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You wake up to a perceptual mutiny; tongue fuzzy with a stew of rotten fruit and crushed tree bark, sinuses slammed with a right hook cocktail of cinnamon and ammonia. Your skull is going to explode. Literally explode; squishy pan matter and ocean spray all over the massive arms dragging you through a hallway, because some jerk with a beat stick drubbed you good. You feel like a pile of shit. Shit kicked right in the blood filtration sacs. Ugh.

You hack out distracting saliva and phlegm and wiggle your nose to force out a reset sneeze. The phantom scents clear maddeningly slow, unpleasant chemistry making way for earthy spice smeared cement dust below and to both sides of you. The tunnel of unpalatable fumes is lit by shocking strips of stinging white salt. Stagnant puddles of liquid licorice and coffee dregs get disturbed by the smearing of your bare feet, slippery and cold. You try to tilt your head up to get a whiff of what is ahead, but a razor fire burst in your brain says nope, I prefer you to snuffle gutterwards, thank you very much. Boo to that. You are going to give your brain a nice good talking to and by talking you mean drinking until you can taste the redshift of supernovae. Just as soon as you get out of this mess.

It's hard to tell if leaving your nose un-pinched is a courtesy or a brag. They knew you couldn't see, had tried to distract you from rooftop escape with a technicolor smoke bomb that had actually worked until you dropped down to all fours and shuddered with the full-body shift. Grunting with the burning of inexperience still, your jaw had cracked into a snarling length with bared teeth. The bones in your back erupted into scaly wings through the pre-cut holes in your shirt and you swiped a talon at a snarling hound, drawing lines across its muzzle. An opening! You snorted out the bubblegum dust and bounded to the edge of the building; five flaps and you were a bullet in the smog.

Until they caught you in a net and dragged you down, out of the licorice thick night air smeared with warm cocoa softly luminous pollution haze, sparkling with sprinkles. Down from the limes and the yellow bell peppers and the grape juice neon glow fade that flashed the curves of busty girls, starburst citrus fireworks, and marshmallow white fangs spitting out hotel puns and drugstore chain slogans.

Down into gross. You really hate today.

- - -

"We just lost communication with Pyrope. What happened?"

"Got sepurrated," you whisper, watching hellhounds crawl the walls. The fur along your spine prickles with an electric sense of urgency and you stick to the shadows like smoke, padding soft through the dripping alleys. The tech ring around your neck is powered down to just audio through a little earpiece clipped to your flicking ear; no choice but to stalk the streets by memory. You couldn't take the chance that the dogs were keen on hololight from maps. "Can you see where they took her?"

"Oh yeah. Into the fucking den which, by the way, is what you two were supposed to avoid. What happened to that plan? It was a good plan, a much better plan than getting netted! I get that you two are kung-fu ninja babes or what-the-fuck-ever, but this is exactly what we did not nee-"

The scolding cuts off with staticy thumps and crackles, a good smattering of cursing, and then calmness falls back over the channel. You grin wide and pounce up the hobbled dwellings, barely making more than a rustle through fluttering laundry and home-grown hydroponic gardens that creep over balcony railings. "How many are tailing me?"

"Eighteen, at least. Take Moonsetter, it's the fastest way to get to where she was taken. This is sensationally dangerous and foolish, by the way."

"When isn't it?" you say and corner sharply near Moonsetter, leaping the rooftops above the night crowds. The distant boom and scrape of claws on swamp coolers is fire in your veins.

"Holy shit, jackpot. There's enough here to smear Her sexy name all over the papers, and then some. Hot damn."

"Is there an easy way into the building?"

"No, but I'm on my way. We'll make one."

"I'm all eyes. Bulgelords forgot to pull the cam feeds, peekaboo I seeee you. TZ's up on... floor five and it's fucking crawling, kids."

Your claws are itching and you hiss, "Of course it is."

- - -

You are tossed into a cell of a room, stark with cold air and sharp shadows from a bare bulb, and a table with two chairs, one on each side. The door slams shut.

You shuffle your way to one and plop down, leaning back to crack your spine thrice. You have seen this done before a million times; in Law and Chaos, Crime Scene Manipulation, and every iteration of Troll Batman there is (you would know). But you prefer to be the interrogator in this kind of scenario; not a joker. It is supremely boring from this side of the table when you already know the script. The false congeniality, the veiled threats, the so why'd you do it.

Why did you steal files documenting the government's liquidation  of genetic experimentation failures? Well one has to have hobbies, right? And you had just run out of books to read. You count to a hundred gazillion a little furiously and then the doorknob clicks.

"Miss Pyrope," says a oily smooth voice and you turn, putting together the bold strokes of grape and jagged spikes of buttery gold to form an intimidating presence, topped with jagged horns that are spicy rich with mutation. She must be the cream of Her lovingly manipulated crop; an product that worked, to rule over the ones that didn't. "You're quite the trick to catch."

She sits down across from you and folds her arms. You continue to be the coolest cucumber.

"But we both know I'm not here to shower praise upon you."

"Enact whatever methods you of questioning you may posses, Miss Wine, but I swear on my lurid and disreputable life that I will never tell," you say woodenly.

"Cute. And a waste of our time," she says and her hand is suddenly clutching your chin. Ice floods down your nerves; she's fast. You grip nails into the skin of your knees as she turns your face to and fro slowly. She is... studying you, like a slab of midblood meat. Inspecting the flaws and scratches, the freckles and scars of scales. She releases you and leans back into her chair. You subtly bare your teeth in a smile, even the field, draw yourself back up from being examined.

"The heart of your lusus," she says after a pause and you can feel the smirk fall from your face like a tipped glass of oil. She waits patiently, the cranberry jags of her horns tilting so subtly it could have been a trick of the sniff, until she is satisfied with your expression and then, "What did it taste like?"

- - -

You cover most of the distance as quickly and quietly as you can, but their noses are keen and you get discovered again fast. They catch up to you with shrieking gutter roars, rattling with slobber and pure blind hatred. You are just as pissed off as them for different reasons, but your teeth still drip with furious spittle and the urge to scream. The last thing you want to do is fight them—the creatures you used to chase across the skyscrapers for fun—but you will. Your claws gouge lines into the brick and metal. You are killer queen of the sky and your vocal threads almost tear with wordless noise when you see the building your love was dragged into.

A hound slams into you from the side and you go tumbling in a brawling embrace off of a roof, down to the broken-bottle and weedy empty lot below. You roll off of it and spit out bloody meat, scrambling to recover which way is up. Looking back the way you came shows a dozen ripcord demons leaping off the walls. You spin and bolt for the fortress.

"Equius?" you shout and you hear Sollux's odd, vicious laughter in the earpiece.

"Oh-ho-ho fuck me sideways, this is gonna get messy."

"Equius!"

"Nepeta, I'm here! Just tell me where to aim!"

- - -

An excellent ploy, you admit; uncluttered vocabulary and concise syntax to convey the extent of intelligence that she really has. Simple and sharp, meant to slip into your deep crack and pry it open to get you to emote instead of parry; you are dealing with quite the professional! You would tell her that you are colored impressed with her tactics, were you not currently weighing the pros and cons of biting off your tongue.

"I'm a busybody, Miss Pyrope! Indulge me this small trifle. Were it like unripe blueberries? Or sugar snap peas? I'm still fuzzy on the workin's of your smellovision."

You want Sollux to tell you to ignore this indelible bullshit, to drawl in his bored drawl that it is thuch teckthbook interrogation shlock, right outta wiggler'th firtht questioning. You want Nepeta to kiss you stupid with understanding and lure you into a freerunning city chase, purrbeast witch and dragon girl, that ends in tackles and the ruining of perfectly decent clothing.

"Come now, Miss Pyrope. Work with me here, I don't possess infinite patience. What did she taste like?" Her voice is beginning to crawl under your skin and you do not want to find out what you'll do if she guesses right, so you look at her as close as you can estimate. You hope your sightlessness stares right through her and makes you appear so much braver than you really feel.

"Like blood," you answer.

You are such a fucking liar.

- - -

"Behind me!" you shriek the second you see the towering steel blue form of your moirail. His torso twists and he barely flinches when his enormous gun bursts white flash and a boom, punching a hole through the slobbering beast just feet from your tail. You streak past him and hear four more shots crack and echo off of the city bones around you. You make messy work of the guard dogs at the front doors, reversing back to your two-leg form to whip the steel talons off your back harness, spinning and cutting without pause. The clatter of Equius's hooves catch up and you hiss in fierce joy as he fires a one-shot rocket at the deadbolt. Pretty lights and you're in.

"Incoming! There's about... fuck it, a shitwave of dogs from out and in, just go go go! Right and stairs, up five!"

- - -

The building shakes.

Miss Wine jumps up from her chair and is at the door in a blink; you can almost taste her rage. You pulse with anger, fear, and hope that the interruption means an escape, and the loss of her focus clues you in to just how sick you feel from remembering. And you realize you are starving, the dragonfire in your bonecage burning hot and violent, chewing a cavity in you that screams to be fed. Shifting to and back, fighting the demon troops, and the hours that you were dreaming drained you dry, down to just fumes. Okay. It's enough keep you going, but not for long. Okay okay okay.

A waft of dark grape hits you and then there are fists in your baggy shirt, tossing you to the ground so a foot can pin your throat, its horrid nails curling around your neck just barely allowing you the courtesy of breathing.

"What did you find, lizard?" Miss Wine snarls and pinches your neck. Then relaxes to let you speak; she's good at this, but you are better.

"Evidence of genocide," you cough. "Of people and beasts that didn't go as planned. Of hundreds, culled for something they could not change."

"She right put them out of their misery."

"From something she caused."

Gunshots and the death howls of devils; you feel pride and thunder rise in your throat as the sounds draw closer. Your skin ripples.

"And you think you're so righteous? A wiggler that went and cannibalized her own lusus? They feel not pain, halfling, not like your caretaker di-"

"She..." you cough with fury, guilt, and struggle from the claw crushing your neck. "She was dying. She wanted me t-"

"To what? To inherit her legacy? Oh yes, a curse that you feed or you burn. Poetic! Truly you alone posses the sword and shield of gutterfeeders-"

"You have stolen theirs!"

"She gave them purpose-"

"She... failed..."

"No," she whispers and the air fills with thick, rotten fog, a smell that oozes into you like a poison. The airway in your throat pinches completely and you see white static. "No, child. She got closer."

You roar as every spark of energy in your body gets sucked into the inside-fire and you tear at the leg holding you down more viciously than you have ever done before.

- - -

A grenade shakes dust from the ceiling over the pandemonium of the fifth floor. Equius clears a path—surgical with Sollux screaming face-clock digit directions of thermal readings into his ear, guiding his shots—and you sprint through the dust at his signal. Every empty room you pass makes your heart pound harder, one after the other after the other until you rip a door off to find a small dragon with rubies for eyes ripping dogs off of her back. For a moment you think you're dreaming, and then her panicked roar drives into you like a spike.

You move without a single thought, twirling and slashing until silence falls and your claw comes to rest at a throat.

"Stop!" the general chokes out. "Stop. It's done, girl. I concede."

"Tell me why that means you live."

She stares down at you, sclera shocked with violet blood, and then huffs out a humorless laugh, "Don't suppose it does."

"Terezi?" you call out and you hear a weak, but thrilling cackle.

"I am alive!" she calls back and your heart is a jackhammer.

"I have enough action porn for eternity, ehehe. EQ's clearing the way back, so you ladies are golden."

"We are leaving," you snarl and press the blades hard enough to scratch.

"Yes," the general winces and raises her hands. "I believe you are."

You pull away, slipping the claws back into their harness, and grab Terezi's outstretched hand. She giggles when you pull her up and squeezes your hand hard. You squeeze back harder.

"Cat witch," the general calls out before you turn the corner and you pause in the doorway. "You would chance death for one lone girl?"

You puff up your chest and turn to stare; you know exactly what you're going to say. It's been a sentence burned into your heart from day one, once purred to you in lullaby by Pounce before sleep, and scorching from the twists of your insides to the tips of your claws. It feels so good to finally say it, you almost mess up by grinning.

"If I can't have friends that I would die for, then I don't want any at all."

- - -

"Dummy fuzzbutt, why would you even say that-"

"What? I sounded so cool! Admit it, I am so cool right now. GC totally wants to make out voraciously with her sexy rescuer-"

"GC thinks that AC is a dork! A suave dork, yes, but a dork nonetheless."

"No way, AC is a cat motherflicker and is going to pounce her lovfurry winged grrlfurriend and kiss her right on the mouth! Oops, I mean snout, hehe."

You inhale the image of Nepeta, grinning wide with incredible fangs, covered in hell's blood, hair slicked back with sweat. Cooling blood drips down your own skin. Both of you are drenched, loose clothes torn to ribbons. Both of you are about to collapse. And both of you are so victorious.

"GC gives a mighty flap of her majestic wings in apurroval of her slinky cat witch's excellent plan! But would first like to put forth the notion that they get some grub. Like... a mountain of grub. GC's digestive sac is going to dissolve the rest of her insides. Nepeta, I am literally going to die."

"Good thing I hunted that crimsonblooded mountainous bleatbeast yesterday! Oh, and Equius bought three crates of strawberries. Big ones."

"I love you."

Her smile could win a war.

- - -

carcinoGeneticist [CG] opened memo on board I LEAVE FOR TWO (2) NIGHTS AND WHAT IS THIS

CG: HELLO ALL.
CG: SO I SEE THE MERRY BAND OF REFUGEE ZOO ANIMALS HAD SOME FUN IN MY ABSENCE, AND FA-HA-HAR BE IT FROM ME TO RAIN FLAMING SHIT ON EVERYBODY'S MANIAC PARADE, BUT
CG: WILL ONE OF YOU TREASURES KINDLY DO ME A FAVOR AND
CG: TELL ME WHAT THE
CG: FRESH
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CG: DID I JUST WATCH??????????????????