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The Loaded Key

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“Where did you get these?” Terezi asked with amazement in her voice. She was helping Aradia sift through the thick package of papers she had received earlier. Aradia shrugged.

“I swear, they were just on my desk when I came in this morning.”

“You want my advice? Don't tell anyone that. If anyone asks, just be evasive. They'll be happy enough for this information to not look into it too carefully, but if you just say that you don't know where it came from, they'll have to look into it,” Terezi said as she was leafing through paper. She held up one and read it carefully.

“Good God, this woman is a walking war crime. They would have never let her in the country if they knew about even half of this stuff.”

“Let me see.” Aradia took the paper and scanned it carefully.

“Wow. That's quite...impressive. But it's mostly circumstantial, and outside of our jurisdiction.”

“Enough circumstantial evidence is a pattern. That means something. And even if we can't do anything about those directly, it's character assassination. That can be a big difference in a court room,” Terezi explained.

“Well, let's keep looking anyway.”

“Agreed.”

They only had to shuffle through the papers for a few more minutes before something else interesting came up. About half the thick pile of papers turned out to be a large, folded map of the city. They took it over to a larger table, where it was spread out and examined. Certain points in the city were marked with a red X. There was one in a public park. One along some railroad tracks. One right on a recently constructed building, among others. All the X's had names and dates next to them. None of the dates were more than a few years ago.

Terezi pointed to one X.

“Wait, I know that name. He was a gangster that worked indirectly with the Felt. He dropped out of site a few years ago. We haven't seen him since. Do you think...”

“Wait, I want to check something,” Aradia said quickly as a thought struck her. She grabbed a pencil and a scrap of paper, inspected the map, and wrote down the range the dates covered. She trotted back over to her desk and grabbed Vriska's file. Aradia carried to back to the table, reading through it carefully.

“I thought so. All these dates are during the time period Vriska was supposedly working for the Midnight Crew. I'll bet even money that these names are people the midnight crew wanted gone.”

Aradia nodded at Terezi and finished what Terezi was about to say.

“Yes. I think they're where the bodies are buried.”

*

Getting the correct paperwork from City Hall was surprisingly easy when you had the right connections. They managed to get in to see Feferi directly without having to deal with Eridan, who most Aradia's teammates thought would be petty enough to hinder the investigation. In minutes, they had work orders to dig where a couple of the X's were. Feferi needed more solid evidence to authorize digging up the locations that were on private property, but if they did find something at the other locations, that would be reason enough.

A few hours later, Sollux and Equius had roped off a small section of the city park and were digging as close as they could figure the X was located. Aradia was sitting on a bench close by, making sure the ropes weren’t crossed. Terezi was leaning on the rope, watching with interest. She couldn't be inside because she technically wasn't a law enforcement officer and didn't want to risk some excuse for this evidence to get thrown out. Nepeta wasn't there at all, despite what she wanted. Equius decided she couldn't risk being seen in public with the police. She stomped her feet and pouted, but Equius held firm.

“Well, how come we have to do all the digging? That's what I want to know.” Sollux asked.

“Because we don't want any outside workers in here,” Equius replied, tossing another shovelful of dirt over his shoulder.

“Well, yeah, but Aradia could help out. It's her investigation.”

“Captor, shut up and dig.”

“Yes, sir,” Sollux grumbled. Equius had warmed up surprisingly to Aradia, despite her “shameful” blood color. Sollux didn't like it much. He hoped it was just because this was making Equius' department look good. They were digging for a few more minutes when Sollux spotted something.

“Whoa! Whoa!” He held up his hand to stop Equius, who was about to plunge the shovel into the dirt again.

“What?”

“Next to your left foot. Hang on.” Sollux scrambled out of the hole and grabbed a smaller garden trowel. Equius backed up while Sollux leaned down and gently began digging around a white patch in the dirt. Eventually, Sollux had uncovered a large bone.

“That...looks like it could be troll or human,” Equius said slowly.

“Hey! Aradia!”

Aradia trotted over and leaned on her knees looking into the hole, while Sollux dug more gently around, looking for any other body parts. Eventually, he had jabbed trowel into the dirt and hit a hard patch. After some more digging and brushing dirt away, the new discovery came fully into view.

It was a troll skull with a big hole in the back.

*

Much to Aradia's surprise, back at the station it was Nepeta who was looking over the bones they had found.

She picked up the skull gently, and turned it around, looking at it from different angles.

Forensics

“Hole's in the upper part of the back of his head. No hole in the front, which is...weird.” Nepeta looked carefully through the skull's eye sockets. The picture actually gave Aradia chills.

“I see a chip on the inside of one of the eye sockets...and...another one down in there. A big one.”

She put the skull back down.

“Looks like he was shot from a high angle. Close range probably. It's a big hole,” Nepeta explained, “The bullet glanced off of the brain-pan, and came out of his right eye.”

“Close range. That's important,” Aradia said.

“Close range and high angle.” Sollux nodded, “That means whoever shot him was standing above him. It probably wasn't from a window or a roof or something if it was close range. He was on his knees.”

Realization dawned on Aradia. “He wasn't just killed. He was executed.”

“Right,” Sollux said. Nepeta nodded in agreement.

“Is there anything here that could tie this to Vriska?” Aradia asked Nepeta.

“Doesn't look like it, sorry.”

Aradia sighed.

“Well, we better tell Equius and have him tell the mayor anyway. Even if we can't prove who did it yet, finding a body is important. Not to mention the fact that we have more digging to do.”

*

Vriska was in a bad mood as she walked down the street. It was early morning and chilly, but the weather didn't bother her that much in her long trench-coat, and she kept her hat pulled down low to keep the sun out of her eyes. Trolls were known to be more light-sensitive than humans.

John had forgiven her, of course. He was nothing if not forgiving. But she still felt that she had...broken something between them. She felt like he was disappointed. She had no idea why this was so important to her suddenly. She needed him to like her, and the incident a few days ago had widened the previously closing gap between them. She thought they would think she was brave, but they all just thought she was stupid.

Maybe she was.

“Paper, miss?”

Nyet.” Vriska held up her hand.

The boy shrugged and started waving papers around again.

“Extray! Extray! Police dig up body in Skaia Park!”

Vriska kept on asking herself how she could fix the situation. She was hoping there could be some kind of quick fix to help their relationship. It didn't look like that was going to happen though. It was going to take them some time to trust her again. She was starting to like that trust too. It was nice to not have to constantly look over her...

She stopped.

“...Wait, what?”

She turned around and ran back to the boy hawking papers.

“Wait! Wait!” She stopped in front of him and reached in her pocket. “I changed my mind. Here.”

Vriska tossed him a dime and grabbed a paper off the stack. She walked away quickly and started reading the headlines.

Gavno,” she hissed.

*

A couple days later, Gamzee, Tavros, John, and Dave were sitting at the bar having drinks while Karkat was playing bartender and cleaning glasses. It was almost occupational therapy for him, to clean the glasses and the bar

“She's been pretty quiet lately,” John said. He had a neat whiskey that he was slowly working through.

“Don't give a fuck.” Karkat snapped back without looking up from his work.

John looked over to Tavros. “You've known her for a while. Has she ever been like this?”

Tavros put down his drink, a sidecar, and shook his head, “No... uh... she usually get...you know... angry... not depressed. And she... uh... doesn't read newspapers.”

“Okay, look, I agree with Karkat here,” Dave said. He seemed to realize what he just said and killed the rest of his applejack before going on. Karkat poured him another, “She's a fucking lit fuse. Pressure is building and the longer she's quiet, the louder the bang is going to be.”

“Maybe she's finally, you know, getting better?” John said hopefully.

“Egbert, are you completely fucking nuts?” Dave killed his drink again. Karkat poured, “Look, I'm just telling you this because you're my best friend. You must be crazy if you still trust Vriska after that scene a few days ago.”

John shrugged. “Someone has to trust her. If no one does, she'll never have any reason to change.”

Gamzee actually nodded sagely. “I still fucking pray for the crazy bitch.”

“That... is the stupidest thing I've heard you say. Fucking... give me another drink, Karkat, you asshole.”

“How many of those fucking things have you had, Strider?”

“Fuck should I know? You've been serving them.”

“I didn't ask how many I served you, Strider. I asked how many you fucking drank.”

“Okay, look, asshole. I can still kick your ass in a fight even if there are two of you.”

John sighed and looked back at Gamzee. “You really think there's hope?”

Gamzee took another belt of wine and smiled. “Sure. There's always fucking hope, man.”

Gamzee suddenly looked very serious. “That's... one thing the Bishop, the old goat taught me, even if he didn't mean to. That, no matter how many fucking scars you get, and no matter how fucking worthless you are, and no matter how much of a fucking sinner you are, there's hope. Anyone can make themselves worth something.” He shook his head. “I told him...I would even be a reverend someday. Even with all the shit he gave me.”

Gamzee was staring off in the distance. The rest of the gang stopped and looked at him. He seemed to snap out of it and gave a big, goofy grin.

“Hey, I believe in fucking miracles after all.” He took another drink and smiled. “Motherfuckers are everywhere.”

*

“Well...” Rose said as she held her coffee in front of her, “...I think the first books that really got me reading were the World of Oz books from when I was a kid.”

Kanaya and Rose were sitting in a small cafe, down the street from the book-store they were just visiting. They had some of their new purchases stacked on the seats next to them.

“My mother had gotten me one of them as some... little present to go along with the other ones. After that, I just had to mention some interest in other books, Alice in Wonderland, a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and they were in my room the next day. I tried not to let that ruin the experience for me though.”

Kanaya nodded. She had known by now that Rose resented her mother showering her with anything she could possibly want. She thought it was some insinuation that she wouldn't be able to get these things otherwise.

“What about you?”

Kanaya shrugged. “I've always liked horror books. Bram Stoker's Dracula of course. Edgar Allan Poe. Lovecraft.”

“Who was that last one?”

“Oh! I think you'll like him,” Kanaya said, “I'll lend you some of my Dream Cycle books.”

“Thank you.” Rose sighed and looked around, finishing her coffee.

“Well, this has been a fun evening,” Rose said.

“Actually, there is one thing I wanted to ask you,” Kanaya said slowly.

“Hmmm?”

“And, well, of course you don't need to answer now.”

“Kanaya.”

“It was just something I was thinking about.”

“Kanaya.”

“And it's just something I want you to think ab-”

“Kanaya!”

“Yes?”

“You're rambling again,” Rose said, trying very hard to stifle a laugh, “Go ahead and ask the question.”

“Oh, um, have you thought about... dating?”

“Not in a little while, I'll admit,” Rose said warily, “Why, did you have someone in mind?”

The Diner

“Uh... well... maybe... me?” Kanaya said, clipping the last word off as close as she could. Kanaya held her breath.

Rose blinked.

“Who put you up to this?” Rose asked.

Kanaya blinked this time. “Well, Karkat gave me some advice to...”

“And he dragged you into his little scheme to pity me? I thought he was better than that.” Rose narrowed her eyes.

Kanaya felt the world drop out from under her.

“What? No! No! Rose, it was my idea, I swear!”

“It was your idea to set up this whole thing and try to make me feel better? I thought better of...”

“Rose! I really do want to go out with you.”

Rose crossed her arms in front of her and laughed shortly. “That's funny, Kanaya. I almost...”

Rose trailed off as she looked at Kanaya. There were tears starting to trail down her cheeks. Kanaya looked like she was about to be sick.

And the Inverted Queen of Wands popped up in Rose's head.

“Oh my God. You're completely serious, aren’t you?” Rose covered her mouth with her hands.

*

More and more bodies were being dug up. The newspaper was crinkling in Vriska's grip as she read, and there was a half empty bottle of vodka sitting on the table next to her. There was nothing in the paper to tie the crimes to her, but she knew all of the victims' names. They were all people the Midnight Crew had paid her good money to hit. Some were gangsters, sure. But some were just people who owed them money. Some just pissed of Slick for whatever reason.

Dammit! She wanted to forget about this! She was trying to get better. She really was. She didn't need to have all these mistakes thrown back in her face. Bad memories of the person she had been up until just recently. And even worse before that, back home.

Vriska kept noticing one name in particular pop up. Aradia Megido, the up and coming hotshot officer. She had only just started and already she was “indispensable to the continuing investigation.”

Her! It must have been her bringing back those old ghosts to haunt Vriska. They were all buried and done for until she showed up. She was dredging up the guilt of the monster Vriska was trying so hard not to be any more. She had to be stopped.

Vriska decided she was going to have to be a monster one last time.

*

“Dirty Martini please, Karkat,” Rose said, sitting down at the bar.

“Where the hell have you been?” Karkat snapped, but he started making her drink anyway.

“Oh, out with Kanaya. Buying dresses and books. You know. Girl stuff.”

“Fucking fascinating, I'm sure. I wish you fuckers would wise up and figure out the Felt wants us dead.”

“There's not a whole lot more we can do until they decide to make a move, Karkat.”

“Bullshit. I have Jade rounding us up some weapons. I would have Vriska doing the same, but I haven't fucking seen her all day.”

“All day, all night. Don't you ever sleep Karkat?”

“I'll sleep when I'm dead,” Karkat said, and he set the glass in front of her with a click.

“Might be sooner rather than later then.”

Karkat just snorted in response.

After a few sips, Rose spoke again.

“You know, Kanaya asked me an interesting question today.”

“Yeah, I'll bet,” Karkat said sarcastically as he was wiping down the bar.

“She asked me if I was interested in a relationship.”

“The mind fucking boggles,” Karkat said in a distracted tone.

“It didn't go very well.”

Karkat froze and looked at her. “What the fuck does that mean?”

“I didn't think she was being sincere,” Rose said quickly.

“Lalonde, you fucking idiot, Kanaya doesn’t even know how to be sarcastic!” Karkat looked like he was about to explode.

“I know! It took me a minute, but I figured it out.” Rose held up her hands defensively. “We came to an understanding.”

Karkat eyed her warily. “What kind of understanding?”

“That...I would need a little time. That it's something I never thought about before.” She looked up at Karkat hesitantly. He simply looked at her.

“...but I was willing to consider new things.”

Karkat nodded, and returned to his cleaning.

“Good. Didn't think she had it in her.”

“Yes. I was surprised too. It was hinted that you, of all people, helped her work up the courage. That was kind of you.”

“Fucking slander. I kick puppies.”

*

Aradia was sitting at the Treehouse Cafe with a cup of coffee in front of her. It was nice to get away from the investigation for a little while. She was going to take the day off and spend some time with Sollux, of whom she was growing rather fond. Equius was showing her some attention too, but it made her uncomfortable, mainly because he outranked her. He seemed to back off when he realized this though.

She had shown up early to make sure Sollux and she got a table. If her guess was right, Sollux would be there in about ten more minutes. She was looking forward to it.

“Officer Megido?”

“Sorry, ma'am, I'm off duty right now, but I might still be able to help you with-”

She heard a whisper right next to her ear. “I have a gun to your back, Officer Megido. Don't make any sudden moves.”

Aradia realized that the stranger was talking with a Russian accent.

“Vriska?”

“Good guess.” A hand reached over Aradia's shoulder and dropped two quarters on the table. “You and I are going to go for a little walk and talk. Get up slowly. Pretend everything is fine. I'm just an honest citizen asking the famous new officer for some help.”

“Sollux is supposed to meet me here,” Aradia said warningly.

“Then Sollux is going to have to be stood up. Let's go.”

Aradia finished her coffee, quietly got up and walked away from her table, with Vriska following closely behind.

“We're going to the storage house next-door.”

“You're going to kill me, then?”

There was a short silence and then, “Not if I don't have to, Officer.”

They both went down the alleyway between the cafe and the warehouse and opened a side door. Aradia wondered why it was unlocked when the inside was so dark and dusty.

“I picked it,” Vriska said, answering her unasked question, “Now, up the stairs, third floor.”

“Why are you doing this?”

“You'll know shortly. Move.”

Aradia grabbed the railing and carefully climbed the rickety stairs. Her mind raced. She didn't have a gun. She didn't like to carry them very much when on duty, let alone off-duty. She didn't want to match her police hand-to-hand combat training against Vriska's army training. Not with Vriska's body count. She couldn't get away right now in the narrow stairwell.

She was just going to have to see how this played out.

“Sit down,” Vriska said as they reached the third floor. Aradia did so, slowly. Before she could react, a coil of rope was dropped down past her shoulders. It was pulled tight, trapping her arms against her sides.

Vriska couldn't be holding her gun if she was tying a knot.

Aradia whipped her head back, but Vriska was faster. She stepped back and gave Aradia a blow to the head that left her seeing double.

“That was your free shot,” Vriska hissed in her ear.

Aradia tried to stop her ears from ringing, but she was dragged to her feet and roughly pushed forward. Finally, when she was against the wall, Vriska spun her around to look her in the face.

One of the first things Aradia noticed about Vriska was that she didn't seem to be sleeping or eating much. She was thin and the effect was exaggerated with her baggy trench-coat. Her eyes were tired and her face was serious. Aradia still found it difficult to scrape up any pity for this woman at all

“Alright,” Vriska said, tapping the end of the gun on Aradia's chest, “I will make this short, simple, and easy. You stop investigating these...old bodies. You stop investigating me. You drop this whole thing. I let you go and leave you and your friends alone. No trouble. No back-stabs. No blackmail. We each forget the other person exists. Got it?”

“And if I refuse?”

“Then someone dies today,” Vriska said, angrily bearing her teeth.

“How do you expect me to convince them to just...call it off? The damage is done already.”

“That's your problem!” Vriska barked.

“You want me to just...forget all the people you killed?”

“Yes.”

“And all the horrible things you did back in-”

Vriska pressed the gun against Aradia's forehead so hard that the back of her head smacked against the wall.

“No! Do not talk about that! Fuck you for bringing that up! Fuck you!”

Vriska seemed to calm down just a bit. The pressure on Aradia's forehead lessened.

“I did… what I had to do to survive. It's like stealing to feed yourself, but on a bigger scale. I... had to kill people. I didn't have a choice.” Her voice trailed to a whisper, “I was trapped. Eat or be eaten.”

“I... don't believe you,” Aradia said.

Vriska snarled.

Aradia shook her head. “Even if you kill me. The investigation is going to go on. Harder than before with a dead officer on your record. I'm not going to let you get away with all the things you did, or whatever it is you did to Tavros, even if it means you killing me for it.”

“I never said that I was going to kill you,” Vriska said calmly.

“What?”

“I just said...” Vriska looked out the window. She could see a police car pull up in front of the cafe. Sollux stepped out. “...that someone is going to die today.”

Vriska leaned out the window and leveled her gun.

“No!” Aradia screamed. Vriska pulled the trigger.

There was a crack, and the police car wobbled. Sollux, still in uniform, had ducked and covered his head. He looked up, and saw Vriska with a pistol, holding a panicked Aradia by her bonds. Sollux and ran back to his car and Vriska dragged Aradia deeper into the warehouse.

*

Sollux had been prepared for something like this. He knew Vriska was a troll, a species naturally tougher than humans in the first place. He also knew that Vriska was a die-hard even by troll standards. She had been hit by gunfire before only to recover a few a days later. He wasn't going to take any chances this time.

Sollux reached in his back seat and pulled out a breach loading double barrel shotgun. He loaded two shells and stuffed another handful in his pockets.

He then picked up the radio and barked into it. “Backup needed and the Treehouse Cafe! It's Vriska! She has Aradia and is held up in the warehouse next-door! Shots fired!”

He dropped the radio and started running full tilt.

“Everyone get home!” he yelled to no one in particular as he ran to the side door of the warehouse. He shoved the door in and scrambled up the stairs, shotgun scanning the stairway as he pounded up the stairs.

He was acting stupidly and he knew it, running in without waiting for his backup to arrive, but he was angry. Vriska had shot at him and was threatening to do the same to Aradia.

He got up to the third floor and ducked as a shot and cracked into the wall next to his head. Sollux saw Vriska just disappear through a doorway, walking a now gagged Aradia ahead of her. Vriska kicked the door shut and bolted it from her side before continuing through the maze of boxes and rooms.

“Better hurry officer!” Vriska said tauntingly.

Sollux struggled to get the door open. He finally backed up and rammed his shoulder into the door. It shook, but didn't give. He did it again. Nothing. One more try. His shoulder burned, but the door didn't budge.

He heard sirens outside. He looked out the window. Three cars had pulled up, full of officers with Equius leading the charge. Sollux yelled and waived to him, leaning out of the window and pointing to the door on the side of the building.

Sollux thanked God for their speed in getting there as he heard Equius pounding up the stairs.

“I told you to wait, Captor!”

“Fuck that! She has Aradia. I can't get this door...”

Equius shoved him out of the way. He braced himself, leaned back, and kicked his foot out. The door slammed open with the sound of splintering wood. Sollux wasn't exactly cut out for too much physical activity besides running, but Equius was built like a bull.

They both went forward, scanning the room and moving on to the next door. Again, Equius had to break it down. Again, he did it with one shot. They continued this for three more rooms until they finally came into a very large room stacked with boxes.

“I tried to be reasonable, officers.” Vriska's voice came from the darkness.

“Give it up, Serket.” There was a lantern hanging on the wall at the end of a row of boxes. Sollux walked towards it carefully.

“Where's Officer Megido?” Equius demanded.

“Safe, for the moment,” Vriska said calmly.

“What are your demands?” Sollux said. He was walking slowly towards the lantern, but it seemed like a long ways away.

“Simple. Drop the investigation against me. Let me go. I let you have Megido back and you never hear from me again.”

“Not going to happen,” Sollux growled.

“I'm trying to give you a way out!” Vriska practically screamed. “I'm trying to end this without killing anyone!”

“Then turn yourself in, Serket,” Equius said calmly, “No one has to die. We can get you the help you need.”

“No! I know your lawyer friend. The only help she thinks I need is someone to pull the lever on the gallows.”

“Let Aradia go.” Sollux could tell where the voice was coming from now. It was the last row of boxes in the aisle. Right next to the lantern. He steadily made his way forward. He could hear Aradia whimpering and sobbing.

“Let me go and drop the investigation.”

“We can't do that.”

There was a heavy silence. “Just remember. I gave you a way out. I tried,” She hissed in the darkness.

Sollux saw a shadow leap out from behind the boxes, in front of the lantern

He heard the flapping of the leather trench-coat.

He saw the silhouette her hand holding a gun.

Sollux pulled the trigger. The force of the shotgun blast nearly knocked him over.

When he recovered, all he saw was a trench-coat covered body on the floor, with pool of blood slowly forming around the heap.

Everything was quiet.

“I...I got her. I can't believe I actually got her,” he said.

He heard footsteps trailing off into the darkness. Why was Aradia running away? She was safe now. The gunfire must have scared her. Sollux got up and walked over to the body, hoping to see where Aradia had run off to.

He stopped.

Sollux felt like he was going to throw up as he saw one of the arms that was sticking out from the pile of leather. The gun was tied to the hand with rope.

The pool of blood was rust red.

“Officer down!”

Officer Down