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The Loaded Key

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“The worst part is, we still can't prove anything,” Terezi said quietly. She was leaning against a desk, talking to Equius and Nepeta. Sollux, for obvious reasons, was given paid leave.

Equius was unusually quiet. It was Nepeta who spoke up.

“Nothing? It was Vriska's coat! There has to be some fingerprints on it. The gun? Anything?”

“The gun and the coat are new. She must have bought them right before this whole thing happened. She was wearing gloves when this happened. No fingerprints.”

“This is crazy!” Nepeta wailed. Tears were starting to fill her eyes.

“She set this whole thing up and Aradia is dead and we can't do anything about it!”

Nepeta slumped down, sitting on the ground, hugging her legs and resting her head on her knees. She began sobbing quietly.

Terezi sighed and looked away, rubbing the back of her head. Equius finally broke his silence.

“Get up, Nepeta. You're being foolish.”

Nepeta looked up and Equius with amazement and hurt. As she got up it quickly shifted to anger.

“You. You… You stupid hemo-facist! Just because she's a red-blood...You think...” She started punching him in the chest. The blows were reckless and ineffective, especially against Equius' massive frame. After about half a dozen hits, Nepeta slowed down and eventually stopped. Anger had given way to exhaustion and depression.

Equius acted like nothing happened.

“I stand by what I said,” he growled. “...but not because of that.” He pointed a finger at Nepeta. Nepeta just gave him an angry look.

“You're sitting here crying when there's work we could be doing. As far as we know, Vriska still works for Vantas. I want you to go to his speakeasy and go undercover.”

“We don't know that...” Nepeta started.

“Don't give me that,” Equius said, “I know you've tipped him off more than once to our inspections. You... like him for some reason. I only let it go because you did so well everyplace else.”

Nepeta looked panicked. “But... but... He wouldn't...”

“That's what I want you to find out, Nepeta.”

He turned to Terezi. “And I know you have had a relationship with him in the past.”

“She what?” Nepeta yelped, wide eyed.

Terezi shrugged. “Ancient history.”

Nepeta relaxed a bit.

“Good,” Equius continued, “Then you won't give him any leniency, like you did in the past.”

Terezi smirked. “You're more perceptive than I gave you credit for, Sergeant. I don't think he's involved in this, but if he is, I'll tie the noose myself.”

“Fine, but in the meantime, I'm going to go ask you to check on Officer Captor. He is prone to mood swings and may do something foolish.”

Terezi arched an eyebrow.

Nepeta looked shocked. “You want Terezi “Hemp Rope” Pyrope to be on suicide watch?”

Terezi laughed at Nepeta's statement. “Yes, it does sound silly, doesn’t it? Don't worry, I'll check in on him. Maybe find him something to keep him busy.”

Equius nodded, “I'm going to go through Officer Megido's notes and see if I can't find anything else we can use.” He waved his hand as he walked away. “Remember that the funeral is the day after tomorrow.”

*

Vriska remembered slipping out of the back of the warehouse in the confusion. She remembered picking up her old trench-coat and gun, stashed in an old wooden crate in an alley three blocks over. She remembered the blood that dripped off her hands. She didn't know where it had come from. She wasn't close enough to Aradia when she got killed to get any on her. Did she get cut and not realize it? She held up her hand.

No, it was all different colors. Blue and red and yellow and green. And... she didn't feel bad about them, really. She didn't really have a choice. It was kill or be killed. But then she saw John, staring at her hands with a look of disgust and horror and shame, and she felt like she was going to be sick.

“Vriska...”

“I'm sorry, I had to. I'm sorry… You don't know what it was like.”

“Vriska.”

And Vriska woke up.

She was sitting in one of the oversized chairs in the speakeasy, with her coat draped over her shoulder and her arms pulled out of their sleeves and folded over her chest. Her hat was pulled over her eyes. She looked up at John, looking over her and holding her shoulder. She suddenly felt a surge of anger. How dare he judge her! After all she had to do, how dare he be so disgusted with what she did just to survive!

“Get away from me!” She yelled and swatted his arm. John took a step back.

She glared at him and he just...looked at her, hurt and confused. Vriska felt like she just kicked a big puppy. She rubbed her face.

“Ah...I'm sorry John. I was having a bad dream.”

“Oh.” John said. He relaxed a little and rubbed his arm. “What were you dreaming about, uh, if you don't, uh...”

“Just...monsters...” Vriska said quietly. “...and ghosts.”

*

“Alright, missy. Here's the stuff.” Spades Slick jumped down from the back of the truck. Droogs and Hearts Boxcars followed him, each grabbing the side of a big crate.

“What did I tell you about this “missy” shit, Spades. I'm not wearing a fucking tu-tu”

“Fine, Jade.” He said the name with dripping sarcasm. Had to respect that mouth, though. He grabbed a crowbar and took out his frustrations on the nails holding on the lid.

The crate was mostly filled with ammunition, something Karkat never bothered to stock up on until now, but there were a few other things as well. Slick reached in and pulled out a couple of handguns. “Here, some army handguns. New models,” Sick said in a bored tone. Jade grabbed one.

“M1911.” She looked closely the trigger “Yep. A1 version.” She pulled back the slide and inspected the barrel. Then she pulled it back a couple more times to test the motion. She nodded when she was satisfied.

Jade goes Shopping

Slick just blinked and then rolled his eye. Great. She was an “enthusiast”. He sighed and pointed to the remaining contents of the crate.

“Here, clips and ammo for the handguns. These ones are for the choppers you already have. And...” Slick reached in and pulled out a rifle, “...this. Mosin-Nagant.” Slick said, trying to get some of his credibility back.

Jade whistled and grabbed it, pulling back the bolt. “Nice. I won't tell Vriska you called it by the wrong name, though.”

“What the fuck? That's what it's called!”

“They never called it that in Russia. Nagant had hardly anything to do with...”

“Well, this ain't Russia. Do you want it or not?”

“Calm down. As long as it shoots, I want it. What about the knife for Dave?”

Slick grinned. Knives he knew. He flipped one out of his pocket.

“Right from Toledo. Gold plated. Pearl handle.” He flipped the blade out. “Nice action on that, huh?”

“I'll take your word for it.” Jade grinned. “I don't know anything about knives. Or Ohio.”

“Fucking Spain, not...” Spades sighed. “Fine. Look. Let's just talk price.”

*

Night had fallen on the Loaded Key and the show was in full swing. The Brass Tacks played their hearts out tonight. Dave's sax sounded thick, heavy, and sweet, like molasses. Jade's base thudded in the background, difficult to notice but still keeping the song alive like a heartbeat. John's fingers danced up and down the piano, bringing out notes that were crisp and clean as daylight.

After a little while, Kanaya and Rose stood up on the stage. Rose began to tease a slow, sad, and strangely familiar song out of her violin. It was a song that she learned growing up, as many violinists did, but the way she pulled it out of the strings now brought back fond memories for everyone in the room.

Kanaya began to sing, quietly but clear.

Tell me the tales that to me were so dear,
Long, long ago, long, long ago,
Sing me the songs I delighted to hear,
Long, long ago, long ago,
Now you are come all my grief is removed,
Let me forget that so long you have roved.
Let me believe that you love as you loved,
Long, long ago, long ago.”

Nepeta sat at one of the crowded tables with a drink in front of her. She was wearing her baggy coat and an old hat. She couldn't believe that someone like Karkat could be involved in what happened. Sure, he broke the law, but he never hurt innocent people. Only other gangsters. He was never violent unless he had to be, despite how angry he acted all the time. She tried to look around inconspicuously. Everyone seemed to be concentrating on the song. She got up and moved towards the upper rooms where Karkat kept his office, which was mostly just a room with a desk and a filing cabinet.

“Do you remember the paths where we met?
Long, long ago, long, long ago.
Ah, yes, you told me you'd never forget,
Long, long ago, long ago.
Then to all others, my smile you preferred,
Love, when you spoke, gave a charm to each word.
Still my heart treasures the phrases I heard,
Long, long ago, long ago. “

If Nepeta was good at anything, it was sneaking. She easily picked the lock on the office door and let herself in. She doubted that Karkat would be dumb enough to write anything illegal down and leave it in an obvious place, but maybe she could figure out which not obvious place to start looking. She pulled open the bottom drawer and started fingering through the folders. Nothing but things for the band. Instrument receipts, paychecks for shows, that sort of...

“Can I fucking help you Nepeta?”

Woops.

“Tho' by your kindness my fond hopes were raised,
Long, long ago, long, long ago.
You by more eloquent lips have been praised,
Long, long ago, long, long ago,
But, by long absence your truth has been tried,
Still to your accents I listen with pride,
Blessed as I was when I sat by your side.
Long, long ago, long ago.”

Nepeta shot to her feet and held her hands in front of her defensibly. Karkat just closed the door behind himself.

“I can kick your ass and you know it!” Nepeta growled.

“What the fuck is your problem? You're usually on my side. Kind of. You haven't turned me in, anyway. And now you’re going through my fucking things and acting like I'm going to sic Vriska on you.”

“Like you did to Aradia?”

“Like I...what the fuck are you talking about?” Karkat look utterly bewildered.

“You don't know about Officer Megido?”

“I don't even know who the fuck she is, Nepeta. What's this about Vriska?”

Nepeta visibly relaxed. “Oh thank God.”

“What. Are. You. Talking. About,” Karkat said through clenched teeth.

“I, uh, look. The other day one of our officers was killed.” Nepeta knew that if she was caught telling this to Karkat, she would be out of the job. Or in jail. She was willing to stick her neck out for him though, if it meant that he would stay safe.

“This Megido lady? You think Vriska was involved?”

“I know Vriska was involved. She set the whole thing up. I mean, she didn't pull the trigger, but she made cops start shooting each other in a dark room...and...” Nepeta trailed off. She started to sniffle.

Karkat still looked suspicious. “Alright,” he said quietly, “Why would Vriska do something like that? I mean, I know she's fucking crazy, but crazy enough to just off a cop?”

“Aradia was investigating Vriska. She hit on some big leads and found some bodies. Have you been reading the news lately?”

“No, I don't go near those...” Karkat's eyes slowly widened. “...but Vriska has been reading the news. And being fucking depressed and irritable as hell, too.”

Nepeta nodded eagerly. “Right. Aradia was pretty sure those bodies were linked to Vriska. We can’t prove anything yet, though. But if Vriska was reading the paper...”

“She would know that this Aradia girl was closing in on her,” Karkat finished. He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. He stayed that way for a few seconds, taking deep breaths. This was bad. This was very, very bad. It was fairly common knowledge that Vriska was working for him, and she went and killed a cop. This was going to bring the law down on all of them, no matter who was involved. They were going to raid the place. Come in guns a blazing and ra...

Wait.

“Nepeta, how long has this investigation being going on?”

Nepeta shrugged. “I don't know. About a month or so? It really got full swing about a week ago, after Aradia got some information.”

“From where?”

“No one knows.” Nepeta shrugged again.

Those green-suited fucks. He knew that they were involved in this. Waiting for a police investigation. They were just going to wait for Karkat and the police to wear each other down, and then they were going to come in a finish the job. Karkat felt his heart pounding.

“Nepeta... Can you do me a big favor?”

“I already did by telling you all of this. If anyone finds out, I'm in prison,” Nepeta said, with a pleading look on her face.

“I won’t fucking tell anyone you told me, okay? Does Terezi still work with you guys?”

“Well... yeah. Did you really used to date her?”

“Not fucking important!” Karkat snapped. He recomposed himself. “Look, I just need you to ask her to meet with me. I think we can sort this out. I just need her to hear me out.”

Nepeta looked doubtful “Sounds shady to me.”

“Look. She can pick the time and place. She can come armed. I won't. I just want to talk.”

“... Alright, I'll tell her.”

“Thanks. Go out the back. I need to have a talk with our troublemaker.”

*

As the last drunk got thrown out that night, to face whatever he may on the street, Karkat made his rounds with the pay for the night. A good amount of the money was put aside for expenses and buying more alcohol. Karkat divided up what was left evenly and handed it out.

He handed some folded bills to John.

“Vriska around?” Karkat asked.

John nodded. “I think she's just making her rounds to make sure everyone has gone home.”

“Let her know I want to see her when she's done, alright?” Karkat started to walk away.

“Uh, sure. Something wrong?”

Karkat stopped. He had never lied to John.

“Just want to go over her role in this whole Felt thing.” That was true enough.

“Oh. Okay. She knows some stuff about tactics. Don't keep her too long, okay? She… doesn’t look too good.”

“Yeah. It'll be quick.”

*

Vriska didn't bother knocking.

“You wanted to see me, boss?” She said, as she shoved the door open.

Karkat was sitting behind his desk, which was covered in papers. He didn't like the way she said “boss.”

“Close the door.”

Vriska looked at him suspiciously, but did what he said.

“You going to chew me out for being too rough with the customers? Again?”

“You look like shit, Vriska. John's worried.”

Vriska didn't know what to say to that. She just looked at him, bewildered. Was he concerned for her?

“What's it to you?” She snapped at him.

“I don't like it when my employees start breaking down. You and I are not friends, but I am friends with John, and he likes you for whatever fucking reason. You're bringing other people down.”

Vriska sighed. “Look, I'm just... going through some... stuff.”

“Stuff with John?”

“Kind of.”

“You two falling out?”

“No. Not like that.”

“Afraid he's going to hate you when he finds out you put a hole in a rookie cop that you could stick your fucking head through?”

“Look, why are you suddenly so interested in my love li...” Vriska blinked. Her hand moved like a snake and suddenly, her peacemaker was leveled between Karkat's eyes. Karkat, to his credit, didn't flinch.

“How. Did. You. Know. About. That.” She bit off each word sharply.

“Hrmph. I didn't for sure.”

“If you tell anyone, I'll...”

“You'll what? Blow my brains out right in my own office? I hope the reaper will let me haunt you long enough to watch you explain that one to John.”

Vriska's hand started trembling.

“He gets in your head, doesn't he?” Karkat said quietly, “Even with all the stuff he's done, you know there isn't an evil bone in his body. He only uses on that hammer on people trying to hurt his friends. He makes you want to try to be a better person. He's dopey, honest, and loves those shitty movies of his. And he trusts you. He thinks you're shaping up.”

“Shut up! Just...” Vriska's eyes screwed shut and she started breathing raggedly. She looked like she was going to break down crying right there.

“I never... I did what I had to do... and now the ghosts are still there. Whispering things I'm afraid John will hear. That... Megido... she was summoning ghosts to haunt me. They should have stayed buried. Quiet. I had to stop them from coming out of the ground.”

Karkat didn't say anything. He just looked at her for a long time. Finally, Vriska lowered her gun and leaned back against the wall.

“Now what?” She asked, lowering her head until the brim of her hat covered her face and rubbing her eyes.

“This could go two ways,” Karkat said, “One, you silence every fucking thing that makes you feel guilty. They come with a fuckload of evidence and Terezi lets you dance the jig of death, because like hell you won't hang after everything you've done, and John finds out everything. All the shit you pulled.”

He leaned back.

“Not that it fucking matters, because even with your help, the Felt are going to kill us. A grand total of four of us know how to shoot, and only two of us are any good at it. You and Jade. The Felt are going to come armed to the fucking teeth, and they all know what they're doing.”

“Aren't you Mister Sunshine,” Vriska growled.

“Or...” Karkat went on, ignoring her, “We make a deal with the cops. They help us round up the Felt, and that's one more big problem they don't have to worry about. We live to see another day. You get to keep your reputation as the repentant sinner.”

“What's the catch?”

“The catch is that when the Felt are gone and everyone is safe, you turn yourself in to the police.”

“Bullshit! What happened to my reputation?”

“Won't suffer. You turn yourself in for shit you pulled that John already knows about. Illegal weapon possession. Rum running. You shot people in self defense but you still shot people. They have plenty of things to throw at you and try to make stick that John and everyone else already knows about.”

“So I rot in prison for the sake of love?”

Love, she actually said it. Karkat grinned inwardly, but he made sure to keep a serious face as he went on.

“Maybe, maybe not. Who knows what they'll actually get to stick? And if they do manage, you turned yourself in. You weren’t fucking caught. You manned up, and that will go a long way with the parole system and John. Either way, if you don't take that chance, everyone dies. John, Kanaya, you, everyone.”

He looked her in the eye.

“I guess it all depends on how lucky you think you are.”

“What makes you think they'll even accept?”

“You're going to sign a confession.”

“See what they can actually get to stick, huh?” She said sarcastically.

Karkat shrugged. “You can argue it was under duress. I need to give Terezi something.”

There was another long silence.

“... Fine. I'll do it.”

“I'll talk to Terezi when I can.” He looked up at her, and she looked back with a pleading look in her eyes.

“This conversation never happened. I asked you about battle plans, being the scary fucking White Army vet you are.”

She sighed, nodded, and walked out, closing the door quietly behind her.

*

The next afternoon, Nepeta showed up again. She managed to wave Karkat down as he was stepping out of the club for something to eat. He hadn't had a proper meal in days.

“Terezi says that she'll talk to you tomorrow at the Treehouse Cafe. She said to be there at 11:00AM.”

“Thanks, Nepeta.”

“Be careful, okay?”

“... Yeah. I will.”

He put on his hat and met John as he was walking out the door while Nepeta slipped away.

“Does Jade have everything she needs?” He asked John.

“Oh, yeah. She said she and Vriska can start giving us shooting lessons any time now.”

“We'll start tomorrow night.”

“That works.” John thought for a second, and then, like he just remembered something, “Oh! I wanted to thank you.”

“Why the fuck would you want to do that, Egbert?”

“I don't know what you said to Vriska, but she must enjoy talking tactics with you. After we left, we stopped to eat and she had like...three sandwiches.”

“... Huh.” Karkat looked thoughtful.

“She's sleeping better, too.”

“That's fucking great, Egbert.” Karkat waved his hand dismissively.

“Mhm.” John said with a nod, seemingly oblivious to Karkat's sarcastic tone.

“...Wait. How do you know how she's sleeping?”

“Uh... Well, I mean I haven’t seen her in like, ten hours so I just assumed...”

“...Right.”

*

“Tea, please. Two sugars,” Terezi said, smiling.

“Coffee, black,” Karkat said.

The waitress nodded and walked back inside.

There was an awkward silence. Karkat was the source of most of it.

“So... funeral's going on now?”

“Yes,” Terezi said evenly.

It was a stupid question. Karkat could hear the public funeral in the distance. He couldn't hear everything of what was being said, but he knew that the chief of police had said a few words and Mayor Peixes was giving a tearful eulogy.

Karkat sighed. “What do you want me to say?”

“I don't know. You're the one who asked to meet me,” She said, not looking at him.

The waitress dropped of their drinks and decided to make herself scarce. This sounded like a personal conversation.

Awkward conversation

“Alright, well, here's the thing. I need help.”

“Karkat, why would I possibly want to help you right now?” Terezi said. She actually sounded angry, something unusual for the normally flippant troll.

“Two reasons. One, I'm probably going to die without it. Two, I have this.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. He unfolded it and placed it on the table so that Terezi could read it. She went to pick it up, but Karkat pulled it away.

“No, you don't get to keep this yet. Just read it.”

Terezi gave Karkat a nasty look over the rim of her red glasses, but she leaned over and read the paper.

Her eyes slowly opened wider and wider as she realized what she was reading.

“This is...”

“Right, a confession. To lots of things that could put her behind bars for a long time.”

She read through it again, but frowned a bit this time.

“Nothing here about Officer Megido.”

“No, there isn't, but there's more than enough stuff here to keep her locked away for the rest of her life.”

Terezi leaned back in her chair and gave Karkat a thoughtful look.

“Okay, I'm listening anyway. What do you need help with?”

“You know the Felt?”

“Who doesn't?”

“Well, they're going to raid my club and kill everyone in it. We don't have the kind of manpower or firepower to fight them off.”

“Tragic, but what do you want from me?”

“I don't have a lot of allies I can trust right now. I need you to convince the police to help me fight back against the Felt.”

Terezi laughed. “You want me to what? What makes you think they'll agree to fight alongside you, much less alongside Vriska, after what happened?”

Karkat tried to remain calm. “Because, when it's all over, you guys will have both the entire Felt and Vriska Serket under your belt.”

“And why shouldn't I just have you arrested now and take your confession?”

“Because if you help me, Vriska will turn herself in. If you don't, you'll have to hunt her down. That hasn't worked too fucking well for you so far.”

Terezi raised an skeptical eyebrow. “Turn herself in? Really?”

“Right. No shoot outs. No troll-hunts. Just Vriska with her hands out so you can cuff her.”

Terezi sipped her tea and thought for a few seconds.

“So we give you a little firepower and manpower, and in exchange, we get to be rid of the Felt and Vriska?”

“That's right.”

“They're not going to want to take sides in a gang war.”

“It's not a gang war. It's one gang trying to take over an honest jazz club for illegal purposes and the Police heroically defending it. That's what the fucking papers are going to say anyway.”

Terezi took a minute to finish her tea. Finally, she stood up, brushed herself off, and held a hand out to Karkat.

“I'll see what I can do.” She grinned.

Karkat nodded and shook her hand.

He winced as, in the distance, the twenty-one gun salute started.