, he built a civilization from the apocalyptic wilderness of a broken planet; in another, he laid waste to an entire portion of paradox space in a cancerous act of insanity. This incarnation holds the same worlds-spanning significance, balanced on the edge of a knife, whether he remembers it all or not.

MP likes to think she remembers more than most, more even than the Queens in their dance or the abomination plotting away in his new seat of power in the Americas. After all, the Queens only remember their endless games, and the faithless Doctor knows only what he needs to know to bring forth a new iteration of Skaia’s demise. For a being whose sole goal in life is to birth the Angel of Double-Death, that knowledge must seem like omnipotence.

He is wrong, of course. But there’s no need for anyone to enlighten him of that fact. The deeper the shadows in the good Doc Scratch’s memory run, the more MP will have to work with when the time is right. So much slips beneath the radar when you narrow your focus so assiduously and serve a creature that wants nothing more than immediate destruction, without end. MP learned from a far different mistress, and she knows the value of casting her nets wide. The Doctor can rush along to complete his fixed points in time, to fulfill his paradoxical inevitabilities and his elaborate schemes. All he has to do to win this game is check off all the correct boxes on his checklist.

MP, meanwhile, will work the rest of the system. If Doc Scratch thinks there is only one path to the finale, he is in for a rude awakening.

There is a knock on the door, and that means MP’s time for reminiscence is at an end. The man who lives above has been expecting these visitors for quite some time! Humming cheerfully, she tucks a cook spoon into her apron pocket and wears her best hostess smile as she trots to the door to open it.

MP: Welcome. How may I help you, ma’am?

A tall, lanky woman in a truly dashing black suit flinches back, startled at the door’s abrupt opening. Her hand is still half raised in a fist, in preparation to knock again, but she is in a fighting stance almost instantly. A man in a suit only a foot behind the woman lets a gun specibus drop into his palm where he thinks MP won’t see it, his eyes wary. They are not alone of course, but the three thuggish brutes that trail behind them, lurking in the shadows where the setting sun does not quite reach, are of minimal importance.

Both the woman in front and the man with the gun are battle-ready, but only the woman wears the diamond. MP never knew the old iteration of Diamonds Droog, but her aura of paradox significance envelops the well-dressed woman like a thick haze of roses and lightning. Diamonds has played both for and against the Doctor’s whims in the past, though generally in a minor role.

No, the one Diamonds has always owed the most consistent loyalty to is Spades Slick. And it appears she has come hunting for him at last. It certainly took her long enough! MP bows her head slightly and motions Diamonds Droog forward with a tiny wave of her claws.

MP: Come in, come in! The tea will oversteep soon! Come in, Ace of Diamonds!

The woman does not move forward, her darkly kinked curls bouncing slightly as she shakes her head. “You’ve been expecting me. How…interesting,” Diamonds says, her gaze sharp and piercing as she scans the kitchen. No doubt she’s looking for signs of a trap or an ambush. Such paranoia!

I mean really, as though MP would leave her weapons lying out in the open like an uncouth layabout! She’s even tidied up all of Spades’s spare knives and tucked them away in the back room for the sake of this visit. It doesn’t do to give a bad first impression to such a significant guest, after all! Ducking her head shyly, MP hurries back over to the tea set and begins to pour a single cup of powerfully spiced tea.

MP: Oh, yes, of course! The man who lives above has been rambling about it for weeks!

MP: He’s not as sharp as he once was, of course, but he can’t really help it.

MP: You’ve come looking for Spades though, haven’t you?

MP lifts her head from the tea set against her will, and blinks, a little put out to find the thin tip of a cue stick pressing upward against the underside of her chin. Diamonds remains at a safe distance, the cue stick fully extended so that the woman has only had to take a few steps into the building to threaten MP. She holds the weapon with practiced ease, and with the faint aura of barely restrained, brutal violence.

Oh yes, Diamonds is brutal. No matter how finely she dresses or how elegantly she styles her hair, MP has no doubt that Diamonds remains the single most ruthless, impulsively violent member of the Midnight Crew. Perhaps Hearts Boxcar could outdo her in pure strength, and Clubs in terms of sheer dumb luck, but Diamonds Droog could demolish either of them in a one on one fight. In another life, she served under Spades because she recognized the mad power to warp creation that lay within him, but MP would lay down money that in a duel the two would be evenly matched.

However, not once in a thousand thousand iterations has Diamonds fought MP.

This element of novelty makes the whole thing so much more interesting!

“I know he was here as late as this past month,” Diamonds whispers, the over-sharpened end of the cue stick pressing just enough into MP’s throat to draw out a trickle of blood. “Tell me, was he here for you? How…quaint.”

MP swallows hard. This is a delicate moment, and she does not want to lean too heavily upon a Diamonds who follows the Doctor and his Felt.

MP: Oh, Spades came here to lie low! I am simply a Medical Practitioner who cares for the man who lives above! He has been expecting your visit for quite some time.

The cue stick traces the line where a jugular artery would lie beneath the skin of a human or a troll. MP, being carapacian, has no such analogous artery – the vulnerable points of a carapacian lie mainly within the torso and the skull itself, with blood vessels elsewhere shielded beneath the thick carapace of the joints and limbs. Their design is much less complex than that of player species, designed for simplicity of cloning and regeneration.

Diamonds does not need to know that, however.

“Then I don’t suppose this man will mind me paying that visit at last, hmm?” Diamonds purrs, eyeing the stairwell.

MP: Oh no, he wouldn’t.

MP: I would.

Diamonds pauses. As her attention had gone to the stairs that lead up to the darkened second floor of the home, the cue stick had lowered slightly, but when her dark eyes flicker back to MP they are just as bright and intent as ever. “You mind?” she says, one eyebrow rising up. “And he defers to your medical expertise, I suppose?”

MP: No, he doesn’t. He is a horribly stubborn man.

MP: But I will be leaving this place soon, and I refuse to let him invite yet more chaos into this house in my absence.

MP: Better you and I occupy ourselves here while I launch him into orbit.

Diamonds mouth opens, then shuts. “What,” she says at last.

MP smiles prettily, her head tilting to the side.

MP: Oh, I began the launch sequence shortly before you arrived!

MP: He has plenty of rations to keep him secure in geostationary orbit until the time is right.

MP: I even gave him a 640-crayon pack and some coloring books. He won’t even notice he’s left the upper atmosphere! Such a silly man!

“You’re insane,” Diamonds says, faint horror on her face. “This house isn’t large enough to conceal a functional rocket ship.”

As though paradox space itself wishes to prove the Crew member wrong, the entire house begins to rumble.

MP: The house is the rocket ship.

MP: I am a carapacian, my dear. Interstellar design is our forte!

Diamonds slaps a hand across her face. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

The main thrusters activate. They are located on either side of the outer walls, of course, disguised as barrels of rain water, and the kitchen is shielded against the combustive reaction. Diamonds doesn’t know that though, and between one second and the next she has retracted the cue stick and darted out of the building, her shouted orders barely audible over the roar of the auxiliary engine.

MP simply braces herself with her back against the counter top, holding a handkerchief to her mouth to filter out the dust. She waves with one hand at the second floor of the house as it vanishes into the evening sky.

Diamonds needn’t have worried, MP thinks, bemused as she brushes kicked up dust and debris off her apron. The kitchen remains mostly intact, though it is now open to the sky. MP had hoped to placate Diamonds with a nice, light tea, perhaps with some scones afterward, but it appears she underestimated the blowback from the house’s main engines. Everything is now covered in a thick layer of dirt. It would take weeks to get the place clean again, if MP intended to stick around. Alas. She yanks open the drawer nearest her and adds a spatula and a whisk to the pouch of her apron, then hikes up her skirt and exits the hollow shell of the building.

Diamonds is tracking the fading arc of the house-rocket’s trajectory with a keen eye. Her entourage puff themselves up as MP approaches, and the three lower-ranked lackeys step forward as though they could actually stop her. A glower pinches at the corners of Diamonds’s eyes as she lowers her gaze. “That was…inconvenient of you,” she says idly. “I can only assume this mysterious man who is now in orbit would have been able to tell me everything I ever wanted to know about Spades Slick’s whereabouts.”

MP: Oh, assuredly. He’s a bit dense, but he could have told you quite a lot!

MP: However, he’s a bit beyond your reach now.

MP: Sorry about the scare, but now we can talk like civilized people, without worrying that the poor man will rain down bizarre, nonsensically metaphysical experiences upon our head at any given moment.

MP: So tell me, what are your intentions toward my Spades?

“Nothing personal. And nothing I’m at liberty to discuss.” Diamonds picks a fleck of charred plant matter off her shoulder,  grimacing. “I really did not need this today.”

MP: My apologies. I really did intend to serve tea to help soften the blow, but I’m afraid that’s quite impossible now.

MP: As you are unwilling to discuss what you mean to do with Spades, and I am unwilling to speak of him to you at all, I suppose there is only one option left to us.

MP: A calm and polite parting of ways.

“Oh no. I’m afraid you’ll be coming with us now,” Diamonds says, cracking her neck slightly as she appraises MP. The man with the gun he thinks is so well concealed imitates his boss’s posture slightly. He is the second-highest rank Crew member here, and it shows; he is far more in tune with Diamonds than the other three, who are mere blunt tools intended to enforce her orders. MP will have to watch him closely. “If nothing else, I suspect you'll make a most useful lure for my target. Would he come running if he knew we had you? I think...yes."

MP: I do not see why you would think such a thing. Spades has not been here in many months.

"And you still have a bowl of scotty dogs waiting for him," Diamonds laughs, gesturing at the now dust-smeared bowl of black licorice candy that sits on the counter back in the kitchen. "Oh, you expect him to return to you. It's obvious. I came here looking for a landlord, perhaps, or some other vague connection to a carapacian who has managed to evade me at every turn. But you - you're his lady love, aren't you? Kidnapping you is going to be both useful and a pleasure!"

Well, it had been worth a shot. No one can say MP hadn’t given them a chance to cut their losses and run. Time to get Diamonds onto the correct line of conversation. The less they speak about Spades, really, the better for everyone here.

MP: Does he tell you much, your Doc Scratch?

All three minions flinch bodily. One of the trolls absently makes the sign of the Sixteen against his chest, and MP wonders if he even knows what the symbol means. Surely no follower of the Angel would knowingly make use of the symbol of his greatest enemies. Most likely these three are too low in the Crew to know the true nature of the beasts they serve; they know to fear the Doctor, to obey orders, and little else.

MP is, in fact, counting on that. Because she knows Diamonds Droog's old archetype – a vicious, brutish fighter in the guise of a dapper gentlewoman, a compulsive kidnapper with expensive taste, and above all else, a survivor.

A survivor who would, no doubt, object to any plan that involved the end of the world.

MP: Did he ever tell you his endgame? Why he has you chasing ghosts? Why he would want Spades under his control with no explanation?

“I’m not paid to ask questions,” Diamonds says. But MP catches the resentment that flickers in the woman’s face, the barely contained, cold anger of an old grievance. Diamonds has two modes of rage – the flashfires that result in sudden, impulsive violence, and the slow burn that she ignores until it overwhelms her. This is the barest edge of an old, old grudge. “I’m just paid to kidnap people,” she adds, a slow afterthought. The pause between the two sentences is palpable, though MP doubts the other four Crew members would know to listen for it.

All she needs is the right spark, and that slow burn won’t be contained by the cold façade anymore.

But MP can’t be the one to ignite this firestorm. Not here. Not yet. All she can do is begin to set up the groundwork.

MP: Perhaps you should ask more questions, Ace of Diamonds.

MP: For example, who told you about the scotty dogs?

“What are you talking about?” Diamonds snaps. “The candy was sitting right in plain sight -”

MP: Who told you the scotty dogs were for Spades? How did you know they were his favorite?

MP: No one told you, did they.

MP: You just knew.

She knows she has it right when Diamonds comes at her swinging. It was a gamble - MP has had little opportunity to communicate with Spades since he left, and perhaps his love of candy was in fact common knowledge among those who seek to capture him. But Diamonds almost howls as she whips the cue stick around at MP's face, a broken sound MP knows too well.

Remembering hurts, after all. And none of them are quite ready to remember.

And as cathartic as taking out her rage on MP would most likely be for Diamonds, MP has no intention of letting a child's temper tantrum harm her. Spades would be so irate! MP waits until the cue stick is a hair's breadth from her face, and then she sets herself into motion.

The spatula catches the tip of the cue stick between its slits, and MP twists her arm smoothly, her other arm jabbing out with the wooden spoon as she spins inside the woman's reach. She whacks Diamonds in the eye, hard enough to bruise, and the woman jerks back instinctively, one hand clapping against the injured eye.  This is enough of an opening for MP to finish yanking her spatula to the side; the cue stick goes flying, and Diamonds lets out a noise of pure outrage.

A strong hand grabs MP roughly by the collar, lifting her off the ground, and Diamonds flings the carapacian back bodily into the kitchen, a good fifteen feet back. She is physically stronger, MP thinks, tumbling along the dusty floor, and it is a good thing MP chose to disarm rather than attempt to outfight the woman. Hefting the spoon, MP staggers to her feet, slowly enough that the three thugs have time to surround her. This is their mistake; when MP straightens, she does so by leaning on the counter by the stove top and hefting the half-full kettle of hot tea water. She grunts as she brings the kettle sweeping up into the chin of the nearest troll. He drops like a stone.

Trading out her spatula for the whisk, MP catches the second man's knife slash between the thin wires. It is almost the same trick she used to disarm Diamonds herself, but these aren't exactly the brightest specimens of criminals, and MP is able to batter the man repeatedly about the head with the whisk after he drops the knife. She finishes him off with a flailing whack of the wooden spoon that breaks the poor kitchen implement in two with a resounding crack.

The last thug looks properly unnerved by the time she rounds on him. Good! As well he should be! It is quite rude to attack a lady in her own home and expect to get off scot-free! MP carefully considers her options, and then kicks him in the exposed male human reproductive organs.

He drops with a shriek to his knees, and MP shakes her head sadly before hauling back with the kettle in both hands to hit him in the temple.

The man with the gun, Diamonds's assistant, still thinks he is being quite sneaky by creeping up on MP from behind. She just lets the momentum of the swinging kettle carry her in a wild circle, until she smashes into him on the back swing. She is very off balance by the time she is finished, and it takes a few hopping steps and every inch of courtly grace she has accumulated over the years to salvage the landing.

Diamonds is the only one left standing of the Crew, and unfortunately by the time MP is finished with the rest, the woman has retrieved her weapon of choice. Some of the blind rage has left Diamonds by now, replaced by the clear glint of wariness and faint respect as Diamonds paces in a slow semi-circle. No, she won't fall for that disarming trick again, not someone as intelligent as Diamonds Droog.

This is no good. In a one on one strife, MP is rather certain Diamonds will have the upper hand. MP can defend herself adequately, but she is no good in a prolonged battle.

Perhaps what she does next is not very sporting. On the other hand, she is quite certain Spades would approve of such deliberately underhanded tactics. He's charmingly quirky that way. MP calmly opens the drawer she is now standing next to and removes two small canisters. The timing on this would be a bit tricky if she didn't already know that Diamonds is still one wrong word away from another flare up.

MP: Doc Scratch is going to kill you. And you know it.

"Who are you?" Diamonds murmurs.

MP: I am a Memory Provocateur, at the moment. But I am rethinking my title.

MP: Also, I am very sorry, Ace of Diamonds. I could answer every question you have ever had.

She pauses deliberately, and sees the light of obsession burn in Diamonds's expression.

MP: But I will not.

"God dammit!" Diamonds yells. She raises the cue stick, just in time for MP to pop the lids off both of the salt canisters and start waving them wildly so that salt goes flying everywhere.

Including into Diamonds's eyes.

Before the woman can do more than scream and clutch at her eyes, MP sidesteps her rushing charge and brings up the spatula one last time. MP is short enough that her swing just barely reaches Diamonds's neck, but that's enough. The woman gags at the unexpected smack, and squints through tears to glower at MP.

MP: Goodnight, Diamonds.

Since it has been so very effective in the past few minutes, MP elects to put the kettle to use once more. She doubts Diamonds would feel very genial about future interactions if MP were to damage her face, so she aims for the back of the woman's skull.

Diamonds, naturally, does not reply. She lands face down on the kitchen floor, and does not stir.

They always underestimate the kitchenkind. Foolish of them. It is not even MP's preferred specibus, and she has hardly even broken a sweat. She is a classy Prospitian dame, but that does not mean she cannot defend herself quite thoroughly, thank you very much!

The work done, MP slides the spatula back into her pocket with a neat flip. She graces the broken spoon with a silent moment of mourning before tossing it into the trash can that still sits by the kitchen counter, and sets the kettle upon the stovetop where it rightfully belongs. Then she stoops over Diamonds, and draws forth a note from within her Prospitian wrappings. She reads through it one more time before riffling through the unconscious Crew member's coat and depositing the note in an inside pocket.

Yes, Diamonds will have to be part of the long game, for now. MP has more urgent matters to take care of. Once word reaches the Doctor of MP's presence, she won't have much spare time!

Of course, it wouldn't do to leave the five poor things lying out here unconscious on the hard ground for hours at a time. Humming to herself, MP removes some of the spare pillows she stockpiled beneath the sink for just such an occasion. She tucks one beneath the head of each Crew member, plumping up the pillows a bit, and then stands back to observe her handiwork. Not her best job at hospitality, perhaps, but she really must be off! Lifting her satchel from its hook by the empty frame of the front door, MP slings the bag over her shoulder and begins to hurry away.

Beneath the folds of her wrappings, a slim ring rests against her carapace, the tiny orbs of power that adorn the metal cold and dormant.

For now.

-


DD: < Boss.
DD: > I must apologize.
DD: < We have been unable to locate Spades Slick at the house in Kazakhstan.
DD: > In addition, I am displeased to report that we have encountered unanticipated resistance.
DS: Allow me a moment to review your findings, my dear Droog.
DD: < Sir, I have yet to send you any -
DD: > I -
DD: < Very well, sir.

Diamonds Droog sighs when there is no immediate response. Resignation weighs heavily on her the moment, and she finds herself in the grip of a most indecorous ennui as she rests the phone against the bridge of her nose.

Diamonds Droog is not happy.

Not.

Happy.

Her eyes sting and she just knows the whites must be shot through with blown capillaries, painting her eyes a dull red. Every time she thinks the last of the sting has past, some fresh grain of that blasted salt will find its way from a traitorous eyelash into her eye itself, and set off the burning pain once more. She considers herself far too urbane and debonair for these kind of shenanigans, and the last few days have been particularly wearying.

Cairo, naturally, had been as useless as the Doctor had predicted, much to her increasingly fatalistic displeasure. It soon became clear that the reports of a scarred carapacian referred to a tall female member of the species missing part of her hand, as opposed to a medium-sized, perpetually angry male with a scar down one eye. More than a few of her Egyptian contacts had received a thorough drubbing for bringing Diamonds halfway around the world with so little to show for it, and she had moved on to the next few places where an unusual carapacian had been sighted. Some of the reports had been quiet whispers from the Novaya Ukraine, but she has standing orders from the boss not to go near there. He seems quite certain Spades Slick wouldn't have gone there, and sadly Diamonds has no reason not to believe the Doctor. He likes to claim that he does not need to lie, but even if he did lie to her it's not as though she would be able to call him out on it. He's always five steps ahead of her

Thus far, the one called Spades Slick seems to be flying beneath the radar, even of Diamonds's network. Her best hat just got crumpled up by the force of a miniature house-rocket taking off into orbit, and she has recently had her derrière handed to her by a small, matronly, pink-clad carapacian using kitchenkind, of all things. Diamonds wants to believe that it was a fluke, that she had been simply put off her guard by the carapacian's timid, polite, and unbelievably classy demeanor. But she is neither stupid nor naïve. This Mysterious Prospitian knew exactly how to play Diamonds, and manipulated her into a frenzy with true finesse.

Perhaps, when it comes down to it, Diamonds is simply tired of these shenanigans. Not even properly angry or annoyed anymore. Just. Tired. She nudges the still unconscious body of one of the brutes she brought along to accompany her and just shakes her head in disdain when the man mumbles and rolls over in his sleep. The other two are awake but thoroughly confused, and Marlowe is standing at attention by Diamonds's shoulder, his calm, efficient demeanor set off kilter by the glorious rainbow of bruises swelling up around his right eye where the MP clocked him with a tea kettle.

Her phone chimes like a grandfather clock, and she thumbs open the boss's reply.

Ms Paint. Intriguing.

DD: > I beg your pardon, sir?

The perspicacious Prospitian you encountered. They must have been quite well shielded by Void to have evaded my sight for so long. Even now she is just out of my sight. I do not suppose she allowed you to come into contact with the man who lived above?

DD: < No sir. I was not even able to confirm there was another living being in the house at all. For all we know, it could have been Spades Slick himself, and he is now thoroughly out of reach.

Oh, no, Droog. Our mutual friend Spades Slick is in New York City at the moment.

Trembling a little, Diamonds sets the phone down on the counter. "Ma'am?" Marlowe inquires, but she has no words at the moment. She pats at her hair instead, tucking stray curls back into line and readjusting her replacement hat to cover a particularly belligerent section that will no longer lie flat. The ritual soothes her, but only a little, and she is still shaking as she takes up the phone once more.


DD: > You are telling me.
DD: < That I travelled halfway around the globe.
DD: < Tracking down a target whom you already knew the location of.
DD: > A location that just so happens to be within the reach of our domestic division.
Yes. I knew simply that within the week you would end up in Kazakhstan in the nominal pursuit of Spades; it seems your presence was intended to trigger this sequence of events. Now all I ask is that you pick up Stitch on your way back to base. I have a new assignment for you, one that I am sure you will be pleased to hear does not require you hunt down a carapacian with a knack for evading custody.
Try not to pressgang Stitch into service again, dear Droog, he's had a very long day completing a tricky task in Britain for me. Another bout of chloroform may well damage his clever mind for tailoring entirely, and then where would you be?

Diamonds Droog stares at the screen for a long moment. She holds out her hand to the side. "Marlowe. I require your gun."

"Yes ma'am," Marlowe says, removing his pistolkind specibus from its holster. None of this chipper, gung-ho attitude now; he sounds just as resigned as Diamonds used to feel as he offers it to her obediently.

Used to.

6/10, primarily for effort, Marlowe - you're starting to slip.

Because like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Diamonds Droog can feel something burning inside her chest. There is a disconnect between the rising blaze and her cool exterior, though. Feeling distant and peaceably calm, balanced between the two extremes, she takes the gun that Marlowe gave her and sets the phone very carefully on the ground, nudging it with the toe of her polished boot until it lies perfectly centered in the middle of a square tile.

Smiling dreamily, Diamonds levels the pistol at the ground and empties the clip into the phone. Between sharp cracks and jolts that barely rock her shoulders, the bullets lodge into the casing of the phone, and its innards explode outward with bursts of sparks and smoke.

It is perhaps the single most satisfying act of destruction she has engaged in all week. Glorious.

By the time she pivots on a heel and presents the emptied gun to Marlowe, the bemused grin has left her face. It looked vaguely inane, anyway. She has an image to maintain, after all; she can't go wandering around grinning like a trigger-happy imbecile while on the job.

She has no time for despair. She has no time to dwell on the cryptic words of an insane salt-throwing maniac who barely came up to her chest. She has a mission, and she will complete it, for the sake of her sterling reputation for quality work if nothing else.

By all the gods, no one else in this organization may have a scrap of dignity left, but she does. Really, at this point, she has little else.

"Marlowe?" she says idly, rebuttoning her suit jacket as she grinds a scotty dog into the ground by the crackling remains of the cell phone that has caused her such aggravation. "It appears we are off to New York."

Screw the orders to return to base. Spades Slick had better hope she finds him dead. What she's going to do to him will be much less painful that way.

She pauses mid-buttoning when something in one of her pockets crackles. Diamonds is always meticulous in how she packs her belongings, and she knows for a fact that there should be nothing in that pocket but the emergency lock picks, finger gun, and spare tie pin. "Wake these buffoons up," she snaps at Marlowe, using the hand that Marlowe can see to draw forth her extra disposable cell phone. He notices nothing, though she knows he will be recording everything he thinks he sees to exploit for his personal advantage later. But Diamonds has been playing the game far longer than he, and while Marlowe sees only Diamonds taking out her cell to finished reporting to the boss, Diamonds types with one hand while tucking the folded paper note into the palm of the other. It is really all about misdirection, sometimes.


DD: < My apologies, sir. The previous phone exploded under mysterious and unfortunate circumstances.
I am aware, Droog. You are not to go to New York, remember - return to me, first. I do realize how doomed missions frustrate you, and Spades will have been long gone by the time you reached the city. It will be much more rewarding for you to return here so that I may direct you elsewhere. I do promise that this next mission will be more fruitful for you. A reward for your loyal service in the face of such unreasonable requests.
DD: > …
DD: < I understand.

Meanwhile, Diamonds reads the note. It appears to have been written on a section of paper torn from a drawing pad, in soft pink ink that curves and whorls in remarkably classy handwriting.

Dear Diamonds,

He will know when you intend to betray him unless you take the proper precautions. When the time comes, the man who lives above says that only Void will be able to shield you. I wish you the best of luck, and I hope that you see reason soon! I know Spades misses your old group of dastardly chums, whether he admits it or not!

In life and in light, I remain,

MP

PS - There is a bowl of Swedish fish in the cupboard with the Tupperware containers! I hope they cheer you up a bit, dear!

I do not know what this note could possibly mean, Diamonds thinks very loudly. She strides to the cupboards and begins to pull them open on autopilot, crushing the note in one hand. This note is utter foolishness and could not possibly prove useful in the future, she insists mentally, and opens the door to a cupboard full of Swedish fish. I have a serious addiction that has nothing to do with this note, she finishes, setting the bowl at a jaunty angle in the crook of her arm as she straightens up. She pops four of the small candy fish into her mouth at once, along with the note, and swallows without pause. "It would appear this trip hasn't been a complete waste after all, Marlowe," she tells the man, granting him a fond smile when she sees he has finished kicking the remaining three hoodlums into consciousness. "Now, come along, you all."

The good Doc Scratch remains as impenetrable as ever, and Spades Slick can most certainly suck cue stick when Diamonds lays hands on him, but she finds herself a little more kindly disposed towards the MP.

After all, Diamonds does appreciate good advice and a sweet bowl of candy, no matter the source.