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1: “The Three Stooges”

With each passing day bringing closer the Summer Equinox, the sun rose earlier and earlier each morning; but if it had any way of knowing it, the sun may have been surprised to discover that it wasn’t the first one up in Peach Creek that first day of summer vacation.

The mischievous little red fox was first of the three to see the sun rising over the jagged eastern horizon formed by peaks and valleys of junkyard trash. He rather found it to be a nuisance, blinding him for a second as he stepped out of the brand-new shadow and into the fresh light; he had an objective to accomplish, and this unexpected obstacle was something he could seriously do without.

But while he was vexed by the instantaneous optical assault, he didn’t much mind the whole “being awake and active well before dawn” thing. He’d much prefer to still be asleep, of course, and he was very much planning on sleeping like a baby as soon as it was socially acceptable to go back to bed. But today was different. Yesterday had been the last day of middle school, which made this officially The First Day of the Rest of His Life. And there was much work to be done. This was going to be the day that he put himself on the path to the promised land. He was sure of it.

He was plenty familiar with busting his ass to get stuff done and get even a little bit more ahead in the world -- or, more accurately, he was familiar with busting someone’s ass to get stuff done, usually those of his friends. But if he were to be rigged to a lie detector, one would find that he honestly thought that being the passive leader of the trio constituted a hard life’s work. After all, it’s not easy being so commandingly cold to your closest confidantes.

But all those times in the past, he had always made the foolhardy decision to focus on short-term gain in the name of instant gratification. But he had been young. He was allowed to make mistakes then. Soon he wouldn’t be so young, and he wouldn’t be afforded so many chances to learn a lesson. And one lesson he had already learned was that he needed to start looking at the big picture. It was already tempting him to cash in immediately when this new scheme inevitably paid off -- he didn’t think he would ever completely outgrow his affinity for jawbreakers, and heaven knows that with the early-morning fatigue he was presently fighting off, he could seriously go for a sugar rush. But he knew that he needed to start building a future that was more than a few hours ahead of him.

In the past, he called his little operations “scams.” He had no regret for using a word that so widely associated with worthlessness, with thievery, with something deceitful and duplicitous and devious and dirty and dastardly and damnable and deplorable and devilish and diabolical and despicable and downright dickish -- quite frankly, the use of that word made him fancy himself a kind of badass, a sort of lovable rogue if he would say so himself. But this current project? A scam? Oh, nonononono. Scams were the province of children. This? This was a plan . And the endgame was to be comfortably and independently rich. All he had to do was execute each individual step perfectly on the first try and often with no prior practice. Simple enough. He thought that this sort of scam -- no, plan -- was perfect, brilliant, and foolproof, and he patted himself on the back for making such a mature decision as setting himself up for long-term success.

He did have other motives for what he was doing in that junkyard that Saturday morning, but he was trying not to think about them. For one thing, the two friends and cronies with whom he had shared so much success and failure were starting to become… unreliable? Was that the right word? All he knew for sure was that this same passage of time that compelled him to put his plan into motion as soon as possible also saw his buds start to lose steam. It was becoming apparent that their hearts weren’t fully in the game anymore… were they ever? Were they just playing along because the three of them were the involuntarily members of the cul-de-sac’s band of misfits, so they just just went with it so they wouldn’t be alone?

That was the other thing: he wasn’t bashful about the fact that he wanted to succeed so people would like him more, so they would like him so much that he wouldn’t have to try socially because everybody would be coming to him. Small-time neighborhood success certainly worked for his brother, whom all the kids in the cul-de-sac loved back in his heyday, in no small part because his enterprises were actually pretty high-caliber -- he managed to whip together things people would genuinely enjoy while keeping expenditures insanely low and profit margins astronomically high. By the time his brother was his age, he had enough money to pay some older high-schoolers to disassemble, transport, and more-or-less reassemble a car in his room, which he wanted to have just for the hell of it. Just for figurative shits and self-impressed giggles. To impress nobody other than himself. And the older kids were more than happy to do the work because they were downright platonically smitten with the guy. His older brother bled charisma and held a business prowess that he himself had always struggled to find, and along with the height thing and the place of his species in greater society, it was one of the chief sources of his deep-seated insecurities as a budding young fox. The legendary older brother, who already had a major head start on him chronologically, left home early to seek his fortune, but since he was trying to find a locale where his business could really thrive -- and where the law would stop breathing down his back -- he kept bouncing around the country: he had been to the Big Apple and the Big Easy, South Beach and the North Shore, the Windy City and the Mile-High City and about half a dozen Queen Cities, and the last anybody had heard, he was headed to Z-Town all the way on the west coast. This made him extremely hard to keep in touch with; if either of the brothers really wanted to, they could probably find some contact information on one another, but both would probably agree that they were busy attending to business.

Oh, and there was also an added bitterness stemming from how he was convinced his brother had stolen an idea from one of his more successful scams, which had involved some very rudimentary summertime sweets made en masse in repurposed refrigerators (granted, the idea originally was the brainchild of that annoying little twerp Jimmy Victim-Complex, but any fox worth his tail wouldn’t allow a stupid bunny to have all the glory). But he was trying to force himself to forgive his brother for his plagiarism and to remain cool-headed so that he could better keep his eye on the prize; this he too believed was a mature decision and he couldn’t wait for someone to realize that and give him glowing praise for it.

He remembered that his brother had never used the words “scam” or “scheme” to describe his craft, but rather some other word that the younger brother thought was too gaudy even for his own taste. Suffice it to say that there was a period where he debated discarding some of his precious stash of magazines, the ones that were emblazoned with an extremely similar word to the one that his brother used, and this association killed any mood the younger brother felt when perusing them; but luckily his family soon after upgraded their internet to broadband, and all the magazines were now relegated to a quirky relic of past times.

“Son of a--!” he began under his breath upon the moment the sun decided to disrespect him, but he decided that finishing his thought would be a waste of energy. Instead, a pressing question for his colleagues: “How hard can it be to find an ironing board in a junkyard!?”

“Well, Eddy,” offered the a slender gray wolf, “in my experience, ironing boards are not typically prone to deteriorate so severely as to justify being disposed of outright.” He likewise shielded his eyes from the star in the morning sky; he knew that his assertion would probably go unheeded but felt compelled to say it anyway. This was a familiar feeling to him, as was being awake in the early hours, because for as long as he could remember he had been torn between two worlds: one that bred him into being a prim and proper young intellectual who did things like wake at dawn on Benjamin Franklin’s recommendation, and one that had no room for such a person and relegated him to the bottom of the totem pole specifically because of his intellect. Many a time he had lamented being surrounded by idiots, and if anybody had bothered to take notice of his gripes, they may have understood that he wasn’t joking.

Was the wolf even more of a narcissist than his fox friend? Perhaps a better question would be whether the wolf had any way to exercise his self-righteousness beyond some passive boasting and bragging. When his friend wanted to prove his greatness, it manifested itself in some grand venture to put himself on top of the world; but he himself had a high self-opinion specifically because of his passivity and obedience to authority. Much in line with the old archetype of the nerd who’s all book-smarts and no street-smarts, it had never even once crossed his mind that this might not be a sustainable life-model to carry into adulthood; everybody else in his life was either similarly oblivious to this fact and therefore couldn’t warn him, or didn’t care to tell him because they assumed that he would have a complete breakdown on the spot, his entire life crashing down around him in real time, the poor naive wolf-boy crying and howling in a public setting as he processed the revelation that his modus operandi was functionally obsolete and he was now a soul set adrift on an unfamiliar sea without a compass, and it would just be an awkward situation for everyone involved and everybody would rather avoid it. Or maybe he would just disregard their warning altogether as the opinion of a low-intellect individual. Either one really was a plausible outcome.

None of this was to say that he was without initiative or drive to do his own thing; indeed, when left alone, he was liable to pull a technological undertaking or science experiment out of thin air and make some profound discovery that could make the professionals blush for never having thought of it themselves. But this was when he was very much left to his own, and only his own, devices. In a crowd, he would never be the loudest voice: he would either be in the presence of superiors who he dare not try to give the impression that he was insubordinate, or he would be in the presence of inferiors whose respect he could not garner and who would never listen to a word he would have to say. That’s why the fox found him so valuable: he was bred to be loyal and obedient for a world that would have nothing to do with him, so when he brought the wolf into his personal fold, he knew that he wouldn’t have anywhere else to go, nor would he want to. The wolf wanted to be included, and the fox wanted an industrious lackey who could pull knowledge of the STEM subjects out of his ass on command. So they stuck together all these years, despite the fact that all they had in common was being on the neighborhood’s shitlist and a shared affinity for sphere-shaped sugar. Therefore here was the wolf, collaborating in a scam -- no, plan -- that he had no emotional investment in and furthermore hadn’t bothered to have clarified what they were actually doing, simply because it was the way the winds of his life were blowing his ship at the moment.

And the wolf’s therapist wasn’t helping any of this. Bless his heart, he wasn’t observing the fact that this kid was taking a cripplingly passive role in his own life because he was more focused on solving his general anxiety issues. This was all well and good, but it may have had the unintended side effect of reinforcing the wolf’s pseudo-narcissistic tendencies: “Oh, no, Eddward, if you were really severely phobic of germs, you wouldn’t be running through the junkyard with your friends, or you would wrap your tail in plastic wrap! If you were really severely OCD, you wouldn’t be able to wear that -- what is it, a ski cap? -- you wouldn’t be able to wear that if it weren’t perfectly symmetrical on your head. You’re already doing better than you think you are, Eddward.” Many people respond to praise by using it as motivation to keep getting better, but some revel in it to the point of addiction and wind up stagnating if not getting worse; the poor doc had no idea that his subject Eddward would prove to be the second one.

Eddward . The idea of unpacking all the impact that that name had on his life was already on his mental shortlist of topics for college-application essays for when the time for those came. He was strictly Eddward to authority and Double-D to peers and there was nobody who belonged to both camps. His names highlighted the dichotomy of the two worlds he inhabited. They also spoke to the subtle strangeness of an otherwise traditional name: that extra D . It was a family name from his mother’s side, and it betrayed that his forebears had not always been the classiest bunch, so to speak. Despite his usually endless vocabulary, the only word that he could think of to describe his maternal roots would be trashy . The genesis of the Eddward title had begun with an illiterate ancestor and just kept spilling onto newer generations; in the last generation, it was bestowed upon Double-D’s uncle Ward, but by the time that Sammantha Woodland had gone to college, gotten into an excellent line of work, married the equally-successful Vincent Lupo and tried her best to wash her hands of her small-town Virginia upbringing, Gran’Ma and Gran’Pa Woodland decided that their eldest son was too much of a loser (“even by their standards!” Double-D might remark to himself) to ever find a nice lady and have a son to be the next Eddward, and Sammie and Vince found themselves under enormous pressure to name their child Eddward should their child be born of the male persuasion. The pup was indeed a boy, and luckily for Gran’Ma and Gran’Pa, Sammie and Vince were too busy with their jobs as always to ever sit down and brainstorm a better name. The little wolf also got tagged with another family name -- one of those unisex-but-usually-female names that seems to be seen on males disproportionately in rural America -- for his middle name, but ever since he shared the factoid with his friends and they never completely stopped mocking him for it, he knew better than to let it slip again.

The thought had occurred to him that maybe he was being unfair to the culture that his mom had come from; perhaps his mother’s side of the family was riddled with embarrassing stereotypes of American Southerners, but they didn’t consist entirely bad and ignorant people, and he’d met plenty of other kind and smart people who just incidentally had distinct drawls -- after all, he had always lived right about where the South began, so he was bound to meet such trend-buckers eventually. But dammit, he just couldn’t disassociate all of the negative qualities one associates with a blue-collar caricature from the specific individuals to whom he was related, nor from the life he was afraid he would have had if things had been different. This knowledge that he could almost have been like that was the reason he was unapologetically proud of his intellect: he was convinced that he nearly wouldn’t have had it. Maybe the people who thought warning him that his overly-studious lifestyle needed some variety and entropy would fall on deaf ears were correct. Not to mention that his uncle Ward, easily the least-pleasant of his mother’s kin, was also the family member he saw the most often since he had also made his way to the same metropolitan area in Southern Delaware to see if someone there would be desperate enough to hire him. With an object of comparison like that a quick drive away for one’s whole life, perhaps anybody would have turned out as haughty and overeducated and unwittingly condescending and unconsciously biased against rural-dwelling people across the country and around the entire world as Double-D did. But he was still a good soul; he just didn’t know he was bound for a personal crisis if he ever fully embraced adolescence and started wanting to make bad decisions.

Eddy and Double-D scavenged for an ironing board because it was the only thing they needed that they couldn’t get elsewhere for free but also didn’t feel comfortable buying from a store; that is to say, Eddy didn’t feel comfortable buying certain things, and the others weren’t comfortable with questioning him in the middle of one of his strokes of self-described genius. The electric generators he had nabbed from his dad’s work and the extension cords were courtesy of his unknowing parents; the sheets of plastic and laminate he would have rather not bought online so as not to leave a virtual paper trail, but he couldn’t find out where else to acquire them, and he thought that as long as he didn’t also buy an ironing board, the Law could never definitively put the pieces together, so he had the plastic and laminate sent to Double-D’s house since that guy’s parents would invariably be away from home and therefore could not intercept the package. If he could just find a damn ironing board in this literal wasteland, everything would fall into place. The only other thing they would need was gasoline for the generators, but Eddy had that covered. He just sent Ed to find some.

The last one to see the sun that morning was the hulking brown bear standing in the shadow of a trash-mound even taller than himself as he siphoned fuel from the latest abandoned car he had come across. Ed didn’t much mind the brief taste of gasoline in his mouth as he sucked to get the siphon working, nor did he mind that Eddy was exploiting the old joke that bears would consume any old thing besides healthy foodstuffs, but Ed didn’t much mind a lot of things. Really, there wasn’t much that he disliked besides the opposite of things he did like. He didn’t like not being able to watch monster movies or read comic books or eat jawbreakers. He didn’t like people not being nice to him or his little sister, and he didn’t like when his little sister wasn’t nice to him, and he didn’t like disappointing his friends and family. He did have dislikes that weren’t just opposites of his likes, but they were typical things like school and broccoli and grapefruit and being impaled on the heel of your foot with a pebble. All those who knew him would probably agree that Ed was not complex. Some people felt bad for him for this reason, thinking that a simpleton like him would just breeze through life and never be able to make anything of himself, if for no other reason because they thought he lacked the wherewithal to apply himself in the first place. But Ed was happier than they were, and he was happiest almost swallowing the gasoline he was harvesting because he knew that he was helping his two favorite people in the whole wide world. In that moment, nobody could take that away from him.

And as he did with Double-D, Eddy appreciated Ed’s loyalty as well. But he was convinced that the clock was ticking on how long they’d be in business together, so he wanted to get his big, grown-up idea rolling while he still had a crew to operate with. But first he needed a goddamn ironing board.

“Really?” he griped, “Nobody in the history of this town’s ever thrown away an ironing board? Or did somebody else clean this place out already?”

“‘Clean’ is hardly a word I would ever use while speaking of this place, Eddy.” Double-D might have been able to see what Eddy was building up to if he had known about the plastic sheets and laminates, but all he knew about them was that Eddy insisted upon using the Lupo house as the shipping address for a mysterious package. Eddy had been using the school computers to track the shipment on the weekdays when he couldn’t be there himself (and to prevent confusion after he had accidentally opened a box without checking the return address and discovered it was just an industrial-sized order of sticky notes intended for Mr. and Mrs. Lupo, after which Eddy half-heartedly helped Double-D forge a “Package opened by mistake. Love, the Post Office” note), and when the mysterious package finally arrived, Eddy had ran home from school, snagged the package off the doorstep and hid it away where neither Double-D nor anybody else would find it. Double-D -- who imagined that he surely would have run out of breath if he bothered trying to keep up -- had debated trying to send Ed after Eddy to get the package first, just to send Eddy a message that he couldn’t have something sent to his house and still keep it a secret from him; if the package had had any of the Lupo’s names on it instead of Eddy’s, and there was therefore any chance that someone in his family could be implicated if stupid Eddy had somehow bought contraband on the internet and had it sent to the Lupo house, or if in any way it wasn’t guaranteed that they would have the standard several hours before his parents got home to erase any evidence of the package like maybe a “Your package was delivered!” note stuck in the mailbox or something that his parents could find, then he would have made certain that Ed got there first. But he thought better of it, thinking that Ed had been the crew’s workhorse for long enough and deserved a break, and that whatever kick Eddy was getting out of saving this for a big reveal was something he must have needed for self-esteem purposes. Not that Double-D thought Eddy needed any more self-esteem, but he felt like it was the right thing to let him have a meaningless little victory so he could feel better about himself. There was that passive narcissism again.

Ed would very much have liked to have seen the contents of the package, and it wasn’t far back in the past when Ed would have went ahead and got the package first with or without Double-D’s insistence, ripping it open there on the front lawn for the whole world to see and probably moderately to severely damaging whatever was inside. But he knew that Eddy would smack him if he did that. Eddy would have smacked him for that in the olden days, too, but it seemed that at a certain point, around the time that Eddy seemed to him to get even smaller than before, that Eddy started smacking him even harder. It wasn’t even that it physically hurt him; he just didn’t like making Eddy so angry. It made him feel bad to make him feel bad.

Ed kept on making unpleasant gurgley sounds as he siphoned gas out of the next car he saw, and Eddy and Double-D kept strolling aimlessly through the junkyard hoping they’d happen upon the treasure they sought. Double-D emotionally prepared himself for Eddy loudly cursing in frustration while Eddy frustratedly cursed quietly about the sunrise messing with the lighting of the scene around him: everything was either shrouded in darkness or bathed in a weird orangey haze. He was kind of afraid that there could be an ironing board right in front of him and he wouldn’t even recognize it because his eyes were discombobulated -- or whatever a fitting big word would be; he’d ask Double-D but he didn’t care that much. Double-D decided to take his mind off of Eddy’s impending outburst by thinking of other things that could serve the purpose of an ironing board, while Eddy tried to ignore the tricks of the light by pondering why anybody else would want to ransack the junkyard of all of its ironing boards.

“Hm,” he muttered under his breath, “Double-D, remind me as a back-up plan to buy a bunch of ironing boards and sell them to hospitals as, like, those bed-tray-table thingies. If we need to. Which we won’t. But if we need to.”

“Enlighten me, Eddy: what exactly are the scandalous details behind this sca--”

Plan , Sock-Head, plan .”

“... explain to me please why we can’t just buy an ironing board? We’re not young children anymore, Eddy; we may not be wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but we do have some capital to work with. Or at least those of us who save our allowances do.”

Eddy just scoffed. “All’ll be revealed in its due time, Double-D.”

Double-D made sure that Eddy wasn’t looking before he rolled his eyes.

Ed’s eyes, meanwhile, were focused, and he was arguably putting more effort into his current task than Eddy was. He was scanning for any cars he may have missed from which he could procure every last drop of gasoline. There was only one vehicle in the lot that was exempt from having its fuel salvaged, and even Ed was smart enough to know not to touch it, although in his mind, the vehicle in question didn’t register as a vehicle anymore.

But there was another object that Ed’s mind did recognize as having been a car in a past life, despite the fact that the little part of it that was visible from under the trash pile looked nothing as it once did. If Edd or Eddy had been around, they would have told Ed to let that car off the hook, but even for a guy his size, his heart was disproportionately larger still, and he wanted to make his friends proud.

He acted slowly so that nothing he could conceive of could go wrong: he put the generators and siphon tubes down gently to the side away from the trajectory he expected the car to take when he yanked it out; he’d grab the car by its exposed rear-end and pull it out and up so that the trash on top of it would slide into the hole it made in the hill; and he eyed a big open spot away from the generators and siphon tube where he could put the car down without crushing anything. By the rules of his mind, it really was a flawless plan.

He grabbed the rear end and slid his hands as far forward into the mountain as he could to get all the leverage he could muster, and he planted his feet under its bumper to pull with his legs. He closed his eyes, braced for resistance, and gave it a yank. Then he heard a pop and saw that the bumper had popped off in his hands.

But no matter! Try and try again, he’d always been told. Focus. Reposition. Grab. Prepare. Yank. Pop! And now he looked down and saw that the old buried sedan’s trunk lid had been ripped out of its hinges. He looked back at the growing hole. Some pieces of trash broke out of their sediment and fell into the trunk and at his feet. There was now very little of the car left to grab to pull it out. Okay, now he was pissed.

He backed up a few steps and screwed up all the nerves in his body. He recalled when he was a young cub taking swimming lessons and they tried to teach him how to dive, not just belly-flop or cannonball but properly dive -- he was gonna do that, except he was going to tweak it and go horizontally instead of vertically. He was not going to let that crushed-up old beater make a fool out of Ed.

It was the sound of the crashing and crunching that finally broke Double-D’s apprehension and Eddy’s grumbling.

“What the hell was that?”

“Oh, dear! Ed!”

Finding the source of the cacophony was no struggle at all, as it helpfully grew louder and more ominous. The two boys zigzagged through the maze of debris and detritus; fortunately, all the hours spent here gave them a mental map of the place not unlike the ones they had of their own homes.

“Ed, are you alright!? Have you been injured!?”

“Ed, don’t hurt yourself, you’re no good to me dead!”

It was a bit curious how they managed to find him without actually seeing him; they knew they had their man when they saw a huge cavity in the side of the trash heap, about big enough for a teenage grizzly between his third and fourth growth spurts, and producing a racket of scraping and scratching and mammalian seething that told a heavily illustrated story without a single word. The only thing that they could see in the hole was what they vaguely recognized to be a carelessly-compacted compact car. That and some trash that was starting to fill the hole as it tumbled down the hillside.

“Ed, what in God’s name are you doing!?” shrieked the friend who had a long history of shrieking.

“I’m just digging up the car so we can get gas, guys! Don’t worry, I’m almost done!”

Perhaps the other two were stupefied by their friend’s blind determination, or maybe their brains weren’t firing on all cylinders due to the early-morning fatigue. But in any case, they were both painfully oblivious to the fact that the trash precipitating from atop the mountain was starting to rain down harder.

Thunk .

“Double-D?” Eddy would usually be ecstatic at the prospect of having to look down to see the wolf’s face for once, but he couldn’t get much joy out of his power trip when his friend wasn’t conscious enough to meet his gaze. The last thing he thought before the avalanche came down upon him was whether he recognized the old gadget was that had thwomped Double-D on the head; despite his impressive vinyl record collection; he was not familiar with the look of an 8-track player.

***

Double-D half-sat on the bumper of the old van, rubbing his head, grateful that the impact hadn’t brushed his hat off for Eddy to see; yes, Eddy as well as Ed had seen the scene before, several times in fact, but while he stopped being embarrassed by such moments, he had started feeling annoyed instead, and that was still a feeling that he’d rather not feel. He felt light-headed, but his feeling of cogency was slowly returning to him. He kept feeling around the edge of his hat to see if there were any residue to suggest he were bleeding under there; he knew very well that he could just take the blasted thing off and ask Eddy if it looked like he needed to go to the hospital, but he really just would rather not. Death before dishonor, if you will.

“Hurry up, Lumpy, you’re wasting our head-start!” Eddy hollered at the bear who was cheerfully fishing for and retrieving the generators that had been lost in the great avalanche; Ed usually wouldn’t be happy about making Eddy angry, but he was too happy about his friends being alright after being buried alive to let any negative emotions kill the joy. And besides, without causing the avalanche, they would never have discovered the ratty old ironing board, sliced open and oozing cotton and foam left and right, that had been right in the base of the mountain. But when it was discovered, Eddy had been in no mood for celebration, thinking that the serendipity was really the least the universe could do for him right about now, and didn’t even say a word when Ed presented it.

Ed waded out of the spill zone carrying another generator, which he carefully bestowed at Eddy’s feet. “That’s the last of ‘em, Eddy!” he bellowed.

“Hm, let’s see. One, two, three, six, five, eight…” Eddy counted off and ended with a perky snap of his fingers. “The gang’s all here! Alright, now we can finally start making some headway!”

“Oh, is the grand reveal finally upon us?” quipped Double-D; he would have liked to make a more elaborate display of sarcasm, but he just wasn’t feeling it at the moment.

“You wanna know what we’re doing so bad? Fine. Step aside, Moondog.”

Double-D rolled his eyes again, this time in plain sight, as he stood up from the van’s bumper, though that display of incredulity might not have been a good idea with the condition his head was in, as it was enough to make him dreadfully dizzy when he rose. But as always, the dutiful living tower was right there to grab him and hold him up.

“I’m here for you, Double-D!”

“Thank you, Ed.” He need not say more.

Eddy stepped up to the rear doors to the bed of the van, and positioned himself in such a way that corroborated Double-D’s theory that this was going to be played off as a grand gesture.

“Gentlemen… Ed … answer me this: what was yesterday?”

Double-D was slightly taken aback by the obtuseness of the question.

“Th-- it was the last day of school, Eddy.”

Which school?”

Double-D couldn’t hide his face of disbelief, while Ed hung on every word of their exchange, itching to know where this was all going.

“We… graduated from middle school, Eddy. Middle school, Eddy, if you didn’t know, is also known as ‘junior high,’ and is one echelon of the public-schooling system in the United States. It typically includes students from grades six through eight, although some districts do elect to also serve fifth-grade pupils, while others are restricted to seventh- and eighth-grade youths.”

Eddy was so bored by Double-D’s answer that he almost forgot to respond.

“Yeah, well, uh… Yeah! What comes after middle school, genius?”

“We would be entering the ninth grade, which in our school district would be sanctioned at Forest High Schoo--”

High school! Now that’s what I’m talkin ’ about! And starting high school means…?”

“It means--”

I’M A BIG KID NOW! ” boomed Ed, proud of himself for being able to contribute to the call-and-response game they were playing.

“Attaboy, Ed!” Eddy picked up, “And what do big kids like? Wait! Before you bore us all to tears with an answer, Sock-Head, let me give you a hint…”

The door was opened ever so slightly so that Eddy could squeeze in and the others couldn’t see much of anything inside. He came back to the door holding the extension cords.

“So we have some power cords,” he said as he dropped them on the ground, “a power supply… and courtesy of our lovable ol’ pal Ed causing a man-made natural disaster--” (Double-D again rolled his eyes at such an abomination of language; rolling his eyes was proving to be most of his day’s exercise) “--an ironing board. Oh! But what are we missing?” Eddy disappeared back into the van and returned with the large package that had arrived at the Lupo residence a few weeks back, and which he had been waiting for an equal number of weeks to open. He used one of his claws to slice it between the gaps of the box-flaps, and gently opened it for his friends’ viewing pleasure. “Lo and behold.”

Double-D leaned over, and Ed leaned over on top of him, and they saw the reams of laminate sheets, each one making the next more opaque, but just enough light got through to the bottom to show at least one rectangle of thin plastic, close enough to the top to suggest that there were many more beneath it.

“We’re making fake IDs, boys.”

Silence.

“Cool!” remarked Ed.

Silence.

“Are you out of your incapacitated mind!? We’re out on summer vacation for, what, fifteen hours, and you already want to become a professional criminal!?”

Shhh! ” urged Eddy, “Do ya want the whole country to hear ya?”

“Perhaps I do, Eddy; maybe if I had a populace of hundreds of millions on my side, you would feel compelled to abandon this-- this felonious folly!”

“Chill out, will ya? I say…” Eddy counted on his fingers for a quick second, “...four--! No… five words to you, and you bite my freaking head off! Hows-about you hear me out for once?”

“Fine,” Double-D crossed his arms indignantly, “humor me, Eddy.”

“So. Double-D. Old buddy, old pal. All any of the three of us have ever wanted in the cul-de-sac is to fit in. Feel accepted. Be adored .”

Double-D raised a finger and opened his mouth as he began to protest, but Eddy reached up and snapped his snout shut.

“No, shh-shh-shh-shh-shh! Don’t say a word yet. Eddy’s talking. So. High school. It’s a lot of things. But most importantly, it’s two things: a place for a fresh start, and the place where you become an adult . At Forest, there won’t just be people from Peach Creek; there’ll be kids from Lemon Brook. And Apple River, and Cherry Stream! We don’t have to be the kids we always have been. We can reinvent ourselves! We can be people who people want to be around ! And when an entire building is full of kids becoming adults, who are they going to want to be around more than the people who can help them trade in their juice boxes…”

He gestured very deliberately toward the box.

“...for adult beverages? We can be popular, make money, and it can set us up for life. So with all that on the table… whaddaya say?”

A self-assured smirk locked eyes with a death-glare.

“Oh, is it my turn to speak?”

“Go tell it on the mountain, Lupo.”

“Well, then, ignoring the fact that you completely misappropriated the original usage of that idiom, I must remark that a life of crime is not simply undesirable, but also infamously unsustainable--”

“You know what, Double-D? Aren’t you in therapy right about now? For all of those little anxieties that hold you back in life? Wouldn’t the old doc be so proud to see that you finally let go of all your cares and started doing something fun and daring for once in your life?”

“Oh, you will not use my psychiatric problems and progress against me! I say--”

“Actually, come to think of it, wasn’t this all your idea in the first place?” Eddy’s grin was consuming him and slightly hindering his ability to speak and annunciate. “That one time that we found a camera, and without even having to say it to one another -- we were on the same wavelength, it was beautiful -- without even having to say ‘How can we use this to make money?’ you come up with ‘Hm! We can make ID cards!’ and I never told you this, Double-D, but if I didn’t think there was more money in the calendar market, I would have fallen head-over- heels for an idea like that! You see, Sock-Head? This idea is yours ! It took a few years to come out of the oven, but it’s nice and toasty and all ready to go! You were the leader of this operation for once! Aren’t you proud of yourself, Double-Dipshit?”

A smirk and a glare.

“Silence,” pronounced Ed.

Except Ed, who was sleepy and had recently received blunt-force trauma to the head and other parts of his body, was giving Eddy a run for his money in terms of having trouble annunciating. What he meant to say was:

Sirens! ” Double-D couldn’t help but exclaim. “Eddy, you fool, the authorities know that you’ve roped us in to a highly illegal ring of activities! This is conspiracy to make fraudulent facsimiles of government documents!” His sentence structure was uncharacteristically not of the highest possible caliber; Eddy didn’t care to notice, but Ed could hardly bear to watch his friend go through what was clearly the deepest fear he’d ever experienced in his life. “No! No! I’ve worked too hard to maintain a perfect record -- I can’t surrender that now! Oh dear God, my life is over!”

“Oh, hush, will you? We haven’t done anything yet. Besides, there’s no way that they could have heard me say that just now,” Eddy insisted. But then he thought about it. “Unless…”

Double-D was shaken out of his stupor by Eddy grabbing his chest and trying to rip his shirt off.

“Are you seriously wearing a wire? Did your uncle put you up to this!”

Double-D found the breath to gasp. “You know my family does not associate with that man!”

“Bullshit! Everybody knows that wolves stick to their packs!”

“Eddy, that is a harmful, antiquated stereotype! And furthermore, nobody in my family maintains more than passing contact with him! We don’t even know if he has the authority to do such things as you suggest! I don’t even know if we’re in his jurisdiction!”

Ed, who couldn’t keep watching his friends go to pieces, looked to the sky to get away from it. But he couldn’t escape it. “Eddy, look! Helicopters!”

They brought air units!? ” Double-D remarked as the trio observed a couple of choppers looming over the woods beyond the creek. Now Eddy was starting to believe the hype.

“Okay, then, Sock-Head,” Eddy spit out, “Logically -- be the smart guy here for a second -- if you aren’t wearing a wire, then how would they know we’re here?”

Without missing a beat, Double-D had his logical explanation ready to go: “My educated guess is that someone reported loud noises coming from the junkyard when the mound of waste fell and now they’ve come to investigate the cause of the ruckus!”

Eddy’s eyes were stuck all the way open; the sun didn’t make him squint anymore. “Okay, boys, well, uhm… While I’m totally sure that they’re not coming for us, I, uh… wait, are they coming over here or not?”

Looking at the helicopters again, they seemed to just be encircling the forest. But then again, the forest wasn’t that far away. Eddy was simply confused by this situation, and he wanted out.

“Let’s uh, let’s appease our friend Goodie-Two-Shoes over here and, uh, let’s lay low for awhile. As practice, yeah! In case, God forbid, someday we do get into trouble with the law! Let's play pretend, boys. While we’re still young. May I recommend the trusty old van? We haven’t hung out in her for awhi--”

Ed didn’t see any need to let that Eddy finish that sentence. He grabbed the little fox and the medium-sized wolf and piled his large self into the back of the van with them.

“Wait! Ed, the evidence! Get the goods!”

Ed slumped back out and wrangled up all of the generators and spools of wire and the ironing board and shoved them all into the van, and squeezed himself in right behind it. But in his haste, he forgot something in a box that, to be fair, was a color that very much blended in with the sand-dirty ground.

“Close the doors!” cried a voice, and thus began the waiting until the coast was clear.

“Heh. I’m hungry.” Ed had a penchant for acting as though stressful situations had not just happened, nor were happening concurrent to the present. It was a gift, really.

“Of course you are,” said the wolf, who could barely think of eating. “Do we still have that cache of snacks in the glove compartment?”

“Eh, I’ll look, but keep an eye on the windows and tell me if I have to get down,” Eddy crawled over the seats to the front of the vehicle, deciding that taking the chance of being seen through the windshield would put him in less jeopardy than being stuck in a confined space with a hungry, growing grizzly bear. “By the way, as long as we’re in here, we might as well get to work. Um… did anybody remember to bring an iron?”

Outside, sirens. Inside, silence.

 

Chapter Text

2 “If on a summer’s night a traveler”

One of the last things you’re certain you remember is checking your watch; a small part of you did indeed want to know what time it was, but you were mostly trying to take your mind off your father grumbling about how long the valet was taking.

It is 11:43 p.m. You have been awake for over eighteen consecutive hours, and you are exhausted. You would have preferred that your father chose a different night to go to the theatre, but you know that when your father makes room in his schedule for you, that that is the only time he’s willing and able to share with you, and to dispute this would be asking to be removed from his timetable altogether. Besides, you are still grateful that you’re only a short drive from the big city, where you can witness such fine displays of live performance in person, and grateful that you were born to parents who were well-off enough to take you and cultured enough to want to -- even if your father did occasionally indulge in cathartic behaviors below his dignity, but you ignore him by checking your watch as he embarrasses himself with public profanity.

The vehicle is delivered to your feet and the valet exits the driver’s door. He wears a tired smile, one of someone who either believes or wants to believe that faking a positive attitude will eventually beget genuine happiness. He nods at your father and tries to win him over with a warm, soft smile.

“You didn’t turn the engine off?” your father asks. “Is that your way of telling us to hurry up and get the hell out of here? Or are you just trying to waste my gas?”

“It’s for your convenience, sir. Why turn the engine off and give you the keys when you’d just put them right back in and start her up again?”

“It’s a car, buddy, not a woman. I paid you upfront, correct?”

“Yessir,” the valet responds with a flourish that ends with a hand extended just a bit, palm to the sky. Perhaps he’s asking for a tip, or maybe it’s just the gesture people make when they mean to say of course.

“Very well, then.” Your father scoots right past him and takes his place at the driver’s seat and closes the door. The valet takes his leave without looking at any of you, so you don’t get to see whether the smile is still on his face. Your mother has already walked to the opposite side of the SUV and taken her seat in the time it took for your father to make his point. “Get in the car, son,” he chides.

You open the rear driver’s side door and clamber in, trying to be quick about it so you can pose a question before your father drives off. “Sir, I’m really tired. Is it okay if I take a nap in the back seat?”

“You are in the back seat.”

“He means the third row,” your mother interjects.

“What, do you want to lay down? We’ll be home in half an hour.”

“The highway’s under construction,” your mother reminds him. She also seems tired, but not quite fatigued.

Your father makes some gestures of his own to make clear to everybody his newfound frustration. “Of course. How could I forget? We’re paying for it!” He makes eye contact at you via the rear-view mirror. “Do what you want. But if I tell you to sit up straight and put your seatbelt on, you’d better do it.”

You nod and climb back into the back row, jolted a bit as the SUV jerks forward, but if anything it helps you get over the ridge. You recline in the back seat and close your eyes. You think about the splendid performance you just witnessed, but after a few minutes it strikes you as painfully ironic that you had to fight through such a strong wave of fatigue during the show, and now you couldn’t sleep when you wanted to because the thoughts of the show were just too entertaining. You instead try to think of all the ways that you’ll enjoy the rest of your newly-inaugurated summer vacation, and before too long you are lulled off to sleep by the peaceful thoughts. The last thing you overhear through your closed eyes is more grumbling from your father, something about how much he detests taking surface streets out of the city, but he wouldn’t be caught dead paying to drive on a toll road. That’s the last thing that you’re certain wasn’t a dream.

***

You think you’re aroused from your nap by the cool summer night’s air breezing in through the open windows. You didn’t remember whether they were open when you left the parking lot. But before you even fully open your eyes, you know that they’re open now, with the unmistakable sound of the breeze not having any competition from your silent parents, the extinguished radio, and the absence of the engines of other cars on the road. The only tires you can hear strumming along the asphalt are your own, and you see no lights out the windows. This strikes you as odd, but you’re not yet ready to investigate. You first consult your watch again.

If you did check your watch, you checked it at 12:02 a.m. It is now officially Saturday morning, and therefore the first calendar date of summer vacation. This realization stirs you, so you certainly won’t be getting back to sleep. You think about how you’re going to make this summer count, because you weren’t sure what the future would bring. Today -- yesterday, now, rather -- was the last day of school for the year for all the public elementary and middle schools in the suburbs; that much you knew for certain. But if your parents had anything to say about it, you would not start Lemon Brook Middle School in the fall. You would be part of the first class of sixth-graders to attend the newly-expanded Sherwood Forest College Preparatory School. Once again, you were conflicted. You were grateful to have such an opportunity to better your long-term future, you were a bit hesitant to gamble your short-term happiness. You already didn’t care for having to wake up at 5:30 each weekday morning for before-school piano lessons and leadership classes, but you weren’t certain if you were being immature for wanting a carefree childhood at the expense of your adulthood. But you didn’t want to wrestle with this much longer, so you sat up a bit in your seat and tried to get a feel for where exactly your father was driving.

In three directions, all that could be seen out the windows was darkness. Looking toward the front of the car, your parents are both staring straight ahead through the windshield. Your mother seems almost as enthralled by the strange environment as you are; your father just looks annoyed. He doesn’t see you sit up in your seat; he has a bad habit of never checking his rear-view mirror if he doesn’t have a pressing reason to do so. You don’t tell either of them that you’re awake now because you doubt that they’ll find that information to be useful or interesting.

The headlights do little better at interpreting the world around you; they show the road ahead and not much else. You do note that your father is turning the steering wheel every so often. Perhaps the motion jostled you awake? Where would he be driving that’s so winding?

The highway’s under construction, you recall your mother saying. And you faintly remember Sir bitching and moaning about surface streets being a lesser evil than a toll road. Could he have…? No, he would never allow himself… would he? He’d think it beneath his dignity!

Sherwood Forest Road meanders through the eponymous wildwood that separated Nottingham, Delaware from its northern and northwestern suburbs. The quintessential Road Less Traveled, almost everybody in the Delmarva Peninsula knows it as a great shortcut to circumvent the oft-congested northbound highways, but few ever exercise that ability, as its reputation of being an underserved thoroughfare is a secondary product of its primary label of a dangerous piece of pavement.

You’ve lost count of all the reasons why people say Sherwood Forest Road is not a safe one to travel. Some have cynical rationales about it being a place where teenagers drive like jackasses to impress one another, or where swerving drunkards think they can avoid the cops patrolling the major highways. Others have grounded, mundane explanations, saying its curviness makes it prone to accidents, or its lack of streetlights making it a difficult drive even in the daytime when the trees form a canopy of shadow, or even its sheer isolation making it a bad place to have any sort of breakdown. But you personally were always fascinated by the ones who said that unsavory types prowled these wicked woods.

The stories don’t quite go back as far as you can remember, but you do know the first time you heard them dated back closer to the beginning of your short life so far. They say that on this road, you need not fear being victimized by inner-city gangbangers or methed-out rednecks, nor the mafia nor some bored psychopaths, nor some cryptozoological creature or any such entities. The tales are always specific about a finite number of recurring characters -- usually two, sometimes three, infrequently as many as five -- preying on passerby in cars that are a little too opulent for their tastes. What exactly their M.O. is remains a mystery, but different versions of the story insist on filling in the blank in different ways. They’re madmen living off the grid. Or they’re militant anarchists. Or they’re cultists in need of supplies. Or maybe some combination of the above. Some even say it’s a grand scheme to give back to the poor of the city.

The part of all of this that worries you the most as you sit in the backseat of a luxury SUV that would seem ripe for the picking, is that the mythos of all of this checks out on its own logic. Whether one believed the story or not, one could not deny that every base was covered. The purported modern-day highwaymen only started their operations when the first Mayor Norman resigned to accept an elected seat in Congress and, through the dark magic of big-city politics, his unfathomably less-popular brother ascended to the former’s position and held a firm grasp on the city ever since, all the while gaining a reputation of cozying up with the rich at the expense of the city’s lower-class (and of the middle-class, for that matter); whoever these people were wandering the woods must have thought that tormenting the rich would be the best way to give John Norman the middle finger by proxy. And if that were the case, Sherwood Forest Road would be an excellent place to set up shop. The Delaware D.o.T. doesn’t want to give up on the road that lost much of its traffic thanks to a whirlwind of rumors adding up over the decades, so despite its near-abandonment, the road is far from neglected -- in fact, some say that the road is taken care of far too much per its volume of traffic carried, and cite this as another piece of evidence of corruption on the part of the John Norman mayorship. The strange product of all of this is that the road is used disproportionately by the upper class, who largely do not buy the stories of vigilantes nor any of the other rumors. To the wealthy, this road is a quaint, peaceful alternative to the highway, a smooth and well-maintained thoroughfare through the wilderness, one that they can cruise slowly while they take in nature, arriving late to their jobs where they’re too powerful to be reprimanded, assuming they don’t own the company altogether. Most others either heed the myriad of reasons not to take Sherwood Forest Road or simply think it’s too remote or impractical to use regardless, though many overlap into both camps. The road is by no means exclusively frequented by the rich, but if somebody wants to go car-watching for something fancy, it would not be a bad idea to pull over on this road and set up a canvas chair, watching the oddly-high number of widely-unaffordable cars go by, driven by people who would not hesitate to call the rumors of class-conscious highwaymen -- to put it politely -- “poppycock.”

Your parents are among that set. You’ve asked them before about whether they think the legends are real, and they’ve always told you that they’re just that: legends. They cited the young age of the stories as proof that it must be something spread by children barely older than the legends themselves, and believed only by the same adults who are too gullible to really get ahead in life. Besides, if there have been outlaws lingering in the woods down the street from your house for the better part of a decade now, wouldn’t they have been caught? How long can somebody really hide in plain sight this modern world? Oh, they’re just that good? Your parents don’t buy it. This world now has radio and forensics and the internet for Christ’s sakes; nobody can escape the powers of technology for that long. Oh, so they’re soo good that they’ve also been doing things other than highway robbery concurrent to all of this and haven’t been caught doing those things either because they’re escape artists and masters of disguise? Well like what? What other acts have they done, son? What have they done? Give me specific examples, son. What have these shitstains done? What? Stop being so stupid, son; it’s unbecoming of you. This is all another reason you keep quiet as you squirm in the back seat.

As you look out the open window, your eyes adjusting to the scarce ambient moonlight seeping through the trees to finally be able to make out leaves and branches, you think about the one base-covering detail of the story that you never knew whether you believed or not. It concerned the fact that there were no high-profile cases of robbery if they’ve happened so consistently over the years. The explanation posits that it boils down to embarrassment: either the embarrassment of law enforcement for not being able to find these guys over the course of multiple years, and-or the embarrassment of the rich people who don’t want to publicly admit that they’d been taken advantage of by what was supposed to be a fictional band of misfits. You’re certain that if that happened to your dad, he would be as publicly angry as he’d ever been. Surely he would raise holy hell to high heaven, demanding justice for somebody of his stature. But then again, you can totally see such image-obsessed people not unlike your parents not wanting to reveal anything that might even slightly make their lives seem less than perfect, especially if it comes at the hands of a living legend. Social stigma has a funny way of working like that.

So you lay back down in the third-row bench seats, trying not to make a noise, because while you’re sure that your parents will want nothing to do with you at this hour, you don’t want to take the chance that they might, and that your quivering voice will betray the burgeoning sense of horror that is growing within your heart. Or would it be a burgeoning sense of terror? Oh, such verbal confusion would be a second thing your father would ridicule you for, exploding feverishly from the driver’s seat as your mother plays the part of the disinterested referee.

Would it be even worse than what the bandits would do to you?

You close your eyes. You don’t expect sleep to come. But you need to try.

You imagine things that give you comfort. You’re at home. You’re lying in your own bed. The room is as dark as it can be, but you can still perceive everything by the light of the moon, which sits patiently outside your window, keeping guard. Four walls around you swear to protect you from anybody who may wish to intrude, and the ceiling is too prideful to let your world crash down upon you. The only sound you can hear is your own breathing, the rustling of air hitting the surfaces right below your nose. The only thing you can feel are the blanket and bedsheets that sandwich your body. The only thing you can think is of what wonderful dreams you’ve had in that bed before, and what amazing sights you will see in all the nights coming forward. Nothing here can hurt you.

“Oh, Jesus, what are these bums doing in the road?”

Well that certainly gets your attention.

“Mark, slow down, they don’t look like bums, they’re too well-dressed.”

You start to sit up, but you restrain yourself just a bit, lest the sound of fur swishing against the vinyl seats gives away your wakefulness.

“Did I ask for your opinion?”

You peek gently over the seats in front of you and out the windshield. You’ve found yourself on one of the few straight stretches along Sherwood Forest Road, running parallel to a small river to your left.

“Sometimes you need what you didn’t ask for.”

Ahead, you can vaguely see that the river hangs a right and goes under the road, disappearing in the darkness beyond.

“Give me one good reason to pull over.”

And right at the other end of the bridge appears to be a figure, right where the cone of light from the SUV surrenders to the darkness. But it’s only one figure.

“If they were actually bums, they’d probably be passed out drunk somewhere at this hour.”

You’re several feet behind your parents, so your eyes are running on delay of what they’re seeing, but as you draw closer you can start to better make the figure out. You can see what your parents were talking about now: there are two people standing on the road’s shoulder. But one is much smaller than the other, and both are dressed rather garishly, and you realize that at first the smaller one in front blended in with the one behind him. The larger one is holding up two large objects.

“That’s not a good answer.”

One of the objects is now clearly a gas can. The other just looks like a sort of box.

“Tell Steven you did some charity work and he can probably get you a tax write-off.”

Is the other thing just a suitcase? Why would he be carrying a suitcase? But of course you could ask why are either of these creatures doing anything in that spot at this time of night, but your mind is not exactly operating at peak productivity at the moment.

“I refuse to believe that’ll work, but -- apparently -- you have a vested interest in me giving these people what they want. Whatever it is they want.”

The larger one is waving his occupied arms. The smaller one seems to be waving a cane, but he’s facing off toward the woods.

“You wouldn’t tip the valet. Time to make up for your karma.”

The smaller one -- a pig, maybe? -- is wearing sunglasses. Why would he be wearing sunglasses at night? Oh. Oh. That explains the cane. And the direction he’s facing. You can never let your father know how long it took you to piece that together. He’s be ashamed.

“Wait, is that one guy in front blind or something?”

Then again, maybe he’s just be projecting his own embarrassment. The character up front is certainly a pig, although a strangely-shaped one, and the one in the back is some sort of brown bear. You better understand your parents’ confusion: their clothes convey the fashion sense of a beggar but the spending power of a baron. On the hand, the pig has a straw hat that clashes with his smart outfit and the bear in the back is sporting one of those tacky moustache-and-wig combos that fell out of style with the elite decades ago, but on the other hand, the both of them seem to be wearing white gloves. You realize you really are close when you can make out even these fine details.

“If you’re not going to pull over, at least slow down at let me talk to them from inside the car.”

Something goes off in your brain and you start actually feeling glad that you’re drawing closer -- with every passing millisecond your father has less and less of an opportunity to stop the car at a reasonable distance, and eventually that chance will be zero percent, and then these strange figures will literally and figuratively be in your past.

“No, no, I’m not gonna do that…” your father grumbles. “...Is he still asleep?”

Your heart jumps at this, and you drop back down onto the bench seat, out of their line of sight. You even close your eyes, just for good measure. In a moment of silence, you can feel your mother turning her head around to look at you, and you wonder if she can just sort of sense that you’re awake with the magical, superhero-like Mom-powers that in your youth you genuinely believed she had.

“Yeah.”

Your mother is fallible after all, but so is your father’s sense of judgment. You can feel the car lose speed and sway right, and it gives a little as the brakes are applied. The sound of tires on the road changes to the distinct baritone squeal of a car on a small concrete bridge, and this soon gives way to the melody of rubber running over rumble strips at the edge of the driving surface.

“If he was awake, then we’d keep driving because he’d probably freak out and think they were the Forest Bandits or… whatever the hell.” You curse that this is the one time your father listens to your mother. “I’m doing this for you. And your conscious.”

“Thank you. You’ll probably feel better about yourself after this, too.”

The tire rub slows to nothing, and you lurch a little on the seat as the car loses all of its momentum.

“You stay here.”

“I can take care of myself, Mark. I know where to aim if things get bad.”

Seatbelts click and slurp themselves back into their holders. Two consecutive sounds of car doors opening, and then two consecutive sounds of car doors being shut, with some faint rustling of bodies in between. A set of footsteps on gravel on one side, and a set of footsteps on asphalt on the other. You’re alone in the vehicle. The only thing you didn’t hear was the doors being locked.

“How’s it going?” Your father’s voice is the first of many things you hear through the open windows. You wish that the voice’s proximity would give you comfort, but knowing that it only draws the entities nearer, you also wish it was coming from farther away.

“Oh, Reginald, have some good samaritans finally stopped to help us in our plight?” The first of the two unfamiliar voices has a couple of strange elements to it, and while neither of the elements alone would be enough to amplify your fear, the two strange details combined simply confuse you. It seems that the existence of such a voice in nature would be somehow incongruous, and this only adds to your confusion in discerning whether or not this is all a dream.

The first thing you note is that this entity clearly speaks with a British accent -- but what would a Brit be doing in this part of the country? Nottingham, Delaware might be metropolitan, but it isn’t quite cosmopolitan, and it would never have struck you that an Anglo expatriate would choose to come here; surely the name being shared with a medium-large city in England wouldn’t have been enough of a reason for any Englishman to decide to relocate here when New York and Philadelphia and Washington were a short jaunt away. But a few instantaneous moments later, your brain also registers that this voice almost sounds… inauthentic. In the passing nanoseconds, you arrive at the deduction that this voice -- whether this is the case or not -- certainly sounds like a man with a lower voice trying to put on a higher voice. This could all have been wrong, of course, and maybe his natural voice just did have a timbre to it that seemed to resonate high after coming from a low place, but the peculiar scratchy, breathiness to it was like no voice you’d heard recently. Which of the figures could have been the bearer of this voice? It couldn’t have been the bear, trying to sound less threatening, could it have been?

“Why, I do believe that they may be, Mister G.” Oh, no. No, no, no, that was the bear’s voice this time. If the vocabulary didn’t give it away, the auditory quality of the voice sure did. It wasn’t the most aggressive voice in the world, but it certainly wouldn’t have come from a pig. Jeez, if all dads yell at their kids, you would hate to be this guy’s son. But there is a bit of calmness that the voice gives you, in that it sounds much more real. This character either wasn’t putting on (or couldn’t put on) a fake voice. This one is distinctly American, and you think you detect hints of the slightest of Southern twangs.

“We can be if you don’t give me any reason to regret this,” your father asserts himself. “If I start to get the feeling that you’re going to screw us over in any capacity, I’m--” A moment of pensive thought to get the right words out. “I’m not going to spoil what I have in mind.” You cannot decide if your father’s decision to outright tell them that he has a hand he’s waiting to show them is brave or foolish, but you think a better expenditure of your thoughts would be trying to figure out what defense mechanism he was referring to. If he’s hiding a weapon somewhere in the car, it would certainly be news to you.

“Oh, you’ll have to forgive my husband,” your mother interjects, refusing to take a back seat in this affair, “He has a little too much of a healthy distrust of strangers.”

Some polite laughter that must be from the two new faces is followed by a bit of a monologue from the pig: “Oh, it’s quite understandable, madam; I’d not be certain I’d trust some fellows like ourselves either, stumbling along the roadside in the dead of night. But I assure you, we pose no threat to you nor your well-being; there is little we would gain from it. I can swear an oath on my family name that my intentions are noble -- or at least as noble as one’s can be when one finds oneself a beggar in a moment of desperation.”

“And what family name would that be?”

“Glutton, sir. Glenjamin Glutton.” A brief moment of near-silence with come faint rustling suggests your father hesitantly accepted a handshake.

“Mark,” your father spits, and then, “von Bartonschmeer.”

“A pleasure to meet you, sir.”

“Gretchen,” your mother adds.

“Miz Gretchen, how dearly I wish my eyes could help me confirm it, but you do sound like a lovely lady.” This confirms to you that the blind pig is the Englishman; but as you start to get more of a sample size of this man’s speaking habits, you start to consider that perhaps his accent is not as strong as you previously thought, certainly still distinguishable but also fading in and out just a slight bit, as though he’d been in the States for awhile and started to pick up some of the local verbal traits. “And this is the gentleman who I once called my servant but now struggle to call anything but a friend.”

“Reginald Chutney, but you can call me Reggie. Nice to meet ya.”

“Chutney? What, are you from India?”

An awkward silence. You imagine your mother rolling her eyes, the pig looking confused, the bear looking down upon your father with a face that clearly is trying its hardest to remain classy, and your father not feeling an ounce of shame. If anything, the outburst may have been specifically designed to take his and everybody else’s minds off of his shame for not having a servant of his own.

“Oh, you know how it goes, similar etymologies,” the pig clarifies, not sounding the least bit thrown-off by your father’s comment. “Surely someone as educated as yourself may recall how all but the most far-Eastern languages of the Eurasian continent derived from the original Proto-Indo-European. Or at least… Reginald did note that you drive a vehicle of someone quite well-read. Did you say your surname was van or von Bartonschmeer?”

“Von,” your father sounds like he’s boasting. “In Germany, you’re not even allowed to have the von in your last name unless you can prove you’re from a noble lineage.”

“My thoughts exactly! Tell me, was my friend’s assessment correct?”

“Oh, absolutely,” your father brags. “The von Bartonschmeer line is top-of-the-line.”

“I beg your pardon,” your mother chimes in, “but how can we be of help to you two?” You’re surprised your father hasn’t asked this before just this moment.

“Gretch, mellow out, they’re curious about the family history.” You know that your mother will not protest this, as she knows as well as you do that your father loves having his ego stroked.

“Oh, and I do apologize for being inefficient with the time you’ve been gracious enough to share with me, but I must concede I find your lineage fascinating.”

“Yeah, well, you must be pretty well-off yourself with duds like those. I wouldn’t have stopped if I thought you were just some more bums crawling out of the woods, drunk off your rockers.”

“Oh, do you like my outfit? I thank you. Without the aid of vision, I still feel assured that you are similarly dressed to kill.” -- Dressed to kill? Do Brits even say that? -- “I suppose it is in our great fortune that Reginald and myself did run into a couple of similar status; after all, us wealthy folk need to stick together, these days especially! It seems that everybody wants to hold us responsible for their problems nowadays.”

“Heh, you got that right,” your father quips. “Hell, come to think of it -- I don’t remember if it’s this road or somewhere else -- but I know the kids these days -- and, you know, the lazy adults who don’t bother giving it critical thought -- they say that there’s place around here somewhere where some lowlifes go robbing rich people who pass through, and that they have been for years but somehow nobody’s caught them yet, and they even say that they, like, give all their spoils to poor people, as if they’d know what to do with it.”

“Huh. Is that so?” the pig sounds like it’s his turn to feign politeness.

“Oh, you know how every place needs its own local legend. But -- heh -- if I wanted to walk into a trap, get my ass robbed and have my money wasted on poor people who won’t help themselves, I -- heh -- I’d just vote Democrat! Heh, you with me?”

Ah.” He sounds like he would give your father an unimpressed look if he were able to make eye contact with him. “Well, I’ve always been of the opinion that those most fit to do so could become comfortably wealthy no matter what policies the administration may implement.”

You think you hear a faint muttering from your father, as if he’s trying to say “oh.”

“But variety is the spice of life, as they say,” the pig remarks, trying to fill the bitter silence, but it’s no match for the crunching of gravel as your father is surely shifting awkwardly in place, trying and failing to contain his own embarrassment. You can just about feel him blush. But this pig proves himself to be merciful to your father and offers him a way out: “But tell me, Baron von Bartonschmeer, from whence have you made your fortune? My curiosity is piqued!” Honestly, it almost sounds like the pig is embarrassed that he embarrassed your father. But would such a character feel such a way?

“Oh, I, um, I’m a high-ranking executive in a company founded by my great-grandfather. Bioengineering and chemicals and such.” And just like that, your father sounds like he’s brimming with vanity all over again. Just a slight compliment and he’s already put past this moment of being put in his place. You think that it must be frightening to be like him, and you’re terrified by the idea that perhaps it’s your destiny that you one day will be.

“Ah, a man of science, I see! Not too dissimilar from the path I’ve chosen.”

“And what would that be, Mister Uh-er… um…”

“He already toldja, his name’s Glenjamin Glutton,” the bear interrupts with an air of annoyance so commonly associated with his kind.

“Oh, Reginald, you need not be so defensive of my honour,” -- you swear you can hear the pig use the letter u in honour -- “It is, after all, an admittedly unusual name. But to answer your question, Baron, I deal in optical aids. Glasses and contact lenses and all that.”

You share in the stunned silence. Are you certain that this quasi-posh English accent was coming from the blind guy?

“Really?” your mother can’t help but ask. At the very least, she confirms your skepticism is valid. You wonder what she’s been doing this whole time. You imagine she’s been trying to politely look at whichever of the two chatterboxes was talking at a given moment, maybe occasionally glancing at the bear to grant him the dignity your father wouldn’t give him, before eventually getting bored and looking at the ground and the woods, switching gazes in irregular intervals so as to seem like a real person but not switching so regularly as to seem mechanical. Your mother may be much less harsh than your father, but she’s no doubt at least as self-conscious of how others view her.

“And how does that work?” asks your father.

“Oh, I could tell a grand tale about how every little thing fell perfectly in place. But that would be a story for another time. Let me say at least this much: ever since I was very young and I found out that other people could see, I was enthralled by the idea. That these people all around me had an extra sense that gave them another way to take in the world. And I will confess: for a time, for a long time, I was bitter. I wanted what they had. I didn’t just want to see -- I wanted to be normal. But then two things went off in my head at about the same time soon after my adolescence. Firstly, that there was little that they could do that I could not do. Perhaps it was easier for them, but I could still do it. I could still sense the exact dimensions of something; just give me a moment to feel it. I could still understand the distance something was from me; just be quiet so I can hear it. I could still perceive the beauty in the world; just let me have a chance to feel it, or hear it, or taste it, or smell it, or just let me linger by it and take it in with the senses that we all know we have but which they don’t teach in primary school. If anything, over the years I’ve gathered that in some ways this is a blessing, for it has let me see the beauty in the world in ways that you seeing types -- you normal types -- have often overlooked.

“And that’s about the time that I started to pity not only the seeing, but especially the ones who couldn’t see well. Here they were with this gift, and yet they weren’t even permitted to use it in its full functionality? What a cruel world! So I took it upon myself to help assuage the plight of these poor souls. If they wanted to see, I should want to let them see. So I started to do my research, and the rest, I suppose you can say, is history. Yes, I had my hiccoughs along the way -- I’m sure you can imagine how difficult it is to find a textbook on optometry written in Braille -- and I did need help on many occasions, and I did benefit from some lucky breaks. But I feel like I’ve used my one life on this Earth to make it a better place than I found it. And yes -- heh -- I did make a pretty penny along the way.”

“You’re a good man, Mister G.” insists the possible Southerner.

“Oh, Reginald, that’s not for you or I to decide; that’s the place of the Lord to judge.”

You can’t get any sense of what your father is doing after hearing this. You can imagine him reacting in a few different and opposite ways. Maybe he’s embarrassed again by this pig’s casual recounting of how he turned an improbable good deed into an improbable good fortune. Maybe he’s genuinely confused why somebody would want to be so helpful to complete strangers who would never and could never personally appreciate him back -- and, by that token, maybe he’s regretting pulling over now. Or maybe he’s fuming that this stranger just went on a self-righteous monologue knowing full well that it’s extremely unlikely that any given stranger he encounters would be brazen enough to punch a blind braggart in the face. All of this is assuming that your father even believed a word of it, which you know you shouldn’t assume. If your father were to ask you if you believed it, you would try your best to decipher what his version of a correct answer would be, and tell that back to him. But you were sold. Then again, he could just have been a really good actor. The production from earlier certainly could have used a talent like him.

It was so moving, in fact, that you temporarily forget your fear that both of these figures are indeed just acting their part.

“I’m so sorry, Mister Glutton, but it’s getting uncomfortably muggy out here,” your mother says. You half-believe that she’s half-sorry. “Is that a gas can I see?”

“Oh, yes, this has been such a riveting bit of banter that I for one have completely forgotten the task at hand! A thousand apologies; ah, er -- Reginald! Why didn’t you warn me that we were wasting these fine people’s time?”

“I didn’t want to interrupt, sir.”

“Oh, Reginald, need I remind you? Always interrupt me if I need to be interrupted; I am but a man. And don’t call me ‘sir’ in front of friends; it makes me feel like such a tyrant.”

“Sure thing, Glenji.”

“Now that’s more like it! Ah, but, um, yes yes yes, the matter of our current predicament. It appears that old Reginald here, silly old bear, he forgot to refill the limousine with petr-- forgot to refill the tank, as it were,” -- you wonder if your father picked up on the fact that the Englishman clearly just switched to more transatlantic vocabulary to dumb it down for him, but you would never say a word to him about it -- “and now we’re walking against traffic to try to garner the attention of someone who might be so kind as to assist us.”

“The limo’s further up the road; we’ve been walking for about a half an hour.”

Farther, Reginald, farther. Yet another reason I wish I had known you as a schoolmate. I could have used the companionship, and you could have used the education!”

There’s a lull in the conversation as the pig and the bear exchange hushed oh, you chuckles that certainly match the narrative that they’re not-quite-equal friends.

“Well as nice as it was to meet you, I’m afraid I’m gonna have to disappoint you, because we don’t have any siphon tubes or anything like that.” Your father seems genuinely conflicted about helping them now, or about whether he even can.

“And, um, with all the due respect, Mister, uh, Reginald, I don’t think we can give the both of you a ride to a gas station. Or… anywhere, for that matter. If you catch my drift...”

“Oh, ma’am, among my people, that’s a compliment, I assure you.” Reginald really doesn’t sound like he’s hiding even an ounce of offense; he still has not given you one iota of doubt about his genuinity. Unfortunately that makes his dynamic with the pig all the more confusing.

“Oh, we’re well aware that the logistics of this dilemma are not the most convenient,” -- something about the pig’s sentence structure there makes you wonder if that’s quite right -- “but we were hoping more along the lines of you folks taking me with the can and meeting me back at the limo with the, er, gasoline, while Reginald can walk back. Heaven knows he could use the exercise.”

“Now that’s something only he can say to me.” Really, the only thing close to a red flag you’re getting from the bear is that he seems far too comfortable in his subservient role. Even this is more of a yellow flag than a red one; you’ve heard of such people before, but have you actually ever met one?

“In fact, we’ll even repay you upfront for your kindness. Reginald, would you please?”

“Sir, yes, sir.” This comes with a sarcastic sneer that sounds more like he’s playing with the concept of subordination, like a smartass in the army might say to piss off his drill sergeant even though both parties know the soldier is using all the right words. Perhaps the one called Reginald has some reservations about his position after all, but he swallows them and tells himself that he’s working for a pretty nice guy and things could be much worse for him. You can’t quite put it into words, but this is the first time he breaks his immersion with you.

“Reggie, what did the man say about using that word?” your father interrogates a little too aggressively; it’s still clearly playful ribbing, but it couldn’t be called a successful delivery of a joke. But before he can feel embarrassed: “Oh, what is that?”

“I ask that you indulge me in partaking some of this fine Grecian wine; I would feel so incomplete if I were not to see you happy before you saw me on my way.”

“Oh, it’s Greek?” Your mother cannot resist. “I’ve heard great things about Greek wine, but I’ve never gotten around to trying it.”

“Well, there was one time when we had dinner in Athens, but the restaurant had a French bottle she really loved, and she couldn’t pass up on one of her favorites.”

“Oh, shush. Besides, you can’t have any, you have to drive.”

“Oh, but one glass surely won’t hurt!” the pig insists. “If I must beg for help, I might as well beg for companionship while I’m at it!”

“Yeah, Gretch, it can’t hurt too much.”

“I only wish we had a table to enjoy it at on this fine summer’s night.”

“I don’t think it’s quite summer yet, Glenji. Calendar-wise.” The bear is correct.

“Ah, Reggie, that’s the smarts I knew you had in you!”

You hear the suitcase the bear carried being set down and glassware clinking as it’s being taken out. You hear a cork pop and the beginning of merrymaking.

“Wait, Mister Glutton, aren’t you going to have some?”

“Who, me? Oh, no. I’ll be the designated driver!”

Three voices laugh at varying degrees of heartiness.

You really aren’t sure this isn’t a dream. You thought your mother would put up more of a fight than this instead of allowing your father to drink with strangers at the side of the road in the dead of night. Is her judgment still maligned from the drinks she had hours ago at the show? Or is her love of wine more severe than you knew? Your father would absolutely be the kind of person to have a glass of alcohol in public, proceed to drive a motor vehicle, and all the while not care what law enforcement might think… but would he be the kind of person who is so easily won over by (admittedly charismatic) strangers? Actually, back up: would he ever have pulled over in the first place? Perhaps your parents just act differently when they don’t think you’re awake and listening; perhaps that takes the form of embracing being a lush and revelling in phony compliments when they think you’re none the wiser.

And these strangers: can these guys be real? Do such people exist? The fear makes you want to stay alert, hanging on every little minute detail you can pick up for any signs of foul play. But the confusion exhausts your mind and makes you want to go back to sleep. Therefore your body forces an inconvenient compromise and you’re just laying there in a sort of coma: your brain is practically overheating from vigilance, but your body is too beat to move a muscle. The only part of your body you can control just a little bit would be your eyelids, which you can manipulate to open or close when you see fit, but which are drifting open and shut on their own accord anyway, and you let them bungee you in and out of a state of rest. Your eyes aren’t helping too much, because all they can see is the fuzziest details of the inside of the SUV as illuminated by the scant light originating from the moon and then reflecting ever so slightly off of not-very-reflective surfaces outside to enter the cabin. You pick up the discussion outside the window, but your brain records it only in fragments as you fade in and out. Fragments such as this:

“So what play were you seeing?”

“Honey, what was it called?”

As You Like It.

“Oh, Shakespeare! Marvellous! I’m sorry, but I need to ask: were they speaking with English accents?”

“Uh… not really, no.”

“Oh, damn them! What lazy actors, making a mockery of the craft! I would be their personal vocal coach if they would let me!”

“But wait, Glenji, didn’t you tell me something-something about how the modern English accent didn’t exist before, like, two-three hundred years ago? I specifically remember you saying that some, I dunno, linguistic experts even said that Shakespeare sounds better with an American accent.”

“Oh, Reginald, don’t give away my people’s deepest, darkest secret!”

“Actually, yeah, I think I remember hearing that somewhere, too.”

“Oh, now the secret’s out!”

“Sorry, Glenji, but you told me to interrupt you.”

“That I did. Yes. But it really is a struggle, being a man of art and a man of history, and being a man of two homelands that I love dearly, when these conflicting worlds that I inhabit don’t always see eye-to-eye.”

It actually does sound like a nice conversation to take part in, but surely your father would never allow it; if anything, you showing up would end the conversation immediately as your embarrassed father shoves you into the car and abandons the two strange gentlemen at the side of the road for fear of facing their judgment. You still can’t decide if you fear your father’s wrath more than you fear the mystery of these strangers. But if he were to be so embarrassed by you, then fuck it, let these people show their true colors and betray him. As long as they leave you and your mom out of it, you could be fine with such a turn of events. As long as you don’t wind up like him.

You find your fear subsiding as time keeps ticking by, and as suspicious as you find it that these people are keeping your parents at the side of your car for no immediately-constructive reason, you can’t reconcile that anxiety with the fact that it seems like it’s been well over an hour and these strangers haven’t done anything yet. As your nerve backs down, the voices outside quieten, and thus ends the first act of the dream.

***

“They just left the doors unlocked?” asks a newly-familiar voice. “Okay, works for me.”

The cabin lights have come on, and the open-door ding is dinging. You turn your head to the right, and despite two rows of seats obscuring your view, you can still make out a very large figure placing somebody in the passenger seat. The carrier is being strangely gentle with their subject. You even hear the zipping and clicking of the seatbelt. “There ya go, nice and snug.” Between the voice and the size, you feel you can reasonably deduce that this is the bear putting one of your parents in the seat.

He walks away from the door without closing it at first, then comes back to shut it. The dinging ceases.

“I know we’re coming back to there, Rob, I just wanted that noise to stop.” You have no idea who this Rob person is, but if they’re doing what you think they’re doing, he has a very fitting name. “You need help with that?” you hear through the open window, and it brings your attention to a faint struggling sound.

Nmgyeh,” gasps a voice that doesn’t seem quite as familiar, but is still not completely alien. The struggling had now ended. “Now I get why pigs are fat; if I had to breathe through a nose like that, I wouldn’t be able to do any cardio exercise, either.” Except he says it more like eitheh; is this a different Brit or the same one? How many could there be in Southern Delaware at once?

“Or here’s a crazy thought: maybe that’s just a genetic thing that some species have?” There’s a shuffle and a faint grunt, as though the bear is picking something off the ground and finding it to be just the faintest of physical burdens. Meanwhile, you don’t dare move a muscle; you hardly dare to breathe lest they hear you through the open windows. “Survival traits from their primitive ancestors and such?”

“Oh, Johnny,” says the Brit playfully, “I can’t imagine what you could be talking about.”

“Well then, I guess you aren’t as smart of a fox as I thought you were.” The voice is similarly layered with friendly vitriol, and it sounds like it’s making his way around the back of the vehicle -- wait, he might be able to see you! But then again, the lights aren’t on right now. But then again, they will be when he opens another door. But then again, he has no reason to look into the back seat. But then again, he had no reason to be so gentle with your parents, either. But then again...

And what was this about a fox? Was this the third voice? And what happened to the pig? Now I get why pigs are fat, if I had to breathe through a nose like that… The fox wouldn’t have, what, shown up out of nowhere and knocked the pig out with his bear friend standing right there, assumed his spot in the dynamic duo, and then made a witty remark about pig noses apropos of nothing, would he have? If not, the next logical option would be…

“Well, I’m not exactly using my education, now am I?” You knew that pig looked unnaturally lumpy. But it didn’t click that such characters would have that level of dedication. That was one hell of a ruse. Whoever made that for him should be employed by the Nottingham Shakespeare Theatre Company; they could seriously use that person’s talents.

You’re so distracted by trying to put the pieces together that you run out of time to decide if you should risk making a noise in order to move yourself to a better hiding spot. The driver’s side door opens and the cabin is bathed with light. You can see just over the ridge of the bench seat in front of you that the bear is putting your father behind the wheel and buckling him up.

“I gotta say,” the bear grunts as he sets your father up, “for a first try, that worked quite well.”

“Oh, I agree wholeheartedly,” says the one called Rob. “It took a little longer than I would have liked, but all’s well that ends well.”

“And props to this guy here for just straight-up telling us that he wouldn’t have stopped if we weren’t rich people. Perfect. Take away any regrets I might have about this right off the bat.” The door shuts and it is dark again. “I can’t believe people like that actually exist.”

You take your chance and slide off the seats and down to the narrow strip of foot-space between the rows. Neither of them notice your shape shifting amid the darkness. You pray you don’t come to regret it, but you somehow feel that it doesn’t matter.

“I told you to believe me: rich people only trust other rich people.” The voices sound more distant and a bit muffled now that you’re on the floor, but you can still make out every syllable and sentence. “They don’t always trust other rich people, because they know themselves well, and they know they’d gladly screw another rich person to get richer. But the only people they would ever trust…”

“...Are filthy goddamn rich. And before I forget: that whole bit about being a blind guy who made eye contacts… Rob, I’m telling ya, you shoulda taken up acting, too.”

“Well something much more important was calling me, now, wouldn’t you agree, Johnny?”

“Yeah, I’d say so!”

“But it really is a shame he won’t remember any of it. He really could do with being taken down a peg. Do you think he even caught the subtle little jabs I threw at him?”

“Oh, well like you said, it doesn’t matter now. I kind of feel bad for the lady, though.”

“I’m mostly with you on that; she definitely seems like she’s trapped in a loveless marriage to some arsehole, but then again… it’s not our parents’ time. She could divorce him if she wanted.” A gasp. “Oh, but what if she couldn’t!? This man may be more evil than we could ever know, Little John!”

Did the Brit just call the American Little John? The American was the bear, right? And you’re certain there’s only two people here, right? You’re confused again. You just want to wake up.

“Hey, Robin, should we head out before... I dunno... before too long?” The Brit’s full name is Robin? Not Robert, but Robin? As in robbing? This just keeps getting more fantastic; surely you’re dreaming all of this. “I just feel like we’re pushing our luck standing here out in the open without our weapons.” Did he just say weapons? Yeah, you’re pretty sure you’re awake now.

“I’m going to say yes to that, mostly because I don’t want any reason to put that blasted mask back on. You get the trunk; I’ll take the dashboard. Then we can get out of here.”

Oh. Oh, shit.

You try to think of all the ways the bear can see you wherever you might be. From his high vantage point, he can probably see you over the seat, no problem, even if you are on the floor and not on the bench. You want to squeeze yourself under the seat, but if he’s going to do a really thorough job of looting, he’ll probably see right under the bench and find you in the gap. You think your best option is to squeeze under the second-row seats; that might minimize the chances of contact. He’d have to look at exactly the right angle to see you there. But can you fit?

The trunk pops open, and the passenger’s side door soon after. The cabin is bright and the bell is ringing. You hear the glove compartment pop open and a paw leafing through vehicle documents to find something good. In the other direction, you hear someone effortlessly lift anything of even slight value from the cargo bed and place it on the ground.

“You want a bicycle?”

“Can you carry it?”

“Is this even a question?”

More rustling.

“Interesting. They had a can of pepper spray up here, but they didn’t take it with them.”

“How about an empty cooler and, uh… one of those air pumps you plug into a car’s power slot?”

“I’m sure somebody can use it.”

“Sounds good to me… hey, I can carry a bunch of this shit in the cooler!”

Now you’re using your head, Johnny!”

You hear a pop from the rear.

“What’s that sound?”

“I’m trying to get the spare-tire compartment open. Maybe they have an emergency cash-stash in here.”

“What, and they would trust that it wouldn’t get stolen by a mechanic or someone like that?”

You hear the lid slide off. “You know what? Hold that thought. A friend of my dad’s planted money in his car specifically as a trap for mechanics and people like that to run off with it. To sue them. The son of a bitch took pictures before he put it in the shop so he could prove it was there. Nobody ever fell for it, but he couldn’t have been the only one to try that. He couldn’t have been...” The bear is now trying to wiggle out the spare tire. “And it also doubled as emergency cash.”

“Boy, it must be one strong hunch if you’re willing to bring up your fa--”

“Jackpot!”

The rustling in the front stops. The door shuts and the fox runs to the back.

“This I’ve got to see.” And shortly thereafter, from the back: “Johnny, my boy, you are on a roll tonight!”

“I mean, it ain’t that much, but I’ll take a solid stack of hundreds any day of the week.”

You knew nothing of money hiding in the spare tire compartment. That seems like something your parents would have told you. You just want to wake up.

“And it even has the little paper binding! Did they steal this from a bank?”

“Maybe we aren’t the only robbers out tonight, now are we?”

“Oh, Johnny, please don’t kill the mood by using that word.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, sir.” They share a chuckle. The bear continues, “So would you say that this was a successful operation?”

“Oh, yes, I’d say we can start packing up now.” The fox seems to be walking off as he says this.

The bear is humming some folksy tune to himself as he puts the tire back in and shoves the lid shut. The next thing you hear is a loud bump and a shout that borders on a growl. You don’t even notice when you slip up and let out the faintest of squeals.

SON OF A FUCKING-- Wait, what was…?”

You feel a presence get closer. Your face is stuffed under the seat, facing the front, and all you can see as far as your periphery will go is dust, carpet, metal fasteners and shadows, but you can still somehow feel that there is an entity above and behind you.

“Ah-ha, well what have we here?” Nobody in their right mind could blame you for your poor judgment in this tense, unusual situation, wherein you completely forgot your tail was sticking out from under the bench and into the open light between the rows of seats.

“John! What’s wrong? What was that noise?”

“I hit my head on the roof…” You feel a paw reach down under the second row of seats, grabbing you around the waist and ever so gently pulling back and extracting you into the light. You’re paralyzed in both mind and body. “...and I think I scared the little one.”

The only thing you think you can do is shut your eyes. It’s not to shield them from any sudden light, as the bear is blocking most of it out anyway; it’s mostly in hopes that it will make these monsters go away.

“Really. This whole time…”

“An hour of shooting the shit with the guy, and he doesn’t mention once that he has a kid in the car. Did he even mention he had a kid? Did I miss something?”

“If you did, it slipped by me, too. Now that I think about it, the wife may have suggested they had a son, but I guess I thought she meant he was at home.”

“Shows how important their son is to them that they wouldn’t even--”

“Little John, I think you’re just scaring him more.”

“Oh, I’m not trying to.” He grabs you by the waist again and picks you up, placing you on the seat. He lets go and you feel one of them start to stroke your head, but you can’t tell which one is doing it. They’re only gently touching the edge of your fur and you can’t get a feel for how big their paw is. The stroking does not make you feel comforted, but it doesn’t make you feel discomforted either; you’re just sort of numb to it. “Don’t worry, buddy. I’m a bear that cares.”

“He’s likely thinking, oh, sure, you want me to believe that!

“Well I’ll prove it to him!”

“Sh-sh-shh!” As earlier, the pig-fox pitches up his voice just a tinge, trying to seem more welcoming. “Hello there, young man. You needn’t be afraid of us. We didn’t hurt your parents, and we’re not going to hurt you.” You don’t know whether you can believe them. But in a spot of desperation, you wish you could. “You’ve done nothing wrong.”

“‘Needn’t’? You’re not in the old country anymore, Rob.”

“Johnny!” comes a stern whisper. The stroking stops.

“I’m just trying to do my part to make him feel more comfortable; I wouldn’t listen to a strange adult who talked funny. Can I give it another try?”

“How about we take turns?”

“Sounds fair.” The bear takes a deep breath, and then he makes his own attempt at sweetening his voice: “Hey, little guy. We’re sorry we had to do what we did. But we promise we didn’t hurt them. Not too bad.” You feel a thick finger with a blunt claw tickle your cheek a few times.

“What my friend here means is that they’ll be awake and fine in just a few hours.” He seems a bit frustrated with his associate’s choice of words, but you can respect the effort he’s taking to hide it. “What we did was something we had to do. The law might not say so, but we know in our hearts that we needed to.”

“And I know that sometimes I don’t feel too good about what we do, but…”

“...sometimes, you have to make a tough decision.”

“Be glad you’re still a kid, kid. Being a grown-up means you have to make a lot of tough decisions.”

“And while I am a bit afraid that the grown-ups in your life don’t have the courtesy to tell you that, I… well, I…” the Brit trails off. “I’m sorry, young sir, but… could you open your eyes? We just want to make sure you’re hearing us.”

“We want to meet you!”

“Very well-put, John.”

Thus begins a long series of mental curses. You curse your father for taking Sherwood Forest Road because he was too proud to take a toll road and too impatient to drive through construction. You curse the adults in your life who refused to believe the legends of the Forest were true. You curse the Delaware Department of Transportation for maintaining this road and not just swallowing their damned losses. You curse linear time itself for making it a statistical improbability that anybody’s going to come along that road at that precise nocturnal minute and see these two characters harassing you, let alone stop and save you. But you decide that this whole thing might end sooner if you just do what they say. Or with any luck, you might wake up.

You open your eyes to a sideways view of the seat in front of you. You can see two figures in your periphery to your left, but you aren’t ready to meet their gaze. You just keep looking forward.

“You see?” asks the fox. “Everything will be alright.”

“And as long as you’re a good guy, you’re safe with us.”

“You’re a good guy, aren’t you?”

“Rob, are we talking down to this kid?” the bear asks, quieter but you can still hear it clearly.

“You’re never too old to be comforted, Johnny.”

“I just mean -- what species is this kid exactly? -- for his size, how old would he be?”

“Well, that doesn’t necessarily determine anything, now does it? I mean, I was always large for my age, you were small, so--”

Enough.”

“Oh. Of course.”

Great, now these two monsters are fighting. You close your eyes again, to disappear and to avoid embarrassing them.

“Oh, now you’ve scared him again.”

“I didn’t do anything.”

“Young man,” the Englishman says again in his voice reserved for your ears only, “we haven’t much time left. But we desperately want to tell you something--”

“--a little secret your parents won’t tell you.”

“Precisely! If you would please just grant us a moment of your attention, we can tell you something that will change your life--”

“--for the best!”

“--and we’ll be on our way.”

They aren’t taking no for an answer.

It is indeed a fox, a red fox with a deep red coat and a pearly white muzzle melting from his snout. Something about his facial appearance just sort of agrees with the idea that he’s British; something about his eyes, you think. The peanut-butter-brown bear is at once next to him and above him; his hat and wig and moustache are gone, and the hair on the back of his head seems to be glowing from the cabin light it’s blocking out, almost like the silver lining on a cloud in front of the sun. Laying there on the bench seat, looking up at these warm faces looking down upon you, you feel like a baby in a crib, right at the moment when sapience first materializes in your mind, looking up at the adults admiring you from above, and although you can’t put into words who they are, you somehow understand that they are looking out for you and want what’s best for you.

“It’s so nice to finally meet you, young one. My name is Robert, but my everybody calls me Robin. Robin Hood, of Loxley in South Yorkshire -- that’s in England, if you couldn’t tell! And this is one of my closest friends in all the world; he’s called Little John. He might be scary to bad people, but he can be a big soft teddy bear when he’s your friend.”

“But you can call us Johnny and Rob, because you’re our friend now.”

“Indeed you are. What are you called, young man?”

And you simply stare at them. Speaking does not seem like something you can do even if you wanted to.

“Uh, what the British guy means is, what’s your name?”

A moment passes.

“I don’t think lexicon is the issue here, Johnny. But listen…” the fox gives you his undivided attention. “We took some time to get to know your mother and father. And we’re afraid that they might not be the best people in the world. That’s why we had to do what we did to them.”

“And we don’t think that they think they’re bad people, necessarily,” the bear chimes in, “maybe they just don’t know how to be good.”

“That’s quite right! But here’s the good news, young sir: you don’t have to be like them.”

The two of them just gaze gently down upon you, almost fighting for your eye contact. You look into the eyes of the fox for just a moment, then the bear’s, and then you split the difference and stare at the space between their pairs of eyes, hoping neither will be offended.

“You don’t have to be like them,” the fox continues. “You can be good. You can be a good guy. You don’t have to take advantage of people to get ahead in the world; you can do it just by being a good person.” He takes a deep breath. “You don’t have to be like them.”

“Sometimes we aren’t even sure if we’re the best we can be,” the bear adds, “But we do our best and we try to get better. And all we can ask of you, kiddo, is that you understand that we’re trying to be the best that we can be, and that you try to be the best you can be, too.”

“I couldn’t have said it better myself.”

“Heh, this is why we’re friends.”

“And you’re our friend, too, now, young man. As long as you always do what you truly believe is right, and care for your fellow man, and never make it harder for those who have it hard enough--”

“--then you’ll be our friend.”

“And if anybody should ever hate you for being our friend… well…”

“They’ll have to answer to us.”

“They won’t be Little John’s friend.”

“Damn straight they won’t.”

They keep the smiles going and you have no idea what to do. You have no idea of what you can do. But it isn’t them you fear anymore. What you fear is the confusion. What you fear is that you still can’t tell if this is real.

“Now, we need you to do us a massive favor. Is that alright?”

“In exchange for being our friend.”

“When your parents wake up, or when someone comes to see if you’re alright… don’t tell them about us. Just keep our friendship our little secret, alright? Until it’s safe. Can you do that for us?”

You do nothing but breathe.

“Come now, my young friend,” the fox implores you, “this is the first step to being a good person.”

“You’re our friend right?”

You have to say something. You don’t know why exactly, but you feel like you have to. Maybe opening your eyes didn’t get them to go away, and maybe this won’t either; maybe this is just the next step in a series of trials and tribulations that these strangers will put you through before they leave you alone. But in the state you are in, nothing is being solved. Therefore something must change.

“Martin.”

“Wh-- what was that?”

“...Martin.”

“Hey there, Martin.”

“Master Martin. Martin von Bartonschmeer, yes? Pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“Hey, Martin, how old are you? Rob and I were wondering.”

“...”

“You may be right, Little John; his voice-- I think he’s a bit older than we thought.”

“Than you thought.”

“Oh, hush, Johnny… Martin, my friend… can you keep us your little secret?”

“...”

“Martin?”

“Martin.”

“What was that?”

“...”

“Maybe he’s retarded.”

“Oh, don’t be so boorish, Johnny.”

“I know you’re thinking it, too.”

“I’m sure he’s just terrified. Courage and cowardice exist in all of us. I just think they’re raging inside of him right now.”

“And I’m with you on that, that’s probably what’s goin’ on, but has the thought not crossed your mind?”

“...”

“Well… We didn’t hurt you, Martin. Please don’t hurt us.”

“Do the right thing, Martin, I know you can do it.”

“Maybe we’ll see you again, Martin.”

“Maybe we will. I hope we will.”

They duck out and start to close the trunk lid, but the bear stops it halfway down.

“Hey, Rob, should we stick around until someone comes by to help him?”

“I would love to, Johnny, but what if the police get here first?”

The bear makes one strong guffaw, but then curtly opens the trunk all the way again and looks toward your huddled mass. “Just to clear the air, kid, not all cops are bad, but, uh, the high-ranking officials of all the police departments in this area, are pure fucking evil.” He ducks his head back out and regards the fox. “Oh, don’t give me that look. You know I have family that’re--”

“I don’t disagree, John, I just don’t think you needed to clarify that.”

“And you didn’t need to pet the kid like a cockatoo. Didn’t stop ya.”

“It’s called connecting, Little John.”

“Well it’s not too late to… y’know… dose him too if you think this all didn’t go so well.”

“No, no, I have faith in my methods… I’ll tell you what: we’ll keep watch after him, but… from afar.”

“Alright, sounds like a plan.”

“Splendid. Close the trunk and we’ll stake out a spot. And send Martin my regards one last time.”

The bear comes back to the trunk door and puts a paw on it. “G’night, Marty.” Then the darkness returns.

***

You finally awaken.

The sun is bleeding through the sieves between eastern tree branches. You hear sounds. You can’t tell what they are, but you can tell that they are hurried, not quite frantic yet but getting there. Bodies surround the SUV. Men in uniform; a few women in the mix, too. A few different uniforms. One type of uniform tends to your parents, who are beginning to murmur uncomfortably. Another type scour the area surrounding the vehicle, looking for clues to some great mystery. The last type of uniform is focused on you.

Everything is where it would have been if it happened as you thought it did. But you can’t fathom that it would have. You can’t imagine that your father would pull over and help complete strangers and your mother’s behest. You can’t imagine that your mother would fall victim to trickery as easily as your father. You can’t imagine that there would be modern-day highwaymen wandering a shrouded wood on the off chance that they would come upon someone so easily buttered up by disingenuous flattery, at which point they would patiently wait upwards of an hour for their victims to fall under their spell, and then run off with all of the loot they could gather, physically leaving on their feet with their spoils carried literally under their arms, nothing more sophisticated than that -- but not before taking a solid few minutes to stop everything and impart their own personal wisdom on a child whom they only know as the bloodkin of their enemy. Such characters would have to either be masters of their craft or wizards who could manipulate the cosmic forces of fortune itself. Or hell, they might be gods. But you can imagine that your parents simply act differently when they think you aren’t aware; there are clearly elements about them that they do not trust you with, and their true selves may be on that list. And while you don’t mean to stereotype, you can imagine that between a fox’s charm and a bear’s insistence, that combination could persuade anyone.

They ask you what happened. You tell them that you don’t know whether it was all a dream.

***

If on a summer’s night a traveler, outside the city of Nottingham, cavalier in attitude and vainglorious in disposition, should find himself approached by strangers who can tell wondrous tales and compel one to act against one’s better judgment, he had best not be a rich man, lest he be stripped of all his possessions and all his dignity; but if a traveler should be a poor man, he need have no fear, for he and all those like him shall find themselves under the sworn protection of the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest.

Or so say the children.

 

Chapter Text

3 “Merry Men in Trees”

Goddammit, Martin squealed on us!

If there were, hypothetically, anybody in the vicinity of Sherwood Forest that morning who, unbeknownst to anybody outside themselves and possibly their inner circle, was hypothetically engaging in a moderately-to-severely illegal activity or conspiracy to do so, and this hypothetical person heard the very real non-hypothetical police cars and helicopters enclosing on the area from seemingly all directions, and this person who was hypothetically doing naughty things in a private venue assured themselves that the sirens could not be coming for themselves and their hypothetical/theoretical cohort on the grounds that there was no plausible way for the authorities to become privy to such well-guarded information of illicit activities, but then this hypothetical person was suddenly overcome with doubt regarding their security from retributionary punishment, the doubt manifesting itself as either an internal spark of dismay or a paranoid lament from one of their co-conspirators (whom it should be noted may [like this entire scenario] have never existed) itself complemented by a theoretical theory on how the authorities may have gained awareness of the hypothetical shady operation, such a hypothetical theory not even necessarily being likely or unlikely but in some hypothetical chain of events indeed possible, if such a person -- and may it be reiterated that this is all purely hypothetical -- if such a person existed, even if they were a fourteen-year-old amateur-cum-aspiring con-artist fox-boy who would not have such a destructive Napoleon complex if he were to physically embody the size of his megalomania and who had a long and documented track record of being wrong about a lot of things, even if heaven forbid such a hypothetical wretched soul were to actually exist, then such a person should really listen to their gut.

Because the police were not searching for any small-time schemers that Saturday morning. Instead, they were in pursuit of two costumed characters who presently were running through the forest, jumping fences, dodging trees, and trying to get away, these characters all the while contemplating nothing but escape, and how usually by now they would have made it, but the helicopters were certainly a curveball they were not expecting to be thrown.

They weren’t simply running aimlessly in hopes of getting the cops off their tails. The plan was to reach one specific destination before any ground units caught sight of them. If they could get even close to that spot, they would be in a part of the forest where the canopy was so thick that the helicopters above probably wouldn’t be able to catch even a glimpse of them, and they’d be home free, hiding in plain sight. Or at least they hoped that it would work out that way; they really were novices when it came to dealing with helicopters, but it was nothing that a little quick thinking and a leap of faith couldn’t beat.

“Alright, Johnny!” the fox panted, “How well do you know this forest?” He was by no means out of shape and was certainly no stranger to making a hasty exit, but he was pushing himself to run at a speed that would find anybody having difficulty speaking and breathing concurrently; the greater-than-usual number of pursuants had in equal parts spooked, invigorated, and flattered him.

“Uh, pr--” the bear sputtered, having an even harder time multitasking with his respiratory system, “Pretty good…”

“Excellent! Then… think of… think of a line of trees… thick trees!... Between here and… and the Major Oak!”

“A li-- a line of… trees?”

“Don’t waste your breath, Johnny! Just… just run with me! And don’t… don’t let the choppers see you!”

The world seemed to squeeze in on them. The roar of the helicopters faded in and out as they zoomed by in lines overhead, not knowing that their suspects were right under their noses. Far-off yelling and walkie-talkie chatter and squeaks seemed to be converging on them from all directions. And as they drew closer and closer to the big oak tree at the heart of the forest, the canopy upon which they relied for shelter just started to feel suffocating.

And that was when they saw it. The clearing that served as their own backyard, punctuated by one of the largest trees either of them had ever seen outside of a primeval jungle. Its trunk was wide enough for them to make a cavity to hold all their worldly possessions. Its branches were thick enough to support the weight of very large mammals who might need to hide in a pinch. Its canopy was expansive enough to keep them cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Its realm was large enough to call home.

The tree’s one major flaw, however, was that it would stick out like a sore thumb in the heretofore unheard-of event of an unwelcome outsider trekking deep enough into the dizzying and disorienting wildwood and happening upon it by sheer dumb luck. Everything about it and its immediate surroundings screamed that it was somebody’s camp, and few could see it and not correctly deduce that that was the case. Honestly, it was probably the firepit that gave it away; Robin, John and company had never found a good way to conceal it without permanently ruining it, and after years of not coming even close to getting caught at their own home base, they eventually stopped trying.

When Little John saw them, he nearly let out a yelp squeakier than the one he’d heard Robin make that one time a few years ago when he’d gotten his tail caught in a revolving door; poor Robin had been shown in a rare moment of weakness then, and was again now that his eyes, which always did prefer the nighttime to that of the dawn, failed to register that there were two uniformed men making their way through the trees on the other side of the clearing.

Little John simply had too much inertia going for him to stop soon enough, so he collapsed his knees and slid to a halt like a baseball player sliding feet-first into second. Robin was running ahead of him, and when he heard the sound of dirt and turf swishing at his backside, his first thought was that John had tripped on something and fell forward so hard and with so much speed that he hydroplaned on the dewy grass.

“Little John!” Robin cried out as he tried to kill his own inertia by twisting his body backward and kicking his knees progressively higher so he wouldn’t make any more forward progress.

Shhh!” Little John pointed to the figures through the trees. “Don’t you see them?”

Robin squinted and tried to look for any motion he could sense. It took a second, but he did soon notice what his friend was talking about. “It’s the Boys!”

“No shit, ya blind bat,” Little John grumbled as he got himself up. “C’mon, we gotta pick a different tree to climb.” He looked up at the one right next to him. “This one look good?”

“I can climb it if you can!” Robin wasted no time making his way up. “Hurry!”

“I’m not a fucking elephant, Rob,” Little John barked; after feeling like the little rich kid from the SUV had betrayed him, he wasn’t in the mood for much of anything. He began inching his own way up. But while luck might have screwed them over with the oak tree, it gave them a little back when a helicopter passed over again, ensuring that the two officers wouldn’t hear the grumbling grizzly grunting just a short ways-away.

The boys made themselves a nice little makeshift perch in the tree, Robin standing on one branch and holding onto another one at chest-level -- he would have much preferred to sit down for the first time in awhile, but he stayed on his feet just in case he needed a quick escape -- and Little John hugging the base of the tree in the biggest gap between branches he could find. They were still well below the top of the tree, so the helicopters should have been none the wiser, and high up enough off the ground that somebody would really have to be craning their neck at the exact right angle in the exact right spot to snuff them out.

“Can you see them from up there?” John asked.

“Ah… not as well as I’d like, but as long as they can’t see us, I won’t be complaining. Are you sturdy down there?”

“I can stay here for awhile, but I can’t stay here forever.”

“I’ve got a nasty feeling that we’re going to be here a little more than awhile and just shy of forever.”

“Just tell me what’s going on.”

“Alright, but if I’m not saying anything, assume there’s a good reason I’m being quiet.”

“Roger.”

And so the stake-out began in earnest. Robin watched as the two officers entered the sphere of sanctuary, visibly astounded by their discovery before they had even found the good stuff. They seemed enthralled by how nature had set one enormous tree in this precise spot and let nothing but grass and weeds grow in the dirt encircling it, forming an almost perfect circumference of space; but the firepit gave away that there was a mammalian connection to this place. The two officers, a light-gray rhino and an black-gray wolf who were wearing the blue and black of policial laymen, walked slowly around the tree, as if overcome by a sudden awareness that they were in the open in enemy territory and that spying eyes might be watching their every move. They weren’t talking to one another, but it was not immediately clear whether this was due to them having nothing to say, or their fears of being overheard.

“Curses, I knew I should have reset that trap!” the fox muttered to himself.

“Oh, the only person who ever got caught in that net was you when you were sloshed like I’d never seen before.”

Robin didn’t say a word. He was too busy keeping focus to even entertain the idea of being mortified.

“That was a fun nigh--”

Shhh! I think they’re about to find-- oh, no…”

Yes, they had found it. The little notch that had started life as a tiny knot hole when the Merry Men sawed off the lowest branch and was soon carved into a cubby hole where the bandits kept their life supplies. The wolf turned on his flashlight and illuminated the cavity as the rhino fished around with his billy club; Robin couldn’t see what they saw from his angle, but the looks on their faces showed that they were astounded to find clothes, bedsheets, cookery, toiletries, and anything else a civilized person would have when they just so happened to be living in the forest -- or at least it contained all that which could fit in the bountiful base of the tree. As spacious as it was, it still couldn’t fit, say, a mattress or a sophisticated plumbing system.

“Huh. You’d think they’d never seen an outlaw’s camp before.”

“Whaddaya mean?”

“They’ve got a look on their faces like they just opened a treasure chest.”

“They must be new to the force. I mean, most cops would probably’ve seen something similar, like a bums’ hideout, right?”

“Or maybe they’re just astounded that the legends are true.”

“Oh don’t get so big-headed, Rob.”

“As if I could ever get a bigger head than yours.”

“Jealous?”

Pshaw. Hardly.”

The officers were clearly being careful not to touch what they’d found, for they had no idea where it had been. They kept on digging deeper and deeper with their flashlight and baton, their arms almost entirely swallowed by the hole and their heads fighting for space to see inside, their mouths agape as they took in the small labyrinth that had opened up before them.

“Come on, get out of there!” Robin grumbled.

“They’re still in there?”

“Like you said, I wish they’d just write it off as some homeless people’s camp and leave us alone.”

Eventually, the two officers grew disinterested in fishing any further into the cache of conveniences, and they retracted themselves from it. They put their flashlight and baton back on their respective belts and started conversing with each other, but they were two far away for Robin and John to hear anything.

“Alright, they’re discussing something, but I can’t make out a word of what they’re saying. I’m hoping they just decide that it’s nondescript and they walk away.”

“We both want them to decide it’s nondescript and just walk away; we’ve already discussed this.”

“Well forgive me for my sins, Johnny, I’m a bit tense right now.”

“You’re not the one whose arms and legs are chafing like hell, now are ya?”

At this point, Robin felt the need to look down to make sure his partner was holding up well. “Are you sure you can hang on there?”

“My ancestors were lumberjacks; we know how to hang on in a tree.”

Robin just sighed in exasperation. “If you say so--”

That was when the both of them heard a voice that was strikingly familiar despite being coated with feedback and static.

Where the hell were you two!?

Robin looked back up at the officers, and John tried to make out what he could through the leaves and branches. The two officers were looking down at the walkie-talkie in the wolf’s hand.

“Oh, not this son of a bitch again,” Little John moaned. “How is he still in power?”

“Big-city politics is a soap opera that even my grandmother would find poorly-written and overwrought with vindictiveness.”

Little John didn’t have much to say about that.

Why did you turn your radios off!?” hollered the man with a Southern accent that could make Little John sound like he was a New Yorker, and a high-pitched snarl on certain syllables that could make Robin sound like he was a lounge singer.

Little John even felt the need to ask, “Jeez, how can anybody take orders from a voice like that?”

The two officers were murmuring their answers especially quietly, and the Merry Men still couldn’t make out a single syllable that was coming out of their mouths, but the hothead on the other end of the frequency was hollering his head off so that nothing he said was left up to to ambiguity.

Why were you trying to be quiet!?

Murmur murmur murmur.”

Then you should have called for backup, shouldn’’tja have!?

Murmur murmur murmur.”

Just tell me where you are and stay put until we find you!

Murmur murmur murmur.”

Well then figure out where you are, and tell me!

Murmur murmur murmur.”

“Now, you made a point earlier that you have family members in law enforcement; tell me, why would anybody subject themselves to abuse like this?”

“I don’t think this kind of behavior is normal. At least… at least not this bad. Police chiefs are hardasses, but they’re not always hard assholes.”

Alright, now stay the fuck there until we find you and we’ll go from there!

“Yes, but how does the Nottingham P. D. retain any of its new members in an environment like this?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Job security? Sucking it up to serve the greater good? Fu-- I dunno, maybe they’d never live it down if they quit… Rob, you heard me say I’m related to cops, not that I was one, right? I don’t know their ways inside and out.”

“Yes, but you probably still know more about them than I do.”

“Christ Almighty, sometimes I wonder if you ever met a blue-collar person before you came over here.”

“We were all fools in our past, Johnny. And over there, we use the term working class.”

“Oh, well excuse me, m’lord…”

And now it was time to test how good they were at waiting.

***

Robin was growing bored watching the two officers mill about by the Major Oak, themselves clearly bored out of their minds. He was almost relieved when he heard that infernal voice again.

“What the fuck were you two idiots doing!?”

A few birds squawked and ejected themselves from the trees when that scratchy voice pierced the silence. Little John, who had almost fallen asleep in his spot trying to count the individual lines in the bark in front of his face to kill time, was stirred back into reality with this unwelcome racket.

“God, dammi--! I-I’m back, Rob… what did I miss?”

“Nothing much. Chief Woodland’s grand entrance.”

“No, I don’t think I missed that.”

The City of Nottingham Chief of Police emerged from the density of the forest into the clearing, from around the same spot as the two officers before him did, and the slovenly gray wolf was followed by a few more officers in tow. The two who awaited him looked at once nervous and annoyed.

“I’m amazed he didn’t get stuck between a couple trees,” Robin laughed to himself.

To his credit, Ward Woodland was an imposing figure before you got to know him and pieced together how incompetent he was. The first time he had laid eyes on him, Robin had wondered whether a wolf-bear hybrid could exist. The guy was freakishly large in every dimension, but not so flatteringly so on the x- and z-axes. Yes, he was roughly a foot taller than the average wolf, and while a bear like Little John was still comfortably taller by at least a head, when John’s posture was poor (as a bear’s posture often is, especially when they spend extended amounts of time hanging out with shorter creatures) and Woodland was standing fully upright, the height gap seemed a lot lesser; but Woodland’s posture was typically even worse, forward-leaning more severely than Little John did, and burdened by more dead weight on his person than John had, proportionately speaking. There was one altercation in the distant past where the boys got in close quarters with a stranger who, judging by appearance, simply must have been a pre-Force Ward, since they’d never seen before or since another person who looked and sounded even remotely like him; suffice it to say that that altercation began with Robin secretly freaking out about the sheer volume of this stranger when he caught a glimpse of him where the wolf was standing closer to him than Little John was and something about the angle and the optical distance and the ambient lighting and everybody’s posture all being just right made it seem like this wolf was the exact same size and shape as the damn grizzly bear right next to him and that sent a shiver down his spine, but suffice it to say that the altercation ended with Little John insisting that the stranger was a lot lighter than he looked by virtue of not having any muscle mass. Surely it must have been Ward that day so many years ago, who has since become their most frequently-appearing enemy short of the Prince Mayor himself; it really is a small world after all, evidently. Actually, between being a disproportionately tall member of a canid species and having a rather ursine physique, one might note that Woodland looked like a hybrid of Robin and John, quite fitting for their foil.

“So what the hell have we here?” Chief Woodland asked in a way that suggested he was still livid with his officers but losing the energy to express it.

“A campsite, Chief,” the smaller black wolf answered. “It looks pretty permanently set up, but obviously nobody’s around right now.”

“At least we hope not,” the rhino interjected. “That’s why we killed the radios.”

“Because you thought you might be bein’ watched,” Woodland finished.

“By highly-skilled criminals, yes. Exactly,” the rhino said.

Hm. Impressive deduction skills, Edward!” Robin chuckled. He wasn’t aware of the eccentric way Chief Woodland’s first name was spelled.

“And Jesse and I were talking,” the rhino continued, “this could be their camp, or this could just be where some bums live.”

Oh, c’mon, Rob, this guy might be a dumb son of a bitch, but I don’t think he’s completely stupid,” Little John retorted.

“Or maybe this place is abandoned and none of this matters,” said Officer Jesse Surname-Unknown.

Are you just standing up for your people, Johnny?” Robin whispered with a smirk.

“But there’s a firepit that looks pretty recently-used, and in the tree there’s a hole full of clothes and, like, dishes and cups and things like that. We’re thinking somebody’s still here, Chief.” Jesse the Wolf was standing as straight as possible so as not to look intimidated by his hulking commander who against all logic belonged to his same species.

“‘My people, what’s that supposed to--!?” Little John stopped himself, knowing that an argument would be a waste of time and a risk of security. “I’m just saying, Rob… Even a stupid S.O.B. like him probably has flashes of brilliance, and it might bite us in the ass one day. You know, broken clocks. I guess…  what I’m trying to say is nobody likes to be underestimated. You know, in a weird way, I feel like I can relate to him.

Woodland started moving around the campsite with a suspicious eye, trying to see if there was anything his boys missed. He started over to the firepit and leaned over as far as he could to get a close-up look at it. All the while, Jesse and the rhino looked like they were debating whether they should argue their case further or just acquiesce, while the other two officers who got dragged along, a spotted jaguar and a hippopotamus, kept glancing at one another every two seconds as if exchanging some witty nonverbal banter about how there was absolutely no reason for them to be there.

And you don’t just mean you relate to him because you buy your clothes from the same aisle in the store?

Chief Woodland stood up from the firepit and walked off, not giving any hints about whether he found it to be credible evidence. He meandered his way toward the tree’s cavity while looking all around the space, to see what he could see.

“And those stumps… Maybe someone’s been using them for chairs?” Woodland surmised.

“Hm! Didn’t even think about that one, Chief,” praised Jesse.

Ya see, what I tell ya?” ribbed Little John.

Finally, the wolf’s quirky bouncy-waddle-motion brought him to the hole in the tree.

“And what did you say you found in here?”

“Everything, Chief.”

“We didn’t touch it with our hands so we wouldn’t get prints on th--”

But Ward Woodland was not a wolf willing to wait. He stuck his arm into the hole and pulled out the first thing he grabbed, which was a ratty old piece of cloth.

“What’s this?”

“I… think that’s a hand-towel, Chief.”

He would know that if washed his hands when he was done in the loo.

I swear, you’ve been such a smart-ass tonight.

What can I say? The von Bartonschmeers gave me so much material to work with, and now I’m finding inspiration everywhere.

The next thing that Woodland pulled out was polo shirt, a little on the small side, a shade of green that looked like it was biased a tinge toward yellow. “Now we’re gettin’ somewhere.”

Oh, don’t you get my shirt dirty, I just had that washed.

You’re welcome for that…

Woodland held up the shirt to get a better idea of its size. “What kind of person would wear this shirt?”

“Uh… a white-collar work--”

“No, you idiot, I meant what species!? Because the kid in the van said he saw a fox with a brown bear.”

I toldja Martin squealed on us.

Oh, Johnny, I just didn’t want to believe you. But perhaps we can’t blame him.

I offered to drug him; you said no…

“Now this can’t be the bear’s shirt, but is this fox sized? It looks kind of bigger than I’d think. How big are foxes usually? They’re up to like…” Woodland put out a hand and started moving it up and down to suggest a height range, but he was moving it all the way down and then back up to the level of his forearms and back down and up and down again, so he really wasn’t helping anybody visualize anything other than his own confusion. He finally stopped moving his hand around gut-level and proposed, “Hereabouts?” He grabbed the shirt with both hands and looked down at it pensively for a second, then tossed it to the ground. “Well they all look pretty small from up here, now don’t they?”

Everybody who heard that either rolled their eyes or really, really wanted to.

“Perhaps there’s more than two of them, Chief?”

“That’s a damn good point, kid!” Woodland went exploring in the hole again, and this time pulled out a huge jacket; this one was a darker shade of green. It seemed to be a lighter springtime or autumnal jacket, but the sleeves were cut off. “Now this is bear-sized!”

He has my jacket, doesn’t he?

That he does.

Then for a little something unexpected: Woodland proceeded to put on the jacket. All four of the officers were visibly confused and perhaps a tad repulsed, but they all knew that there wasn’t going to be any way to get through to him.

Oh, come now, Edward, you don’t know where that thing’s been.

Wait, what’s he doing?

Trying your jacket on for size.

What!?

Same aisle of the store. I called it.

If he does something to it, I’m--!

No, you won’t. You’re going to stay here and keep covered.

You’re not the boss of me.

The jacket was mostly well-fitting on him, being a bit long in the back but using the extra space well in the front. The bottom of the jacket looked like it was going up at a forty-five-degree angle from back to front.

“Yeah, I’d say this is about the right size,” the grotesque wolf concluded as he began to take it off. “Well, the descriptions match the clues here, I’d say. Whoever left here, left here quick. They’ll be back. Let’s try around sunset to see if we can catch them.”

“So we’re coming back here tonight, Chief?”

“Yup. Even if it is just a bunch of bums, we can bag ‘em for vagrancy. But I don’t think this is just a bunch of bums.”

“Yessir, Chief.”

“Y’know,” Woodland pondered, “we really oughta have some waste management people out here to clean up this litter, but then the fuckers might just move on… So instead!”

The ending to that sentence fragment was a demonstration of passion. Chief Woodland returned to the hole and simply started pulling out everything he could reach and dispersing it all over the ground without prejudice. Most things landed harmlessly, but some metalware clanged and some dishes cracked and chipped, and the chief of police successfully achieved his goal of thoroughly inconveniencing his sworn enemies.

What’s he doing now!?

I swear this man was raised in a barn.

Is he just throwing our shit everywhere?

As much as he can.

I really just want to kick this guy’s ass.

And I want to watch that happen. But in times like these, we must restrain ourselves for our long-term goals.

Can you stop talking like a philosopher? I’m really not in the mood.

Sorry, Johnny, old habits are hard to break I suppose.

Little John wanted to remark on the fact that Robin’s overeducated ass used suppose instead of guess, but he bit his tongue. He didn’t need any more conflict in this spot he was in. An evil man was making a lame but spirited attempt to ruin their day, his closest friend in the world was seriously getting on his nerves, he was stuck in a tree losing the feeling in his limbs, and he was starting to get hungry. He didn’t think he was in hell, but the idea that he was in purgatory wasn’t completely off the table.

Chief Woodland stopped grabbing into the hole and put his hand up on the tree to take a breather. He looked around and the beautiful little mess he had made; he hadn’t depleted the contents of the hole, but he had made a pretty good dent into it.

“Welp, I think my job here is about done.”

“So, Chief, just so we understand you right… we’re doing this in order to…?”

“To let ‘em know we know they’re here! Even if they aren’t here when we come back, we’ll know if they’ve been back because they’d’ve cleaned their stuff up. Genius, ain’t it?”

“So we’re just going to stop searching for them, Chief?”

“For now,” Woodland affirmed as he kicked a can of beans at the tree, popping the can open on impact. He smiled at this. “I don’t hate these scoundrels because they’re stupid; I hate them because they’re smart, but they think I’m stupid. They think that we’re stupid!”

Edward, you flatter me.

Goddamn, I’m hungry.

“They know that we ain’t found them for almost seven years, we ain’t gonna find them in seven minutes. But now we got us a harder lead than we ever had. We’ll find ‘em soon. But let’s let ‘em get comfortable for just a li’l bit longer before they move into their new prison cells.”

The four officers seemed to accept this as a good excuse to get the hell out of this forest. The Chief extracted his walkie-talkie as he lead the way out of the clearing back the way they came in from.

“Alright, boys, kill the helicopters. They got away for now, but we’ll get ‘em soon. Everybody back to your patrols and precincts.”

The wolf turned his back to the watchful eyes and his subordinates took one last gander around the space, confused about the plan but not caring enough to risk it, before following him out.

Robin breathed a sigh of relief and spoke in something more than a whisper for the first time in almost an hour. “Finally, they’re--”

Grrrbrrgrrbbbrrrgggh.

The officers stopped in their tracks and turned to face the noise behind them. Robin’s blood ran cold. Little John just looked down shamefully at his stomach.

“I told you I was hungry.”

“Little John, you may have just doomed us all.”

“What the hell was that noise!?” exclaimed the Chief. “Are there gators in this swamp?”

“I… wouldn’t call this much of a swamp, Chief.”

“I think we’re too far north, aren’t we?”

“I mean it’s mucky in some parts, but--”

“Fuck this, I’m getting out of here!” And that was how Chief Ward Woodland made his exit.

The four officers behind him kept their eyes peeled, glancing in every direction and keeping a hand on their guns, but they hastily followed all the same.

And then there were only the two Merry Men of Sherwood Forest.

Robin Hood was stunned. “Amazing,” was all he could think to say.

“Can we go down now? My arms are falling asleep. And the rest of my body is falling asleep, too. We’ve been up all night, ain’t we?”

“Let’s give them a few more minutes just to make sure the coast is clear. And why didn’t you just eat something before we went hunting? Like you’ve always done?”

“Because honestly I’m still spooked by the Leftover Pizza Incident from a few weeks b--”

“Okay! Okay. I understand your point. You don’t need to remind me of that.”

“I’m just saying, something a lot grosser could have--”

“John, We can talk about something else while we wait.”

“Alright then.”

Robin and John then proceeded to exchange exactly zero words for the next seventeen excruciating seconds before Little John had a thought he believed was powerful enough to break the thick silence:

“Y’know, Rob, there actually has been something on my mind.”

“Is it something less unpleasant this time?”

“Well… I guess it all depends on what conclusion you draw from it.”

“Oh, hell’s bells, if I can handle dozens of near-death experiences in half a decade, I can probably handle whatever you want to talk about.”

“Now that’s more like the Rob I know. So… you, uh… you remember that one time, awhile back, I forget what we were running from, but we were running from something just like today, and we wound up in a tree just like this, and…”

“I remember a few times like that.”

“Yeah, but do you remember after we had a minute to mellow out, we were just hanging out there in the tree, talking about life, and… I thought, hey, I’ve got a tough question on my mind, and I’m here with one of my closest buds in the world, probably one of the smartest guys I know, and as long as there’s nobody else around to judge me--”

“It was just the two of us?”

“Yeah, I remember it was just the two of us, but… um…” Little John wished he had paid more attention to his friend’s vast vocabulary so that maybe he could have learned some fancy words himself to find a delicate way to bring up some not-so-delicate details. “I think I remember that it wasn’t really, uh, normal yet for it to just be the two of us.”

“...I see.”

“I’m sorry, Rob, I couldn’t think of a better--”

“It’s alright, John, the past can’t hurt me now.”

“Rob--”

“Continue, Johnny, I’m on the edge of my seat seeing where this is going. I don’t think I remember this conversation we had quite yet.”

“...I asked you, ‘Hey, Rob, are we the good guys, or are we the bad guys?’”

“I remember!”

“You remember?”

“I do! I remember you asking that and me thinking, what kind of question is that?

“And that’s what I was afraid of.”

“...What do you mean?”

“I think I mentioned something about our whole ‘rob from the rich to give from the poor’ thing, because I remember you just responded with your little ‘Oh, silly Johnny, rob is such a dirty word, we’re just borrowing from people who can afford it.’”

“I remember that! And I still think that the only use for those three letters should be when a very close friend calls me by my--”

“Yeah. Yeah. Rob. I know. I remember. Well I was trying to ask my very close friend about something that was wracking my brain. Something that was seriously bugging me. And you laughed it off with a smart-alec little quip.”

“Oh…”

“Eeyup.”

“Little John, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were--”

“‘The past can’t hurt me now, Rob.’”

“...Yes. Right. B-but tell me, now it’s bugging me -- do you still have apprehensi--”

“Robin, cut it out, that’s not my question anymore. I’ve got a better question now.”

“Ah. Alright. Well… what can I answer for you?”

“...Son of a bitch, now I forgot.”

“Maybe it’ll come back to you.”

“It better! I’ve been thinking about it for forever now, and now I can’t make a sentence out of it.”

Robin just looked morosely down at his friend while Little John stared determinedly into space thinking about what it was he wanted to say.

“...We were soaking wet,” Robin recalled.

“What?”

“I’m starting to remember that exchange of ours; I could have sworn we were wet for some reason.”

“...We bumped each other into the river!”

“We did?”

“Yeah, on the log bridge!”

“On a log… Yeah, we did! A-and I think I remember that it was because we were joking around and being all gentlemanly to make up for that time that we first met, and--”

“We both thought the other was gonna go first!”

“Precisely! And we were being so silly and chipper that we didn’t even look where we were going.”

“There ya go!”

“This… heh, this is amazing, Johnny; it’s all flooding in at once. And then we had to get out of the river because a cop saw us and started shooting at us, and… and we got out of the tree when we saw a motorcade for the Prince Mayor and we just had to make ourselves pretty and loot him.”

“What was he even doing in these parts again?”

“I think he was trying to make some statement about the environment and nature -- some propaganda to look like a good guy. And then they had to cancel the event because of us! Huh-ha!”

“Oh yeah, that’s why the cop was in the forest, he was keeping watch!”

“Exactly as I recall, Johnny. Exactly as I recall…” The mood was successfully brightened for a moment as the two reminisced about times past, and the guys just sighed contently as they stared at the forest in front of their eyes, thinking of all the other wacky adventures they’d been through in its sanctuary. But the tension that was brewing earlier couldn’t be held off for long, and they knew that there was still some unresolved conflict that needed to be addressed eventually. Robin stepped up to the plate:

“So we got distracted… that’s why I never answered your question. Or at least I didn’t do it thoroughly enough.”

“Rob, it’s fine. It’s not the past I’m concerned about.”

“Have you remembered what’s ailing you?”

“I… I still don’t have the right words for it, but here goes: what are the rest of our lives gonna be like?”

“...What do you mean?”

What do I me--!? Rob, it’s the most straightforward question I’ve heard all day. Where do we go from here?”

“I-I mean, yes, I understand that, but how does one even go about answering such a question?”

“Say words, make sentences. I thought you were the smart one.”

“John, none of us have all the answers. All I can say is that I know that I’m going to keep fighting until The Prince Mayor either stops ruining the lives of helpless people, or… he stops doing anything at all, if you gather my meaning. And I trust that you’ll be right there beside me.”

“Okay. I’m with you so far. But then what happens?”

“Well… when our jobs are truly done, we can return to our normal li--”

“Rob, I’m starting to seriously wonder if you don’t know squat about the American justice system. And I’m no expert on how it works in England, but over here, well-intentioned crime is still frowned upon, and it don’t get pardoned very often.”

“Then our jobs will not be done until the new government is fair and just--”

“So what, we fight corruption with more corruption to get a guy we like in City Hall? We switch gears from being outlaws to being a fuckin’ underground political machine?”

Robin looked down at Little John and for the first time in a few minutes he made eye contact with him that lasted more than a passing moment.

“Little John… please don’t tell me you’re getting cold feet now.”

“Are you seriously accusing me of being a coward because I’m thinking about our long-term safety!?”

“Little John…” -- a deep breath made clear that he wasn’t going to answer that question, for he had something bigger to say -- “...when I chose this life, I did it because I thought it was something that needed to be done, but nobody was doing it. I saw that something was wrong and I wanted to try to fix it in a way nobody else was trying. But I was young. I was stupid. I--”

“No shit! And you still are young, and sometimes you’re still stupid too!”

“I didn’t have a plan, Little John, I was just living in the moment. I was trying to be as selfless as possible, because I thought that that was what the kind of person I wanted to be would do.” He broke eye contact and gave his attention to his left elbow, propping him up from a branch. “And maybe I was wrong.”

“Rob, I’m not holding that against you. I’m just worried that it’s been seven years of our lives and we still haven’t made any progress--”

“Do you think I don’t worry about that, too!?” They were making eye contact again. “Do you think I knew it would take so many years? Do you think I’m happy knowing that I’ve had to abandon my family and lose so many of my friends and lay awake at night wondering whatever happened to that girl I loved? Do you--?”

“Rob! Rob, simmer down. Listen to me. When I asked you that day ‘are we the good guys or the bad guys?’ I didn’t need a lesson in fucking moral grayness -- I was asking for reassurance that we were closer to good than bad and not just the lesser of two evils. I was trying to see if you had any of the same… fucking… I don’t know, ‘insecurities’? Is that the word? I wanted to know if for even one passing second your charismatic ass was unsure of yourself even a little. I wanted to know that I wasn’t fucking alone, Rob. And you laughed it off and turned it into another chance to rally the troops with your army of one fucking guy. Just like you always do. And all I could say to that was ‘Oh, we’re just borrowing? Well, boy are we in debt!’ because I didn’t want you thinking I was some whiny little bitch. Should I have to feel like that when I’m talking to you? Do I have to feel like you’re going to lord over me with your unfailing frickin’ self-confidence?”

Robin looked away again. He was still in disbelief that this conversation was even happening.

“Well showing a lack of confidence isn’t a good leadership quality, now is it?”

“Rob, I haven’t stuck with you through all of this because I think you’re a good leader! I hung around because we were fucking friends! We were all friends! Maybe you thought we were just followers in your merry little band of badasses, but I wouldn’t have stuck around for more than a week if I didn’t think that on some level you thought of me as your equal. Am I a fuckin’ friend to you? Because I know that when things were good, and we were an unstoppable force and nothing could get us down, the rest of us didn’t think we worked so well because we were an army under a colonel -- we thought we were a team. Of friends.”

That was a lot of information to take in, and Robin’s brain was inundated. But he knew he had to say something before too long, lest he let the embers in Little John’s heart burst into another tirade. The full truth was that ever since he himself invoked the memories of the one he loved, he was trying to quell any forlorn feelings that might distract him, but he was failing at keeping them at bay so distract him they did; however, surely Little John wouldn’t take an explanation of this as an acceptable answer. So he tried to piece together the key words he’d heard and formulate a passable response. This is the best he could come up with:

“Well as they say, never go into business with your friends.”

“Oh, shut the hell up!” Little John took an arm off the tree and socked Robin square in the shin; Robin’s leg got knocked off the branch and his other foot went with it. Robin yelped a bit as the impact almost tossed him out of the tree, but he caught himself on the upper branch with his chin and armpits. He flailed and grunted quietly and shamefully as he kicked his legs up to catch the lower branch again and stand himself up, burdened by the pig disguise he was still wearing, but Little John didn’t let this distract him.

“Wrong answer, Rob,” he pressed on. “At least you have a girl to miss. Let’s say by some miracle Jesus himself takes the escalator down from heaven and personally makes Norman pardon us. Then what do I do? Go join Tuck and become a goddamn priest? While you use your pretty-boy charm to win Marian back over and then you two live happily ever after and you never fucking think to me again?”

“Johnny -- hrm -- my friend -- hmmp!...” Robin was finally getting the footing to prop himself back up in the branches. “...You’ve been the most loyal companion I’ve had in my time out here. You’ve stuck with me through thick and thin, and even when I didn’t deserve you. And I’ve wondered whether I would have ever have met a man as great as you if I didn’t throw away my future and turn to a life of… a life like this. I’m indebted to you, Johnny. Even after the day that one of us is burying the other, I’m not going to abandon you. I don’t think I could live with myself if I did.”

Little John needed to breathe for a second and collect his thoughts, because clearly this conversation wasn’t accomplishing what he’d hoped. The way that Robin may or may not have suggested he thought John was going to be the first of them to die wasn’t making it any easier.

“That’s not what I’m worried about, Rob.” Little John glanced up at him to see if he was looking down at him, and he was. “Let me try putting it this way: You asked do I think that you don’t feel a little bad about spending your life this way? I. Don’t. Really. Know. You seem so obsessed with showing the world that you’re a cross between Jesus and Superman, even I don’t know what your problems are -- besides Marian. Don’t mention Marian. She’s the exception that proves the rule. But really, Rob, I’ve shown you my… uh… ‘insecurities,’ I guess, in ways that I would be downright mortified to do with anybody else. The boys back home would beat my ass half to death, my father would just glare at me without saying a goddamn word, my mom would be apologizing to my dad for making me a softie, and my brother… he wouldn’t understand. The dumb son of a bitch fundamentally wouldn’t understand that I have worries; he would just tell me to forget them and chill out like him. So Rob… maybe you aren’t obligated to share your own fears and worries with me, but… I’d feel better about myself if you did. I’d feel less weird feeling bad about things if I knew you did too. And for Christ’s sakes, some heroic flaw like lovesickness doesn’t count. I’m not trying to take that away from you. But it doesn’t count.”

Little John needed to catch his breath after that speech, giving Robin some time to think about what to say.

“...So… you think I should be more… what, ‘vulnerable’?”

“I don’t care what word you use, Rob. Just be a person. Be a friend.”

“Johnny, I really do apologize if I can come across as… ‘condescending,’ shall we say? I just--”

“Rob, you’re a smart guy with smart ideas, and a lot of times it makes sense to listen to you. But…” -- a sigh as big as he was -- “Rob, I love ya, man. You know you’re my brother.”

“As are you to I, Little Jo--”

“But I have another brother. A real one. A -- what’s the word? -- a biological one. And everybody likes him, too. And everybody wants to be around him, too. And he tries to be a good guy and he thinks he is a good guy, too. But when he fucks up, he still thinks he’s being a good guy. And that’s why I can’t stand the son of a bitch.”

“I see.”

“...”

“Well I don’t want to lose a brother again.”

“Oh--! Fuck, Rob, I’m sorry, I didn’t even think about--”

“You have nothing to apologize for, John. My feelings are my own responsibility.”

“...If you insist…”

They could feel that the heat was dying down -- not just in their argument, but in the fact that their outright yelling hadn’t attracted anybody, law enforcement or otherwise, to their location.

“I think there were still three of us.”

“What?”

“That day you asked the question about good and bad. I could swear that when that happened, there were still three of us.”

“It was only two of us in the tree.”

“Yes, but I think while we were there, he was off on his own little exploits.”

“Oh, yeah,” Little John recalled. “Dumb son of a gun… I’m sorry I brought up all these bad memories, Rob, honest.”

“Johnny, no, it’s fine. I actually rather enjoyed it. There’s nothing like memories so vivid that they can take you right back to a happier time.”

“...That you’re right, Rob.”

One last helicopter passed overhead. It would be the last one they’d hear that day.

Hhhrrrrhghhihhrrgrrdrrrr...

“...I’m still hungry.”

***

After about half and hour of hanging out in a tree and playing a very low-energy game of 20 Questions, the duo agreed that it was finally safe to come out of their makeshift perch and investigate the damage done to their real home.

It wasn’t so much that the mess itself was devastating, but more-so what it represented: the end of an era of peace and prosperity. For the longest time the Major Oak was a safe haven for those who dared oppose the regime of John Norman and his cronies, a little slice of the world all to their own that nobody else had ever managed to find and that nobody, they thought, ever would. It was a representation of a time when it seemed like the self-proclaimed Merry Men were just on the verge of compelling the Prince Mayor to get the hell out of Dodge for fear of his life.

But things fall apart. Each time that the gang was pared down a member, they had to reconvene and restrategize to accommodate for their new group dynamic. All of their momentum was lost, time and time again, and Mayor John was instilled with a new sense of confidence, convinced that these mysterious menaces actually had no idea what they were doing and that their guerrilla tactics would eventually become unsustainable. And now there were two, resorting to simple robbery and redistribution to and from people and places, hoping such disobedience would get the job done. And now their perfect hideout was compromised. Even among vagabonds, they were homeless.

Robin and Little John walked slowly through the debris, careful to sidestep their possessions. “It’s gonna take awhile to clean up this mess,” Little John lamented.

“That’s the thing, Johnny,” said Robin, “I don’t think we should. We know they’re coming back to see if it’s really us. So I say if we just leave everything where it is while we’re away, perhaps they’ll think this camp was abandoned after all. Does that sound logical?”

Little John gave him a sideways look. “Alright, a couple questions. First off, ‘while we’re away’? Where are we going? I thought we were just gonna hold down the fort and defend our turf.”

“I find that tempting, too, Little John, but I think we’re just simply outnumbered.”

“Hrmph. Don’t remind me,” Little John growled. “But as for the plan, here’s my thing with it: it makes sense and all to throw them off, but…” Little John gestured to his Reginald Chutney costume. “...I really want to get changed right about now.”

Robin looked down at his own blind-rich-pig getup. “Yeah, I could probably maneuver better without this thing on.” The two of them were standing almost perfectly still as they conversed, not having much else to do but occasionally turning their heads again to see what more of the mess they’d missed.

“How much do you think Martin told the cops? Do you think I gotta retire the character?”

“Perhaps it is for the best; we’ve had some good times with old Reggie, but we may have been pushing our luck by not taking him out of our rotation after a bit.” The thought occurred to him that they had been pushing their luck a lot more than usual lately, but he didn’t want to stray from the pressing issue of their immediate safety. “And if they’re looking for us, it’s probably best we’re not in the costumes we were seen in. I for one welcome the chance to never have to wear this thing again.”

“Wait, where did your mask for that thing go?”

Robin’s eyes pursed open and he examined his person, patting himself down to see if he had somehow squeezed it into one of his pockets and forgotten about it.

“You didn’t leave it where we lost the loot, did ya?”

“Now I’m afraid I left it at the side of the road by Martin’s car. All I know is I don’t have it now. Oh, bloody hell, bloody hell…” Robin cursed himself. “That’s another issue, isn’t it? If we take these off, what do we do with them? Leave them here for them to find key evidence?”

“Well, I think they already have plenty of evidence against us, it’s just a matter of finding us…” Little John kept scouring his surroundings to see what had gotten dirty. “Actually, it looks like Ward tossed out a bunch of our costumes and didn’t even put two and two together!” John picked up a wig that was under a fallen bag of potato chips -- and while he was bending over, he picked up the chips as well. “Goddammit, I can’t wait any longer,” he grumbled as he went to town on the party-sized bag of Carolina Barbecue.

“Shall we just hide these clothes with the important stuff?”

“Oh, there’s another question,” Little John coughed through a full mouth. “What should we take with us? How long we gonna be gone for?”

“Oh, at least a few nights until the trail goes cold…” Robin pondered.

“Should we take our weapons?”

“Oh, most definitely.”

“All of them, or just ours?”

“Hm… I’m not sure myself…”

“Because--” --gulp-- “I don’t want to risk losing them, but I don’t think we will, either. I mean, are they going to climb a tree in the dark looking for something that might not even be up there?”

“Johnny, you make a good point.”

“How about our documents? I know you don’t like having them on you, but I think it’s better than risking letting them find out exactly who we are. We can risk losing their stuff, but I don’t want my SSN card getting lost.”

“Hey, you should’ve burned it then!”

“Rob,” --stuff, crunch-- “remember, I don’t know how things are in the U.K., but here you really don’t want to be running around without papers.”

Robin just sort of stared up at his friend contemplatively.

“What?” Little John offered the open end of the bag to Robin. “Ya want some?”

“You know what, Little John?” Robin put one hand on his hip and wagged a finger on his other hand at John. “I’ll defer to you. You call the shots this time.”

Little John stopped chewing when he heard that. “Really?” he asked through a full mouth.

“I mean, my decisions have gotten us into a bit of a mess lately, so… maybe your decisions can get us out of it.”

Swallow. “You sure?” Little John looked intrigued by what was transpiring.

“Hey, Johnny, I’ve been on a cold streak. Maybe I should step down from being The Ideas Guy. At least for a bit.”

“Well, uh…” Little John chuckled to himself. “I don’t know if I can trade you the role of The Big Guy.”

“Then I’ll just be The Right-Hand Man,” Robin said with a smirk. He could tell that after the row they had earlier that Little John was seriously liking where this was headed, and watching the bear’s face light up made his own face light up. As he often did, he felt good about making others feel good. If anything, he almost felt too good about it.

“Oh, uh… alright, then! Um… so where do we start?”

“Why, at the beginning,” Robin joked. He was halfway uncertain that that remark would set John off again, but it was already halfway out of his mouth when he figured that, so he just let it finish and hoped for the best.

“Alright,” was all Little John said at first.

Robin breathed a mental sigh of relief. Okay then, this actually might go pretty well, he thought.

“So we’re taking our pieces and our papers…” Little John looked pensively up at the tree as he threw another chip in his maw. Crunch, crunch. Gulp.

Hopefully this will make him feel better about himself; he’s no good to me as a sad-sack, Robin’s mind meandered.

“...We can’t wear our costumes -- we don’t want to wear our costumes -- but we can’t leave them here, either…”

I still can’t believe that he was acting like such a baby up there.

Crinkle… crunch, crunch, gulp.

Has he secretly somewhat resented me all these years, or is this a new development?

“...and we need to make them think that we were never here. Hmm…”

Oh, what am I thinking!? This lad’s had my back more times than I can count. Surely if he had a real problem with me, he wouldn’t have hesitated to say so. I mustn’t be thinking so lowly of him.

Robin waited with bated breath and tried his hardest to maintain a neutral countenance.

“Hmm…” Little John kept pondering to himself. “You know what? ...I don’t think ol’ Ward’s got a photographic memory. I’d wager we could probably get away with taking a few things and he wouldn’t tell the difference.”

Robin acted intrigued. “Oh, but what if his deputies can tell?” C’mon, Johnny, don’t back down. Think of an answer and stick with it.

“Uh… you know, tell me. Tell me if you can name one thing yourself that you can tell isn’t on the ground now, that was on the ground earlier. Can you tell the difference?”

Robin looked about the things strewn around. “Is-- is this a hypothetical? Is there actually something that got moved?” Ooh, caught me by surprise there, Little John!

“Yup. Wait. Actually, two things.” Little John scarfed another handful of chips as he gave Robin some time to unravel the riddle. Gulp.

Hm, he may have actually stumped me-- oh. Oh, he’s talking about the crisp bag. Chip bag. Whatever it’s called. The other thing must be the wig, right? Was he giving me a clue or could he just not contain himself?

“Because if someone as sharp-eyed as you can’t even tell, then I’m sure Ward and his goons don’t have a chance.” Crink, crinkle… crunch, crunch.

“Uh, I… I submit. What am I missing?” I’ll let him have this one. He’s earned it.

Little John just grinned as he held up the bag of chips with one paw and the old blonde wig in the other.

“Huh. You actually threw me for a loop there, Johnny!” Good lord, he goes off on me for being a condescending prick, and now that I know I’m being condescending, he seems to be loving it.

“Did you actually get stumped or were you just playing dumb for me?”

“Johnny, you stumped me like a truncated tree.” And Little John believed that; Robin could tell.

“Alright, then it’s settled! We can get changed, and take a few other things we need as long as we don’t take too much to make it suspicious.”

“Sounds splendid.” Although I really didn’t care for that comment that missing Marian was too romantic to count as legitimate sorrow, or whatever it was he said.

“And-- actually…” Little John dropped the wig and the bag of chips and started yanking up at his collar to doff the ill-fitting Reginald Chutney dress-shirt.

“Uh… where’re you going with this, Johnny?” I know right now I could say that I’d never wish to choose to cut either of them out of my life, but if he were to force me to pick between having her or himself in my life… that would just about make my mind up for me. Wait… does he just not understand what I’m feeling? Oh my God, he doesn’t understand, does he? My, my, I almost find that pitiful. But then again, I must be quite the lucky one…

Little John held the stretched-out shirt in his hands and examined it, with special attention given to the corners of the garment. “Do you think we could tie these into bags to carry our stuff in?”

“Good question. I don’t see why not.” But none of this matters because Little John would never be jealous and childish enough to pose an ultimatum between a man’s best friend and a man’s true love, right? Right… right?

“Well, there’s gotta be some sticks in the forest, right? We’ll carry them like bandanas on bindles.”

“That way we won’t be leaving them behind, but we won’t have to wear them either!” There’s a simpler solution than gathering sticks, but he still has time to have it come to him. In all, I’d say this went pretty smoothly. If a bit slowly, but I suppose I did put him on the spot a bit. That can spook even the wittiest man.

“And they won’t look like the clothes when they’re all balled up, neither!”

“Ooh, I didn’t even think of that! I’m liking this idea, Johnny.” Robin gave a pedagogical, you did good, kid kind of smirk up at the bear who nevertheless had six years of age and a solid meter of height over him.

“Oh! Well, uh…” Little John chuckled nervously, “I’m glad you like it.” He was almost blushing through his fur as he looked down at the fox; John was seriously amazed by the quick turnaround of attitude from just a little while earlier. This wasn’t the first time that John was given the reins to come up with and implement an idea, but most of the past instances were instantaneous moments of brilliance when he beat Robin to the punch before the fox could think of his own solutions; this was the first time in a long time that Robin specifically abdicated decision-making responsibilities to him, and certainly the instance where John received the most encouraging feedback on his choices. And it was so much like what he wanted that he didn’t even think to consider that maybe Robin was playing into him.

“Excellent! I’ll get what we need from upstairs and then we’ll start packing!” Robin squirmed out of his cumbersome Glenjamin Glutton getup and walked a jagged path to collect his regular clothes en route to the base of the Major Oak.

Oh, damn it to hell, why do I keep thinking like this!? Little John is one of the best blokes I’ve ever met, easily the loyalest, he’s smarter than I give him credit for, and I cannot figure out why I keep thinking of him as some younger guy. Heh, maybe his nickname is having that sort of effect on me after all this time…

He stopped at the foot of the tree to wiggle into his green polo shirt. I feel like I’m betraying him just thinking these thoughts, but… something just isn’t sitting right about all of that. That was unlike him. At least the him that I know. I’m certain a professional would have something to say about how I can’t stop dwelling on it.

He took an extended moment to check for and brush off any dirt that may have stuck to his shirt from its time on the ground. Actually, I’d like to hear and expert’s opinion on how it was that when I called myself a leader, John didn’t deny it, he just said he didn’t like me using that term; I imagine it would speak volumes about how he sees himself. Now, would we consult a psychologist or a psychiatrist for that? Gee, I haven’t had to think about distinguishing different types of doctors in years…

Finally he was ready to ascend. He glanced over and saw Little John just outside of the circle, starting to gather suitable sticks which they would never need to use. Robin forced himself to stop stalling and start climbing toward the sight that never got any easier to look at. But I don’t have time for such thoughts now and I won’t in the future. There’s too much to be done.

Toward the top of the tree, there was a spot where the branches bent and converged at all the right angles to build some sturdy shelving. It wasn’t quite invisible from the ground below, but unless you had a reason to look up, you’d never have a clue it was there. On the shelving were two sets of items.

One group was mostly contained inside of one other object, a mailbox ripped off its post and still sporting the address “1192” on its sides, each digit on an individual sticker. Inside the mailbox were two birth certificates, two expired driver’s licences, two social security cards (one clearly printed much more recently than the other), one green card, one hardly-used passport issued by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (also expired), all of which were kept around just in case a situation should arise where they would decide they’d be more screwed without these pieces of paper and plastic than with them, plus a bunch of polaroids of friends and family (mostly Robin’s) and a scrunched-up envelope containing even more documents belonging to people who would not be coming back to retrieve them for one reason or another. Along with the mailbox was a felt pencil-case that contained other trinkets of sentimental value which would only clutter the mailbox, mixed in with some basic first-aid supplies.

The other category of objects occupied the majority of the shelf, being mostly long and cumbersome things. Five of these six items were originally sourced from one of their earliest involuntary donors, whose hobby had been collecting classical-style weaponry: there was a bundle set of an archer’s bow and a quiver full of arrows (the arrows being a mix of those original to the set which had been gathered, mended when applicable, and recycled after previous usages; others which were sourced and scavenged from places ranging from poorly-guarded renaissance faires to prep-school physical education departments’ storage rooms; and a few arrows that were homemade, the product of many years of self-education and trial-and-error); two long quarterstaffs (colloquially known as big fucking sticks), one about two-thirds the length of the other; and a sheathed broadsword, the scabbard concealing a blade which was reddened by rust and other substances, and which for all Robin and John knew was only ever actually used exactly twice. The outlying sixth object was a modern hunting slingshot complete with a wrist support, provided by its original owner. The best weapons were the hardest to trace.

“Hey, Johnny!” called Robin, “I don’t think we need any sticks for our load!” He grabbed the longer of the two quarterstaffs and offered it down below. “We’ve got one big one right here!”

Little John looked intrigued by the idea when he heard Robin call, and dropped all the sticks he had been holding and lumbered over, staring as if awestruck. “Huh, why didn’t I think of that?”

Little John grabbed the staff and examined it in his hands as if beholding it for the first time. Robin reached back up to retrieve the mailbox and pencil pouch and tossed them down to John.

“You might want to finish getting changed; I just need to grab mine and I’ll be ready to go.”

“Right-o.”

Robin turned back to the shelf and grabbed his bow and arrows, trying not to look at the things he was going to be leaving behind, lest he start thinking too much about them. Maybe this was the side of him that John wanted more proof of existing, because Robin wouldn’t want anybody to see his troubled face at this moment. He tried to reason with himself that in all likelihood, these things would be safe here. They had left them here for longer intervals than they were planning to leave them now, and the worst that had ever happened to the items while they were away is that sometimes some rainwater would leak through the tree and get them damp. Oh, but now they know about the this place!, he worried. But he kept reasoning with himself. This was the same police force that had never been competent enough to catch them over the course of over half a decade; it wasn’t even a guarantee that they would be able to relocate the tree again in the dusklight, let alone get the inkling that there may be precious items on a perch several dozen feet in the air. He thought was giving them too much credit.

“H-hey, Johnny?”

“Uh-- I’m not decent, Rob.”

“Th-that’s fine, Little John, I won’t look. I just need you to grab my bow for me; I need to, uh, make sure my arrows are all holding up alright. I’ve not inspected them in awhile.”

“Oh, alright, just toss it down.”

Robin shuffled the bow down in his paws until he was only grasping the top, and blindly shoved it down for Little John to reach it. After a few moments, he felt the bow stabilize, telling him that Little John had a safe hold of it.

“Be gentle with her,” he said as he let go.

“Don’t worry, I know how to play nice with other people’s toys.”

Robin threw the quiver’s strap over himself so it was snugly on his back, and climbed onto the empty space on the shelf. He looked down to the ground below just for some added peace of mind. Sure enough, he could barely see the forest floor from the perch. He was sure that the items would more likely than not be safe here.

If anything, he told himself, perhaps it would be a good thing if they came back and the abandoned weapons were gone. It would be three fewer things hanging over his head, literally, when he tried to sleep at night. Three fewer unpleasant memories embodied in physical objects, suddenly gone away from him. How fitting that a master of disguise could stand to receive a blessing in disguise.

Robin climbed down to find that now it was Little John who was waiting on him. John was wearing his favorite forest-green cut-sleeve football jacket and had his quarterstaff balancing on his shoulder, with their costumes tied into bundles at each end containing all that they would need and any frivolities that would fit.

He tied them together already? God, how long was I up there?

“I got the mailbox, the pouch, some food, some clean underwear…” He handed Robin his bow back. “Honestly, if there’s anything I’m missing, I’m sure we can find it somewhere else.”

“I think I’d agree to that.” Robin accepted his bow, which was a smidge taller than he was and was going to be a pain in the ass to keep hidden if he should need to, but he’d much rather be with it than without. “So where shall we go seeking shelter?”

“Well, my first idea was to go hit up Tuck at his church, but…”

“But that’s in the city, and we can’t be seen there right about now.” C’mon, Johnny, use your head… Well, I suppose he did say “but”... I’m doing it again, aren’t I?

“That’s what I was afraid of. Are we sure we shouldn’t be wearing some other disguises?”

“No, no, there’s no time for overthinking. We can’t stray too far from the safety of the Forest.” Or maybe we should be wearing disguises, but this is the plan you came up-- No. No, I’m not doing this again.

“Maybe we should cross the river and be closer to the suburbs. I mean, those were all city cops, right? We could just run out of their jurisdiction if we have to.”

“Bingo! And by the time they coordinate with the suburban Boys, we’ll have had plenty of time to find a hiding spot!” Good lord, did I just say “bingo”? I guess Little John’s vernacular was going to rub off on me eventually. Actually, I’m surprised it took this long.

“Alright, should we get going?”

“Let’s!” Robin wasted no time to take the lead and start walking westward, but Little John grabbed him by the shoulder and stopped him.

“Hey…” Little John looked down upon him with a melancholy anxiousness. “Are you sure you’re alright with leaving the guys’ stuff behind?”

Oh, for the love of God, Little John, I just got over this…

“Or is it like you said,” John continued, “‘the past can’t hurt you now’?”

“Ah… well, it’s that…” Robin held up his bow. “...and I think we have enough to carry already.”

“Are you sure? Because I can always carry more.”

“John, no--”

“Rob, this is me we’re talking about. I can handle it.”

“John, John, please… no. We mustn’t concern ourselves with the past when we have a future to worry about. Now let’s go exploring to see what we can see.” And Robin walked off before he could think about it any further.

“‘To see what we can see’? Heh… am I gonna be going over a mountain?”

And so the Merry Men of the Sherwood Forest of Southern Delaware walked westward toward the quiet satellite cites at the far end of the wildland, the sleepy sun to their backs and their shadows leading the way, leaving their beloved home and its precious memories to whatever fate may befall it. But they had begun this time of their lives as nomads, and so they had become nomads again. For all they knew, this could be a sign that the things were finally coming full-circle, and this long and tumultuous chapter of their lives may finally come to its bookend.

‘...I should have said yes to the crisps; now I’m hungry…’

Chapter Text

  1. “First Contact”

Fruitland. The Fruit Belt. The Four Sisters. Cannery Row. Those were just a few of the nicknames put upon the four suburbs that wrapped around the city of Nottingham from its west-northwest to where the city limits met the Delaware Bay to the due north. Daisy-chained together in the narrow strip of land between the dense Sherwood Forest and the smaller pine thicket now known as the Georgetown Forest, Lemon Brook and Peach Creek were the first two to be independently settled and named in this fertile crescent, and when it was realized that they had both went with the fruit-and-waterway naming model (and when it was confirmed that this miraculous soil really could grow anything you planted in it), they filled in the southwestern half of the corridor with the towns of Cherry Stream and Apple River, with industrious orchards bridging each to its neighbors.

It was these suburbs which were imperative to the growth of the city of Nottingham, which made a killing off of the assorted fruits that grew just a few miles away. The city got enough money to sway the state of Delaware to make a canal to more easily connect the Indian River-Rehoboth Estuary to the rest of the ocean, and when shipping took off, so did the city that sat right where the Indian River widened into a bonafide bay. The city expanded north to Rehoboth Beach and south to the Great Cypress Swamp, and outward toward Sherwood Forest and the Four Sisters that had made Nottingham so prosperous. A village called Georgetown at the southeast edge of Sherwood was annexed in the expansion, but for their troubles it became the namesake of the smaller forest on the other side of the orchard towns.

Eventually, Nottingham’s success in the agriculture sector allowed it to diversify its portfolio, and after the Second World War, it didn’t need to rely upon the Fertile Crescent of Delmarva so badly. The towns never completely developed over their orchards, but they did forsake most of them, and now Apple Valley, Cherry Stream and Peach Creek have become more or less contiguous. Lemon Brook is not so much the ostracized Sister as she is the one who thinks she’s better than the other three, and there is still a great gulf of space between Peach Creek and Lemon Brook, occupied by a few of Peach Creek’s last remaining farms in the narrows where the two forests get as close as they ever would to making contact, before it opens up again where Sherwood takes a turn east and Georgetown simply ends. Indeed, the northern borders of the Georgetown and Sherwood Forests form the southwest and southeast city limits of Lemon Brook respectively, squeezing into the gap between the forests by the old abandoned cannery; looking at a map of the area that emphasises municipal borders, one may agree it looks like Lemon Brook is funnelling into a pipe occupied by Peach Creek, Cherry Stream and Apple River, and many of Lemon Brook’s most civically self-impressed like to make crude jokes about flushing their waste into the plumbing system that is the other three occupants of the Crescent.

The other three Sisters are typically friendly to one another, but all three harbor a bitter jealousy toward Lemon Brook, especially Peach Creek, whose northern outskirts have to lay their eyes upon the great silhouette of the cannery off in the distance. The relationship is so strained that all modern thoroughfares between the two cut through one of the forests and wrap their way back around; the only direct connection are some old farm roads, some of which are still not paved.

Then again, all of the roads and streets in Peach Creek are a tad counterintuitive. Most of the town is legally on its own “south” side, which is actually the southwest side since the town’s grid is crooked at a 45-degree angle to match up with the main thoroughfares from the city: the older Sherwood Forest Road, and the 1950s-built Georgetown-Millsboro Highway, a raised toll-road originating right near the center of Nottingham and heading almost perfectly straight northwest along the diminishing banks of the Indian River, cutting through Sherwood Forest, Peach Creek, and Georgetown Forest before surrendering itself to a toll-free surface-level divided highway on its way up to Dover. But because of the asymmetry of the Crescent, bisecting it perfectly wound up putting most of Peach Creek’s residential area to the southwest of these highways. Peach Creek, however, respected its symbiotic relationship with the Big City, so when Sherwood Forest Road straightens out as it passes through the town (where it is labelled as Peachtree Parkway), that line was dubbed the official divider between north and south in the town.

That’s how one may find the curious arrangement where the 200 North block of side streets -- both of them, as this is where the Crescent gets suffocatingly narrow -- is a couplet of cul-de-sacs which mark the temporary end of suburbia, abutting a trailer park and two junk yards before dissolving to the agrarian ways of old.

***

Stop!

Screeeeech.

“What!?”

“Were you goin’a turn right?”

“...Noooo.”

“Why not!?”

“Why would I have?”

“Whadda you think!?”

“Are you seriously demanding that I be able read you mind, Chief?”

“You wouldn’t have to read my mind if your mind was as smart as mine!”

“Then enlighten me, why would we turn right?”

“Because we’re trying to stick close to the woods! If you turn right, we get closer to the woods!”

“It’s a fucking cul-de-sac, it doesn’t go anywhere.”

“Do you not see the construction site at the end there? There’s probably a million places in there that they could be hiding!”

“Even if they were, it’s out of our jurisdiction.”

They don’t know that!”

“They might.”

“Then fuck it, we’ll call in the local guys to nab ‘em if we have to! Just turn right!”

“Why are we even doing this?”

“Because I can’t wait any longer to catch ‘em!”

“Yeah, clearly you can’t; I meant why did you send everybody home to wait till tonight?

“Can’t have the rest of the city running wild while the entire force is looking for some hooligans. All we need is you and me.”

“Yeah, a much smaller amount of people searching a much larger area. That makes sense.”

“Well I’ve got twelve hours to kill till then, and I can’t sleep until then knowing that I’m this close!”

“(God knows you’ve tried…)”

“What was that!?”

“I think you just want to be the guy to personally arrest them. Personally.”

“So what if I do?”

“Yeah, it’s not like the chief of police for a large city has anything better to do with his day.”

“Goddammit, Nutsy, when we get back to the station, I’m gonna have ‘em take your badge away for un-subordination!”

“Fine, do it.”

“...”

“Do it.”

“...”

“Nobody else wants to work under you, Ward.”

“Hey! That’s Chief to you, Deputy!”

“Then arrest me.”

“...”

“Do it. I dare you.”

Chief Woodland and Deputy Nutzinger found themselves in a staring contest in a halted police car which was nevertheless still in Drive blocking the (north-) westbound lane of Harris Street, two blocks north (-east) of Peachtree Parkway at the north edge of Peach Creek, which was indeed well out of their jurisdiction as members of Nottingham’s Department, but Ward didn’t care for the rules and his deputy George didn’t have any power to tell him no.

Woodland didn’t think that Nutzinger was right, per se, but he knew that for other reasons, getting Nutsy fired would be difficult. It was considered an extremely progressive move when they hired a squirrel to the force, although the cynics thought they just did it as a good PR move, and the pragmatists thought it was about damn time they got somebody who could work with the rodent community on their level, and Nutzinger himself believed both of these things were true because he had written the letter to the police department as part of his twelfth-grade English “write a persuasive letter to an authority figure” project telling them that they ought to make such a move for the above reasons, and when they actually replied saying that that would be a good idea and they could put him through the academy if he’d like to take a stab at it, he realized he didn’t have any better plans for after high school. In any case, it would look even messier if they cut him loose now, especially to do so over something like putting the immensely unpopular Chief of Police in his place.

Woodland did not, however, know that Nutzinger was very much correct that nobody else on the Force would want to be his Deputy. Nutsy only got the job because it was the least-inconvenient situation for everybody else: nobody else would have to work directly under and with Woodland, the functionally useless squirrel would be allowed to move up into what was basically a clerical role, and the squirrel himself wouldn’t have to deal as much with the disproportionate exposure to rigor mortis he was being dealt. Nowadays, he wasn’t being called upon to do it nearly as much as he used to, but when he was new, they sent him to go deal with every homicide, suicide, and really-bad-accident call in the rodent community, and this penchant for winding up in close proximity to stiffs lead to his nickname among the other officers, “the Vulture”; nowadays they only made him tend to the recently deceased when they were in a rodent-sized building or structure that the rest of the Force couldn’t physically access.

But he still wasn’t too keen on it. Nutzinger may have been jaded, but he still wouldn’t say that writing up reports about fresh corpses was preferable to his current situation of mirroring a glare coming from his commander while sitting behind the wheel of a squad car that was extensively (and expensively, thanks to the generous donations of the taxpayers of Nottingham) jerry-rigged so that an eleven-inch, nineteen-ounce squirrel could drive at the discretion of the six-foot-seven, four-hundred-pound wolf (although that second number might be outdated) barking directions from the passenger seat. The car’s modifications were arranged as soon as Nutzinger was promoted to deputy, as Woodland detested driving for reasons unexplained, but when theorizing why that might be, Nutsy had conjured some grotesque visions of the Chief in the driver’s seat and the steering wheel getting “lost,” as it were. Or maybe the fat asshole just found it too exhausting. In some ways, George was glad he got stuck with the Chief, because it was the ultimate test to keep reminding himself that not all obese people were as slobbish and slovenly as this guy.

The tension was broken when Woodland actually had a pretty good idea for once. Without saying a word, he opened the glove compartment and pulled out a street atlas of the entire metropolitan area. He flipped it open and started leafing through to find right about where they were. Then he hit a bit of a wall.

“...Nutsy, help me find the page of the map we’re on.”

Nutzinger was spent for snappy comebacks, so he just hopped over to the atlas in hopes of getting this moment over with. He had some trouble turning the pages in the huge tome that was probably bigger than he was, but eventually he got to what seemed to be the correct page.

“Alright, so…” Nutzinger read the map carefully to double-check, “There’s Peachtree, Bedford Street, Harris.. There’s Rethink and here’s--”

“Re-think? That’s a dumb name for a street.”

“Yeah, tell me about it.”

“Wait… I think my sister lives somewhere around here. Huh. I ain’t seen her in years.”

“What, did you want to go say hi? Is that why I’m doing this?”

“Naw, I don’t care that much. Just a nifty co-inky-dink. But this is the right page of the map?”

“Looks like it.”

“Alright, and we are… here?”

“Mmhmm.”

“Well then look at this.” He pointed and the two leaned in to get a good look at the map. “So there’s the construction site. That’s part of Peach Creek.”

“Alright, so it’s out of our jurisdiction. Mystery solved.”

“Hold on, hold on… look at this. Behind the construction site is a trailer park--”

“Which is also in Peach Creek.”

“But what’s behind the trailer park?”

Nutzinger followed Woodland’s claw to a point that was along a creek, which wrapped around westward so it was practically behind the other cul-de-sac on Rethink Avenue.

“...A junkyard?”

Mm-hmm. And what town is that a part of?”

Nutzinger looked. On the map, Peach Creek’s incorporated territory was highlighted in a pale green and Lemon Brook’s was light purple. The spot of the junkyard was just white.

“...oh.

“It’s not in Peach Creek, is it?”

“No, it isn’t.”

“It’s not in anything, is it?”

“It’s in Nottingham County.”

“It’s unincorporated. That means it’s fair game.”

“No, it means it’s under the county’s jurisdic--”

“Or it means that it’s fair game.”

“...Okay…”

“So let’s go hunting.”

***

The second cul-de-sac, with the even more offbeat name of Reimagine Avenue, had a troubled history.

It was supposed to be Phase Two of the Peach Creek Estates Housing Development, with Phase One being the homes built on Rethink. The development started with its focus on Rethink, which had more available space for houses, since Reimagine Avenue’s neck was already occupied by a playground built for the neighborhood on one side and Sherwood Forest on the other, leaving only space enough for four or five structures around the bulbous head of the street.

Phase One was finished up a little under fifteen years ago, and homes sold fast, especially to young families, many of whom were pleasantly surprised to find that their infant children were all born around the same time and would probably all be in the same grade together when they began school, and with any luck would all grow up to be the closest of friends. Everything seemed to be going well for the development company. The construction workers were getting ready to put up the extra five homes on Reimagine. But then the troubles began.

First came the discrimination lawsuit. It made regional news when they were found guilty of not wanting to sell one of the homes on Rethink to a family of skunks, and had to pay up a large sum of money which the skunk family used to buy an even bigger house in a neighborhood they felt was more tolerant. The house the skunks had tried to purchase wound up being the last one on the block to be sold, and eventually went to a wolf family relocating from the Northern Virginia area near DC, whose son was also the same age as most of the other boys and girls on the block, and even had a name homonymous with two of them.

The development company was badly beaten by this, but they weren’t out of the game yet. No, what finished them off in this weakened state were those trashy people from the Park ‘N’ Flush trailer park.

The proper way to access the Park ‘N’ Flush is a way that even the most patient person would find poorly-designed and annoying. One is expected to go down around the Reimagine and Rethink cul-de-sacs to the road along Georgetown Forest at the west edge of town, hang a right toward Lemon Brook and the cannery, take another right down the dirt road toward the two junkyards on either side of the creek, then take another right down yet another dirt path between the east edge of the junkyard and the west edge of Sherwood Forest. But it wasn’t always like this. What was eventually rechristened Reimagine Avenue was originally an asphalt-giving-way-to-gravel street, which provided a major shortcut to the trailer park through what was then public, unincorporated lands. Money is money, however, and the town of Peach Creek eventually sold some of that negative space to the developers who planned to build Peach Creek Estates.

The Park ‘N’ Flush residents really didn’t care for going the long way to get out of their trailer park when they could just drive through the construction site, cross Harris Street, cross Bedford Street, arrive at Peachtree Parkway and boom, they were at a major thoroughfare that could connect them to the rest of civilization. So they did. The developers tried to tell them no, and the residents threatened to sue. The developers thought that they were bluffing, certain that people as broke as they were couldn’t afford a decent lawyer let alone harbor a sufficient understanding of the law. The next thing that the developers knew, they were bankrupt and out of business, and all of the equipment at the construction site of Phase Two was left in its place because the owners didn’t have enough money left in their personal accounts to thoroughly advertise that it was for sale, let alone money to pay to transport it if a potential buyer demand they did.

Today, people looking for a shortcut to the trailer park or the junkyard can just drive to the end of Reimagine Avenue, hop the curb, and meander through the dirt past rusty bulldozers and crusty concrete mixers and the skeletal frames of houses that will never become homes. These stillborn corpses were supposed to be where families celebrated Christmases and Hanukkahs and birthdays and anniversaries and high-school graduations, where sons and daughters would learn and where mothers and fathers would learn to teach, where people would feel safe and sound after a long day out in the world, where people would sleep and have dreams so wondrous that they would be sad when they woke because knew they would never witness them again, where loving couples would grow old together and where children would conquer their fear of the dark and discover the hidden secrets of the attic and run through backyards blinded by visions of their own breathtaking imaginations while stepping around lovingly-tended gardens and dodging wooden sheds forever stained with passionate sweat, where happy memories were supposed to be forged so strong that photographs would be unnecessary, and where people would learn to love and be loved by the people they would never trade for the world. But this would never come to be. To the passers-by, however, this implicit misery was lost on them. To them, all of it was just a reminder of that one time that some that some rich people got busted for being a buncha assholes.

The town of Peach Creek legally reclaimed the land with intentions to just get rid of the construction site and pave Reimagine Avenue (which would be renamed to Khouth Street to match the rest of the roadway on the other side of Harris Street) all the way through past the trailer park and connecting to the dirt road that straddles the border between the orchards and the forest. But the town council just sort of never got around to it (when your town is next to a place like Nottingham, it’s going to pick up some bad habits), and in a pungent bit of irony, after almost a decade of cars getting flat tires and undercarriage scars from running over leftover construction tools and equipment, most of the residents of the trailer park now opt to go the long way around the construction site anyway.

But once in awhile somebody needs to get from civilization to the trailer park or the junkyard in a hurry and isn’t in any mood to worry about their vehicle’s long-term health. These people will cut right through the construction site anyway, and can range from a vengeful police officer in a furious hurry to a nostalgic motorist who doesn’t want to dwell any longer on the fact that he’s going to abandon his beloved old flames-on-purple van in the land of the forgotten, unaware that it might one day offer comfort and refuge to a party of troublemakers.

***

It was more spacious than they thought it would be in there, but that wasn’t saying much. And it was getting stuffy fast. The fact that Double-D was hyperventilating and wasting all the air wasn’t helping. Nor was it helping that that air was being replaced by fumes from the gasoline generators in the corner.

The curtains were drawn in the rear window, and the boys were lying down on the water bed to try to stay out of sight of the windows in the front. But the waterbed was listing toward Ed’s side, so Eddy and Double-D were stuck at the bottom of the hill formed by the displaced water. Neither was particularly happy about this arrangement, but they had bigger concerns.

Ed, for his part, had no greater concern than eviscerating his fatigue. The idea of letting Big Ed sleep through this long wait seemed like a great idea on paper, but in practice was a bit of a problem because of his tendency to snore loudly and with an open mouth, and if the ungodly sound that was louder than Krakatoa exploding six inches from your ear didn’t jeopardize them, the odor of his exhaled breath certainly would.

Ed,” Eddy implored, “Ed!

“Hoouh… Yes, Eddy?”

“You’re snoring louder than a bomb made out of lawn mowers!”

“Oh, I am sorry Eddy. Do you need help sleeping?”

“Wha--? No, I--”

Ed took the liberty of grabbing Eddy and holding him close like a child’s plushie. “Don’t worry, Eddy, I’ll take you with me to Sleepy-Bye Land.”

Ed, get off me,” Eddy growled through gritted teeth.

“Nighty-night!” Ed closed his eyes again and passed out almost instantaneously.

“Double-D! Help me out!”

Double-D was shaking too much to be described as paralyzed by fear, but he certainly was not responsive to the world outside of the dungeon of his own insurmountable fears. Catatonic was probably a better word.

“Ed! Wake up! Let me go!”

But Ed started snoring again, his snout right above Eddy’s ears, and even Ed probably couldn’t hear Eddy over the noise of his own making. Therefore drastic measures needed to be taken.

Wiggle, wiggle… CRUNCH.

“Gah!” the bear hollered as he threw his bitten hand up in the air, incidentally taking its vulpine occupant up with it.

Thunk. “Ooph!”

Eddy hit the ceiling of the van and fell down to the waterbed, which gladly broke his fall and absorbed his weight, sucking him into its abyss. But as all things must return to equilibrium, it soon after rejected its guest and ejected him back up with a swish of waves of water moving underneath its surface.

Thunk. Eddy again hit the ceiling, which was a much more cold and rigid host, and he fell once more into the bed, which gave an encore presentation of its impression of a trampoline.

Swish, swish… thunk! “Uph!” Swish, swish… thunk! “Gwah!” Swish, swish… thunk! “Pltt!” Swish, swish… thunk!Ed!

Ed’s eyes followed the improvised gymnastics up and down; it wasn’t quite the motion of a metronome turned sideways, but you could probably still keep a beat with it all the same. He reached his paw out toward the nifty sight, as if trying to physically capture the moment.

“Eddy, I wanna try…” Ed murmured sleepily.

Thunk. “Ed, no!” Swish, swish. Eddy’s life flashed before his eyes when he imagined the idea of Ed getting up and trying to bounce up and down on the waterbed in the finite space of the van, the vehicle jumping loudly like a giant metal basketball and attracting all the fuzz within a ten mile radius of their hiding spot. Thunk. This time when Eddy came down, he sunk his claws into the surface of the mattress and damn near popped the thing as he dug in to get out of the cycle. Swish, swish…. Swish… And finally the momentum was broken.

“Ed, wait!” Eddy cried, only to see that Ed had passed out from sheer fatigue again. It would seem that Ed was going to have to settle for jumping on a bed in his dreams.

But even though it wouldn’t be as loud as a giant metal cage crashing in place in the junkyard, Eddy still didn’t want to risk attracting the wrong crowd with the sound of Ed’s unholy snoring. Thinking quickly, he grabbed a spool of extension cords and fashioned a nice little bow around Ed’s snout. He could still snore loud enough through his nose to annoy Eddy, but it probably wouldn’t be a siren song for the authorities to come and bust them.

Eddy took a seat on the water hump away from Ed and Double-D. The three of them had been in there for a few hours, but the wolf was actually getting more nervous with the passage of time. Being alone with his thoughts had simply made Double-D more claustrophobic and nervous that every passing minute meant that they would soon be found, and with Ed being asleep and Eddy staring at the roof of the van to forget that he was bored out of his mind, it wasn’t like Double-D had anybody to tell him reassuring things.

Eddy, it should be noted, was not so much anxious himself as he was nervous by proxy from having to watch Double-D lose his mind, not unlike earlier when he was suffocated by Double-D’s fears until they started to infect him too. That part of him wanted to stay here for safety, while the other part of him wanted to split a long time ago when it had seemed like the heat had long since died down. But he stuck around anyway since his loyal lackeys were in no condition to move, and for all he knew they’d be too disoriented by fear and fatigue to think to find him at his house later on if he were to leave by himself. Now it was Eddy who was alone with his thoughts. At least it was much quieter now with Ed’s snoring taken out of the equation.

Hey, maybe they’re in here.

Well, then.

The first thing Eddy did was look at Double-D to see if he had heard it too. If he had, he couldn’t tell. Double-D seemed to still be in his own little personal purgatory and wasn’t showing any outward response to stimuli.

Well, one of them’s supposed to be a grizzly bear, could he fit in something this big?

Okay, hold on, how did they know about that? This second voice sounded quieter, but also somehow closer, as if coming from a smaller creature. It was much different than the first voice, which had a very discernable Southern accent. Heh, for a second Eddy considered that it might be Double-D’s hick uncle, and the idea of such an absurd coincidence transpiring actually amused him enough for a fraction of a smirk to crack his face amid the tension. But Eddy knew that it was incredibly unlikely that of all the cops in the metropolitan area that they’d ever run into him even once, assuming that he hadn’t been removed from the Force already like Double-D’s family suspected. But the possibility stayed on his mind and the small grimace quickly evaporated.

Eh, that’s a good point, but it’s not that small of a van.

Ah, yes, back to the question of how they knew Ed was in here. What the hell? Were they seen? Did they have details on all three of them, or just Ed, who was very hard to miss and could probably be seen around the curvature of the earth?

Big enough for a grizzly with room to spare for a fox?

Eddy heard that and came very close to giving a second meaning to the phrase “waterbed.”

I’d say s-- God, damn it!” hollered the Southern voice. A small thud followed shortly thereafter.

Aw, god--! What happened, Chief?

I stubbed my damn toe on this box.

Well this is why I don’t like riding on your shoulder.

Well, hey, Nutsy, I didn’t mean to knock ya off, but this box is way heavier than it looks!

…’Box’?

Well, what’s inside it? Cinder-blocks?

Eddy looked around the van.

Might as well take a look.

The ironing board was behind him along the wall.

I’ll laugh my ass off if we just stumbled upon, like, a brick of cocaine or something.

The generators and extension cords were tucked behind the front seats.

Well I’m sure the boys would enjoy that.

Eddy couldn’t see anything else.

Eh, I know a few who wouldn’t, Chief.

Eddy got up and scrambled over Ed’s sleeping mass to see if there was any chance Ed was just laying on top of it. But it was nowhere to be found.

Aw, it’s a bunch of, um… sheets of plastic.

“Goddammit, Ed,” Eddy mumbled.

That’s it? That’s what’s so heavy?

Wait, I think there’s something else at the bottom.

Eddy looked at Double-D again. The wolf had stopped shaking and was either breathing calmly or wasn’t breathing at all. He was just sitting perfectly still, staring at the wall, contemplating crime and punishment and the fires of hell.

There’s some plastic sheets in here, too,” the Southerner discovered.

What, to make IDs or something?

To make IDs--? To make IDs! I bet that’s what they were doin’, Nutsy!

Now Eddy wanted to hide within the hiding spot. He rushed over to the front seats to hide in the nook under the steering column.

Oh, look. The shipping label is still on it. Dumbass.

Man Guy, 201 Rethink Avenue.

Eddy could still see the daylight pouring in through the windows from under the dashboard, so he made his way back over the seats. He was going to gamble on a different strategy.

That’s probably a fake name, but that’s gotta be a real address. You wanna pay ‘em a visit, Chief?

Nah, that’s the PCPD’s problem. Besides, we can’t prove nothin’. That address sounds familiar, though…

‘That address sounds familiar’? To the Chief of Police? He couldn’t have… no, could he?

Eddy was over the seats now and saw that Double-D now had his head turned right at the rear doors of the van, listening patiently and placidly.

But y’know what? I bet we could use these ourselves!

Eddy heard that one in his heart.

Yeah!” the Southerner continued, “We can probably figure out how to make our own fake IDs and sell them ourselves! Or at least sell them to someone who knows how to do that.

Do I get a cut, Chief?

Eddy lifted up Ed’s massive arm and tucked himself back in there, not for the comfort of either of them, but for one to disappear under one who was already dead to the world.

Oh, Nutsy, I’m not evil…

A grunt was heard as the Chief of Police presumably picked up the box of materials that formed the crux of Eddy’s brilliant plan, which was now in severe jeopardy of being delayed, if it were ever to come to fruition at all. The plan was not to make any mistakes, but Eddy reasoned with himself that this was not a mistake he had made. He didn’t willfully allow his creation to fall into the hands of some corrupt officers who were going to flip his goods for private profit. But he didn’t do all he could to prevent it, either, and he knew it. For a few moments, these conflicting feelings of blame and guilt managed to take the spotlight in the mental theater of anguish.

Then this happened:

Squeak!Chief Woodland, Chief Woodland, do you copy?” A voice squawked over a police radio.

Eddy turned to Double-D again. Double-D didn’t move a muscle, but Eddy had a funny feeling that he had heard that all the same.

This is Chief Woodland, whaddaya need?

Are you in the middle of something, Chief? Because we need you downtown ASAP.

Uh, um… Y-yes, Deputy Nutzinger and I were, uh… helping an old lady cross the street!

Eddy was a bit surprised by the timid manner of his answer.

Well when you’re done, try to get to City Hall as soon as possible. The mayor wants to talk to you. Preferably Nutzinger, too.

He does?

Yes, Chief. What’s your current location? Do you have an ETA?

Uh, yeah, uh, um… We’re just in Georgetown gettin’ back from the Forest, we were taking surface streets. We’ll be there soon!

10-4, I’ll let him know.” That was the last Eddy heard of the dispatcher.

You shoulda just told him we were trying to get the forest bandits,” the one called Nutsy insisted. “How else are we goin’a explain a couple of criminals in the backseat?

‘Forest Bandits’? Eddy wondered, Is that what they’re calling us?

Nutsy, there’s this thing called ‘shoot on sight,’ have ya heard of it? In a place like this, nobody’s gonna notice.

Once again, Eddy was glad that he hadn’t consumed even a drop of water since last night. Double-D was still as steadfast as a statue. Ed was none the wiser.

Oh, right, like nobody’ll hear a gunshot in the the trailer park next door. Or the subdivision across the creek. And heaven forbid you don’t connect on the first try and you have to shoot them more than once apiece.” Eddy, eyes pursed shut, was hoping this deputy character could somehow convince his superior of this, not just for the sake of the boys’ lives, but also for the Chief’s sake, since this Nutsy fellow made a very good point.

You’re a little asshole, do you know that?

I’m your better half, Ward,” was the smarmy response.

Ward? Eddy asked himself, What the fuck kind of name is--? Wait…

Well, tell me this, Nutsy: how would they know it’s not just some kids testing out their playthings?

Chief, do you seriously want to take any risk of getting caught? I don’t know about you, Chief, but I need this job. To live and pay bills and shit. And if we get fired, we’re probably not employable anywhere else.

That’s why you don’t get caught, Nutsy!

These two were an unstoppable force and an immovable object. Eddy was half-seriously debating sticking his head out and telling them to quit bickering because the back-and-forth was driving him crazy. Luckily, he wasn’t the only person who was getting sick of the unresolved conflict.

Okay, fuck it!” Nutsy exclaimed, and then there was a sound of a slight struggle with some rustled garments.

Hey! What’re you-- My gun!

Eddy thought he was going to hear a loud bang and a hearty thud, but instead he heard some rustling running under the van. Was there a snake or something moving down there? How big was this Nutsy guy, anyway? Wait, what didn’t he mention something about riding on the Chief’s shoulder?

The sound went to the front of the van up against the trash heap, paused for a second, and went out the right side.

Why the hell did you do that!?

Looks like you’re gonna need a new gun from the station, Chief.

Do you know how bad that’s going to make me look!?

Yeah: less bad than shooting some people outside of your jurisdiction. Now c’mon, The Prince is waiting!” The voice seemed to get quieter as the statement went on.

Goddammit, Nutsy!” And then the ride began. The van started shaking left and right to the rhythm of some grunts coming from the front right side. Some more muttering and swearing under breath was peppered in there, and as well as some strained breathing. Eddy wrapped his arms around Ed’s to hang on during the rollercoaster ride, fully aware that the shaking could cause Ed to roll onto him and crush him, but trying not to think about it. Somewhere below his sideways line of vision, he heard Double-D fall forward softly onto the mattress, seemingly forced out of his paralysis.

The shaking stopped and more grunting was heard as the Chief must have abandoned his quest to retrieve his weapon. “Nutsy, get back here and get me my gun!

The fuck are you gonna do, shoot me?” The voice was very small and distant now.

We ain’t even checked out this van yet!

They’d’ve made a noise by now if there was anybody in there!

More nonverbal cursing and grumbling was heard, punctuated by a sudden shattering of glass. Eddy shifted his eyes toward the sliver of negative space where he could see to the passenger’s side window. He didn’t get much of a complete picture, but he could have swore he saw a short, wide blue sleeve over a flabby gray-furred arm, a bent elbow retreating from the space where a window once was.

“Hell, now I’m bleeding.” There was no more muffling of voices; it was all loud and clear. The sound of spitting could be heard, and then of frustrated footsteps taking their leave.

Eddy could feel behind him that Ed was stirring. Eddy wiggled his way out of the crook of Ed’s arm.

“Hrrmmrhrhrrm?” Ed said through a tethered snout.

Shh!” begged Eddy as he went over to the victim who was most affected. “Uh… Double-D? How ya holding up?”

Double-D was sitting upright again against Ed’s stomach, legs crossed neatly and his hands on his legs. If not for the distress in his eyes, one might think he were meditating. Eddy approached him. Even sitting down, the wolf, who was barely averaged-sized for his own species at his age, had to look down upon the dwarfish fox standing next to him. Eddy noticed this; in this strange moment, he didn’t care.

“Doub-- uh… Double-D, you know a lot of… stuff, right? Um… do you know if your mom’s maiden name is, uh… really common?”

For a second, Double-D just stared at him with a look like he had just seen innocence incarnate murdered and violated by a mob in the street. Then he opened his mouth and said:

“I am prepared for death at any moment, Eddy.”

“Wh-- What?

The footsteps returned, and the boys turned to face the direction from which they came. Without a word, the heavy stomping made its way to the back of the truck, stopped to make way for a grunt, and disappeared again.

Double-D turned back to Eddy, who knew he was going to have to spend another few hours in here while his friends emotionally recuperated. At least it wasn’t as stuffy with the window open.

“I am prepared for death at any moment.”

***

The sun was now high in the sky and it was starting to get hot in there.

“Jeez, I guess your parents really don’t keep up with the guy.”

“I recall that when he first started, he was almost invariably put on night shifts, so my parents used his odd hours to to justify never attempting to contact him, seeing as he’d never be awake at the same time they would be.” It had taken awhile, but he had come back up to Earth.

“Well, when did they promote him?”

“I don’t know, Eddy. After they came to their rationale for never having reason to call him on the phone, that was the last we’d heard of him. I believe my parents assumed that he would soon be fired and that we would one day receive a call asking if he could seek refuge from homelessness in our house. But that call never came, and I always assumed he was simply busy with his line of work, remaining as a low-level officer. I’m sure that if I questioned my parents, they would tell me that they assumed he had shamefully returned to my grandparents’ home in Virginia without saying a word to my mother or father.”

“But you do think that was him, though, right?”

“His speech patterns and accent do certainly match the uncle I last encountered when I was eight. I do suppose that living in such close proximity to his place of work would have made encountering him on-duty an inevitability if given enough time.”

“I just can’t believe it.”

“I share your disbelief, Eddy, but perhaps our beliefs flew in the face of logical deduction.”

“And I still can’t believe you’re related to a guy like that.”

“That’s the thing, Eddy…”

“What?”

Double-D was looking down at his folded hands, trying to piece together what was not completely clear to him either. “I confess that I harbor a strong distaste for this man, but as I heard his voice again, I began to wonder whether I only resent him because of what are informed flaws.”

“Eddy, Double-D’s using big words again, and it’s making me feel like my head is lifting off of my body to blast off into space fight the bad guys from Rejects of an Alien World 2.”

“That’s ‘cause you’re sitting too close to the gas fumes, Ed.”

“Ed, what I mean is that as much as I heard aggression and malice in his voice, it reminded me of all the times I actually interacted with him, and I must say that the personality I remember is very incongruous with what I heard outside those doors. I’m starting to wonder if I ever really witnessed him engage in anything evil. I do remember that he was rather uncouth and--”

“Huh?”

“...He was rather improper in demeanor.”

“Like how?”

“Like you heard, constantly swearing and showing complete disregard for formal pronunciation or grammar. Furthermore, he would often leave abhorrent messes about and wore clothes with holes in them and ate as would a savage, and even as a child I noticed this. I know for certain my parents noticed this, and after we stopped seeing him around, my parents told me about shameful and unscrupulous things he had done in his life, ranging from that which is embarrassing to the downright despicable.”

“Double-D, it ain’t just Ed bein’ Ed, I’m lost. Where are you going with this?”

Double-D sighed and looked up again to match Eddy’s gaze. “As simply as I can put it Eddy, I think I’ve had an epiphany that I once knew my uncle as a man who, despite his poor manners, was actually rather kind-hearted, at least toward me. I think that I had only begun to hate him when my parent’s cautionary tales of his misdeeds began to outweigh the positive memories I recall of him. Does that make sense?”

Eddy held his hand out and tilted it side to side while putting on a confused wince. Ed simply cocked his head.

Double-D sighed and gave it another go. “I… think… I used to think… that he -- my uncle Ward -- I used to think -- when I was a little kid, I mean -- I used to think he was a ‘cool’ uncle. But my parents didn’t like him. So when we stopped seeing him, they… they told me all the bad things they could about him… until I believed them. And if that was indeed him out there, perhaps they were right. About his being a bad man. Was that… can you comprehend that?”

“Double-D, don’t talk to us like you think we’re stupid.”

“Oh, for the love of--!” But he bit his tongue. “Do you get what I’m saying or not, Eddy?”

“Double-D, chill out, I get it. He was your favorite uncle until your parents brainwashed you.”

“But also--”

Gasp! “Double-D’s been brainwashed!”

“Ed, no.”

“That’s not the whole picture, Ed--”

“We must un-cleanse him!”

“Ed, calm down.”

“‘Un-cleanse me’!?”

“I will sop the bleach from your head, Double-D!”

“Ed, shush!”

“Ed, what do you--!? Aah!”

Sluuuurp.

“Ed!”

“Ed, unhand me!”

Shluuur-urp!

“Goddammit, Ed!”

“This is disgusting!

Slurrrp.

“AAARGH!”

“Both of you, shut up, you’re gonna get us all killed!”

I can feel his saliva in my ear canal!

“Do you hear voices?” asked a peculiarly British accent from far away, with a tinge of an echo; at least that was their best guess at what was said, as it was a bit hard to hear.

Silence returned to the van. The three of them disengaged from their struggle and turned toward the open window.

“Not really,” asked a much more American voice, also distorted by distance and topography.

“Of course, now that I ask, I can’t hear them anymore,” Robin lamented. No longer seeing the need to stay still and attentive, he kept making his way around the mound of trash.

“Maybe they heard us?” Little John posited as he bagan following again, adjusting the quarterstaff with bindles so it rested more comfortably on his shoulder.

“Perhaps, perhaps not. If there’s anybody here, we have our wits and our weapons about us.”

“And if they have a shotgun or something?”

“Our wits and our weapons are stronger than the sum of their parts, Johnny. Have some faith in yourself.”

“I’m telling ya, Rob, if it’s just gonna be the two of us, we ought to invest in a firearm.”

“Johnny, my boy, when did you develop such a bloodlust?”

“I meant just to have. For emergencies. Which we keep winding up in.” Little John squeezed past a washing machine that was smack dab in the middle of the valley between the two mountains.

“Oh, you Americans and your guns…” Robin stopped to look at a pile of cans to see if any contained something they could use. They didn’t.

“Hey, Rob, you don’t know my people like I know my people.”

“But am I not one of your people now?”

“I dunno, Rob, do you wanna pull over and remind yourself how long ago your green card expired?”

“Oh, piss off, Little John,” was Robin’s friendly scoff. “I’ve been here for, what?... Eleven years now? I’ll take the citizenship test in front of their eyes if they want me to. I’m qualified.”

“I thought you already took the test and failed,” Little John said with a smirk.

“I didn’t fail, Little John, I just didn’t stick around long enough to find out if I passed,” Robin corrected with confidence as he stepped over an old bicycle in his way.

“Yeah,” Little John chuckled. “Alright. Sure you did.”

“Quiz me then!” Robin was nearing the clearing at the exit of the valley.

“Alright, fine. Uh…” Little John tried to think of a good one as he picked up the bicycle with his free hand and tossed it onto the mound with a muffled crash. “Okay, here’s an easy one. Who was president the year you were born?”

“That would be-- Oh, Lord.”

“Nope! It was Nixon, you limey bastard! And you said you--”

Little John caught up to Robin and saw what had inspired his remark. It looked as though the center of one of the mountains could not hold and now there was a bunch of junk splayed all over the place. It didn’t quite look like a bomb went off, but the scene certainly could bring that old idiom into one’s mind.

“...Oh,” muttered Little John. “For the record, I thought you said ‘Ford.’”

“What? Oh, that. No, no, no. Ford wasn’t inaugurated until Nixon resigned the summer after I was born.”

“Huh. Well, alright then.”

“So evidently… these piles can just collapse at any time.”

“I was afraid there were other people in here with weapons and you basically called me a pussy; now you’re afraid of a little bit of structural un-integrity after living in a tree for seven years?”

“I’m not afraid, but I am apprehensive. I’m sure that another collapse like this isn’t likely, but I just had a thought that it would be ridiculous if after all we’ve been through, we died in an avalanche of garbage.”

Little John took his own assessment of the damage from his higher vantage point. He saw something way off to the right, around a bend almost hidden behind the slope of the same mountain that they were just working their way around.

“Maybe we could stay in there?” he pointed.

“Where?”

“There.”

“I don’t see anything, John.”

Little John gave Robin a look of frustration, and as he looked down at him, he realized that because of the slope of the mound, its base was thicker at Robin’s eye-level and he genuinely couldn’t see what he was pointing at. Little John put down his staff and grabbed Robin under the armpits, and before the fox could protest, Little John lifted him up and thrust him in the direction of his discovery.

There.

“...Do you mean the van?”

“I mean the van.”

“I don’t see why not. Let’s check it out!”

Little John put Robin back down gently. “There ya go, little guy.”

Robin picked up the bow he dropped during the sudden altitude change. “Hey now, I’m not the one with little in his name, now am I, Little John?” he ribbed a bit loudly.

“What can I say?” Little John picked up his staff and placed it back on his shoulder. “I come from a long line of bears with a great sense of humor,” he proclaimed proudly. They both knew that wasn’t a completely accurate explanation of the etymological quirk, but if Little John were ever to be in the mood to discuss it, it certainly wasn’t going to be now.

“Okay, so now we know one of them’s a bear, and I think his name is... ‘Little John’?” Eddy whispered to his boys, breaking the silence; those last few sentences were the first they could truly hear clearly. “That’s a stupid name, but… Ed, would you be able to do the talking to this guy if he gels with you?”

“But what if he’s mean like Dad is!?”

“That’s why you’d be doing the talking.” They were whispering just loudly enough that the voices of the two outsiders were obscured, even as they did get closer.

“While I will concede that this ‘Little John’ character seems like he may be an aggressive personality, judging purely by his voice,” Double-D observed, “it also seems like he is being fairly jovial to this other fellow -- did I hear ‘Ron’ or ‘Bob’? But I have to ask, Eddy, do you really think that Ed would be the best ambassador to his ursine brethren?”

“People like talking to people who look like them, Double-D. When you grow up, you’ll realize that.”

“Would you rather speak to fox you didn’t know than a stranger of any other persuasion?”

“Yeah, absolutely. Now hush, I think they’re getting clo--”

“Well, the window’s open!” remarked Ron-Bob the British Person. “If it’s locked, we can at least open it from the inside!”

“It actually looks like somebody broke it,” noted Little John the Presumably-American Bear. “See the jagged little pieces sticking up from the bottom?”

“Ah, good eye, Johnny.”

Then they saw him. A distinctly canine head welcomed itself in, craning into the window frame and looking straight down at the glass in the passenger’s seat. Nothing registered in his peripheral vision in the brief moment between his head entering the van and when the seat’s headrest began to block the beings in the corner from his line of vision.

“Remind me not to sit in the passenger seat!”

“Eddy! He looks just like you!”

Ed was wrong. Despite being members of the same species, they looked noticeably dissimilar. This guy had fur that was almost blood red with dirty-snow grayish-white, whereas Eddy and his kin had a mix light tan on a rustier, almost-orange red. Furthermore, Eddy thought there was something strange about how this fox was just leaning into the window of a truck this large; was he standing on something? But Robin didn’t know about the inaccuracy of the comparison yet when he jumped from surprise and turned toward the sound of the voice.

“Oh! I, uh… a thousand apologies, gentlemen! I didn’t see you there!”

Eddy and Double-D were too shocked and confused to say a word. Ed was disoriented by the big words again and decided to sit this round out.

“Wait, Rob, there’s people in there!?” The boys could hear Little John right outside the window but they still couldn’t see him.

“Er-- Excuse me for a moment, lads.” Robin pulled his head out and addressed Little John. “Put these under the van for a second,” they heard him whisper from out-of-sight.

“Wait, why?” Little John asked at full volume.

Shh! I think they’re just kids, we don’t need to scare them.

“Do they not wish to scare us so they can make us feel comfortable before they do harm to us?” Double-D pondered softly. Eddy and Ed had no good answers to that.

Some shuffling was heard of objects being shoved under the vehicle. Robin stuck his head back in and went to place his hands on the windowsill, forgetting that it was not quite suitable for resting his palms.

“Sorry about that; now do you boys live he-- gah! Bloody… fucking hell!”

“What did I miss now?” asked the bear.

“I forgot about the bloody glass!” Robin pulled himself away from the window to show Little John, who was just now standing back up.

“Jeez, Rob, how do you forget about broken glass two seconds after you pointed it out?”

“I’m tired and my mind is wandering, Little-- fuck, that actually does hurt!”

Robin,” Little John whispered mindfully this time, “you run from bullets on a regular basis and you can’t take a few cuts?

The Eds didn’t hear that, thinking instead there was a lamentful silence between the two strangers. Ed was still silent, fascinated by this man who he would have swore looked just like Eddy, and Eddy himself was still trying to make heads or tails of whether these two were friendly or fiend-ly. Double-D, meanwhile, was trying to assess this situation in the context of everything they’d been through that morning.

“Rob, stop squeezing your hands, you’re just drawing more blood out,” Little John insisted as he continued trying to account for the damage. Before Robin could answer, however, there was a voice the two of them had never heard.

“E-excuse me, Mister… ‘Rob,’ is it?”

Robin perked up and leaned back toward the van. “Did someone say my name?”

“Y-yes, I do apologize, we couldn’t help but overhear your conversations, and we picked up on recurring names along the way. B-b-but, uh, more to the point: are you in need of first aid assistance?”

Double-D, what  are you doing!?” whispered Eddy.

I don’t want to take Eddy’s long-lost cousin to the doctor, Double-D! The doctor is scary and his lollipops taste like apricots!” whispered Ed.

“Oh, no thank you, I don’t think we need any help, young man, we -- aah! -- we’ve some supplies in our--”

Robin!” barked Little John as silently as he could, “You just said you wanted to hide the weapons! The supplies are tied to my staff!

Oh, how will they even know it’s supposed to be a weapon?

Well if you draw attention to the staff, the bow’s right next to it! And they’ll wonder why our shit’s under their van when we just got here!

“I’m sorry, I didn’t quite hear that,” said Double-D.

“Er, uh…” Robin leaned back into the window and craned his neck to see around the headrest. “C-come to think of it, we’ve misplaced our medical kit, so if you have something that -- g’shah! -- something that could help, I’d much appreciate it!”

“You know what, Mr. Rob? For your comfort, I invite you to come to the back of the van. We’ll open the doors for you.”

What!?” gasped Eddy.

“Oh, that would be splendid, thank -- ghee-yah! -- thank you, my boy.”

This Robin fellow pulled his head out and disappeared toward the rear of the truck. Double-D took a deep breath as he stood, and he walked slowly toward the front of the van to maintain his footing on the waterbed mattress. Eddy thought Double-D was being paranoid when he stocked first-aid supplies in the van’s glove compartment just in case they’d ever need it, but now it was finally being made useful, and in what great timing as well. Double-D had worked his whole life to be a model citizen, student, and son, and now some unwitting misadventures with his associates had landed him an arrest warrant and likely a criminal record, possibly to be carried out by his maybe-good, maybe-evil uncle. If these men were dangerous, it was worth the risk to serve them, to do good as an act of penance for his misdeeds. The opportunity for redemption was well worth the price of any harm these strangers could inflict upon him. After all, he was prepared for death at any moment.

Double-D leaned over to the glove compartment, careful not to fall into the bed of glass shards on the seat cushion. He grabbed the little red-and-white pouch and made his way back to the rear doors. At this point, if there was no dangerous excitement to be had when those floodgates were opened, he would actually be kind of disappointed.

“Are you seriously going to help these guys?” Eddy interrogated in vexed disbelief.

“I’m going to try to be a good person, Eddy, and if you don’t wish to help me in that, then stay out of my way.”

Click, grind… squeeeeak.

“Thank you, good sir,” said the gentleman fox, “Pleasure to finally get a good look at you boys.”

Next to him was the bear the Eds had heard so much about, leaning sideways to be able to see into the back of the van. “Do him a favor and don’t read too much into that, alright?” Seeing his face work in conjunction with his voice did nothing to help the boys discern whether this bear was being dryly playful or coolly threatening.

Eddy had the most visceral reaction to seeing them. For one thing, there was another bit of strangeness about this Rob fellow’s appearance: he didn’t seem to have any ‘gloves.’ Not real winter-wear, of course, as it was damn-nigh the height of June, but rather the distinct discoloration around the hands and feet and tail sported by every fox Eddy had ever seen. Some, like those in Eddy’s family, had black gloves, others white, and some just a slightly lighter or darker shade than the rest of their coat, but this dude’s hands were just plain red -- bloodstains notwithstanding. Eddy would later make a mental note to try to see if this guy had anything going around his feet or tail, without being too weird or obvious that he was looking for demarcations in such odd places.

But never mind all of that: just as Eddy had feared when he saw him in the window, this guy was fucking huge. Granted, his shins were out of frame underneath the bumper, but Eddy could extrapolate that he was probably the tallest fox he’d ever seen in his entire life, and Eddy really didn’t want to see such a creature. Being cripplingly paranoid with height, Eddy knew four numbers: 3-foot-2, which was how tall his mom was, and which was the average height for a female adult red fox in the United States, and which was the bare-ass minimum Eddy would allow himself to be as an adult without blowing his brains out; 3-foot-4 was the average height for an adult male of his species; his brother was 3-7 or 3-8 and his dad was considered fox-tall at 3-foot-9 (a potential fifth relevant number Eddy knew was four feet even, which is what his brother and father put when prompted for their height on documents and such, since they assumed -- correctly -- that nobody would correct them, and that the taller mammals that ran everything couldn’t perceive a four inch difference from up on high). Eddy had done his research, because of course he did, and for that reason he also knew that red foxes were a species with a notably wide height range; but just as it didn’t comfort him knowing that there were some poor fucks out there who were shorter as adults than even him as a stunted teenager, he did not feel very self-confident in the presence of a man who surely must have been a head taller than Eddy’s own dad and brother.

And yet -- and yet -- here was this brown bear that this giant was hanging out with that paradoxically make the fox look tiny at the same time. While doing his research, Eddy had seen that bears were also on the list of species with a wide range of plausible adult heights, and this “Little John” was certainly not the tallest specimen Eddy had seen or heard of, but just by eyeballing him, Eddy could guestimate that he was still significantly taller than Ed or Ed’s father (the last time Eddy checked, those two were roughly the same height, much to Mr. Browne’s chagrin). And yet again, this bear didn’t look particularly huge -- he didn’t look stretched out and his head didn’t look disproportionately small on his body. If not for the van for reference, Eddy might guess that this guy looked a foot or more shorter from far away. That, in turn, made the fox look even smaller, even though Eddy knew he wasn’t, so if you just focused your eyes on the fox and treated his bear bud as a background object, the fox would look tall again, but then you remember the bear isn’t just a piece of the scenery and that dangling elbow roughly level to the fox’s ear belongs to a sapient being and now you’re not so sure about anything...

Eddy’s brain processed all of these thoughts in the span of a few milliseconds. Between the paradoxical height, abnormal color scheme to his fur, and the supremely out-of-place British accent, Eddy wondered if he was actually having a horrible nightmare and these figurants were monsters, or perhaps he’d been gravely wounded by a cop’s bullet and these were demons come to torment him as he lay dying. But all Eddy really cared about was that he wouldn’t have to stand next to this Englishman and find out how he measured up. He’d rather it be a mystery.

Double-D, by virtue of not sharing Eddy’s deep-seated size paranoia, was able to take a much more empirical assessment of these guests, and draw educated conclusions accordingly. He did still note the above-average physical frames in front of him, but shrugged it off as a weird quirk, thinking that between these two and his friend-cum-foe uncle, whom he also recalled being notably taller than his parents, Double-D hadn’t witnessed this many incidentally freakishly tall characters in rapid succession since he finished reading that 1100-page novel over Spring Break by an author who evidently had even more of an obsession with tall and short people than Eddy did; but Double-D simply dismissed this as a bizarre coincidence, albeit one compounded by the fact that this same novel was also the source for his newfound fatalistic mantra.

He was more focused on the fact that the Englishman was rather well-dressed with a lincoln-green polo shirt, and while his American associate was not quite as buttoned-up, he did not look by any means disheveled in his forest-green jacket; he did notice the bear’s jacket had slightly-darker spots that suggested the letters “J”, “E”, “T”, and “S” were once emblazoned on the jacket, and Double-D barely recalled that to be the name of some sports team from New York (God help him if he could remember which sport they played), but he wrote this off as the bear either being reasonably thrifty and continuing to wear a fully-functional coat after its decals had fallen off, or perhaps he peeled them off himself if he shared Double-D’s disdain for sports.

A fox and a bear. Double-D was the first to make the connection. But curiously, he consciously told himself that these couldn’t be the two suspects being sought by law enforcement; this fox was simply too eloquent to be on the wrong side of the law, and this bear surely must be an upright fellow to make his gentlemanly acquaintance, and after all, why would a British national come all the way across the ocean just to turn to a life of crime?

Poor Double-D didn’t even notice that the letters expunged from the bear’s jacket, as if to allow its wearer to hide more easily among greenery and have fewer unique details about him when standing in a crowd, these details sitting right in front of his nose, were a major clue that his conclusion was off-base. If you told him that he also neglected to realize that green clothes would best blend into a forest’s leaves, Double-D might have just dropped dead from sheer embarrassment.

As for Ed, he only saw one logical response to laying eyes upon them.

“Eddy! It’s you and me from the future!”

“Oh, c’mon, Ed…” grumbled Eddy.

“Cool! You turn into one of those people with funny accents!”

Upon seeing such a chipper young man excited by his own imagination, Robin couldn’t help but smile. Little John would normally join in the joviality, but he was tired, frustrated and thoroughly confused, so he just looked unimpressed.

Gasp! But where’s Double-D!?” worried Ed.

“Oh, don’t you worry about me, Ed, I--”

Afraid for his friend, Ed grabbed him and hugged him tightly. “Poor Double-D! He was torn apart by mutant robots in the Mecha-Apocalypse! Huh! No! He was devoured by the reanimated cadaver of the Giant Peruvian Tapeworm from Hunger from Another Hemisphere! Nonono, I know what happened! His brain exploded from being too smart!

“Uh, Ed--” Double-D choked out, “you’re embarrassing me in front of our guests.” In the close contact, Double-D could almost feel the salt from Ed’s delusional tears sting in his own eyes.

Robin chuckled. “Heh, have we interrupted a special mome--?”

“You boys see the man’s hands bleeding all over the place, right?” Little John cut in.

“Oh!” Ed realized, “Double-D, you need to help heal Future Eddy!” He finally let go of the wolf and Double-D wheezed as his lungs regained full functionality. “Otherwise I’ll be all alone to fight the robo-mutants myself!”

“Of course, Ed,” Double-D conceded. He made a point to wait a few seconds before making eye contact with the adults for lack of wanting to have to answer for Ed’s antics. Instead he made his way over to the fox’s outheld hands and took a seat at on the edge of the bumper.

“May I examine the wounds, Mr. Rob?” Double-D didn’t grab the bleeding paws yet, but didn’t wait for an answer to start looking at them hands-free.

“Young man, I beg you not call me ‘Mr. Rob,’ ‘Robin’ is just fine.” He gave a playful glance up at Little John. “Or just ‘Rob’ if you really can’t be bothered with a second syllable.” Little John didn’t even acknowledge that Robin said that. “And yes, do with them as you must.”

“Oh, but I would feel so insolent if I were to address an adult by their given name.” Double-D grabbed the paws in his face and looked at the depth and frequency of cuts.

“Well then, you were raised well. But luckily for you, my given name is actually Robert; ‘Robin’ was a family nickname that everybody prefered; I often wonder if my parents had buyers’ remorse with the name they bestowed on me. ‘Robin’ actually started out as an nickname for ‘Robert,’ did you know?”

“Is that so? How intriguing!” Double-D would have thought it incredibly rude to point out that he did, in fact, already know that.

Robin’s a girls’ name, but okay,” muttered a cynical Eddy, but nobody had anything to say to that, so they all acted like he said nothing at all. Eddy was still glad he said it, however, as he felt it legitimized a leg up he had on this tall guy.

“Now, Mister, uh…” Double-D struggled for the correct title.

“My good man, if you absolutely insist, you can call me Mr. Hood.”

Little John nudged Robin in annoyance. “Jeez, Rob, just hand him a copy of your life’s memoirs, it might save us some time.”

Eddy, who was trying really hard not to focus on his boiling jealousy, found himself agreeing with that statement. He was liking this Little John guy’s responses to everything.

“Splendid, Mr. Hood,” Double-D continued. “Now, it seems that your cuts are not too deep at all, but they are quite numerous, so common adhesive strips likely would not get the job done. With your permission, may I apply some gauze and bandages?”

“Be my guest!”

As Double-D went searching in his pouch for the relevant supplies, Robin made a point to exchange friendly smiles with the other two boys, who were being incredibly quiet in all this. He decided that if he was going to be a guest in their space, and ultimate ask if they could borrow this space, that he might as well try to make the atmosphere more amicable.

“So unless my ears deceive me,” ventured Robin, “I’m the guest of both an ‘Ed’ and an ‘Eddy’? Both short for ‘Edward,’ I presume?”

Ed was still reeling in the presence of future iterations of himself and his buddy, while Eddy’s mind was halfway to elsewhere trying not to perish in a spiraling hole of self-pity.

“Uh… yeah, that’s right,” Eddy coughed out.

“A fine English name! And my caretaker, I hear they call you ‘Double-D’. What might that stand for?”

“I’ll bet a quarter it’s something boring like ‘David Daniel’,” Little John offered. This was another sentence from the adult bear that the young fox was intrigued by.

‘Actually, it’s also short for ‘Edward,’ but with three d’s, with two consecutively after the initial E; it’s an old family tradition from my mother’s side,” Double-D clarified.

“Heh, pay up,” Eddy chuckled nervously. The bear returned the weak chuckle but showed no indication of actually producing currency. Eddy was starting to have second thoughts about warming up to this guy.

“Now, Mr. Hood, is it alright if I apply some hydrogen peroxide to reduce the risk of infection?”

“Surely.” As Double-D poured some antiseptic onto a cotton ball, Robin went to further bridge the gap. “So I’m in the presence of three young men all named Edward, am I? I wasn’t going to mention this, but--”

Double-D applied the peroxide to the cuts, swabbing liberally to spread the moisture as well as to mop up the blood. Robin seethed and tried not to seem to emasculated by the penetrating stinging.

Hhhhhhhhh!... As I was saying, I should have no problem remembering your names, since Edward’s my middle name as well! Funny how things work out!”

“Hm. Really!” Double-D said, genuinely fascinated by this coincidence, assuming that it wasn’t all just a ruse to gain their trust.

“And our friend Little John over here is just barely locked out of our club; his mid-- Hhhhh!” Robin hissed as Double-D started cleaning the other hand with a fresh cotton swab.

“For the record, Rob, I didn’t consent to you airing out all my personal details,” Little John grumbled.

“Why, what on earth are you talking about, John Edmund Little?” Robin chuckled.

“Eddy, can you write those names down?” Ed asked. “We need to make sure we don’t mess up our future selves when we change our names, or we might irreparably destroy the future!”

Eddy just shot him a dirty look; it was the best he could do, since he probably couldn’t get a word out from the embarrassment of not knowing what irreparably meant if even Ed did.

Robin chuckled affably again, and not just to be polite; he was seriously getting a kick out of watching these kids and their bizarre dynamics. “Well, if you didn’t know our names before now, there will be little need for you to know them them after we part. This will all just be a pleasant encounter.” But someone among them perceived some arrogance in that statement, and felt the need to challenge it.

“Wait,” Eddy spoke up, “why would we already know your names? Are you famous or something?”

“Er… in some circles, perhaps. But aren’t we all?”

“So Mr. Robert Edward Hood, is it?” asked Double-D as he unwound the spool of bandages. “Well! For history’s sake, it’s probably a good thing your last name isn’t Lee!”

“Now why would it be a good thing that that isn’t my last name?” Robin asked. Hearing this, Double-D tried to hide a look of disappointment on his face; this gentleman had proven himself to be so learned before this bump in the road, and Double-D shamefully confessed to himself that this passing moment of fallibility was deflating his opinion of the stranger.

Little John nudged Robin again and stood up straight so the boys couldn’t read his lips above the doorway. “There’s no way you would have passed that citizenship test,” he whispered. Robin was puzzled for a second, but he ultimately got the reference.

Robin turned back to Double-D, who was wrapping up the fox’s left paw. Robin looked past him and saw an ironing board along the side of the mattress and some generators and extension cords pushed toward the front, and figured there was no time like the present to pop the relevant question.

“So you had these medical supplies in the van ready to go. May I ask, do you boys live here? Are you in need of any help?”

Eddy looked confused; Double-D looked embarrassed; Ed looked at a fly crawling on the wall.

“Uh--” Double-D sputtered, “Why, I--”

“Oh, Christ, no, we don’t live here!” said Eddy, “This is just a place we hang out sometimes. Do we look like we’re homeless to you?”

Robin admired the kid’s spunk but didn’t care for his snark. “Oh, I do apologize if it seemed like I was making assumptions; between this and the power source, I was a bit thrown-off.”

“‘Power source,’ what now?” Little John bent over further to get a good look at the interior; from his high angle of view, he hadn’t been able to see much deeper into the van past the boys.

“Oh, that’s just for, uh…” Double-D squirmed as he conjured up a worthy fib. “...um, for diversionary activities! Yes!”

Robin was debating whether he could mine any relevant information from asking what kind of activities?, but Eddy had a more urgent question.

“Hey! Are you guys cops or something!?” Eddy’s fear of getting busted on the first day of his new operation was no match for the desire to defy the ones who dared suggest that he, Eddy the Inevitable Future Millionaire, were a homeless person.

“Eddy!” barked an embarrassed Double-D.

“I beg your pardon?” demanded an offended Little John.

Robin was also taken aback by the outburst, but he was certain that cooler heads would prevail, so he forced another chuckle out. “Oh, my lad, -- Eddy, is it? -- I wouldn’t have moved across the ocean just to join a police force.”

“Wait, where’re you from that’s across the ocean? I thought you were British or something.”

Robin couldn’t even pretend to be amused by that one. He shot Little John an unimpressed look, which John returned with a look of Hey, this kid doesn’t represent me. Double-D forced himself to focus more closely on wrapping up the injured paw, trying desperately to disappear in plain sight.

“Why, do you got sumpthin’ to hide, kid?” asked Little John.

“Uh-- no!” coughed Eddy.

“Y-you’ll have to forgive Eddy, Mister, um, Little, is it? He’s, uh, just… very private about his procection. D’no! I mean… protective about his privacy.”

“I’ll say,” mumbled Little John; he just wanted to go to bed at this point. “Can we cut to the chase?”

“The chase?” pressed Eddy, “What chase?”

“Did you want to play tag!?” Ed proposed, then leaned over to the older bear and laid a hand on his forearm. “Tag! You’re--!”

“Nope,” was all Little John replied, cowing Ed into retreating and acting like their exchange never happened..

“What Little John means is--” started Robin, but Little John wasn’t in any mood to have anybody speak on his behalf.

“Can we borrow this place for a few nights?” Little John spat. “...And days?”

“You really must excuse Little John; he’s really usually much more affable than this when things are going well. But right now? Things are all but well at the moment,” Robin took the reins again and tried to exercise his charm for some damage control. “You see, we -- oh, I don’t want to upset you with our problems, but -- our apartment caught fire, and--”

“Oh, my, I’m so sorry to hear that!” Double-D interjected.

“You two live together?” Eddy asked in a way that sounded more malicious than genuinely confused.

“Ah, yes, it’s not the greatest arrangement, but we are struggling actors, trying to cut our teeth in the Nottingham theatre scene so we can work our way up to Hollywood one day.”

“Yeah, so you don’t have to worry about us defiling your personal space, kid,” Little John said with eyes locked on Eddy, “if that is what you were asking.”

Eddy tried his best not to look intimidated.

“So imagine our dejection when our microwave caught fire last night while we were cooking dinner!” Robin continued. “Silly me, I left a shard of aluminium foil on the edge of the bowl! The fire wasn’t too bad, and we were very lucky that most of our possessions were unharmed, but the damage was done and our landlord said it would be a few days until our flat would be liveable again. And broke as we are, we can’t just go to a hotel and rent a room. So we went looking for some cheap real estate to tide us over.”

“Oh, my,” Double-D repeated, as it was the politest, most inoffensive response he knew. “That sounds downright dreadful! What a poor streak of fortune!”

“So you live in the city, and now you’re looking for a place to stay in a junkyard in the suburbs?” Eddy was skeptical.

“We--”

It was a long night,” Little John growled. Looking at Eddy again, that certainly got the point across.

“Indeed it was,” finished Robin, “and so we were hoping we could seek shelter in this old van, and then we met you fine lads. We were going to leave it be since we thought this was your own dwelling, but if you have other homes to go back to, I’ll admit, we’re curious if we could work something out.” He was looking right into Double-D’s eyes, trying to appeal to the obvious smart one in the group, and Double-D looked back into the eyes of the master of bullshitting extemporaneously, from whom he could stand to learn a few lessons.

“Are we gonna have a sleepover!?” ventured Ed.

“Shit, works for me,” said Little John.

“Oh, get the fuck outta here!” hollered Eddy. “We’ve been taking care of this old rustbox for, what? Two years now? Just like it was a second home. This is our house! Finders, keepers; losers, get lost!”

“The little shit’s got moxie, I’ll give him that,” mumbled Little John, who was fading fast.

“Easy for you to say, Mister Fucking Beluga Whale! You wouldn’t last two days if you were my size!”

A couple of mispronounced syllables in that phrase rattled some unpleasant memories in Little John, but they were so deeply embedded in that sentence that even Robin didn’t pick up on them. Little John really wanted to pick this kid up and dropkick him to the moon, but he knew that Robin would never see him as a good man again if he took out his frustrations on a child, so he came up with the most composed and concise reply he could think of:

You…. don’t know shit… about my life.”

“Oh, you really must pardon my pal Johnny, he really is not being himself today,” Robin jumped in. “I only wish you could have met us when we were fully rested so you could see the man I know as almost like a brother to me.”

“You stay out of this, Rob.”

“Not to worry, Mr. Hood, I’ve not seen him instigating any conflict here,” Double-D reassured. “If anything, I’d ask if you were interested in a trade for Eddy!”

“You son of a bitch, Double-D! Back me up!”

“Now, while my fellow foxes might chastise me for abandoning one of our own,” Robin said, “I would still be interested in a negotiation. We can’t afford a hotel room, but we can probably afford to pay you a little something for your hospitality.”

A shockwave rang out through the air, one that only Eddy could perceive.

Pay?

“Oh, I do believe you’ve just said one of Eddy’s favorite words!” remarked Double-D.

“Hm. Is that so?” Robin was starting to have second thoughts about the other fox -- and the other two boys for associating with him. But he wasn’t writing them off just yet.

“What can I say? I’m a fan of economics,” Eddy insisted slyly.

“Ah, macro- or micro-?” Robin quizzed him playfully.

“Uh… what?”

“Mr. Hood, please disregard him,” Double-D implored of the Englishman, “He’s not been on his best behavior today, and he doesn’t deserve any type of financial reward for his conduct.”

“Double-D, what the hell are you talking about!?”

“I’m trying to do the right thing, Eddy.”

“And I admire your noble quest to do what you think is right, but are you certain we can’t give you anything?” Robin turned to Little John, whose head was invisible above the roof of the van. “Little John, don’t you have twenty dollars on you?”

“TWENTY FUCKING DOLLARS!?” Eddy screamed at the top of his lungs.

Little John wasn’t responding. Robin nudged his arm while looking up and realized he couldn’t see his head. “Joh-Johnny? You alright, lad?”

“Hm?” Little John woke up groggily. Restraining himself toward Eddy had drained his remaining energy and he had promptly rested his chin on the roof of the van and fell asleep.

“Johnny, do you have a twenty spot on you?”

Elsewhere, Eddy was drowning in his own saliva.

“Hm. Oh, yeah. Why?”

“Because we’re negotiating,” -- a wink in the eye on the side of his head which the Eds couldn’t see -- “with our friend Eddy for room and board.”

“Oh, sure, fine by me,” Little John said sloppily as he fished in his jacket pocket and produced a Jackson.

Money!” cried out the only one of the five who could be reasonably expected to cry that out.

Eddy went for the piece of paper in Little John’s hand, but the bear boredly held it up to the roof, out of Eddy’s reach. The tiny fox jumped on the edge of the water bed trying to get the leverage to reach the outheld dollar, whimpering in money-lust the whole time, until after a half a dozen bounces he arced too far forward and fell out of the van between Little John and Robin, landing in the dirt with a thump.

“I insist,” insisted Double-D, “keep the money. After hearing what you’ve been through, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night knowing I extorted money out of you in exchange for basic decency. I only hope this humble abode sufficiently suits your needs.”

“Please don’t say ‘sleep,’” Little John murmured lazily, eyes struggling to stay open. Then they burst open with the feeling of an unwelcome touch and a now-familiar sound of whimpering. “He-hey! Get the hell off me, kid!”

Eddy was trying to do the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest during an earthquake as he clambered up the squirming bear, trying to get the legal tender at the end of his arm.

“Eddy, get down from there!” scolded Double-D.

“You have to respect his resilience,” noted Robin.

Little John wiggled violently and Eddy lost his footing; another few shakes and he was splayed on the ground again.

“Goddamn, kid....” Little John said incredulously.

“Aw, c’mon!” Eddy growled as soon as he got back up. “I’m not giving up my property without proper reimbursement!”

“Eddy, we wouldn’t be able to split twenty dollars three ways anyway.”

“Sure you can! Ten, ten, and fifteen! Now cough up the dough!”

“Oh--! Mr. Hood, you’ll have to trust me that Eddy is not an accurate representation of the average product of the American schooling system!”

“It’s quite alright, my boy,” Robin reassured. Neither of them believed what Double-D said.

“My money!” Eddy screamed while pounding on the ground on which he sat, looking not unlike a toddler in more ways than usual.

“Mr. Hood, Mr. Little, you’re going to have to forgive my two associates for leaving without saying goodbye.” With that, Double-D pulled out the ace up his sleeve. He stepped out of the van and took a spot next to Robin to clear the exit. “Oh, Ed? Isn’t there a movie marathon on the Sci-Fi Channel this afternoon?”

Ed perked up. “Movie marathon?”

“And I’m sure that Eddy would hate to miss it, too!”

“Uh… Double-D?” Eddy whimpered.

Monster movies!” Ed hollered as he sat up straight from his semi-reclining position -- and promptly hit his head on the roof of the van. Undeterred, he twisted himself out of the van, forced his way past Double-D and the strangers, picked up Eddy, threw him over his shoulder, and ran off toward home.

“Ed!” Eddy shrieked, “There’s a marathon on every weekend! Calm down! Double-D, don’t you want jawbreakers!?”

Ed screeched to a halt. “Wait. Something is missing.” Ed turned back to the three by the van. “Double-D, aren’t you coming, too?”

“I’ll be right behind you, Ed! I’m just seeing off our new friends!”

“OKAY!” Ed cheered as he ran off. “More monster movie for Ed and Eddy!”

Ed!” cried Eddy. And then they were gone.

The other three just stood there watching, horrified, amused, and astounded.

“...Welp!” Little John broke the silence. “Thanks for the room! G’night!” He offered a two-finger temple salute before starting to crawl into the van.

“Little John, we haven’t said our goodbyes yet!” Robin corrected.

“Well, for fuck’s sakes, Mom, aren’t you tired, too?” Little John backed out and took a seat on the dirt, leaning lazily against the van. He still towered over the fox and the wolf from his seated position.

“Absolutely exhausted,” Robin clarified and turned to the young wolf, whom all three found was curiously still a solid few inches taller than Robin. “Eddward, I cannot thank you enough for your help. Little John and I are indebted to you. We may move some of your stuff around for comfort’s sake, but I assure you, this van will be as pristine as you left it.”

“And we’ll be gone as soon as we have somewhere else to go,” Little John added, “With any luck, we might be gone by morning.”

“Oh, good sirs, it’s a pleasure to be able to aid you in your time of need. If you’d like, I can stop by periodically to check in on how you’re doing. Perhaps I can provide you with some supplies. Some toiletries, perhaps?”

“Eddward, you needn’t worry about us. We’ve been through tougher hardships than this; we’ll be just fine.”

“Oh, but I insist! Can I at least fetch you some hand sanitizer? Or perhaps I can take down the number of your landlord and call to ask for updates on the situation of the--?”

“Eddward, Eddward, Eddward. You’ve assisted us in being able to live our lives; now we ask that you not let us impede you in living yours. Would you do that for us?”

Double-D thought for a moment. “Well, Mr. Hood, I offered our place to you because I wanted to do the right thing… I suppose heeding your well-wishing would be the next logical step toward that end.”

“Attaboy, lad! I hope your parents know they raised a good boy.”

Double-D’s cheeks grew hot with this affirmation of his goodness.

“Mr. Hood, it’s been a pleasure to meet you and I certainly do hope to see you again before you depart. And to you, Mister--” Double-D glanced at Little John dozing against the van. “Oh, he’s fallen asleep again.”

“Just because my eyes are closed and I’m not talking or moving doesn’t mean I’m asleep,” Little John corrected.

“Oh! My apologies, Mr. Little!”

“No, kid, listen… Jesus, I-- I’m sorry I’ve been such a… well, a bear to you and your friends, but seriously, I’m really fucking tired. But you helped us out big here, kid. I appreciate it. Hey,” Little John said as he placed a big paw on Double-D’s shoulder. “You seem like a good guy. Saying you wanna do what’s right. I like that. Don’t lose that.” Then he said something that he couldn’t decide if it would be nice to say or just odd, but he decided to say it anyway on the grounds that he didn’t know if he’d ever get a chance to say it again. “You kinda remind me of myself when I was your age… except you seem a lot fucking smarter.”

“Well it seems that Little John’s blabbering in his fatigue, so maybe it really is best we finally retire for the night,” Robin said, the fatigue finally starting to get to him as well. “...or, the day, rather. And it seems like you’d best be getting back to your friends. Who knows where they’ll wind up without their leader?”

Leader? Double-D’s face lit up like a Christmas tree when he heard that. He had fancied himself many things, but this was never among them. And he was liking the idea of it.

“Uh-- yes, sir, Mr. Hood! I won’t let you down!” And off he went to seek his fortune as a leader of men. Robin and John watched with tired smiles as he ran off until he was out of sight.

“Jesus fuck, I’m going to sleep now,” Little John bellowed as soon as the strange young wolf was gone, and started crawling back into the van..

“Johnny, if you bring out their generators and such, I’ll move them around the side.”

“You’re lucky I don’t want to breathe in gasoline fumes,” John grumbled as he started extracting the goods.

“And after that, can you retrieve our weapons and put them in the front seat?”

“I suppose I could.”

“And can you sweep the glass out of there while you’re in the neighborhood?”

“Robin, I’m going to fucking kill you.”

“No, you won’t.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right.”

Little John got the obstacles out and went around the side to reach for the bow, arrow, staff and supplies under the van.

“Those kids were weird,” Little John noted.

“I can’t disagree, but they had their charms. But I’m glad we didn’t give them the money. The look of greed in that fox lad’s eyes told me he wouldn’t be spending it in a worthwhile way. But I could be wrong.”

“Hey, I was asleep for half of that,” Little John said from under the vehicle. “And you’ve used the word ‘lad’ more today than I’ve heard from you in years. I thought I did a good enough job infecting you with the Americanism!”

“Honestly, John, I think I was forcing it, especially since it seemed to be winning over that wolf boy. He clearly equated my accent and dialect to intelligence, regardless of how much slang I used.”

Little John barely heard half of that, partially because his hearing was muffled, and partially because he was distracted by something he found under the van that didn’t belong to either of them, but which he had been thinking they could use. “Oh, hello…”

“What was that?”

“Erm-- I was just thinking, could that wolf kid ever start a sentence without ‘oh’? Was he even capable of it?”

“I was thinking more about that bear that really did seem to think that we were him and his friend from the future. And you thought poor Martin had issues…” Robin’s voice seemed to have a different auditory quality to it now, as if coming from a different place.

Little John was listening just enough to carry the conversation as he inspected his treasure. “Martin wasn’t talking, whereas this kid was using big words out of nowhere every so often. He’s definitely got something going on, but he’s not retarded.” The identification number was still intact, so he’d have to do something about that, and while he didn’t want to make a noise by unloading the cartridge, he could estimate from the weight that it was probably loaded. But with any luck, he’d never need to find out.

“I never said he was, now did I?”

“Yeah, well you insinuated it.” Little John opened the passenger’s side door to put his new security blanket in the glove compartment. “Hey, you’re already laying down!?”

“I needed to stake my claim, or your big arse would have bumped me out!”

Little John very quietly opened the glove box and put the piece inside. “Haven’t you Brits staked your claim on enough?”

“Your Manifest Destiny has nothing on the English Empire!”

He needed something to cover it with, just in case. “Hey, whatever happened to that first-aid pouch thing?”

“Oh, of course!” Robin tossed it over the front seats without looking and it smacked off the dashboard and landed on the glass-covered seat. “There ya go!”

“Hey, c’mon, Rob, it landed right in the glass!”

“Well, there’re Band-Aids in there if you cut yourself!”

Little John used the pouch to sweep as much glass as he could out of the seat and off the floor out of the van. “We ought to at least put a plastic bag over this window to repay them.”

“Good idea! First thing in the morning… or the evening!”

Sweep, sweep, sweep.

“Now you got me thinking about if those kids were our past selves.”

“In your timeline, do I become English later in life, or am I just always American?”

“I mean, honestly, a little part of me is thinking about how I fucking wish I was that kid’s size at his age. Hell, I didn’t even catch their ages, and I know I wasn’t his size at his age. That guy’s gonna be fucking huge. And that fox would probably kill to be as tall as you.”

“It really is a little part of you that’s thinking about this, isn’t it?”

“Oh, shut up. But more than that, I’m thinking… what if we were friends when we were kids? Ignore the transatlantic shit; really, would we stick together as adults? Would we be doing… this?”

“I sure hope we’d stick together. But who would our wolf friend be?”

“Fuck, I dunno, Woodland?”

Heh. Don’t make me laugh, Little John. I don’t have the energy.”

“Well, then, we’d be three Eds, too, now wouldn’t we be?” Little John got all the glass out as he could and put the first-aid pouch in the glove compartment, trying to conceal the contraband.

“That is a strange coincidence, but it is a rather common name.”

“Not as much as it was in our parents’ generation. And it definitely ain’t as common as John or Robert. But I digress…” Little John slammed the door and made his way to the rear doors, ready to collapse. “Move over,” he said as he opened the gateway to the land of slumber.

“I’ll be telling you the same thing in five minutes.”

Little John crawled in, surprised by the surface of the mattress. “Hey, I didn’t know this was a waterbed! This is cool! These went out of style over a decade ago! I’ve never actually been on one of these!”

“And you may never have if you didn’t choose this life. Just don’t pop it.”

The waterbed shifted under Little John’s weight as he made his way in. “You’re gonna have to close the doors, Rob; I don’t think there’s enough space for me to turn around and reach them.”

Robin got up and stumbled over to the doors to close them. “Little John, the world doesn’t have enough space for you.”

“Preferable to the opposite problem. I say this as an expert authority.” Little John found a comfortable spot and collapsed. “Alright, goodnight.”

With the doors closed, Robin turned and found that his original spot had indeed been annexed by the grizzly, so he just collapsed in his place and closed his eyes. He had enough energy for one more remark: “You know, between you and I, we really do bicker like an old married couple sometimes.”

Robin could barely hear Little John’s muttered response: “Heh, I guess we might as well adopt three kids.”

*A.N.* Not much to say besides tell me whatcha think. I appreciate ya. -D

 

Chapter Text

  1. “Walk of Shame”

If there was one thing about his size Eddy couldn’t complain about, it was his ability to escape through small openings, like Ed’s basement-bedroom window. He would have just waltzed out the front door without a care, but he had been a prisoner in Ed’s clutches. It wasn’t the first time that the cable channel had strained the relations between them.

Sometime during the spring, the channel had begun airing marathons of campy old horror and sci-fi movies every Saturday from 9 to 9 Eastern and Pacific, 8 to 8 Central and Mountain. From the moment Ed heard the announcement, a new tradition began with an almost religious fervor, and Ed effectively was robbed of one-seventh of his week, every week. Eddy and Double-D had had to work around this schedule to interact with him, because they had absolutely no interest in spending twelve hours of their weekend watching films that were so bad that they genuinely couldn’t discern which ones were trying to be taken seriously and which ones were going for an offbeat sense of humor (and which ones didn’t know themselves which they were trying to be), all the while watching their friend twitch and squirm and quiver with visceral reactions to the trash he was watching, rolling in his seat like he was possessed by a demon with no real goals for what to do with its new corporeal body but to mess with it. If it was hard to watch the movies, it was even harder to watch Ed watch them, so Eddy and Double-D always declined Ed’s invitation to come over and bear witness to what Ed would surely regard as the highest of high art.

Eddy, in turn, had specifically asked Ed if he was okay choosing movies over his friends, and Ed answered in his indirect way that he wanted to make time for both, but he could only make a specific interval of time for his movies, which outside of the context of Ed’s terrible addiction may have seemed like a rather cogent answer. But Eddy just saw this as more evidence that the trio was starting to become unwound.

After a particularly rough Memorial Day weekend wherein the channel played old B-movies for sixty consecutive hours (of which Ed managed to stay awake and attentive for fifty-seven), they cut the weekly marathon because quite frankly it was a strange programming decision that was destined to fail from the get-go. Ed was distraught that first Saturday in June on that last weekend of the school year, and Eddy was relieved that this would bring Ed back into the fold and not interrupt his big Plan for the summer, but then it was announced that the channel had brought the block back on for a once-monthly routine on the second Saturday of the month, noon to six; everything in moderation, after all. But for all of Ed’s excitement at the return of his monster movie marathon, the fatigue of the early morning scrambled his brain, and his dire need to ingest the films was unwittingly neglected until Double-D was so kind as to remind him of what Eddy had been consciously trying not to remind him.

So it was that Eddy was involuntarily subjected to the better part of what was surely some strange old film, although Eddy couldn’t have told you much about its plot since he was basically being compulsively and unconsciously manhandled by an auto-gesticulating Ed every forty-five seconds for a decent hour and fifteen minutes, until finally Ed had to let Eddy go so he could relieve himself after drinking an entire two-liter of cola. Eddy made his escape and resolved not to think any more about what bizarre goings-on occured in that basement. After all, he had plenty else to think about.

If one were to ask Eddy in that moment whether he was more pissed about Double-D’s uncle stealing key supplies for his Plan or some random British guy showing up and presenting himself as a living embodiment of everything Eddy wished he could be physically, intellectually and charismatically, Eddy would probably have just jumped at this hypothetical interrogator and clawed his face out, all the while screaming many syllables but not saying a word. It had been a long day and he wanted it to be over, and he was intending to go back to bed as soon as he got home so that it would all end faster, preferably without any impromptu interviewing between now and then. Of course, between his racing mind and his raging fatigue, it could go either way if he were to not be able to sleep for hours, or if he were to pass out for several calendar days.

Ed’s house was only two doors down from Eddy’s, a journey made even shorter if one were to disregard the curved sidewalk around the bell of the cul-de-sac and just walk straight across the asphalt. But it was still long enough for Eddy to stew in a bitter mix of anger and depression, and seeing the other neighborhood youths out and about enjoying this sunny Saturday in June did nothing to help assuage his frustration.

Immediately to the right of Ed’s house was the house where Jimmy (“The Poor, Tortured Soul”) Hutchinson lived as a rare only child in a family of rabbits. Or maybe they were hares; Eddy didn’t care to remember. Jimmy was planting flowers with his platonic gal-pal, Sarah, Ed’s baby sister who looked much more like their parents than Ed did with her strawberry-blonde fur; Sarah also seemed to have inherited both Mrs. Browne’s passive aggression and Mr. Browne’s active aggression. But of course, quickness to anger was a prevailing stereotype of their species, begging the question of whether Ed was unnaturally placid for both his species and his family, or if his brain was just so low-functioning that he couldn’t access that side of himself except under extreme duress (then again, with regards to other stereotypes of grizzlies being gluttonous, unhygienic and downright dumb, Ed certainly had those boxes checked, so outside observers like Eddy had to consider that perhaps it was the rest of his family who were the weird ones). Suffice it to say that contemplative thoughts about Sarah’s hot-headed temper and Jimmy’s insistence that he be protected from the world at all times were inspired by the dirty looks that they gave Eddy when he regarded them.

Therefore he averted his gaze and looked straight ahead, where he saw Johnny “Two-by-Four” Holden, the weird big-headed koala kid who hung out with an imaginary friend in the form of a plank of wood which was (rather unimaginatively) named Plank. Johnny was fishing in the open manhole cover in the middle of the circle, and another rod was set up so that Plank could fish too. Eddy often wondered if all the children of former hippies turned out like Johnny, and was glad that he himself was the son of two moderately successful salespeople and not two organic urban farmers. Actually, come to think of it, Eddy wondered if recreational substance use had something to do with how the fur on the top of Johnny’s head was so short and thin that he almost looked bald.

“Hey, Eddy!” Johnny greeted him. “Plank almost caught a real whopper, but the slippery son of a gun got away!”

“Boy, Johnny, that really, uh… that really blows, huh?” Eddy thought it was curious that whenever Johnny said anything remarkable had happened to him and Plank, it was always Plank that had the remarkable thing occur to him. There was probably something about that that spoke volumes about Johnny’s warped psychology, but Eddy didn’t know what it was. He thought for a fleeting second that maybe if being an entrepreneur didn’t pan out, he should find a line of work where he could pose deep psychological questions but would have somebody else around to actually answer them. But Eddy would never need such a fallback plan, as he would never allow himself to quit.

In any case, Johnny didn’t say anything more to Eddy. Eddy couldn’t for the life of him get a clear read on that little freak. In a neighborhood where everybody hated the Eds, there had been some times where Johnny was nice to them when everybody else was ready to kill them, and other times when Johnny wanted to join in on killing them. Hell, among all his other issues, maybe the kid was bipolar too.

Past Johnny, Eddy saw the true workhorse himself, Rolf Schäfer, the Ambiguously Germanic Guy. In a rare moment of not being occupied in his backyard farm, Rolf was mowing the front yard of his house, which was directly across the street from Eddy’s. Eddy sometimes wondered what Rolf’s goals were for the rest of his life. The guy wouldn’t shut the hell up about how his ancestors had been shepherds in the Old Country, but the days of sheep working in serfdom were long past, and sharecropping wasn’t what it used to be, so now the Schäfer family needed the help of hired farmhands like Victor and Wilfrid to keep the operation running. Was Rolf just going to keep this suburban farm going as long as he could? Were Rolf’s parents even making enough to sustain what they had? Did Rolf even realize that there were avenues outside of agriculture?

Rolf reached the sidewalk and stopped his mower for a second to greet Eddy. “Hello, Fat-Tail-and-a-Thin-Wallet Ed-Boy!” the stallion waved. “Shall Rolf fetch his coin purse to purchase a bridge you would like to sell Rolf!?”

Eddy was disappointed when, seventeen milliseconds after the end of that sentence, he realized Rolf was being sarcastic. “Uhm-- Not today, Rolfie boy,” Eddy stammered. He wondered why Rolf didn’t just have Victor cut the grass, on the grounds that the goat would probably jump at the chance to take the grass clippings home to feed his family. Then Eddy wondered if that thought would sound racist if he said it out loud. Then he figured it was too late to un-think it regardless.

The last two he saw were the pair that broke his heart. It wasn’t so much that they were official now that was surprising, but that after all this time of their mutual attraction being the cul-de-sac’s worst-kept secret that they bothered making it official at all. At the corner, the bastard hyena Kevin Lafferty was chatting up the girl of his dreams (and Eddy’s dreams, and Ed and Double D’s dreams, as well as Johnny’s and probably Rolf’s and possibly even Jimmy’s dreams, plus the dreams of half the guys they knew from school and probably a few of the girls, too), the bobcat bombshell known simply as Nazz. Kevin half-sat-half-stood in the seat of his bike by the stop sign at Harris Street, and Nazz was standing there smiling and chuckling politely every so often at whatever unfunny shit Kevin was saying. Eddy might have been able to concede that they were a cute couple if he didn’t have personal experience with how much of a mean-spirited twat Kevin was. Eddy would simply never be happy for Nazz as long as she decided that Kevin was a suitable suitor. He wondered what she saw in him. Did every heterosexual female really harbor an unshakeable primitive attraction to men who were domineering, rebellious malcontents, compelling them to yearn for these browbeat bullies against their better judgment? Whether or not that was the truth or simply a bad stereotype, it certainly applied to some women out in the big wide world, and Eddy had a sneaking suspicion that Nazz was one of them. If that were the case, and Nazz was driven toward this piece of dick-cheese -- whom she had personally witnessed engage in aggressive and antisocial behavior on several dozen occasions and had gone as far as to personally admonish him for it many of those times -- by forces beyond her control, then Eddy would almost go as far as to say he felt bad for her. But if she had consciously chosen Kevin as a significant other despite bearing witness to all of the horrific shit he’d done, then he would feel relieved, because evidently there would be no reality where Eddy and Nazz have a healthy future together. Or maybe she just hated short guys.

Kevin saw Eddy walk to toward the driveway of his house, which was next to Kevin’s own. Nazz saw Kevin focus on something past her and turned to see Eddy as well. Kevin gave a steady glare to the fox he regarded as the single most annoying creature to ever walk the planet; Nazz maintained her friendly smile and waved at Eddy. She was not evil, at least not yet.

Eddy faked a smile and waved back to be polite to Nazz, even though he was sure that Kevin wouldn’t take it well. Eddy fully expected Kevin to give him the finger or to very loudly call him a dork, but instead he just kept glaring, his eyes following Eddy until he was at his stoop. Nazz said something to Kevin and Kevin turned back to Nazz, and Eddy turned his back on both of them, opened his door and walked inside.

He was alone. Saturday was a busy work day for his parents. At present, his father was sweating in the sun in the lot of a used-car dealership and his mother was shivering in one of the many overly-air-conditioned boutique stores in the luxury mall where Lemon Brook met the coast. There was a reason why Terry and Toni never discouraged their sons from trying to make money by any means necessary.

But -- while Eddy would never say this to their faces -- he didn’t much envy his parents’ sales skills as much as he did his brother’s, because his parents may have been successful, but they weren’t gifted at their trade. His brother was gifted at selling stuff. It wasn’t just that his parents weren’t as rich as Eddy would like to be himself, because his brother certainly wasn’t either. His brother was barely scraping by on the West Coast or wherever he was by now. But his brother had gotten successful enough at an early age to move out at seventeen and bounce around the country in the years since, answering to nobody but himself. Terry and Toni were good enough at their craft, but still, here they were, living in a middle-class suburb with bosses to answer to. Their elder son was simply a huckster prodigy, and he probably still had plenty of time to become a millionaire by thirty if he could just restructure his business model and stop being so complacent with breaking even. It was weird, because there was a time in his youth that Eddy’s brother had actually been dead-set on defying the vulpine stereotype and living on the straight and narrow, but then something-something happened with some shitbag kids -- Eddy had never known exactly what; he had only ever heard bits and pieces of the story, which occured when Eddy was a baby and their family was still living in the city -- after which his brother said fuck it, the life of a shifty scammer fox was the life for him. Eddy thought it was probably actually a good thing that happened, otherwise his brother would never have found his true calling in life. But this was something he’d never say to his brother’s face -- along with “Hey, bro, let’s go into business together,” and “Hey, bro, maybe other people think that tie makes you look more professional, but I know your secret, and you’ve completely failed at your goal of popularizing ties as a part of casual wear, and to me you look like a fucking tool.” Eddy still wanted to collapse in bed, but first he had to visit a certain room of the house.

What drove them?

That’s what he was wondering as he was alone with his thoughts. All those kids outside, lackadaisically enjoying the first day of what was sure to be one of their last summer breaks: How could they just waste their time like that? Had they no sense of urgency? Did they fundamentally misunderstand the progression of linear time? Were they really okay with waiting until they were older to get ahead in life?

It was conflicting: when he laid eyes upon them, he didn’t see children anymore. He saw them as very young adults with adult needs and demands, like fake IDs so they could acquire adult beverages and other adult accessories and engage in adult activities, all so that they may feel what it’s like to be an adult, even if nobody was convinced of their maturity except themselves and the company they kept. And yet they surely couldn’t be adults because they had no apparent appetite for success. What were these creatures who surrounded him?

From where he sat, he could close his eyes and faintly hear the sounds of the adolescents’ merrymaking outside. He could visualize them running through the same repertoire of insipid, hedonistic time-wasting activities as time sped up and they all aged until they disintegrated into viscous mounds of pus and bones and viscera and dust. He thought he was nearly going to vomit from the vision of it.

Look at ‘em: unbeholden to the allure of silver-gray coins and unmoved by the siren song of sickly-green paper. Surely they couldn’t simply be ignorant of its joys and beauty; if they were, they wouldn’t be so hesitant to part with the money they already had. How were they content with some without having an insatiable yearning for more? Would they live and die this way? Could he save them? Should he want to? After all, this way there was less competition for him and his ventures. But maybe if they were more sympathetic to his cause, they wouldn’t be such tough customers. Eddy knew that many would pity him for what seemed to be an unhealthy obsession, but he quite frankly thought that the many were wrong.

Oh, and those goddamn goons, the wolf and the bear. They didn’t even like money for its own merits, they just wanted what money could buy. Yes, they appreciated it enough to help him in his exploits to gather it, inasmuch as they wanted a cut, but they were almost as bad as the other denizens of the cul-de-sac. It wasn’t so much that Ed and Double-D were a step above the other kids as much as there was a slight ridge in the floor and the two of them were on the imperceptibly-higher side of it. And the both of them could stand to either prove their loyalty or buzz off and stop teasing him.

Double D. Oh, Double-D. That poor poor dear. Did he realize he was never going to be the main character in his own life? Did Double-D know that regular people simply did not value the way he hoarded a massive surplus of impractical knowledge in his head? Eddy knew that modern wolf culture had, for the most part, started downplaying their centuries-old alpha/beta/omega caste system several generations ago, but sometimes we all have to embrace even the ugliest parts of our heritage. Double-D inarguably had the intellect of an alpha but the personality of an omega, and his omega personality so greatly outweighed his brain that he would be lucky if that averaged out to the overall status of a weak beta. Eddy felt bad for him. Eddy felt bad for all of those kids out there, but he especially pitied Double-D. If the kid had a heart to match his head, he’d be a force to be reckoned with, but as it was, he’d only ever be a tool used to build someone else’s machine of success. Eddy considered that he ought to help Double-D develop himself to be all he could be, but he decided against it, partially because he had no reason to believe that Double-D would ever be capable of becoming such a person, and partially because Eddy simply did not have the time.

And Ed. Ed, Ed, Ed. Silly old bear. The whole “comically dumb” schtick was starting to get old. What the hell was he going to do with his life? How could somebody possibly be so stupid and useless? If Double-D’s highest prospect was the life of a right-hand man, Ed would be too at-risk of fucking up at such a job to have a feasible future in that industry. Were they sure there wasn’t something clinically wrong with him? Was he ever taken to get diagnosed? What if his parents didn’t want him getting formally diagnosed because then their son would be put in Special Ed (no pun intended) and then the whole world would find out that Hill and Matilda Browne were actually siblings or cousins or something and Ed was inbred which would explain the low intelligence and the monobrow and the eyes being too far apart on his head and then the Browne parents agreed to have Matilda secretly fuck some other guy to conceive Sarah as a ruse that everything was alright genetically with them, but now their cover was blown and everything was conclusively not alright and the whole world would know and, and, and…

That endless train of thought ground to a halt to give right-of-way to a startling realization. It wasn’t even a particularly novel thought, and he had many similar thoughts time and time again before, including one that lead to this conclusion as part of an instantaneous series of synapses that transpired in the background while his forefront focus went on a rollercoaster making an impromptu conspiracy theory about why Ed was such an ugly-lookin’ son of a bitch.

First it was the common thought: Eddy hung out with a drooling idiot who liked sci-fi shit and horror movies and comic books and jawbreakers, and an overeducated living conglomeration of anxiety who liked science and math and technology and jawbreakers; Eddy himself liked money and cash and currency and capitalism and classic tunes on vinyl records and vintage print pornography and money and jawbreakers. Okay, not the first time he’d confronted that notion. He was aware that he actually had very little in common with his friends.

But as the brain of a sapient creature sometimes does, it takes a thought its bearer has had a thousand times over and invites itself to modify it to paint a picture that seems new despite all the parts being the same.

Eddy did not believe he had any real friends.

He had nobody whose presence he found more enjoyable than annoying; nobody whom he could trust in any situation that may arise in a million years of eventualities; nobody whom he could recruit to be the best man at his wedding or the godfather of his children. It wasn’t just that Eddy didn’t have someone with whom to share a fraternal bond stronger than the one he shared with his actual brother -- indeed, most people aren’t so fortunate; but Eddy did not feel like there was somebody in his life that he could accurately describe as a “friend” without some modifiers attached to damn them by faint praise.

The intrusive sound of flushing reset his brain, and the torturous thoughts were gone from him. Instead, as he waltzed his way toward his bed, he thought again about how he was going to rebound from having his supplies stolen.  He entertained the thought of tracking down Chief Woodland and stealing the laminate kit back, but between the three Eds, thievery was not a skill anywhere among them. He figured he would just have to bite the bullet and buy more if he ever wanted to catch up to his brother. But then again, catching up to him shouldn’t be too hard as long as his brother was still living out of a van--

Oh yeah, those weirdos in the van. As Eddy collapsed into bed, he wondered where they had come from and where they were going to go. Well, he thought, maybe he shouldn’t call them weird. At least not yet. He didn’t know their story. All he knew was that it was just the two of them. Hey, he had just been pondering whether anybody really has a legendarily tight platonic friendship; maybe that was what one of them looked like. Or maybe they really were a couple and they didn’t like that Eddy seemed to be disapproving of them. Whatever the case, as long as the van was clean when they vacated it, and there were no signs of a destructive drunken bro-out nor mysterious stains in the mattress, he could force himself not to pass judgment on these strangers, if for no other reason than he had more important things to think about.

And God knows he wanted to stop thinking about them, especially that British guy who seemed to have had every genetic marker land heads-side-up. Roger, or Robin, or whatever his name was. Eddy had paid paranoid attention to the guy, trying to keep a running tally of readily-evident pros and cons about this guy, hoping the cons would outnumber the pros so that Eddy could feel better about his own insecurities.

Alas, all the flaws he could come up with weren’t even that bad: Robin’s lack of gloves was kind of weird (but maybe only other foxes would notice that), his eyes looked kinda-sorta bulgey from the side (though Eddy’s brother probably had it worse), the sideburn fur on the side of his cheeks pointed out a weirdish angle that made it look like a triangle with the tip broken off (or maybe he brushed it that way and it was a fashion statement that Eddy didn’t have the style or confidence to pull off himself?), he wasn’t quite ripped like a vulpine Adonis (but at his size, would he need to be?), he still hung out with someone who made him look tiny (but that comes with the territory of being a member of the cleverest species), and he was British (lame). Oh, and now he may or may not have lasting scars on the palms of his paws because of a momentary lapse in judgment; that could be one or two more for the list. Time would tell.

But other than that, Eddy had just been face-to-face with a physical manifestation of the person he wished he could be: tall, lean, handsome, charismatic, persuasive, smart -- Double-D was so convinced that he was talking to a genius that he was displaying more respect and admiration for this gentleman fox after knowing him for fifteen minutes than he ever gave to Eddy after knowing him for a decade. Eddy had no idea that such a perfect specimen could even exist, and now that he did, he was pissed that it was somebody else and that it would never be him.

Then again, it was entirely possible that he’d overslept that morning, and that this was all a bad dream. Maybe it was simply a nightmare that he had been confronted by a manifestation of all the things he wanted to be and knew he never could, and that scene was actually the third act of a much grander production wherein he wasted hours of his finite time on this earth hiding in a van for fear of apprehension by Double-D’s uncle who had been MIA for the better part of a decade, who then appropriated key supplies for Eddy’s great new plan to flip to some government employees who probably already have plenty of the shit, and he was somehow such a bumbling idiot that he got within a few feet of them but couldn’t seal the deal because his partner (who was a mouse or something?) got the better of him, and the both of them were only there in the first place because somebody saw big stupid Ed fucking around in the junkyard and causing an avalanche of trash, and saw Eddy too, but somehow not Double-D, although maybe that stupid hat of his was enough to confuse the eyewitness on what species the kid was, and so the cops were only informed that their wanted fugitives were a bear and a fox, maybe even only a bear and a fox and no wolf, and wouldn’t Eddy have been pissed if he and Ed got booked but Double-D got off scot free on a lack of a warrant or however it works, so they would only arrest the bear and the fox because that’s who they had clearance to arrest, the bear and the fox but no wolf, but none of this insanity matters because wait wait wait stop stop stop stop stop.

Wait.

 

*A.N* Probably some shorter (relatively) chapters coming up after this. Now watch the next one wind up being five times as long as this lul. Thanks for watching, folks. -D

Chapter Text

  1. “Ward Goes to the Mayor”

The gothic-revival office building took up an entire city block, and while it certainly wasn’t the tallest building in town, it had more floors than any building you would see in the suburbs. Everyone called it city hall, which wasn’t incorrect, but it didn’t paint the complete picture. It chiefly contained the mayor’s office and the offices of all of his council members, but also all of the offices for all the municipal departments (public works and all that); precincts for the city, county, and state police departments (being the main precinct of the first two); a few floors of other offices for private businesses; and a shopping center and food court on the ground floor and basement levels, just for good measure. It had been an idea under the mayorhood of Richard Norman to maybe start moving the contents of the building around, just in case heaven forbid there was a fire or something like that, then not everything would be taken out at once. But his little brother’s administration had other priorities.

That younger brother sat impatiently at his desk, his chair turned to face the wide window on the north edge of the room. He wasn’t bored for lack of things he wanted to do. He would have much preferred to hop on the phone and start talking up his donors, or proposing some new laws and regulations to his helpless council just for the hell of it, or even gussying himself up in the mirror or simply counting his cash. But he knew the second that he started occupying himself, the imbecile would finally show up. He understood that the Chief had to drive in all the way from Georgetown, park in the garage on the second basement level, take the elevator up, absentmindedly get off on the wrong floor, be possessed to stop at the food court and grab some fries or a chicken sandwich or something, take the elevator to the fifth floor, go through security, get on the other elevator to reach the top floor, and take a solid five minutes trying to remember where the mayor’s office was. But he was still furious that it was taking this long.

So he sat there, looking out on the city over which he ruled, twiddling his thumbs to ward off an embarrassing compulsive habit of his, and trying really hard not to move any part of his head or his face so that his top hat wouldn’t slide over his eyes again. The top hat, antiquated as it was, was an old family heirloom dating back to the Victorian Era in the Old Country, reserved for the preeminent head of the Norman family. Richard didn’t take it with him to Washington because he thought it would be a silly look for the national stage, but John had no qualms about taking it for himself. John had tried to have it padded so that it wouldn’t keep sliding down his gaunt and thinly-maned head, but every expert he showed the hat to insisted that modifying it would ruin it. And yet this old thing was basically a crown in his family line, so wearing it precariously was better than not wearing it at all.

There was a thump at the thick wooden doors to his backside. It wasn’t a knock; it was a thump. That’s how he knew it wasn’t Chief Woodland.

“Come in, Hiss.”

There was a struggle with the handlebar doorknob, and it opened slightly and shut back on itself a few times as the mayor’s assistant had trouble propping it open enough to get into the gap, but eventually the weasel got his foot in the door and was able to weasel his way though.

“You didn’t use your mouth, did you?” the gangly lion asked without turning his head.

“No, Your Majesty, I wouldn’t think of it.” After all these years, Charles “Hiss” Hess didn’t even think anymore about how odd it might seem that he referred to the mayor as “Your Majesty”; what had started out as a condition of his employment became just a force of habit, and since his boss had shown him more dignity than most people in his life had (especially since the accident), he was more than happy to indulge him in his regal fantasies. Besides, he loved his work; it provided him with opportunities he’d never imagined he’d have.

“That’s a good boy, Hiss,” the so-called prince praised passively, again without looking; he had to keep steady to keep that hat on his head, after all. “Now, what is it that demands my attention? You know I’m expecting company soon.”

“That’s just the thing, sssire,” the weasel replied with another one of his monikers for his employer. The genesis of his own serpentine nickname was a perfect storm of not just his last name and a highly-noticeable physical attribute (or lack thereof) that he shared with snakes, but also for how the gap in his teeth gave him a lisp that made s sounds sound a bit like a th- , but even more so like a hissing sound, something he liked to exaggerate for effect every so often when the moment seemed right. “I’ve finished cleaning up the record-books and now I’m ready for the next assignment. Perhaps I can arrange for something to help pass the time until the Chief and his deputy arrive?”

“No, no, Hiss, they’ll be here any time now, and I’m sure there’s more paperwork somewhere if you look for it.”

“Ah, but I insssist, milord!” His favorite part of his job was getting closer to power than he had ever thought possible. “Please, let me pour you a glass of wine to ease your troubled mind!”

“Hiss, do you really think of me as the kind of man who would get drunk before a very important meeting!?”

“Sire, one drink will not do you ill! And wouldn’t it make a meeting with Chief Woodland all the more bearable?”

Prince John finally turned his head to the persistent weasel. “Hiss, what on earth is with your insistence on giving me a glass of wine? Are you plotting to poison me!?”

“Oh, nonononono, Your Majesty! I just hate to see you so tense! It’s my job to serve you, after all, and why should I not take initiative?”

“Because you’re pestering me at an inconvenient time.” He turned his head back to the window; this time, the hat slipped down over his eyes. For a moment, he just sat there like that, at once too angry and mortified to acknowledge the shame. Then he finally allowed himself to readjust it and grumbled, “Oh, to hell with it, give me half a glass. And use the slip-ons!”

“Why, of courssse, milord,” Hiss bowed and made his way to the swivel chair in the corner that was just for him. He jostled it out of the corner with one of his feet and gently pushed it along with his hips until he got to where the wine rack and glasses were. He then scurried over to the next corner down the wall, where there was a box of sterilized latex gloves, also expressly for his usage. He nudged the box down to the wine station with his foot; he’d have put them on in the corner, but he didn’t want to get them dirty.

John Norman was still in a “I-could-take-it-or-leave-it” mood for the wine, but what made up his mind was his fascination with how Hiss managed to find elaborate ways to pull off tasks that the able-bodied would find all too simple. It was absolutely a spectacle to behold, and was a major reason why he kept the weasel employed when others would call it impractical (though many would say it was one of the least impractical things about how he ran the city). One could even say that to the Prince Mayor, watching Hiss do anything other than walk and breathe was almost hypnotizing.

Hiss was carefully slipping the gloves on his feet, making sure he still had the dexterity of his toes. He grappled the wine bottle by the neck, hooking his big toe under it for added grasp, and used his other foot to carefully slip the cork out. Wine was poured to the point where the glass was exactly half full, and the bottle was lowered back onto the counter, its surface perfectly parallel to the bottom of the bottle. The bottle was recorked, and Hiss slipped the neck of the glass between the toes of one foot while using his other foot to push himself and the chair across the thinly-carpeted floor.

John shifted a bit in his seat to better face Hiss as he came to deliver the drink. Now that he knew it was coming anyway, he was developing a genuine craving for it, and was beginning to feel a tinge of legitimate thirst. He reached out to his right to grab the glass from Hiss’s gloved foot, but Hiss kept scooting along just out of the mayor’s reach, parking himself right in front of him so that Prince John had to move back into his original position.

“Why, th-thank you, Hiss,” he reached out one hand again to grab the glass while using the other to keep the hat over his brow. “I really--”

“But wait, Majesty! Let us give it a nice good ssswirl…” Hiss insisted, and he started slowly swaying the glass right and left and a little more right and a bit more left, the liquid making waves that crashed upon the rim. “A steady ssswirl will be good for the flavor. Don’t you agree, sssire?”

“H-Hiss, please just, er… please just give me my--”

“But it’s not quite ready, now isss it?”

The liquid rocked back and forth like a pendulum that was just so damned enthralling to watch, and as Hiss kept his focus on his boss’s face, he was glad that he wasn’t returning eye contact.

“It’s been sitting in that bottle for ssso long, milord,” Hiss said in his best attempt at cooing someone into tranquility. “We’d best ensure there are no sssediments.”

John Norman wasn’t saying a word. He didn’t quite look like he’d yet been made to lose conscious control of his body, but it looked like he was on his way there. Charles knew that this probably wouldn’t be the day he’d pull it off, but practice makes perfect.

“You know I have your best interests in mind, sssire,” Hiss murmured, very much making a point to incorporate s sounds near the ends of his sentences as he worked his magic.

In an interesting development, John’s lips peeled apart from one another and his jaw started sliding open. Hiss also noticed that the mayor hadn’t blinked for a bit. Hey, maybe this would be the day. A bit ahead of schedule, but no complaining there. Granted, he didn’t have quite a solid plan for what to do next, but if he had actually successfully wrested control of the mayor, he’d have plenty of time to figure it out.

But this would not be the day that Charles Hess would put his improvisation skills to the test. The knock at the door broke the trance with a visible tic on the lion’s gaunt face. Hiss stopped swinging the glass immediately and quelled the shit-eating grin that had been brewing on his face so Prince John wouldn’t realize what he’d been trying to pull.

Op -!” Mayor Norman spit out. “I-- I appear to have blacked out there again. Oh, my, I do need to see my physician about that--”

Knock knock knock . “Mister Mayor! Do ya want us to come in or not!?” An annoyingly familiar voice was getting agitated.

Prince John grabbed the glass of wine and swung around toward the door. “Oh, yes, yes, come in! The door’s open!” he hollered before taking a long swig.

The Chief of the Nottingham Police Department welcomed himself in, with his deputy reluctantly standing on his shoulder, trying to keep balance despite his superior’s horrible posture and bouncy, ungracious swagger.

Hiss stood from his chair and went over to greet the guests, nudging the swivel chair into the corner along the way. He made a mental note that he could probably have better luck winning over the mayor if he only could get his feet on a pocket watch, but since his job was to wait on Prince John more or less around the clock, stepping away to go buy a nifty accessory would be a bit of a challenge.

“How’s it goin’, Prince John?” the wolf greeted, then regarded the weasel. “Hiya, Chuckie.”

Hiss simply nodded and bowed a bit; he, like Nutzinger, didn’t exchange polite greetings aloud because they knew that Mayor Norman wanted to get to to business as soon as possible.

“It’s going poorly, Chief Woodland,” the lion grumbled. “Very, very, poorly. But I may have an idea to remedy our situation. Have a seat, you two.”

Woodland sat himself down in the chair opposite Mayor Norman. Nutzinger did his best to not fall over in the process, grabbing Woodland’s ear when he nearly lost his balance.

“Gah! Nutsy!”

“I wouldn’t’ve had to grab onto you if you were more elegant when you sat down, jackass.”

“Deputy Nutzinger, I can have Charles fetch you your own seat if you’d like,” the mayor offered, gesturing to the weasel standing at attention to the side.

“You tell me, boss,” Nutzinger answered. “I can stand right here if we aren’t gonna be here for, like, five hours. And if this guy can sit still for two minutes.”

To that, Woodland reached his arm up and flicked his thick finger on the squirrel’s gut. Nutzinger contained his exclamation of discomfort and pretended he didn’t feel anything.

“Well, we’ll certainly be here much longer than we need to be if you two don’t stop behaving like children!” Prince John scolded and gulped down the rest of his wine. “Thank you for the wine, Charles; I needed that.”

“Certainly, Mayor,” Hiss answered, less inclined to charm him with a hiss in the presence of company.

“Anyway, gentlemen,” Mayor Norman continued, “I’ve had a thought cross my mind as of late. I had thought it was quite the silly idea, but I may be having a change of heart now that I hear that you, Chief Woodland, have found a settlement in Sherwood Forest -- is that so, Eddward?”

“Absolutely, Mister Mayor!” the chief beamed. “And every indication is that it’s where the bandits live!”

“How so? Elucidate me.”

“Wh-what?”

“Explain the settlement, dumbass,” the squirrel muttered into his boss’s ear.

“Well, uh… there were a bunch of clothes in there. A lot of eyewitness reports say that the suspects are a fox and a bear, and I think the clothes were about the right size.”

“You think ,” answered the mayor. It was not a question.

“I do think that. Yes, Mayor.”

“What proof have you that they belong to a fox and a bear, Woodland?”

“Well, they were about the right size--”

“Do you or your department have any concrete proof that the assailants are a fox and a bear, Chief Woodland?”

“We have a whole bunch of eyewitnesses that say--”

“We’ve also had eyewitnesses over the years reporting coyotes, raccoons, badgers, wolves, wolverines, hippos, rhinos, and as recently as twelve hours ago, a pig.”

“I-I know that, uh--”

“Tell me, Woodland, what kind of fox and bear?”

“I know that one! A red one!”

“A red bear?”

“No, no, the bear’s brown! Or… tan? Orange! But, um, closer to brown than orange--?”

“Deputy Nutzinger, have you anything to add to this?”

“Sir, no, sir. Chief told me to stay by the road and make sure nobody took off with the car.”

“No, I didn’t! I told him to stay there to make sure no civilians went into the woods while we were investigating.”

“And to make sure they didn’t steal the car.”

“Nutsy!”

Again .”

“Enough!” roared the lion. “I have other things to accomplish today than to watch you two have a row.”

Nutzinger and Woodland stopped talking and turned their eyes toward the mayor. They each gave him a ‘don’t-you-dare-suggest-that-I-was-being-as-much-of-an-asshole-as- he -was’ look.

Prince John let out a light sigh. “Hiss, another glass of wine please?”

“Yes, Mayor!” the weasel vowed as he went off to fetch his swivel chair.

Full this time…” the mayor muttered before he turned his attention back to his chief of police. “Eddward, George, I apologize if I was being rather… catty with my interrogation? Would that be the right word? Sarcastic? Unconstructive?”

Woodland and Nutzinger still weren’t saying a word.

“Well anyway, let me be clear: it wasn’t that what you were saying was wrong , per se, Chief Woodland. The consensus is that there are only two of these bandits still wreaking havoc after all these years, and while they are -- evidently -- masters of disguise, they’ve give us enough clues that the tall, fat one is almost certainly a brown bear, and the small, slender one is either a coyote who looks like a fox, or a short-statured wolf who looks like a fox, or simply a rather tall fox. As for my own encounters with them? They were always either in some stupid get-up or making a quick getaway, but from what I’ve seen, I do espouse the fox-and-bear theory…”

John noticed that Hiss had finished filling his glass in his periphery. He paused to take a long swallow of the wine.

“...But you can’t prove any of it. You’re sloppy, Eddward. You found some clothes that perhaps, just maybe would fit these two? That’s it? No… ‘signs of life,’ shall we say?”

“Well, there were plenty of signs of life! There were sleeping bags and toilet paper and a teapot--”

“That’s not what I meant! I meant proof that the people you’ve been looking for were there!” Prince John was getting flustered and his sentence structure was deteriorating. “Did you see a stash of all that they stole? Did you see weapons? Did you see things with people’s names on them? Did you see them ? You can’t arrest some homeless people because they have toilet paper and a teapot. Or, rather, you can , but at the peril of making the entire city look bad. And you’ll make me look bad for appointing you. And that simply will not do, Eddward.”

Another brief moment of silence as the mayor gulped more wine down. When he finished, he took the remainder of the glass with him as he turned in his chair and stood to walk toward the window.

“Another quiz for you, Chief Woodland: how have we not found them yet over how-many years?”

“Seven! Seven years, Mayor John.”

“Eddward, that wasn’t the question. How do they keep eluding us?”

“Urm-- because they’re great masters of disguise!”

And ?”

“And… they…”

“They’re damn good at hiding, too,” piped in the squirrel.

“There we go! Thank you, George. And since their stomping grounds are right in the grey area of your jurisdiction, surely some of their hiding spots are in the suburbs, and that means what?”

“We have to cooperate with the suburban and county Boys,” answered Nutzinger without even giving Woodland the chance to think; George just wanted to press the fast forward button and have the mayor get to the point, but John Norman had always been a lover of dramatics.

“Precisely!” confirmed Prince John ecstatically.

“I’m sorry, Mayor, but… I’m not really getting where you’re going with all this.”

“Ah, yes, yes, yes. Reeling me in. Thank you, George. Showing more initiative than your commander, I see.”

Woodland knew better than to disagree.

John waltzed toward the left edge of the window and turned his gaze northwest. While the building was surrounded by skyscrapers on three sides, a point had been made not to obstruct the view from the mayor’s office all the way to the northern horizon, and from that window he could see the sea, the Fertile Crescent, and a sizeable thicket of trees bisected by the Georgetown-Millsboro Highway that the mayor now fixed his eyes on.

“Gentlemen, I have been made a fool of by these hooligans. Their capture is of the utmost importance, in a very personal way. And yet I don’t want anybody but my city’s police to be the ones to apprehend them. But! But… I acknowledge the fallacy of all this. I should want to see these mongrels captured by any means necessary. Yet the same minds that provide us with rational thought also fill us with irrational emotions. It’s such a cruel paradox. A travesty! But while I’m sure the men and women of the county and suburban departments are fine officers… they aren’t loyal to me as you two are. You deserve the glory more than they do. More than I do. So you boys can imagine how conflicted I feel when you tell me that now you’ve found a specific location that may be the outlaws’ hideaway. And of course it’s in that infernal purgatory where every department lays claim when it’s convenient for them and shies away when it’s not. It eats me up inside, gentlemen. Truly it does.”

“So are we gonna tell the other departments to fuck off and let us into their territory?” inquired Woodland.

“That’s the splendid thing about my idea: if it runs smoothly, we’ll not need to do something so drastic and overbearing. Shall I share it with you?”

“I was born ready,” Nutzinger spit out. Five minutes ago he would have been concerned that that came out sounding too sarcastic, but at this point he didn’t care.

“Lay it on us, Mister Mayor,” agreed the wolf.

“You’re planning to return to the campsite in Sherwood tonight to see if you can find anybody, correct?”

“Yuh-huh.”

“And you’re certain you’ll be able to relocate it, yes?”

“Yessir!”

“Splendid. Would you be opposed to taking some County officers with you? Perhaps even their Sheriff?”

“Uh-- is there a reason for that?”

“Eddward, would you agree that the County officials want the glory of capturing these delinquents as much as we do?”

“I-I think they do.”

“Hell, they’d jump at the chance to beat us to it,” Nutzinger added. “Make us look like a bunch of dumbfucks.”

“My fear exactly, George,” said John. “Would you also agree that it’s unlawful to be in the forest after sundown?”

“I would, Mayor!”

“That’s not even an agree-disagree thing; that’s just the law,” Nutzinger pointed out.

“Ha! The little squirrel knows his stuff! Now…” the mayor trailed off as he made his way back to his desk chair. “I think I have a way to bridge my rational desire to see these two captured with my irrational desire to want to be in charge of the people who do the capturing. Tonight, I want you to see to it that the first civilians you encounter in the depths of that damned forest -- if you encounter anybody at all -- see to it that they are beaten and arrested on the spot. If it’s the outlaws, then that’s brilliant. Mission accomplished. But if not, and it’s simply some trespassers, then -- oh, how shall I put this? -- it may open a new window of opportunity.”

“You want us to beat the shit out of the first random bums we come across!?” asked Nutzinger. Woodland wasn’t saying anything, but he clearly was also surprised by the tactics the mayor was advocating.

“Now George, after all of your good responses, this is quite the poor one. I never once said that you’d be the ones doing it. Simply that you’d be seeing to it. And again, it might wind up being the criminals, in which case they’ll have rightly deserved it! But just in case it isn’t…”

Mayor Norman stopped to take a sip of wine, adjust his hat, and open a drawer. From this drawer he pulled out a lump of metal and plastic emblazoned with the word “NOKIA”.

“Now, I’m about to ask you a question -- two questions, actually… no, no! I tell a lie! Three small questions! -- and I want you both to say yes, and mean it, for each of them. Firstly, are you two decent actors ? Secondly, can you two both be persuasive ? And thirdly, Ward -- pardon me, George, but for size and spatial reasons, I’ll have to defer to Eddward on this -- Eddward, have you ever used one of these newer cell phones which can also be used as a camera?”

Chapter Text

  1. “Sticky Notes”

“Double-D, are you fucking stupid!?” The phone’s speaker squeaked a little bit from the sheer volume. “All those books you’ve read, and you’ve never learned basic elementary-school logic!?”

Double-D sat at the table in his dimly-lit kitchen, remaining calm as Eddy berated him, if only because he knew that Eddy wasn’t one to be receptive to anger, even if it was justifiably reciprocal. “On the contrary, Eddy, I would argue that the reading I’ve done over the years has bolstered my deductive reasoning skills in such a way that I feel confident--”

“In English , Sock-Head?”

Double-D held the phone away from his mouth for a second and took a deep breath. “...I have already had the same thought occur to me me, Eddy, but I used the evidence at my disposal to conclude that that was a false notion.”

“Double-D, there’re easier ways to tell me you think I’m stupid.”

Yes, but that would be a waste of a vocabulary ; that’s what Double-D wanted to say. Instead, he tried to reframe his point for a third time. “I considered that they were the suspects the police were looking for. I decided, however, that their behavior simply would not fit the profile of wanted criminals.”

“...Wait, what ?”

“How much clearer can I make this, Eddy? I made the connection that the authorities were in pursuit of a fox and a bear. I pondered that those two were the suspects, as opposed to yourself and Ed. But I came to the conclusion that they were simply too civil and sophisticated to be denizens of the wrong side of the law.”

Eddy was speechless for a moment, so Double-D continued.

“I’ve done my fair share of reading, Eddy. It’s simply too difficult for anybody to successfully conceal their true character for too long. Between the two of them and the three of us, surely one of them would have faltered in such a way to make their true intentions known, and surely one of us would have picked up on the fact that we were in the presence of evil.”

“...Double-D… I’m dead serious… are you stupid?”

“Eddy--”

“Are... you…. mentally… stupid ?”

“Eddy, whom among us truly thinks themselves to be stupid?”

“You really think they weren’t criminals just because they were ‘sophisticated’? You were just a sucker for that fox’s accent. Roger or whatever. Because that John guy was a grumpy old fuck that sounded like he gets into bar-fights for fun. You’re a fucking maniac if you’d call that ‘sophisticated.’”

“Really? Is that how he came across to you? He was certainly much more reserved than Robin -- I would even concede that he came across as tad abrasive -- but remember, he had just suffered a significant casualty, he was visibly fatigued, and he was in a position where he needed to swallow his pride to ask a mortifying favor of complete strangers -- not just any strangers, mind you, but the members of the infamously empathy-empty demographic known as teenage boys! Any of us would struggle to be amiable in such a tight spot. Furthermore, he was actually much nicer to me after you and Ed departed. Considering the prevailing stereotypes that his people’s culture is rather antisocial, he was certainly more agreeable than Ed’s father. Surely he must have been a fine fellow to make the acquaintance of a gentleman like Robin.”

“Who you just went gaga for his accent!” Eddy’s sentence structure was atrocious, but Double-D doubted Eddy would care for a correction right about then.

“Oh, I confess, Eddy: encountering a well-spoken Englishman in a junkyard was a pleasant surprise. But it wasn’t the sonic quality of his speech that convinced me that he was an upstanding citizen, but rather his diction and mannerisms. He fell in line with all the other intelligent and worldly adults I’ve encountered in my lifetime, and such a person simply could not be a criminal. Besides, why would someone move all the way across the Atlantic just to begin a life of crime?”

“Maybe he had to high-tail it out of there because he had an arrest warrant; did you think of that !?”

“Oh, yes, Eddy, it’s so very easy for a person with an arrest warrant to book a flight, navigate their way through an international airport terminal, get on an airplane, and disembark in the land of one of their home country’s closest allies, all without being seen or recognized by police or security even once. Especially after all the increases in security measures in the last few years.” Double-D had to readjust in his seat; he realized his posture was slumping.

“So he faked some documents! That’s what criminals do!”

“Do pardon my obnoxious skepticism, Eddy, but I don’t think it would be that easy for a fox who’s almost five feet tall to conceal their identity.”

The line was mostly silent for a second, but Double-D thought he heard a faint seething on the other end. Realizing that he’d likely just struck a nerve, Double-D decided to reroute the conversation.

“Eddy, I understand that you mean to have a healthy distrust, but one can easily over-do it. Trust and distrust can both be dangerous without enough empirical evidence! The fact of the matter is that we don’t know too much about these two, and good and evil exist in each and every last one of us.” At this point, Double-D decided he needed to get up and pace around his kitchen a little bit as he talked, lest his legs fall asleep. “But I, for one, gathered all the clues and hints that I could, and I decided that these two were more good than evil, and that helping them would be the right thing to do. I did my best, Eddy, and you will not make me feel stupid or ashamed for doing that.”

“Jesus Christ, Double-D, how can you be this naïve? Have you never been taken advantage of by a smooth talker before?”

“Of course I have. By you .”

“Oh, hush!” Eddy scoffed. Double-D was a bit surprised that Eddy wasn’t flattered beyond words that he’d just been called a ‘smooth talker’ as he’d always striven to be, just like his brother. Eddy continued, “The guy tells you to your face that they’re a couple of actors -- people who play pretend for a living -- and you still believe every word they say!”

“So you believed them, too.”

“... What?

“You’re going on about them being liars, and then you cite their own claims of being actors as evidence that they’re liars.”

“...?”

“You’re saying the lying man calling himself a liar proves that he’s a liar.”

“Double-D, will you tell your brain to quit doing jumping jacks or whatever! It makes perfect sense that they’d be the criminals that cops were looking for! They were looking a fox and a bear, not a fox and a bear and a wolf wearing a stupid little hat! If I saw us, that stupid fucking hat of yours would be the first thing I’d notice!”

“Eddy, we caused a very loud avalanche of trash and were carrying around implements for a decidedly illegal activity.” Double-D took a moment to stop by the window and peel back the blinds to see just how dark it had gotten outside. It was very late, and the sun was nowhere to be found after a long June day. “I don’t know about you, Eddy, but I didn’t see them engage in anything illicit.”

“Us and everybody else in the cul-de-sac’ve been fucking around in the junkyard for years! We’ve done worse damage and nobody’s ever called the cops on us once! Why would today be the day?”

Double-D needed some new territory to pace in, so he meandered his way into his living room. “Sometimes you just get unlucky, Eddy. And I got lucky by not being seen by whoever alerted the authorities. All I know is that it would be unfair to Misters Hood and Little to assume that they were perpetrators of some ambiguous infraction just because they matched an extremely vague description, much like how it would have been unfair to us if they were the culprits but we were apprehended because two of the three of us were of the same species. Eddy, I have been falsely implicated in misdeeds several times over specifically because of my association with an outwardly antagonistic person like you . I know what it is like to be held guilty until proven innocent in the court of public opinion, and it is not a fate I wish upon anyone.”

“Oh, boo hoo, some people misjudged you once or twice, so now you blindly trust people who you should have realized were playing you. Cry me a river under the bridge I’d like to sell ya.”

“Eddy, may I ask a question?” Double-D proposed.

“What now?”

“Without an ounce of sarcasm, Eddy, I need to know: even if you were right, even if the three of us looked hardened criminals in the eyes today and didn’t even realize it, even if I am as naïve as you believe me to be… why are you telling me this?”

“...What do you mean, ‘why am I telling you this’?”

“How do you want me to act upon this revelation, Eddy?” Double-D had wound up back in the kitchen. The digital clocks on the microwave and the oven, which had been meticulously timed to be perfectly in-synch with one another, read 10:07. “Do you want me to call the police? Do you want me to march down there with you and demand that those rapscallions leave our space? Do you want me to resolve to always defer to your judgment, now, always, and forever?”

“...Well, originally, I was going to ask if you thought they might be those robbers or whatever who hang out in the woods.”

Double-D stopped and propped himself up on the back of a kitchen chair to think for a second. “...Robbers?”

“You know, the ones everyone says live in the woods and rob rich people, but they only keep enough to live and give the rest to charity or something?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Eddy.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“I am doing nothing of the sort.”

“You’ve never heard anyone at school talking about them? I mean, it’s not like they’re a hot topic of conversation or nothing, but I can count on two hands the number of times I’ve heard people talk about them.”

“It’s not ringing a bell, Eddy. Sorry.”

“...Jesus fucking Christ, you really don’t talk to anybody at school, do you?”

“Oh, where is this coming from, Eddy?”

“If you weren’t such a fucking nerd, you’d probably have talked about it with other kids at least once! Do you talk to anybody besides us and the other cul-de-sac retards?”

“Eddy, I am quite sociable at school! I simply don’t waste my breath entertaining urban legends of paradoxically altruistic thieves!”

“How are you so sure that it’s just an urban legend?”

“Eddy, was that the only reason you called me?” Double-D’s voice betrayed his burgeoning fatigue; it was past his preferred bedtime, and his body knew it.

“You really wanna know why else I called you Double-D?”

“Enlighten me, Eddy.”

“I want you to feel stupid .”

Double-D started walking again, back to the living room, hoping the motion would keep him awake for just a little bit longer.

“Now what would that accomplish, Eddy?”

“It’d light a fire under your ass to step up and be the smart one in the group like you’re supposed to be!”

“You didn’t realize yourself that they may have been the suspects until much later, and now--”

“Are you deaf, too? I just said you’re supposed to be the smart one! The--”

“Are you sure that you don’t fancy yourself to be the smart one, Eddy? Because you sure sound like you do.”

“Hell, maybe I should start calling myself that! The deal was that I’d have the business acumen and you could be the detective-type, always keeping a close eye on all the little-shit details. But if you realized that they could have been the guys the cops were looking for, and you consciously fucking decided that they weren’t , well, then… hell, there’s no substitute for street smarts, I guess.”

Double-D was getting exhausted just listening to this inanity. He needed to sit down on the couch. “Okay, then, fine . I feel stupid. Now what?”

“A-are you fucking with me!? You feel stupid, and then you want to change so you stop pissing me off! You should want to be better at doing your part in our partnership. It’s called a part nership for a reason! For fuck’s sakes, Double-D, when someone you care about is pissed at you, you’re supposed to change so they aren’t pissed at you anymore! Or do you not care about me?”

“Do you care about me , Eddy?”

“...Uh…”

“Would you change to stop irritating me , Eddy?”

And then there was silence. Double-D had a hunch that Eddy was working up the nerve to say something big, but he didn’t know if it Eddy was gearing up to say no and telling one of his few allies in the world to make like a tree and screw off, or if he was trying to swallow his damn pride and say yes . But instead, Eddy went a third toute:

“...Whatever happened to the three of us, Double-D?”

Double-D leaned forward on the couch. “...I… beg your pardon, Eddy?”

“I mean, I don’t know why that came out so weird, but… yeah, whatever did happen to us? We were a great team, Double-D. Brains, brawn and charisma. I mean, shit, even if we barely ever made any money off of those scams, we sure showed a hell of a lot more initiative than the other kids. We were on pace to get somewhere eventually . Maybe fifty years from now, but we would have gotten there. I… Jesus, I’m just gonna ask: are you and Ed… over it?”

“Over… what, exactly?” Double-D asked as he stood again.

“Listen, listen,” Eddy said calmly, “I know it’s past your bedtime, ain’t it? We’ll talk more about this tomorrow. But if you and Ed don’t want to help me with my plans anymore… Christ, just say so. It’ll save all of us a lot of time.”

“Eddy, I--”

“One last thing, Edd? So, situation: your apartment catches fire. Your house doesn’t burn to the ground, but you still can’t stay there that night. You’re a starving artist and you’re flat broke, so you can’t afford a hotel, and between you and your… roommate , I guess, whatever kind of roommate he is to you… neither of you have any friends, apparently, that you can stay with. Now, you might not have a lot of options, but is your first choice to drive all the way out to a junkyard in the suburbs hoping there’ll be an abandoned car you can crash in? Actually, no, wait, fuck it, why didn’t they sleep in their car? Or did they not have a car? Did they walk all that way? Is that what you’d do, Double-D?”

Double-D stood in his living room, staring at the wall, as Eddy waited for an answer on the other end of the line. But even Double-D’s mind had its limits.

“I’m just saying, Double-D,” Eddy continued, “I sure think that’s a lot more unlikely than if they just waltzed out of the woods right next door, looking for a place to hide until the heat died down. But what do I know? I’m not the smart one. Alright. G’night, Edd.” There was a click and then a dial tone, but Double-D held the phone to his ear for a few more seconds after that.

***

Back in the kitchen, Double-D double-checked all the sticky notes before he got ready for bed. He had already had his first day of summer vacation ruined; he didn’t need the next one to be marred by a sternly-worded sticky note telling him that he had failed to fulfill his filial duties.

Everything seemed to be in order, but he wanted to consult one specific sticky note one more time. He knew the gist of what it would say, but he wanted to see whether there were any fine details he had missed.

The note was stuck right on the chin of the wall clock in the hallway, and was written in print with blue ink, a telltale sign of Vincent Lupo’s handiwork contrasting to Sammantha’s insistence on writing in cursive with a red pen. The note was already peeling a bit from the last time Edd peeled it off and reattached it; an adhesive can only last so long. Double-D plucked it off the clock, not intending to reattach it this time. Besides, he needed to get a close-up look at it to read the tiny text; Mr. and Mrs. Lupo had long since become experts at being as spatially efficient with their sticky notes as possible.

“Dear Eddward,

“I would like to remind you that your mother and I will be in Virginia Beach today. We will be home late tonight.

“Love, Father.”

Double-D had remembered them saying that they were going to a chemists’ conference down in Virginia, but he didn’t remember whether they specified when the conference ended. They had pulled out of the driveway before dawn this morning, even before Edd woke up to help Eddy with his disastrous little plan, and Double-D didn’t know now whether his parents were still in Hampton Roads or just down the street. Double-D had actually left them a sticky note insisting that they stay overnight in a hotel down there -- at least one night before or after the convention, if not both -- for their own sakes, but they insisted that they could make the drive there and back, both because they didn’t want to be away from home for too long and because they could probably make the best time when there were hardly any other cars on the road.

Double-D didn’t remember offhand how long the drive was; he was tempted to turn his computer back on and go to Mapquest to see how long the drive would be, so he could extrapolate when they would be back if they left at a given time or another. But that would take a few minutes to wait for the computer to warm up, wait to dial up to the internet, and wait for the web-page to load. It was a shame that Double-D couldn’t just pull something out of his pocket and access the internet instantly from that, but unfortunately such technology would be something Double-D would also have to wait for, and right now, Double-D didn’t want to wait; he wanted to go to bed as soon as possible.

Then again, it wasn’t guaranteed that he’d be able to sleep well anyway if he was obsessing over his worry that his parents would fall asleep at the wheel and drive off the bridge into the Chesapeake Bay. Double-D had spent plenty of time before wondering whether his constant concern over his parents’ well-being was healthy. One might say that of course it’s natural for a son to not want harm to befall his parents, but Double-D definitely knew plenty of people who would say that his concern for his mommy and daddy was a bit too much for someone his age. But even beyond the nay-saying cynics, those very close to him might propose that there was a selfish element to it: Double-D was well aware of the luxuries he was afforded as the dependant son of two successful intellectuals. If something Dickensian were to happen to them, Double-D would surely mourn them as a well-adjusted person would, but he would simultaneously lament the loss of all of his potential if he were to be shunted off to the next-of-kin.

Come to think of it, Double-D wondered, whom specifically would that be? His father’s brother Francis was probably the next-most well-off of his relatives, running the Lupo family’s decrepit but sustainable butchery shop back up north in Philadelphia, but Uncle Frankie was a grumpy son of a bitch just like Grandpa Lupo was, and Edd could see Francis simply refusing to take his nephew into his home even under the most tragic of circumstances. So failing Uncle Frankie, the next in line for emergency custody would probably be, uh…

...Oh, yeah: his other uncle.

Of course, if his parents had any say in it, that would never happen, and for reasons he still didn’t fully understand. And being a proud autodidact, Double-D didn’t like not fully understanding something. It made him feel uncomfortable and incomplete; his insatiable thirst for knowledge simply would not allow him to only know part of a story. But it would be quite a challenge to figure out what specific event or action was the impetus for Sammie and Vince to tell Ward to get permanently lost, a challenge that Double-D wasn’t sure he would be able to tackle. After all, what could he do? Ask his parents? No, no, that would never work, because… because, um... hmm.

What exactly was stopping him from simply asking? The most direct answer was anxiety: fear that his parents would not only tell him that it was a matter between grown-ups and that it was none of his business, but that he was also being an insubordinate little delinquent for daring to pry for knowledge that was none of his business. At least that’s what Edd was pretty sure would happen; his parents didn’t raise him on the straight and narrow just to allow him to cavalierly demand privy information on interpersonal matters that only tangentially involved him. Yeah, he was pretty sure that that’s what they’d do.

But he realized he wasn’t certain that that’s what they’d do. Double-D didn’t like being uncertain about things.

His next inhibition up to bat was a worry that his parents would be thoroughly annoyed that to come home from a long drive and immediately be blindsided with a question of of the blue about a character who had, for about the last decade, been more of a mythical cautionary-tale urban legend figure than an actual person participating in their lives. But they would surely read all the sticky notes that their son had left in reply to them, written in his designated green ink, as soon as they got home, just as they always did. Tonight might actually be the best time to pop the question, strategically speaking: if they were heavily fatigued from their trip, perhaps they wouldn’t have the mental energy to be cross with him. Maybe they wouldn’t even think anything of it; this, of course, ran the risk of Mother and Father not even answering the question, but to yield no consequences would be better than to yield negative consequences, Edd reasoned. He wasn’t sure which outcome was the most likely, and he didn’t like being uncertain about things.

His last worry was about how to actually phrase the thing. He had never asked such a question of his parents before, and he was worried that it would come across as an unimportant question and a waste of everyone’s time to answer it; the Peach Creek Lupos were not only wolves of science, but also of pragmatism, and to ask a question from which nothing is to be gained by finding the answer would be a foolish thing to do. And yet, Double-D thought, there may come a time when he had to ask a more pressing question, one that actually was important, that his parents may perceive to be unimportant, and he would have to challenge his parents and find a way to solicit the information from them; in that event, it will have been better if he had practiced asking such difficult questions now so that we will have been ready when the time came for asking something more urgent. He wouldn’t want to be in such a position in the future where he didn’t know how to communicate with his own parents when he really needed to; Double-D didn’t like not knowing things.

In the hallway was a small closet with a thin folding door that the developers of Peach Creek Estates certainly never thought would be used almost exclusively to house sticky notes. Double-D grabbed one and made his way to the kitchen, grabbed the green pen, laid the note out nice and flat and sat down to try to try to think how to articulate his question.

Dear Mother and Father , he wrote; okay, so far so good. Now what? He was writing this in ink, so he hadn’t any opportunities to make a mistake without having to start from scratch; his parents never left him a note with something sloppily scratched out, and Double-D had inferred that he was not to leave such a garish note himself. This was proving tougher than he thought.

Pardon the unexpected -- wait, should he have written unanticipated instead? Too late now. Speaking of late, the clock was ticking, every passing moment meant increased fatigue and even less cogency, and for all he knew, his parents could walk through the front door any moment now and wonder what it was that he was writing them. Then he would have to answer them verbally . And Double-D knew very well that he was one of those people who was much more articulate with a pen and paper than with the tip of his tongue, especially when under pressure.

This was going to take a while.

***

Dear Mother and Father,

Pardon the unexpected question, but I was wondering about the whereabouts of my uncle Eddward; suffice it to say that my associates and I were discussing our respective extended families, piquing my curiosity. Please let me know if you would like me to provide any more-specific questions or a notebook for writing an answer too long for a sticky note.

Love, Eddward

Okay, so the sticky note actually turned into four sticky notes daisy-chained together, and he was worried that because he had failed to specifically ask what the hell did he do that you told him to fuck off forever? that his inquiry would simply yield a reply of his whereabouts are that he’s still an uneducated police officer and a disgrace to mammalia as a whole, now why in God’s name did you ask? , and he was feeling a bit self-conscious about his usage of the words “about” and “whereabouts” in close proximity, but that’s what he came up with. The clock read 11:11 p.m. and Double-D was trying to remind himself that perfect was the enemy of good.

For lack of a better location, he left those sticky notes there on the kitchen table, with the sticky parts plastering down the loose ends of their respective predecessors, and hoped that his parents would not chastise him for his poor form. But it was now or never.

He went through his bedtime routine worried about the potential fallout of his query, running different scenarios though his head and planning how he would react to them, ranging from being scolded for asking a sensitive question out of turn to being met with confusion about why he would want to know about such a deplorable being. He even had some new scenarios pop into his head, like the idea that Ward had done something really bad and that it was actually his parents who were going to be nervous, dodging the question so as not to upset their son; but Double-D did not see this as a viable possibility. From what he seldom saw of his parents, fear of speaking the truth was not a state he’d seen them in.

Despite his racing mind, however, Double-D was still on the verge of passing out from sheer exhaustion. He skipped the warm milk and the foot lotion and many of the other pre-slumber habits that he was trying to kick anyway after that one night a few summers back when he had to crash at Eddy’s house, when he tried to get Eddy to fulfill the duties usually performed by Sammie and Vince, only for Eddy to explode at him the next morning and tell Double-D that he hadn’t been able to sleep that night because he was genuinely disturbed by the infantile nature of Double-D’s secret home life; if the events of that preceding day had been some downright wacky antics that would make for a great episode of a beloved TV-Y7 cartoon, the dialogue of the next morning was so brutally honest and unfathomably awkward that it wouldn’t make for good TV for any demographic.

All for the best, perhaps. Although on a night like this, he wished that his parents were there to take turns reading him an article from Science Monthly or a passage from Tailor’s World Encyclopedia , not because the readings themselves would give him comfort, but because knowing that his parents were home safe and sound would, along with knowing that the next time he saw them in person, the sticky note conflict would probably be behind him. The last thing that Double-D remembered thinking before he dozed off was that he no longer harbored his earlier sentiment that he was prepared for death at any moment, and not just because he was no longer fully convinced that he was a wanted fugitive (although that certainly helped); he wanted to stick around long enough to find out what was so irredeemably insidious about his uncle. Maybe after that, he would be prepared again.

***

It was the faint click of the door’s latch scuffling that woke him up. The door began to open ever so slightly, not even enough to call it ajar, before it stopped in its tracks.

“Sammie! We shouldn’t wake him up!” was the first of many harsh-but-hushed sentences he heard coming from the hallway.

“I know, but I don’t want to wait until morning!” he heard as the door slipped back shut, but the latch didn’t reengage. Whoever had their hand on the knob hadn’t let go of it yet. There was a sliver of dim light coming from under the door, indicating that a light was on somewhere, but not the hall light immediately outside his door. “If it’s something serious, I want to know it now !”

“So do I, but he’s asleep, and we’re exhausted, and all three of us will be much more clear-headed in the morning.” Oh, what they didn’t know.

“I don’t disagree, Vince, but I won’t be able to sleep if he knows something we don’t know!”

Double-D sat upright in bed. He wanted to say something, but the words wouldn’t come out. The last thing he wanted was to turn the target of the conflict upon himself. But then, the first thing he wanted was to know what information they thought he was withholding from them.

“What can you do with that information now that you wouldn’t have to wait until morning to do?”

A cold shiver overcame him. Did they know of their encounter in the junkyard today? No, no, no, they couldn’t have access to that information… or could they?

“Decipher how much of an idiot my brother is!”

...Okay, now Double-D was just confused. He didn’t very much like being confused, and that dislike was even stronger than his dislike of getting between his parents. That was what got him to slide out of bed and make his way to the door.

“Well, then you really won’t be able to sleep!”

Double-D grasped the doorknob and pulled on it without turning it, knowing it was already being held open on the other end. As his eyes adjusted to the faint half-light of the hallway, he could still see the startled looks on his parents’ faces, and his mother recoiling her hand off the doorknob as if she just realized she’d laid her paw upon something filthy.

“E-Eddward!” Sammantha choked out.

“Apologies, Mother and Father, but I couldn’t help but overhear your, um, conversation , as it were.”

Sammantha and Vincent shot nervous glances to one another while struggling to find words appropriate for the situation.

“Oh, uh, uh-- Son, it’s no problem,” Vincent sputtered, “I-i-if anything, you helped, uh… you helped us make up our minds. A-about whether or not to wake you.”

“Mother, Father, is this about my note? I apologize if it caused you alarm; I just--”

“Edd-Eddward. Mellow out. We’ve had a long day, and it seems you have, too,” Vincent continued. “We may or may not be about to discuss some serious family business, as a family, so you don’t need to worry about formalities right now. We’re not in public right now. We’re not Mother and Father right now; we’re Mom and Dad right now. And we don’t want your precision of language to get in the way of saying what you think you might need to say. Sounds good?”

“Uh-- Yes, Fa--” Double-D caught himself. “...Okay, Dad.”

“Eddward, we’re sorry for waking you up; we just wanted to ask some questions while they were still fresh in our head,” Sammantha clarified. “May we take a seat?”

“Uh, y-yes, but, um… may I ask some questions, too?”

“Why, of course,” Sammantha reassured her son.

“I’m just afraid we’re not going to have all the answers,” Vincent confessed.

The three went over to Edd’s bed. Edd, having been the closest to it, got there first, and began to take a seat near the head of the bed.

“Uh, son, why-why don’t you take a seat in the middle?” Vincent asked.

“Your father’s right, we don’t want you to feel like you’re being edged out of your own space.”

“Um…. alright, then,” Double-D conceded as he scooted down the bed. His father sat to his right near the end of the bed and his mom sat down near the pillows.

“So… we have a lot of questions, but we don’t know where to begin,” Vincent decided to start off with.

“Especially me, since, you know… I might be more of an expert on this,” Sammantha added. “But maybe it would be best if you asked us a question first?”

“What do you want to know about Ward that you don’t already know?” Vincent asked.

Double-D found something off about that question; it was if they genuinely didn’t know how deprived of information he felt himself to be. “Um… Well, the, uh--”

“Son, don’t worry about perfect sentence structure; just tell us what you’re thinking,” said Mr. Lupo.

So Double-D went for it. He delivered the following paragraph while looking into his palms:

“Well, Fa-- Dad , it’s funny that you should say that, because, uh… I realized recently that I don’t know much about Uncle Ward. I know what you and Moth-- what you and Mom have told me about his gluttony and slobbish-ness and ignorance and belligerence, and I remember him acting in such ways at times,  but… I… I also remember you alluding to other , more terrible things that he’s done, and I realize that this is purely anecdotal, and that I didn’t witness much of this myself. I-I-I-- Please don’t interpret this as my calling you two liars, Mom and Dad, but, it’s just… I started wondering if it’s right to hate someone just because I was instructed to hate them. Or at least I feel as though it was that I was led to hate him. I certainly recall him being markedly improper , but never evil as I feel I’ve been led to think of him. I suppose my one main question is… was there one specific action of his, or event, that inspired you to tell him to never come visit us again?”

Only then did Double-D dare to look up and face his parents. First he looked to his Mother, then his father. Despite his vast vocabulary, the closest word Double-D could think to come up with do describe the look on their faces was spooked .

“Well, um...” Vincent said as the first to attempt a sentence, “... that’s a lot to unpack.”

“Maybe we should have asked the first question,” Sammantha wondered.

“I’m sorry, Mo--”

“Nonononono, it’s fine!” Vincent reassured. “That’s what we needed to hear!”

“This gives us invaluable insight into where your head's at!” Sammantha assured.

And then for a moment, there was silence. It was abundantly clear that Double-D’s parents were in no hurry to actually answer their son’s question.

“So…” Double-D coughed out; he was having trouble psyching himself up to talk to his parents informally, so he tried to imagine he was just shooting the shit with the boys. “What did he do?”

“Huh?” the Lupo parents asked more or less in unison.

“Neither of you actually answered my question.”

“Oh, well, uh…” Sammantha began.

“W-we’re still unpacking it!” explained Vincent. “In-in our heads.”

“What was the question again, son?” asked Sammantha.

Never in a million eventualities would Double-D have thought that this conversation would see him getting frustrated with his parents’ coyness rather than the other way around.

“Was there one specific thing that he did that inspired the two of you tell him not to come see us anymore?”

“We-w-well, uh, it was more of your mother’s prerogative,” Vincent said, “seeing as it was her brother. The guy was practically a stranger to me!” Vincent was obviously giving his wife a help me out here look that Sammantha looked to feel conflicted about receiving.

“Your father isn’t wrong, Eddward,” she said, “It was my place to be the one to tell him to get lost. B-but, um… like most things in life, it happened for more than one reason!”

“What were those reasons?” Double-D asked without hesitation. Seeing as he wasn’t 100% positive anymore that all of this wasn’t just a really annoying dream, he decided he might as well push the envelope to see where it would go.

“Well, he was a loser,” said Sammantha. “He was a slob, he… he had no manners, he barely had a job--”

“I remember clearly that he had become a police officer,” Edd interjected, “and that he worked night shifts.”

“Well, yes, precisely!” Sammantha said. “So he couldn’t come over because he was working when we would be asleep! Plus we didn’t expect his employment to last long…”

“And he had fleas, so that didn’t help,” Vincent added.

“He did !?” Double-D exclaimed. “Eew…!”

“He didn’t, actually,” Sammantha mumbled.

“He didn’t ?” asked Vincent incredulously.

“That was something I made up to help get you to agree that we should tell him to stay away.”

Sammie! ” Vince growled a bit.

“I lied to accomplish something and it helped me accomplish it,” Sammantha stated unapologetically.

“So let me get this straight,” their son piped up. “This was a concerted effort to forbid him from our home?”

“Well, yeah,” Sammantha said. “Between all those things--”

“I had already heard of all those things -- that he was impolite and ignorant and all of that,” Double-D said. “But was that really all? By these rules, Uncle Francis would be eligible for banishment as well.”

“Okay, now you say that you already knew all that, and that honestly scares us,” Vincent said rather forwardly.

“What do you mean?”

“His behavior and demeanor were all the reasons that we saw , but…” Sammantha trailed off for a moment. “...We were afraid he might have done something else. That we didn’t see and couldn’t prove, that is.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Well, you know,” Sammantha said, “He didn’t have any woman in his life, he didn’t have any real friends--”

“If you’re saying that he seemed antisocial, Moth-- uh, Mom , that’s what confuses me. He always seemed quite friendly -- to me, at least.”

“Okay, now that scares us even more!” said Vincent.

“Mom, Dad, I must say that I’m thoroughly confused by what you may be leading to.”

“Oh, Eddward,” Sammantha cooed, “I’m so sorry, we shouldn’t have woken you up at this hour. You’re sleepy and disoriented--”

“Edd,” Vincent asked, “is this suspense making you nervous?”

“Extremely.”

“Did he hurt you?”

“Wh- what !?”

“Vincent!” Sammantha shrieked.

“What do you mean by hurt ?” Double-D asked.

“You know! Did he-- did he molest you?”

“Vince, what the hell is wrong with you!?” Sammantha hollered. Edd, for his part, was busy trying to figure out in which direction he ought to focus his eyes.

“I can’t stand pussy-footing around this anymore! We’re all dying of anticipation, so I just asked the question we were all wondering and got it over with!”

There were no words for a bit as Vincent took some deep breaths to get his frustration out of his system. Edd himself was reeling because he had only ever heard his parents use explicit language fewer than a dozen times combined, and now they each used some definitively impolite verbiage after an extremely blunt and blindsiding question.

“I-I apologize. F-for my language. Pardon my French, but I’m glad I ripped that band-aid off.” Vincent turned his attention back to his son exclusively. “But yeah… did he?”

Double-D did not remember the last time he felt so uncomfortable in his own bed, barring some physical ailments back during flu season.

“I… I do not remember Uncle Ward being anything other than friendly and kind to me,” Edd asserted as calmly as he could. “And if he had done something malicious, I would have told you.”

Vincent and Sammantha exhaled deep sighs of relief. Vince even collapsed backward onto the bed and stared blissfully at the ceiling for a moment.

“Well, that’s good to hear!” Sammantha finally said.

“Is that what it was all about? You thought he… he assaulted me!?”

“I mean, yes and no,” Vincent said as he sat back up. “It wasn’t so much about did as much about what we were afraid he might have done. And that’s both a past- and future-tense might .”

“Quite honestly, Eddward, we were afraid he was getting too friendly with you,” Sammantha said.

“What did he do that made you think he did that!?”

“Like we said, it wasn’t what he did . Heck, I think I even remember your mom and I discussing that he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to… um… do anything , because we never left you alone with him for more than a few minutes. And at a certain point, we didn’t leave you alone with him because we didn’t know what he would do.”

“I don’t know if it was a joke he wouldn’t let die or if he actually believed it, but no matter how many times I reminded him that you were named after his and my father, he insisted that we named you after him . And he was always so excited to see you. He always wanted to play with you, or talk with you, or sit you on what passed for his lap--”

“--And it all could have been innocent! It could have been! We might have misjudged him; I acknowledge that! Maybe you were the only person in the world he was nice to! But it also could have been a blood-red flag waving two inches in front of our faces. So we erred on the side of caution.”

“And knowing what we -- what I -- know about the rest of the guy’s life, I think we made the right decision. I don’t care how innocent it might have been; nobody’s favorite person should be their nephew .”

Or their uncle,” Vincent added.

“Exactly. If nothing else, we were forcing him to get his own life instead of inserting himself into ours. The Woodlands are fucked up enough--”

Sammie! ” Vincent sounded more concerned than offended by his wife’s language this time.

“Vince, I’m tired . And thinking on my brother brings forth the vocabulary he and I were raised with.” Sammantha turned her head a bit and stared into space for just long enough to put a thought that had been forming in the back of her head into words. “Oh--! I’m going to be so pissed if this turns out to be a case of a repressed memory! I’ll kill the son of a bitch.”

“I haven’t repressed a memory; he never hurt me!” Double-D barked.

“You don’t know that,” Vincent muttered defeatedly. “And neither do we.”

“And he might not know either depending on whatever drugs he might have been on,” Sammantha said.

“Uncle Ward does drugs!?”

Sammantha just scoffed. “Probably.”

“‘Probably’?”

“Edd, don’t you ever just get an intuitive read on a guy? And you feel like you can successfully guess a whole bunch of things about their lives?” Vincent asked. “That’s what’s going on here.”

“Your father and I didn’t bust our asses to become intelligent people just for anybody at all to come along and tell us that our educated guesses were anything less than intelligent.”

“Mom, you’ve been, uh, rather profane tonight.”

“Yeah. Honey, are you still drunk?” Vincent asked.

“I’m fine, Vince.”

“But… he did actually brutally assault a civilian for jaywalking while he was out on patrol, right?” asked Edd.

“Probably,” Vincent quipped. “If not for jaywalking, then something else incredibly minor, I’d bet. A busted taillight or something, maybe? That’s just the kind of guy he is.”

“Did he-- did he actually ever beat a woman he was dating?”

“If he ever found a woman, I’d bet he did! The asshole...” Sammantha mumbled. “The man’s been lonely for so long, he’d probably have no idea how to treat a woman right.”

“Edd, the point is, your mother and I feel confident in saying that, even if he never did any of the things we can feel in our bones that he’s probably done -- or something similar -- if he didn’t want us thinking so lowly of him, then he shouldn’t have been such a… such an unpleasant person in our presence,” Vincent explained. “Let this be a lesson to you, Eddward: if you’re unpleasant enough as a person, people will take creative liberties in negatively rewriting the story of your life, and they’ll feel completely justified in doing so. Or it can work the opposite way! George Washington never chopped down that cherry tree and told his dad about it, but we say he did because that’s just the kind of guy he was -- he probably would have done something like that. Being a good person really is rewarding.”

Double-D was speechless. How the tables had turned, and in a complete three-sixty: first he was afraid that his parents would think he was asking stupid questions and begin to condescendingly explain things to him; but when his parents actually talk to him, they’re shaking in their boots as they fear they’re asking their son stupid questions; then the answer to their question is anticlimactic, which inspires him to ask questions about their questions, which they think are stupid questions, leading them to begin to condescendingly explain things to him.

But the things they were explaining to him were… strange , to say the least. Controversial may have been a word.

“Hey, Vince?” Sammantha asked, “Did you ever for a second think my brother was gay?”

“No, I think if he were, he’d have bathed more oft--”

“So has he ever been with a woman or not?” Edd asked, “Have you not even spoken to the man in the last -- what? -- six or seven years?”

“Sometimes Gramma tells me things about how he’s doing, even though I don’t ask. She knows we don’t talk,” Sammantha answered. “I think he’s still a cop, and he actually got promoted a few times.”

Double-D bit his tongue.

“Remind me to drive especially carefully in the city, just to make sure he doesn’t pull us over,” Vincent remarked.

Double-D just wanted to go to bed. “Mom? Dad? I think I’ve had all my questions answered.”

“Are you sure?” Sammantha asked.

“For now, yes.”

“Alright,” Vincent said as he stood from the bed. “We all ought to be getting to bed.”

“Indeed,” said Sammantha. “If there’s anything else you want to ask us, just leave us a note.”

“You know, that’s probably a good reason we had this talk in person,” Vincent said, “because I don’t know how many sticky notes this would have taken!”

Sammantha guffawed as Edd pretended to chuckle. Sammie rose and walked toward the door, and her husband put her arm around around her shoulders as they walked toward the door. Being a Woodland wolf, she was tall, and she was maybe but a tinge shorter than her husband.

“I’m gonna take you to bed, honey,” Vincent joked, and Sammantha chuckled again. They stopped at the door and turned back to their pup. “Goodnight, son.”

“And if you remember anything happening to you, you let us know ASAP!”

“Yes, Mother.”

“Alright. Goodnight,” she said as she walked out the door, her husband following and closing the door behind them and turning off the light.

“G-goodnight,” Double-D mumbled, but they probably didn’t hear him.

He got back under the covers and tried to find a comfortable position. He was grateful that he had gotten the hour or so of sleep earlier, because he wasn’t sure when he was going to fall asleep again. His head was already spinning with worries over his uncle’s unclear past, the strangers’ uncanny refinement, he and his friends’ unsettled schism, and his own uncertain criminal record. Now added to that whirling gyre was the fear that his parents weren’t the noble empiricists he had always made them out to be. But maybe such mischaracterizations are inevitable when you communicate with someone for years but almost never hear them speak.

The sirens in the distance didn’t make sleep come any easier, either.

Chapter Text

  1. “The Naked and the Afraid and the Famous and the Dead”

Cough, cough .

“Are you alright, Johnny?”

“You awake, Rob?”

“I just spoke to you, now didn’t I?”

“Oh, c’mon, Robin. How could someone as worldly as yourself never once run into somebody who talks in their sleep?”

“Have you encountered sleep-talkers who say entire sentences that directly relate to the situation at hand?”

“Yessir. Several times, in fact.”

“...Huh. Well then. You got me there! I suppose one man can only have so many experiences. Ah… It’s a curse, really. A tease. All the time we get to spend on this Earth, and we have to spend it stuck in one body. You know, I--”

“Rob, whenever you’re done philosophizing, I’d like to have a turn to say sumpthin’.”

“What’s up, Johnny Boy?”

“You smell that, don’t you?”

“...I wasn’t going to say anything.”

“Why not?”

“I didn’t want to embarrass you, Little Jo--”

“You thought that was coming from me !?”

“Where else could I logically deduce it’s coming from?”

“I dunno, maybe those kids murdered a rodent and the guy’s rotting under the driver’s seat.”

“Oh, that is a grotesque image, Little John.”

“Hey, they didn’t seem like they’d be murderers, but maybe that’s their bent. Maybe they’re even better actors than you and me.”

“Oh, wouldn’t that be an intriguing twist!”

“And maaaybe that smell is actually coming from you and you’re just blaming it on me to cover your own ass!”

“What!? No…”

“And after all I’ve done for ya, Robin…”

“Come now, Johnny, I--”

“My people have been the victims of prejudice that we’re a bunch of dirty, unhygienic mongrels, and you perpetuate that hurtful stereotype just because you’re too embarrassed to own up to your body’s natural functions? For shame, Robin.”

“Little John, surely you’re just taking the piss with me, right?”

“I’ll take your weird little Britishism and raise you some good ol’ American folk wisdom: ‘he who smelt it, dealt it.’”

“I thought that only referred to, er, gas , not body odor in general.”

“Ain’t we talking about gas?”

“...Okay, the fact that we’re having this confusion tells me that perhaps it really wasn’t you.”

“Took ya long enough. But seriously, I kinda smelled something when we first got in here, but I was too tired to say anything. I might not have been able to sleep through it if I weren’t drop-dead exhausted.”

“I remember smelling something, too, but it wasn’t nearly this strong. I would have thought that it would have aired out by now with the window open.”

“Oh, yeah, the window’s open! That is weird! Th-that it stuck around I mean. The smell.”

“I understand you, Johnny.”

“I’m not stupid, Robin. I’m just sleepy-headed. I just woke up. I’m not thinking straight yet.”

“I never disputed this.”

“Hm… But I really do think it’s some... residue or something from what the kids were doing, whatever they were doin’.”

“It would have aired out by now. The window’s-- no, you know what? The window isn’t even open because the window is gone . It’s but a memory.”

“How nice your life must be that you’ve never encountered a smell that just won’t air out after hours and hours and hours.”

“I count my blessings, Johnny, don’t you worry.”

“Maybe it’s a smell they left combined with our, uh… our own--”

Aromas ?”

“That’s the ticket.”

“Like our musk and the van’s must are working in synergy?”

“More or less.”

“But the only really pungent thing that I saw them with was the generators full of petrol.”

“And this don’t smell like gasoline.”

“I’m glad we can agree on this.”

“Ditto. But… hey, come to think of it, that bear kid did look kinda funky.”

“How was he looking ‘funky’, Johnny? I was just a young lad in the seventies and I don’t remember them very well; you’re going to have to give me a crash-course.”

“I didn’t mean that the kid looked like he was on his way to the fucking disco hall, Robin. And I barely remember the seventies myself, but I don’t remember them being that great.”

“Glad to hear I didn’t miss too much.”

“I meant that I could see that kid skipping showers.”

“Well, then. You’re the one judging a minor by their looks, not me!”

“Oh, hush up, Rob.”

“For the record, I thought you were going to say the bear boy looked like something else.”

“Like whaddaya mean?”

“...Nevermind, it was stupid.”

“You can tell me. No skin off my bones.”

“No, no, it was an underdeveloped joke that doesn’t really make sense now that I think about it. Spare me my own embarrassment.”

“If you say so.”

“...”

“...How long has it been since we’ve been together in a space this small for this long?”

“I’d say it’s been awhile, Johnny.”

“And how long’s it been since we’ve had the chance to take a dip?”

“Longer than I’m proud to admit.”

“If Marian knocked on this van’s door right now, would you be afraid that you’d scare her off because you looked and smelled like a homeless person?”

“Oh, come now, Johnny…”

“Hey. Hey. Rob. I’m sorry… but was that not a damn good way to pose the question?”

“...It was.”

“So would you?”

“Would I…?”

“Resist the urge you’ve held for years to embrace her because you thought you were, oh shall we say, hygienically unbecoming ?”

“...Well, the thought would certainly cross my mind. I suppose it would depend on her reaction to my, er...”

“Odor.”

“To put it bluntly.”

“So, my thinking is that even if the smell isn’t coming from us and us alone , we’re probably not helping our own cause.”

“Little John, you do make a solid argument.”

“I forget, did we pack soap before we left?”

“I think I grabbed a bar of hand-soap for when we’re done using the facilities.”

“Well, I don’t wanna go wash up in the latrine. Do you think it’s safe to go run to the creek for a few minutes?”

“What’s the point of finding a safehouse for the night if we just go right back into the woods?”

“Well Rob, what’s the point of having a safehouse if we can’t breathe the air inside the safehouse?”

“...Johnny, I’m not saying you’re wrong, I’m just saying that it might be foolish to go and act upon what you’re saying, even if it is right.”

“We just won’t go anywhere near the tree. Easy.”

“And if they get lost and run into us by stupid luck?”

“Then we see them coming first and we ambush them. Disarm them and take them on in a scrap. I can take ‘em.”

“I tried to tell those boys you were a good guy, and here you are itching to jump headlong into a row.”

“Robin, every man and boy in my life always told me to toughen up as a kid, and I wanted to, too. So I did. Yeah, it took until my fucked-up pituitary got its ass in gear, but eventually managed to get myself to a point where I could be a honey bear in my natural state, but switch to a grisly bear when I need to be. And dearheart, wouldn’t it be a waste if I didn’t put that new side to me to good use? After all I did to try to become more like the person I wanted to be?”

“Truly an inspiring story, Johnny.”

“Now I just need to buy some of your charisma and charm off of you.”

“Oh, don’t be so hard on yourself, Johnny! I wish I could be the life of the party like you!”

“You say this now, but I wish I could be the person people turn to when it ain’t time for partying.”

“That’s why we work so well together!”

“And I can appreciate that. But for most of my life, I wasn’t part of some dynamic duo, and if one day I’m in that position again, maybe I won’t be prepared.”

“Johnny, stop thinking so much about things like that which may never even happen.”

“You’re right -- let’s think about this smell instead. It’s dark out; do we know what time it is?”

“Night-thirty.”

“Heh. Real funny. So much for the legendary wit of British humor.”

“Seven years, and you still bring up the transatlantic quirks at every turn.”

“Yeah, because never had I ever thought that I’d find myself being tight with a well-to-do British guy. It never stopped being downright astounding. Every single day it amazes me that this is how my life turned out. I just stop and think about it: ‘Wow, I’m livin’ in the woods, using morally-difficult vigilante tactics to try to make other people’s lives a little less bad, and my closest confidante is a British guy who grew up crazy rich and crazy tall and crazily good with an arrow, among other old-timey weapons.’”

“For the record, Johnny, I didn’t grow up rich . And no I need to explain to you the socioeconomics of the North of England again?”

“Buddy, you were able to go to college across the ocean from your house. You might not have been an aristocrat, but you came from money in my book.”

“Should I go back home and rob my parents and give it to the people of Nottingham?”

“You could probably afford to fly first-class both ways and still have plenty left over!”

“Oh, nonsense!”

“That sounds like something a posh British guy would say.”

“Do you want to hot-wire this van and drive me to the airport, then?”

“Heh…”

“...”

“Okay. So. I’m gonna go grab the soap and maybe my stick and I’m gonna mosey on down to the creek. You can come with me, or you can stay behind, knowing you left me alone to die, and then you can fantasize about your woman and whittle your weiner or whatever you do when I’m not around.”

“...”

“...”

“You need me to help you find the soap, don’t you, Johnny?”

“Oh, would you be a dear?”

“It would be shameful for a posh English aristocrat like myself to not help out a dashing young lady like yourself.”

“Why, thank you, milord .”

“Certainly.”

“...”

“...”

Sniff, sniff . “I figured it out.”

“What?”

“Gravy… This van smells like gravy.”

***

Honestly, Little John really had come a long way in terms of self-confidence, including but not limited to his relatively-new devil-may-care attitude to being bare-ass naked in the presence of others, especially other men. The first several dozen times that the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest had decided that they needed to take a timeout to go to the Peach Creek and wash the parts of their bodies where the sun refused to shine, Little John had always insisted that he wait for the others to finish before he went, and he would hang out on the banks “keeping lookout” -- which wasn’t incorrect when he was looking in any other direction but at the other guys -- while the others fraternized without him.

Just the thought of joining them brought back unpleasant memories of several occasions during his youth -- no fewer than two times but not exceeding seven -- when, during his lonely walkabouts through the wooded hilly countryside at Nashville’s edge, he happened upon some other boys skinny-dipping in the river. The boys were all some combination of bigger, stronger, older, socially smarter, tougher and/or meaner than him, and each of them invariably was brimming with a self-confidence that John Edmund Little simply did not yet have. Accidentally invading their public privacy would have been mortifying enough, but when they saw him, they all had the compulsive urge to jump out of the river, chase him down, bumrush him -- recall that they’re all still stark naked throughout all of this -- and kick his ass while accusing him of being a homosexual for looking at them while they were nude. The irony was palpable, and the boys probably realized it but didn’t care; teenage boys in the Bible Belt during the Reagan era will be teenage boys in the Bible Belt during the Reagan era. Eventually, Little John just started walking somewhere else.

Of course, the worst part of those memories is that on at least one of those occasions, John’s brother, the big personality and friend-to-all that he was, was among the boys in the river, and in his infinite blissful ignorance, the guy just thought that they were play-fighting; after all, sparring and boxing had always been some of the naturally-extroverted brother’s favorite pastimes, so he had genuinely thought that John had stopped by for a spur-of-the-moment good old friendly dogpile. At the end of it all, the dumb motherfucker was genuinely confused as to why Little John would limp away toward home trying not to openly weep instead of laughing it off and coming back with him to chill by the river and finally be one of the guys. Said guys would then profess to the bigger Little brother their ardent disbelief that the two of them were brothers, let alone fraternal twins.

Little John still did think about that when it was bathtime, but now he had become able to rationalize it, knowing that he was among trusted friends (who were also exposed in their birthday suits) and that there probably wouldn’t be anybody or anything there who would try to hurt him. Plus it had eventually clicked in his brain that he was roughly three feet taller and several magnitudes heavier than any other member of any iteration of the crew, so he knew that they knew it would probably be unwise of them to risk pissing him off by joking that he had funny-looking genitalia.

But as the duo crossed the log-bridge to get to their usual spot on the opposite side of the creek, Robin was in no mood to praise his friend for having achieved a serviceable level of confidence. It was essentially an entire day later, and he was still gobsmacked that his friend -- a man who was pushing forty, no less -- had acted so damned childish that morning. Or maybe childish wasn’t the right word, but that was the word that kept popping into his head. Robin had always regarded Little John as mature, at least inasmuch as a product of the bear’s sense of loyalty, his great balance between bravery and caution, and a touch of jadedness, and now opening a can of worms about how he was starting to suspect Robin had regarded him as lesser -- seeing John as juvenile , one might even say -- seemed in and of itself to be a juvenile move that clashed with the Little John he knew.

Vulnerable ? John wanted him to be more ‘ vulnerable ’? Granted, it was Robin who had conjured up with the word ‘vulnerable’ to describe what Little John was getting at, but John didn’t fight it when he asked if that’s what he meant. Evidently John’s self-confidence still had a ways to go if he needed to see his friends be weak before he could feel strong by comparison.

Ironically, Johnny had come close to forcing that side out of him by invoking the names of his girlfriend and his brother. One of them was a case of lovesickness that had run unabated until it eventually developed into a forlorn heartbreak, and the other was… well, a profound personal tragedy, to say the least; one of them was someone he was growing increasingly certain he’d never see again, and the other was someone he knew he’d never see again, at least not on this mortal coil. Because things that are cruelly uncertain and things that are cruel certainties can feel equally but oppositely bad, the which of the two he felt worse about flip-flopped on an regular basis, but rarely did a day go by when he wouldn’t take some extra time when he had excused himself to use the water closet to be alone for a second and just stop and think about each of them and how damned terrible he felt. He would think about how alone he felt, abandoned even, with those two gone, let alone all the others who’d came and went. And now that his closest and last remaining friend was turning into a stranger, that wasn’t doing much to help assuage his feelings of loneliness.

But he had to stay strong -- not just for himself, nor just for Marian nor Will nor any of the others left behind, nor just for the poor people of Nottingham who relied upon him, yes for all of those people but beyond them all, he had to stay strong for Little John. Johnny might not like it that Robin was lording over him with his mental, physical (well, proportionally speaking) and emotional strength, but little did Little John know that he needed Robin to do it for him. If the two of them were to survive -- nevermind whether they were to successfully dissolve Nottingham’s political machine and dethrone the Prince Mayor, if they were to literally, physically stay alive on the fringes of society -- they would have to be strong, and if Little John wasn’t going to be strong for himself, Robin would have to do it for the both of them. Ol’ Johnny was deteriorating. But after all the loyalty he’d shown to Robin, it would be cruel and unfair to John if Robin were to deprive him of a shared sense of strength when they needed it most.

No, no, no -- Robin realized he was doing the both of them a disservice. It wasn’t that Little John had a low resilience factor and Robin was at the baseline; Little John was at least as mentally tough as your average person, if not still much stronger, while Robin was just crazy off-the-charts headstrong. But doing what they were doing for seven years and watching their numbers dwindle would take a major toll on anybody, and in that time, the two of them had probably both lost a fair chunk of their minds since they’d started -- Robin just still had a long way to go before he’d start to show it. Their birthdays were both coming up in the fall; Robin would be thirty-two, John would be thirty-eight, and they both were seriously wondering if the rest of their lives were just going to be like this , so Robin couldn’t hold it against him if the old bear was starting to lose his grip. Poor John was the victim of circumstance, and Robin felt bad for blaming him.

And Robin knew that if he absolutely needed to confide in anybody, Little John was as good a choice as anyone; the rapport was there, the respect was there, and John was right that he’d already spilled so much of his guts to Robin that Rob could probably tell a stranger a pretty good rendition of the story about how Little John literally and figuratively went from being tiny and timid to being big and boisterous, so Robin did indeed owe him a secret or two simply as a metric of trust. But that would be all well and good if they were civilian friends chit-chatting while watching sports and drinking beer on their day off from their 9-to-5 jobs. As it was, there may have indeed been lulls in the action when, for example, they’d be stuck in a tree for more than an hour with little else to do but talk, but even in moments like those, there was the persistent threat of danger coming out of the shadows at any moment. There simply was no good time nor place to sit around and talk about what made them feel bad and experiment with the boundaries of platonic male bonding. It would have been foolish to do so.

Then again, they still had a long walk until they got to their preferred spot, with the rock formations that made the perfect place to set their clothes and weapons and accessories down without them getting sandy or dirty. And as they walked along the eastern bank, the only other signs of intelligent life they’d heard were their own footsteps, the only other beings there were the fireflies and the junebugs, and the only thing watching them was the moon above their heads.

“We need to go robbing again,” Robin finally said, breaking the silence. “Martin’s family was a wash, so that didn’t count.”

“You’re saying this like we’ve been out of commision for a week,” John responded in as low of a voice as he could; after all those years of trying and failing to garner attention, he now had trouble keeping his voice down. If Robin thought that John was cross with him, he needed to remember the size of the bone Little John had to pick with genetics and puberty.

“It might be tempting to ultimately take a week off while we’re hiding out in the van. But we can’t have  the people of Nottingham feeling like we’ve abandoned them.”

“Oh, they know we would never do that.”

“Yes, but stressful situations like an unexplained absence can make one’s mind draw some irrational conclusions.”

“Heh. You said it, brother.”

The near-silence returned. Little John thought it was simply a boredom silence, but to Robin, it felt tense.

“I think it might actually be safe to speak, if you do,” Robin offered. “Just use your inside voice.”

“Shit, I’ll try. Did you wanna say something?”

“So you say you want me to tell you more when something’s eating me up inside?”

“Only if you want to.”

“Well, I feel like I ought to tell you that I can’t stop thinking about how you said that.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I can’t stop thinking about how you said that. It was so… unlike you.”

“How was it unlike me?”

“How was it not unlike you?”

“...Well, shit, sorry I said anything.”

“You don’t have to be sorry; you just told me to tell you, so I’m telling you.”

“It really bugged you that much that I said, ‘Hey, Rob, sometimes you’re a pompous dick’?”

“Mellow out, Johnny. I wasn’t offended , I was just shocked. I had no idea you felt that way. So… thanks for telling me?”

“Are you actually grateful I said that, or are you just saying that because that’s what a good leader would do?”

“Bloody fucking hell, Johnny, you want me to prove that I have flaws like a normal person, and then you give me shit for it when I do?”

“Brother, do I need to write ya a dissertation on how everything you’re saying has a subtext of you thinking I was actin’ like a pussy or whatever?”

The two arrived at their usual spot and started preparing as if the conversation wasn’t even happening.

“Well, if you really want to know what rubbed me the wrong way,” Robin mentioned, “was your casually writing off my feelings about Marian and then about Will all in the span of five minutes.”

“Huh! So now I finally know what really gets to ya.”

“Oh, does it make you feel good to have this sort of power over me?”

“Absotively posilutely.”

“What do you plan to do with this power, Little John?”

“Don’t worry, I’ll use it wisely.”

“It wasn’t very wise of you to just forget my half-brother existed.”

“Hey!” Little John grunted as he doffed the last of his garments. He lumbered over to where Robin was turned sideways from John, neatly folding his shirt. Little John made a point to stand not just immediately next to the fox, but also over him. “Is that the kind of fucking person you take me for?”

Robin saw his approach in his periphery, but was nevertheless surprised when he turned his head to the left and saw the upper regions of Little John’s gut staring back at him less than a foot away from his face. Robin turned his head to the sky to try to make respectful eye contact, but that was a tad difficult because Little John’s head was hanging directly over him and the scant available moonlight was now behind his face. From the lungs that were right in front of his ears to the snout that was dangling a meter above his head, Robin could hear from all parts of John’s respiratory system that his exhales contained a faint but unmistakable growling.

Right at about that moment, a cool breeze passed through the woods. A cold shot ran through Robin’s body, and certain parts of his now-exposed body may or may not clenched or retracted in a most emasculating way. Robin hadn’t felt this afraid of this creature since the conflict they had the day they met. For the first time in seven years, Robin had actually, genuinely, irrevocably pissed off his eight-foot-and-change, eight-hundred-or-so-pound grizzly bear friend. And he didn’t enjoy remembering what it felt like to realize that.

“I didn’t forget about Will,” Little John growled, speaking in a much deeper register than usual, a gravelly grumbling that Robin had heard before, but he didn’t remember the last time it was directed at him. “What the fuck kind of asshole do you take me for?”

As for Robin, who had on several occasions throughout his adult life been told ‘wow, Robin, you have such a nice deep voice for a fox, and yet it just doesn’t match your face… or species,’ now found himself speaking in a higher-pitched voice that much more matched his face, and species: “Er, Lit-Little John, I, er, I apologize --”

“Do you think I’m stupid, or do you think I’m just forgetful?”

“I-I-- Neither, John. Nei-neither…”

This reminded Robin of when he and Marian had taken an acting class together in college; it was their first time being taught the ropes of theatre by an American. In that class, the professor had imparted them with a quirky little stateside moniker for a situation when two actors in a scene are in extremely close proximity to one another: “fuck or fight” distance; if two actors are that close to one another, especially if they’re facing each other, then surely they’re either about to start fucking or start fighting. Right now, one of those wasn’t an option, and Robin doubted that either one of them had much interest in the other.

Further complicating this was when Little John put his huge left paw in the crook where Robin’s neck met his right shoulder. Instinctively, Robin turned to look at it, but Little John took his other paw and grabbed Robin under the snout to turn his head to face him.

Look at me. You think I’m stupid, don’t you?”

“Wh--!? N-no! Johnny, I--!”

Robin tried not to dart his eyes when he remembered that his bow and arrow were literally just a few feet behind him to his right.

“You think you’re a wise-ass fox-boy and I’m just your brainless beast of burden, dontcha?”

“Little John, I misspoke ! I’m sorry !”

“We’ve been through this before. You think yer so smart, but ya don’t learn lessons.”

“Little John, you’re scaring me.”

“Fuck off. We both know nothin’ actually scares you, Mister Fucking ‘Hero-of-the-People’.”

“I-I’m serious--”

THEN DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!

So he did. Robin twisted his head and shoulders in opposite directions as he jumped backwards to get out of John’s grasp. When Robin realized he had miraculously not broken his own neck, he hopped back toward the bow and arrow as John came after him. By the time Robin reached his stuff, John was too close for Robin to get extended with his bow, so Robin just grabbed an arrow and held it like a dagger.

“Little John, back off--!”

But Little John’s inhibitions had called in sick to work. He grabbed the arrow out of Robin’s paw with his left hand and grabbed Robin around the neck with his right, and without a visible hesitance bit the metal end off the arrow with the side of his mouth. He tossed the broken end off into the woods to his left without looking and turned to spit the metal point into the creek, where it landed with a troubling splash. Little John grabbed Robin’s arms and pinned him down to his torso.

“You wanna feel big around Little John? Then why don’t I make ya feel big?”

Little John picked Robin up and held him right in front of his face. Their faces were level, but Robin didn’t want to look into John’s eyes; he didn’t want to see what was in there.

“Look at me,” Little John ordered. Robin kept his head turned but slid his eyes over to meet John’s. It was a measure to make sure they wouldn’t have to smell and taste each other’s breath, but Little John wasn’t in much of a mood for such an arrangement.

Look. At. Me! ” he hollered as he shook Robin back and forth until he got the hint. Robin turned his head to face John head-on, and took in what it was like to be eye-level with a giant.

“I didn’t forget about Will,” Little John seethed. “I didn’t think of him as your brother ; I thought of him as our friend . Because that’s what he was: our friend . We lost our, fucking, friend .”

He stopped to growl-breathe for a moment and plan his next sentence. It almost sounded like his throat was starting to hurt from growling more than usual. Eventually, Little John figured out what he wanted to say:

“...And maybe I lost you, too.”

Despite the scarce light, they could both see every individual eyelash on each other’s eyelids. Despite all the noise they’d been making, there still hadn’t been a sound of anybody else in the area. There was another cool breeze, but it may have been that there had been many cool breezes, and they had only noticed the ones that came by in moments of silence.

Robin didn’t know what he ought to say, so he said the only thing he could think of:

“Are you going to kill me, Little John?”

Little John just stared and seethed with his infuriated look frozen on his face. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale … and then there was a twitch on his face, and his look was broken.

Little John tossed Robin up in the air for a quick moment before sliding his arms under Robin’s armpits and pulling the fox into a very literal bear-hug. Robin’s chin came to rest on Little John’s right shoulder, along with his left arm, and his right arm was limply strung around John’s left shoulder. Their cheeks and ears were ever so slightly brushing one another. Robin, still processing what was happening, maintained a petrified look on his face. As for Little John, although Robin couldn’t turn his head to see his face, he could hear the bear was crying.

“God… dammit! ” Little John choked out; now it was him whose voice was hitting the high notes. “I… I just… I just want to feel competent !”

Robin was still stupefied, and his speech was on autopilot. “Little John… I’m sorry.”

“I ju-just want to feel good at-- I wanna feel like I’m good at being a person! ” A loud sniffle came through, and Little John rocked the two of them back and forth. “I want to-- For fuck’s sakes!”

As John turned back and forth, Robin -- who was at least three feet off the ground, probably more with the outward angle of Little John’s stomach, and who couldn’t even feel whether the tip of his long tail was brushing the ground -- tried to accept that he was just along for the ride. He made a better attempt at connecting his arms around the bear’s neck to reciprocate the surprise hug, and he succeeded. “Little John, I’m sorry.”

“I just want to be like you , Rob!”

“Y-you do?”

“I-I wanna be confident , a-and I want to be-- I wanna be charming and charismatic and all those words I’ve heard people call you! I wanna command respect like you do!” -- Little John paused for a moment to clear his aching throat -- “And I wanna always feel like I’m saying the right thing like you always say the right thing! And I want to be someone who other people like without feeling like I have to try really hard to be somebody they’ll like! I want to feel like the person I am and the person I want to be are the same person! I just wanna feel like I’m being myself and be happy with that! Like you! A-and my brother ! And like every other man on this planet seems to be when I’m around!”

Robin debated telling him that he didn’t always know what to say, and that he wasn’t always confident, and that in tough situations he had to try really fucking hard to maintain his air of charisma so that he could still come across as a capable leader when somebody had to fill that role but nobody else could; an uncomfortable and alien situation such as this perfectly exemplified all three of those things. But no; he had to be strong for John when he couldn’t be strong for himself. If he were to divulge sensitive information, they’d be there all night.

“A-and girls think you’re fucking handsome , and-and…” Little John trailed off.

Hm. Robin didn’t know how to fight that one..

“How--” Little John sputtered, “How can someone so perfect exist, and no matter how hard I try to change who I am, I still can’t be who I want to be!?”

“I’m not perfect, Little John.”

“Oh yes the fuck you are, and we both know it!”

“And I like you just the way you are, Johnny.”

“I don’t.”

“I wouldn’t trust anybody else with my life as much as I trust you. I wouldn’t have trusted Will as much. I wouldn’t have trusted Tuck or Alan as much. I wouldn’t even have trusted Marian as much, nor my own mother and father. I like you just the way you are, John.” He felt sappy repeating that line, but he thought Little John really needed to hear it.

“You sure as hell thought I was gonna kill ya just now,” John blubbered. He had stopped swaying, but his hold hadn’t loosened.

“Because I trust your judgment. If you thought that would be the right thing to do… I would have let you.” Robin had tripped up for a second there because of a sudden itchiness that he thought was a bug walking on his face, but to his surprise, it was a tear of his own running down his cheek. He wasn’t being insecure about his feelings; he genuinely didn’t know where the tear came from, because no part of him felt like crying. Upon closer inspection, his eyes were a tad watery; apparently the mood was infectious. “Maybe I would be a narcissistic twat without you around. But you keep me in check, Little John.”

“There! Ya see! Ya always know exactly what to say!”

“Oh, no I don’t…”

“Well, I wish I was as good at faking it as you were.”

“And I wish I were as intimidating and supportive and… fun as you are. Life is strange like that, I suppose.”

“Oh, hell, you’re all three of those things.” Little John seemed to be regaining his composure. “More than anything, Rob… I want to be as heroic as you are.”

“I’m no hero, John.”

“Not everybody would throw away their future and break the law on a regular basis to help a bunch of starving people. Most people wouldn’t put everyone else but themselves first like that.”

“You did that, too, Johnny.”

“I followed your lead.”

“Little John, if you knew the things I knew about myself, you would know I’m not a hero.”

“Okay. Then tell me what I don’t know.”

A series of breaths.

“...A real hero would be able to tell you.”

“Ya see? You always know exactly what to say, Robin.” Little John took a deep breath to clear his lungs of pain. “Do you ever think I’m just a small man in a big man’s body?”

“...Of course not.” Robin didn’t think he was lying.

“Well, I do.”

“Well, I don’t know what to say to change your mind.”

“Even when you don’t know what to say, you know what to say…”

“I wish I was as flattering as you, Little John.”

Little John kept standing there perfectly still with Robin in his arms. He thought about what the boys from back home would think of him if they saw him there, completely naked, hugging another completely naked man a fraction of his size, all the while both were crying in the moonlight at the river’s edge in a public space. He forced himself not to care; he knew what was really going on, and they weren’t there.

“Goddammit, I’m sorry I list my damn mind, Rob.”

“You have nothing to apologize for, Johnny. I’m the one who should be sorry for making my closest friend feel betrayed.”

“You and me gotta look out for one another. I love ya, brother.”

“I wouldn’t look out for you if I didn’t feel the same way, Little John.”

Little John grabbed Robin by the arms and torso and held him out at arms’ length to get a good look at him. “Welp… that just happened!”

“I won’t tell the boys back in Tennessee if you don’t tell Marian!” Robin joked.

“Honey, you know I’m not one to kiss and tell!” Little John said, and the two of them chuckled; it was a laugh they both badly needed.

Little John put Robin down, but let go before Robin -- whose legs were half-asleep by this point -- fully found his footing. Robin stumbled backward and landed sitting on his own tail, which bent at a painful angle.

“Aaargh!” he yelped as he pursed his eyes shut and turned his head to the ground.

“Oh, shit, Rob, are you okay? My bad, man.”

Robin opened his eyes and slowly started raising his eyes toward John, but stopped when he fixed his eyes on Little John’s belly button -- but from John’s vantage point, he couldn’t tell what Robin was looking at. Robin felt like he could use another laugh.

“Oh, so that’s what the old meat and veg look like!” Robin quipped. “First time laying eyes upon them after all these years -- I never thought they’d look like that !”

Robin rolled over laughing as Little John pieced together what he said.

“Oh, why, you little--!” Little John cut himself off as he picked Robin up under the armpits again, this time from the backside. He swung Robin to his left -- as Robin himself was still having a laugh and a half -- and then to his right, letting go at just the right exit angle to send the guffawing fox right into the deepest part of the creek.

Robin’s laugh blurred into a holler of exhilaration while he was sailing through the air, and he landed with a satisfying splash. After a second, he came up for air, spit out some water, let out a whoo-hoo! And immediately started laughing again.

“You son of a bitch!” Little John jeered playfully as he grabbed the bar of soap and started wading his way into the water. “Cheeky little bastard!”

“That was actually quite fun!” Robin remarked. “We ought to try that some more! I’m just sorry I can’t return the favor! Heh… My, why haven’t we done that before?”

“I’m assuming you mean getting tossed in the water.”

“Oh, no, Little John, of course I’m referring to the naked hugging and crying!”

“Anything to see you smile, buddy,” Little John quipped as he used his giant paw to splash the still-smirking fox square in the face. And for a time, it seemed like all was well again between them.

It was back to the task at hand: get themselves clean and get back to safety. They tossed the bar of soap back and forth as they took turns lathering up different chunks of their body. The only issue was that the soap was dissolving quickly after every time it made incidental contact with the water.

“Man, this stuff is murder on my fur,” Little John muttered. “We shoulda thought to bring the body-wash stuff with us.”

“I certainly didn’t think we’d need to take an emergency bath, otherwise I would’ve brought the shampoo!” Robin answered. “But now we know for next time.”

Neither of them wanted to think too much about how many ‘next times’ of running away to a temporary hiding place there would be -- or whether the last of the next times would be followed by a return to normal life, a vacation in prison, or a trip to the grave.

“Hey, Robin, serious question: should we start recruiting again?”

“Recruiting for our little army? I wouldn’t be against it, but how would we go about it? Just asking anybody who seems friendly? Or putting an ad in the personals?” Robin was moving up toward the bank to start covering his lower body without completely melting their only soap. “I’ll be the first to admit that I got lucky the first time finding four people to join me in just a few months.”

“Well, one of them was grandfathered in.”

“How do you mean, Little John?”

“...Your brother,” Little John answered as gently as he could.

“Ah. I see your point. But recall that I didn’t want him to join us at first. But he insisted. I didn’t want him risking his own life when he was just a lad.”

“You were just a kid, too! You were, uh…” Little John counted on his fingers. “Twenty-four? And a half?”

“Ah, where does the time go?”

“Hey, do you think Skippy and the Turtle are out of juvie yet?”

“Johnny, even if they were, I think I’ve just established that I was barely comfortable recruiting a university-aged kid; I wouldn’t want to drag an actual minor or two into this.”

“How old would those boys even be at this point? I know Skippy’d just turned seven when we met him, but I don’t remember how many years ago that was.”

Robin was silent for a second, as he had to do the mental math, too. “I remember it was after we lost Will. I remember taking a shining to Skippy because I thought, ‘I failed my first protégé, but maybe this is my chance to learn from my mistakes.’ It must have been the summer after.”

“Honestly, that’s another thing about you I’m jealous of. I wish I was that good with kids. But I’m afraid that I’d just seem creepy.”

“Little John, you’re overthinking it.”

“No the hell I’m not. Have you not pieced together how big ‘stranger danger’ is over here? Are you aware of the ‘pedo-bear’ stereotype?”

“My lord, you Yanks are a paranoid bunch…”

“You freaking Europeans aren’t paranoid enough,” Little John grumbled, not really joking. “...It was really nice of you to give that kid your bow and arrow, you know.”

“Oh, it’s not like those were my only ones. Or even my best.”

“Still, I remember that kid following us around that summer. He admired you.”

“And then that fall came, and we were so close to getting Prince John to resign out of fear for his life, but then… that thing happened in New York, security was increased everywhere, people started cautiously trusting their government again because they had nobody else to trust to protect them…”

“...and they arrested a couple of second-graders who were trying to copy us,” Little John finished for Robin, who was getting visibly hot and bothered by the recollection. “I remember that now. That was four years ago, then. The boys would be eleven. Ish. Skip’s birthday was in the spring, right?”

“We didn’t just lose our momentum; we lost our hope for the future in those two lads,” Robin said as he squeezed the bar of soap, which was now waterlogged and malleable.

“Chill, buddy. There’s nothing we can do about it now.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t have given Skippy the bow and arrow for his birthday. He probably would have been content with just the hat.” Robin was aggressively scrubbing his thick tail with the soap, which now was a very strange shape which had no name. “But in that spot, I would have given him the bow a thousand times out of a thousand, because zero times out of a thousand would I expect that those bastards would be so mean-spirited as to throw actual children in jail.”

“And I believe that,” Little John affirmed, waiting patiently for Robin to pass the soap back over. At this point, they were only about knee-deep still in the water. “You’re a good man, Rob.”

“Aargh, not as good as I’d like to be,” Robin mumbled glumly and passed John back the soap, which was down to a flimsy little strip.

“Oh, c’mon, Rob, save some of the soap for me. I’ve got more surface area than you do!”

“But you don’t have a body part that drags on the dirty ground so often you don’t even feel it anymore,” Robin corrected.

“Hey, do you remember what Skippy and the Turtle’s real names were?” Little John wondered aloud. “I feel like the raccoon was something with a ‘T’, like ‘Tommy the Turtle’ or something?”

“‘Toby,’ ‘Toby in the turtleneck sweater’. Skippy’s name was… was…” Robin realized he was completely stumped. “Did we never actually hear his name? He called himself ‘Skippy,’ his sisters and his mum called him ‘Skippy’... his real name couldn’t have been ‘Skippy,’ could it have been?”

“It better not have been!” Little John quipped, “His mom seemed like such a nice lady; I’d hate to find out she named her kid ‘Skippy’ -- that’d be child abuse!”

Robin let out one sharp laugh at that, and John bellowed one out to join him. This was a bad decision.

“I knew I heard people over here!” hollered a voice sounding like it sounded like a pubescent boy.

Huh!? ” Little John spit out, but Robin elbowed him in the gut.

Shh! ” Robin hushed. “Get down--!”

But before they could submerge themselves, a teenage hyena wearing a backwards baseball cap ran around the bend in the riverbank and came to a halt as soon as he laid eyes on them.

“Oh--! They’re fucking naked!” the boy shouted as he made a dramatic display of shielding his eyes from what he’d already seen.

Robin and John both bent over and covered their nether-regions with their paws.

“Do we run, or do we negotiate?” asked Little John, showing none of his earlier enthusiasm for trying his hand at leadership.

Robin answered by example: “Oh-oh, don’t worry, man!” he called out to the hyena, trying his best at putting on an American accent to hide one of his most unique denotative qualities; to conceal his other most notable attribute, he tried to shove his tail under the water, so that he might pass for a coyote or a small wolf instead of a large fox. “W-we’re just taking a dip!”

“Kevin, what’s going on? Who’s there!?” came the voice of a teenage girl from somewhere beyond the hyena.

“I told you that I heard splashing and voices coming from somewhere!” the one called Kevin answered the girl.

“Don’t worry, buddy, we don’t mean no harm!” Little John tried his hand at civil discussion. “We’ll give ya yer space if you give us ours -- we were about to leave soon anyway!”

“Kevin, let’s go!” the girl shouted, sounding rather distressed. Robin and John still couldn’t see her.

“Stay back, Nazz! I’ll fend off these nutjobs!” the hyena screamed back at her.

“Should we run for it now?” Little John whispered nervously to Robin.

“They might not know who we are!” the fox whispered back. “We mustn’t do anything that might incriminate ourselves!”

Look out! ” Little John shouted as he grabbed Robin by the elbow and yanked him toward himself, tumbling him into the water.

Splash . The rock the hyena had thrown may or may not have successfully hit Robin where he’d been standing, but it was much too close for comfort.

“Get out of here, you faggots!” the hyena yelled just in time for Robin to pull his head back above the water and hear him. Kevin tossed another rock, but in the dark of the night, they quickly lost sight of it. It was soon rediscovered, however.

Gah! ” Little John roared as he clutched the spot on his stomach that was hit. He was lucky that it didn’t hit a foot or so lower. He turned to Robin sitting on the creek’s shallow bed and spat, “You were saying !?”

“Oh, sod this!” Robin swore as he scrambled out of the water and onto the shore. John stumbled ashore behind him as quickly as he could. Unfortunately, their stuff was on the same bank as the hyena boy, a few dozen yards away.

“Get the fuck out of here!” the hyena shouted.

“Kevin!” the one known as Nazz pleaded.

Get a room, fags! ” Kevin screamed.

“Johnny, guard me while I get my bow together!” Robin begged as he scurried to find his accessories in the dark. “Actually, no -- grab our clothes!”

“Are we fighting or running?” Little John was understandably confused.

“The first one while we’re doing the second one!”

“This ain’t your place to go fucking skinny dipping!” the hyena yelled right before another rock plunked John right in the sternum. This one got him down on one knee for a second.

“Stay down for a second, Johnny!” Robin said. “I need a clear shot!” In the slim moonlight, Robin pulled back and released his arrow, hoping this wouldn’t be the first time in years that he’d miss his target.

The hyena, also blinded by the darkness, could barely even see the arrow coming, and might not even have realized that it came by if not for the distinct ripping sound he heard coming from the crown of his head.

“My hat!” the hyena cried as he felt the top of his head and realized his favorite cap had been split cleanly in two. Just as the fox intended.

“I’ll let you believe that I missed high if it makes you feel better about yourself!” Robin jeered, no longer even trying to conceal his unmistakable accent.

“Kevin, what’s going on!? I can’t see you!” Nazz shouted.

“Is that a fucking bow and arrow!?” Kevin yelled.

“Well, it’s just a bow now, but I can present you with another arrow if you insist on hanging around!” Robin called. Meanwhile, Little John, who didn’t have a damned clue where his quarterstaff was nor what he could do with it if he could find it, made due with the tools at his disposal.

“Yeah, and you wanna see even more primitive weaponry!?” Little John bellowed as he hurled one of Kevin’s rocks right back at him, sailing through the narrow gap between the hyena’s arm and his torso. Startled, the hyena hit the dirt.

“What the fuck is wrong with you!?” Kevin cried.

“Nice aim, Little John!” Robin praised quietly.

“Uh-- thanks, Rob,” John answered, not daring to mention that he hadn’t been trying to miss on purpose. Little John turned his attention back to Kevin the hyena and answered the question asked of him: “What’s wrong with you , kid? Don’t you realize we were here first!?”

Robin set up another arrow, stepped into a well-lit spot so that Kevin could more clearly see him, and took aim, hoping he wouldn’t have to release it this time. “Please don’t make me waste another arrow on you, lad; these things are so hard to come by!” Robin pleaded smarmily. His smile didn’t last for long.

“I-I know who you are!” the hyena murmured. He said it very quietly, but Robin and John could hear it perfectly.

“Wh-what?” Little John stammered, not knowing what else he could do.

“I-I… You’re real!”

“Damn straight, we’re real!” Little John boasted, not yet understanding the gravity of what he’d just affirmed.

“Johnny, grab our stuff and head back to the safehouse. I’ll hold him off.”

“I’m not leaving you here alone with this asshole kid!”

“The grab our stuff and get ready to head back to the safehouse while I hold him off.”

“Right-o!” Little John got to business while Robin made sure the kid didn’t move a muscle towards them.

“You-you’re the outlaws who live in the woods!” said Kevin.

When Robin heard that, his entire body shook a little. He almost lost his grip of the arrow.

“I don’t want to hurt a kid,” Robin spoke stoically, “but asking you nicely to leave doesn’t seem to be working.”

Little John heard Kevin’s epiphany as well. He picked up the pace and started grabbing all the clothes he could find and bundled them up in his jacket.

“My girlfriend was just telling me about you today!” Kevin declared shakily. “You w-were the ones who…”

He trailed off, and it wasn’t clear if he was going to finish his thought. But Robin was concerned for whatever might be coming next.

Fwhoosh! Swish. Fwhoop!

Robin was just as shocked as Kevin or John that he had released the arrow. He was able to point it down at the last second, and it hit the ground in front of Kevin’s face, bounced off the sand and went sailing over his head. Kevin jumped up and took off running.

“Kevin!?” Nazz cried one last time, the location of her voice still a mystery to the Merry Men.

“Okay,” Robin said with his voice uncharacteristically quivery, “I’m ready to go. Are you ready to go?”

“I’m ready to go!” said Little John.

“Then let’s go!” And off they went.

They ran all the way back down to the log bridge, all the while hearing Kevin and Nazz calling out to one another in the ever-furthering distance, but they did not pay attention to what they were saying. They only slowed down when they got to the bridge, needing to go slowly in the dark across the log to make sure they wouldn’t fall into the water and make another loud splash that would betray their present geography.

“So,” Robin began as he caught his breath while tiptoeing across the log; ever the extrovert, talking to people could often help him concentrate. “This is… twice today that… some kids have mistaken us for a gay couple. Is… is that an American thing, or just a middle-class suburban thing?”

“I… I woulda…” -- Little John, naturally, was more puffed out than Robin was after their sprint -- “I woulda said that’s just a teenage boy thing. But… to be fair, we were naked this time.”

“Not to invoke some unpleasant memories, but… I thought that skinny dipping was… a popular pastime over here, though?”

“Yeah, if you live in a hick town like I did.”

“I see your poi--”

“Hey, who’s there!?” shouted a gruff voice in the distance. It was a voice they’d heard before, but not a voice they’d heard recently.

“Huh?” came the faint voice of Kevin the hyena.

“They’re trespassing!” came a much more familiar voice with a Southern drawl and an erratic speaking pitch. “It’s your jurisdiction, get ‘em!”

“No way,” remarked Robin upon recognizing the voice.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Little John moaned.

“Stand down!” the gruff voice hollered.

“Kevin?” called Nazz again.

“I got ‘em, Sheriff!” came a slightly smoother voice. This one put the pieces together: this speaker was County Deputy Sheriff Goldthwaite, and the other voice had been Nottingham County Sheriff Elkins.

“Crap, let’s run!” Robin commanded, and he was about to take off before he realized Little John was in no hurry.

“Hold up, Rob. We’re safe to stop here for a second. I need to catch my breath some more. Plus we might wanna hear this.”

That’s when the screaming started.

Two of them were screams trying to inject fear and assert dominance, trying to command authority and demand submission. Another scream was a pained scream, shouts and cries of infliction and oppression that contained no actual syllables nor sentences and yet told a thousand words. Yet another scream was a mixture of shrieks of terror and pleas for mercy:

“Stop, stop! What are you doing!? Stop! Let him go! He didn’t do anything!” these shouts were coming from the girl called Nazz.

Most surprisingly, however, were the shouts of two others in near-harmony with hers. The loud jeers of Chief Woodland and the quieter shouts of Deputy Nutzinger. They too urged the County officers to stop whatever it was they were doing:

“Elky! Goldy! Elky, Goldy, stop! Stop!”

“Sheriff, Deputy! Stop! Stop right now! This isn’t necessary!”

Little John and Robin stood at the banks, naked, wet, cold, and growing increasingly confused.

“I… don’t want to hear this anymore,” Little John confessed.

“Er, just as a point, I was serious about needing to restock on arrows,” Robin noted soberly as he led the way to their home away from home.

The two kept some pep in their step as they navigated their way back to their makeshift hotel, but they didn’t go faster than a quick walking pace. To be polite, they may have told you and I that they travelled slower because they weren’t entirely sure of the way back and didn’t want to run in the wrong direction. But the reality was that they knew the only ones who would have an interest in doing them harm were, evidently, preoccupied. Even when they heard the sirens of emergency vehicles coming from the major roads miles away, they would come to a complete stop and follow the sound with their ears, waiting for it to pass them by before they continued making their way back to the junkyard in no discernable hurry.

When they returned to the van, it still smelled like gravy, and Little John thought his nose now also detected hints of buttered toast.

Chapter Text

  1. “Ed’s Sunday”

BOOM!

“Are you still asleep down there!?” Mr. Browne hollered into the basement before the sound of the blast had even finished subsiding.

“Yeah, I am a-rising and a-shining, Dad!” Ed answered from his room, for the noise had successfully awoken him.

“What the hell was that noise!?” Mrs. Browne screamed from some other part of the house.

“I woke up our son!” Hilary screamed back.

Ed rolled himself out of his bed and thumped onto the floor.

“What was that noise , Hill!?”

“I woke … him up ,” Mr. Browne answered, trying to make his annoyance clear.

Ed tried standing from the floor, but stood too fast, and in his light-headed dizziness, he collapsed right back onto his bed, which gave way with a loud creak.

“Dad probably threw an M-80 down the stairs again,” Sarah said from somewhere near her mom.

“Hilary, are you trying to burn our fucking house down!?” Mrs. Browne cried.

Ed realized he was actually quite comfortable in the position he landed in, and didn’t bother moving a muscle. Besides, he was still tired from his odd hours and his movie binge yesterday, and staying awake after one’s REM cycle is interrupted is a tough task for anyone.

“I’ve never burned our house down before; why would it happen today?” Mr. Browne answered; after getting farther away, his voice seemed to be getting closer again. “Matilda, does it ever cross your mind that maybe I’ll take your grievances more seriously if you were better at picking your fucking battles!?”

The sound of heavy ursine footsteps making their way down the basement stairs didn’t disturb Ed’s feeling of comfiness.

“Oh, fuck off, Hilary!” Mat scoffed. “This is really the house I wanted to come home to!”

“Ed!” Mr. Browne barked from the doorway to Ed’s room. “I thought you said you were awake! Did you fucking lie to me?”

“No, Dad, I’m awake!” Ed answered, unfazed by the aggression of his father.

“Then get out of bed!” Hilary ordered. “It’s one-thirty! Look alive! You’ll never get ahead in life if you sleep your life away!”

Ed gathered all his strength to lunge himself up from his bed, and leaped out of the mattress from its end. But he carried so much inertia with him that we went tumbling straight into the opposite wall, bounced right off of it, and stumbled backward, ultimately being tripped by and landing in his mattress once again.

“Jesus Christ, Ed, what are you doing with yourself?” Hill grumbled as he looked at his son, whom he couldn’t tell whether he was just dazed or if he was falling asleep again. “Do I need to break out the smelling salts?”

But Hilary didn’t feel like going all the way back upstairs again. He grasped his son by the hand and forcefully pulled him up out of the bed. Ed almost fell straight over again, but Hill grabbed him by the shoulders and held on until he balanced out.

“Ed is now upright, and right up! Right, Dad?” Ed beamed.

Hilary was about to say something, but something inspired him to first correct his posture as much as possible first. He swore that Ed got taller again, and this time the younger Browne might have finally eclipsed the elder. Before he realized that his son was starting to catch him, Hill hadn’t felt much insecurity about his height in a long time -- being a seven-ish-foot male grizzly was like being a five-and-a-half-foot wolf or a three-foot red fox: not down in the height range of social embarrassment, but certainly on the low end of the spectrum of normalcy; but he was mostly able to forget about this thanks to his decision to move his family into a home designed for medium-sized mammals, with eight-foot ceilings and doorways that were still cheaper to have widened than it would have cost to move into a physically larger home, so for much of the past decade he felt like he sat undisputed at the top of the food chain as long as his sample size was restricted to Rethink Avenue and the neighboring blocks. Then his son ruined that when he went ahead and won the genetic lottery -- perhaps not in inherent intellect, but certainly in all the physical categories that the ursine community valued amongst themselves. His wife simply chalked this up to Ed getting all the good genes from her own father’s Kodiak ancestry. Hilary would have cursed his thing for large women if he believed her explanation. But he wasn’t so sure he believed it. The kid’s fur being a much darker shade of golden-brown -- that is to say, there was no visible gold in it -- certainly didn’t help his skepticism.

But Hilary straightened his posture and forced himself not to think about his assorted insecurities, much to the relief of this narrator, who would very much like to go a few pages without mentioning a character having plot-relevant height anxiety lest you, dear reader, start to get the impression that that’s all this story is about. But if Hilary Browne had read the preceding sentence, the only value he would have gotten out of it was a sense of dissatisfaction that his idiot son didn’t have such self-awareness as this narrator.

“Ed, what are we going to do with you?” Mr. Browne grumbled, more to himself than to his addressee.

“Ooh! Ooh! I know, I know! You’re going to--”

“That’s not a question for you to answer, Ed,” Mr. Browne told his son, paternal disappointment leaking into his voice.

Ed simply looked surprised and a bit saddened. He really was hoping he could convince his parents that this could be the year they finally take him to Area 51.

“Oh, don’t give me that look!” Hilary growled. But he decided if he was going to get anywhere with his son, he was going to at least have to fake being amiable. He took a deep breath and straightened his posture one more time for (literal) good measure. “Now, Ed, there’s two things I want you to remember that’re happening in the upcoming week. For one thing, Father’s Day is next Sunday, and--”

“FATHER’S DAY!” Ed yelped and came in and gave Mr. Browne an unexpected hug. He then proceeded to start jumping up and down while taking his dad along for the ride. “I’m going to make you the very best present that any son has ever given any dad on any Father’s Day in any--!”

Why is the house shaking!? ” Mrs. Browne yelled from upstairs.

“Ed!” Mr. Browne barked and squirmed out of Ed’s grasp, killing the son’s momentum until he finally came to a stop. “Ed, I appreciate your enthusiasm, but you did the same thing last year and you completely forgot about it when the day actually came around.”

Ed looked hurt again. “I’m sorry, Dad! I’m going to get you two super-duper amazing--!”

“I don’t care what you get me or how many. I’m not concerned about getting stuff from you. I’m concerned about you not remembering to fulfill your responsibilities in life. If you can’t remember a little thing like Father’s Day, what can you remember?”

Ed stared and thought about that one for a second, while Hilary started rehearsing how he was going to respond to the impending genuine answer to a rhetorical question.

Finally, it clicked in Ed’s brain. “I can remember the monster movie marathon!”

“Uh… that you can, Ed. But all I want for Father’s Day -- really -- is for you to be an adult.”

“I can’t grow up that fast, Dad.”

Like hell you can’t, you fucking elephantine little pituitary case… “Well, you will before you know it.” And that frightened Hilary in more ways than one. “Oh! I almost forgot the other thing! Your mother is going to call to make you an appointment for a… sort of doctor. But not a--”

“Doctor! But I just went to the doctor, Dad! And he told me I was too old for a lollipop this time!”

“Ed, I didn’t finish my thought. This is a different kind of doctor.”

“Will he give me a sucker!?”

“...Maybe. I don’t know. This is a doctor for your head. For your mind.”

Mind doctor ? Is he going to hypnotize me and turn me into his zombie slave?”

“I really doubt it. This is more to try to figure out… how you tick .”

“...Do you think I’m stupid, Dad?”

Yes . “No.”

“Then why do I have to go?”

“Because maybe they can help understand what’s running through your head in ways that your mother and Sarah and I aren’t smart enough to understand.”

“Ooh! Are we all going to the mind-doctor together!?”

“Probably just you and your mother. It’s probably going to be during a weekday when I’m at work.”

“Oh. Well I’ll miss you there, Dad.”

Hilary didn’t think too highly of Ed, but he’d never deny that the kid never withheld affection for the people he cared about. Even if Ed wasn’t good at showing his affection in a way that the other person would appreciate.

“And I’m sorry I won’t be able to be there with you, son. Now get on upstairs and have breakfast. Or lunch. Or whatever -- it’s almost two o’clock. You’re burning daylight.” I don’t know what the hell you were going to accomplish today, kid, but you’re running out of time to do it.

“Aye-aye, Captain!” Ed saluted and then took off running up the stairs, still in his half-dressed slumberous attire. Hilary watched him go all the way up the stairs, just in case the dumb son of a bitch tumbled right back down; Hill was very deliberate in mentally referring to the kid as a son of a bitch .

Ed grabbed a box of Chunky Puffs out of the pantry and a gallon of soy milk out of the fridge. There was no need for a bowl or a glass or a spoon; it would only be more dirty dishes. He made his way into the living room, and his father followed in soon after. The television appeared to be a live news broadcast from Nottingham City Hall, but all to be seen was an empty stage with a vacant podium; nothing substantial seemed to be happening yet.

“What’s on TV!?” Ed inquired, asking more about what else was on instead of what was presently on the screen.

“Well, it was the Orioles game,” Hilary explained as he got settled in his armchair, “but apparently it’s getting preempted for some local news update.” Mr. Browne reached over for the TV Guide and flipped through to find the day’s listings. “So I guess if the Nationals need to build a fanbase from scratch, the least we can do is give them the time of day,” he said as he very slowly and carefully pressed the buttons of the remote with the tips of his claws -- his ursine fingers were far too big for the buttons.

The channel flipped from 11 to 23, which showed the empty podium at city hall from a slightly different angle than Channel 11 did.

“What the hell happened that every channel’s having a live news… thing?” Hilary wondered.

“Maybe it can explain why traffic was so bad and there were police cars and emergency vehicles everywhere,” Mrs. Browne said as she walked in, having just come downstairs after getting changed out of her Sunday best and into something more Sunday-afternoon-y. She glanced at the TV and saw that it was literally just a shot of the podium with no graphics on the screen and nobody saying anything. “Wait, what are they doing?”

“I was hoping you’d know--”

“--and we do apologize again for the inconvenience,” the female narrator said on the TV. “Mayor Norman’s press conference was scheduled to start eight minutes ago at 1:45; we’re just waiting on him now.”

“Of course you’re waiting on him! Thank God we don’t live in the city under him… Speaking of God, how was church?” Hilary asked his wife half-heartedly.

“Well, traffic was bad,” Matilda reiterated, “and the priest went on a tangent for forever again about the importance of almsgiving and charity. And it’s like: we get it, Father, but… A) We agree, but it’s not like most of us are in any position to just throw money away; B) You say this every time that it’s your turn to do the sermon, and it’s getting old; and C) Hey, Father, maybe somebody with a gut like yours isn’t in any place to talk about greed. You fat asshole.”

Ed, for his part, was completely disinterested in the conversation, as well as whatever was transpiring on TV, and was happy to just go to town on a box of cereal and swig some milk to wash it down.

“Fat asshole? Is he one of us? Or is he a pig or something?”

“No, he’s that badger; I’ve told you about him before. The one with the weird bald spot? He’s the one who used to be homeless before he found the priesthood. I guess then he’d have a personal stake in preaching about charity.”

Hilary and Ed were not familiar with this character, as only Matilda and Sarah still went to church on Sundays, and even then it was more for traditional and cultural reasons than any spiritual sense of fulfillment. Mr. Browne didn’t go because he didn’t see the urgency in going. Ed wasn’t invited -- his antics as a younger child had gotten him kicked out the parish up in Lemon Brook, which Mrs. Browne thought was disproportionate punishment, inspiring her to instead take her and her daughter to a different parish on the other side of Sherwood Forest in the city. The idea had been floated to let Ed start going again when he calmed down (calmer than he used to be, at least), but the Brownes agreed that he probably wouldn’t ‘get it’ -- not that the adults thought it was particularly imperative that he did.

“I don’t remember you ever telling me about this guy,” Hilary answered as his eyes remained fixed on the screen.

“I mean,” Matilda continued, “I guess he does also touch on things like sticking together as a community in rough times -- it’s clear he doesn’t like the Mayor very much, but who does? -- and he talks about what God would want you to do when there only seems to be wrong options -- like he talks about how he used to need to rob people to survive--”

“Jesus Christ,” mumbled Hilary with a wince.

“I know, and he talks about how he felt bad doing that, but it was either rob or starve to death -- ironic, with the way he looks; maybe his metabolism is even worse than ours -- but he’s said if he allowed himself to die so easily then that would basically be suicide, which is a sin , and then he really couldn’t serve God, so he says he always tried to rob people who seemed like rich assholes since they would hurt from it the least, and then the moral of the story is that when we’re in a position like that we should view it through the lens of What Would Jesus Do, but not the God-Jesus but the Mortal Jesus, stuff like that.”

“Is this guy a communist or something?”

“Well, he’s a Catholic priest, so if anything, I was afraid he was a Republican like all the others… Then again, he doesn’t go on tirades about abortion being bad like the others do. But he really doesn’t go on tirades about anything but charity and community and tough decisions and then charity again. He kind of mixes it up, I guess, because he’s really the only one of the four of ‘em to talk about their personal lives, but… what does he expect us to do ?”

There’s the cocksucker!” Hilary exclaimed. On the screen, Mayor John Norman was finally making his way to the podium, his gait very still and formal, probably to keep the top hat in its precarious perch on his head. Really, everything about the guy looked antiquated, from his suit and jacket quite literally sourced from Merrie Olde England, to the cane that he carried but wasn’t actually using, to the look on his face which clearly conveyed to everybody that he was brought up to believe that stoic is the only way for a man to be. In front of him, a sea of reporters’ cameras illuminated their flashes, and behind him, his double-amputee weasel assistant took a spot on the back of the stage, flanked by two enormous bodyguards, a rhino and an elephant.

“I feel so bad saying this, but it always weirds me out to look at his assistant,” Matilda confessed to anybody who would listen.

“Hey, the 1890s called,” Hilary jeered at the screen, “they think you look like an enormous asshole!”

Chew, swallow, slurp, gulp , continued Ed.

And so the show began.

“Good afternoon, my citizens,” the Englishman began.

“Fuck you,” Hilary muttered, and the TV station’s microphones picked up a few members of the press conference muttering similar sentiments.

“It has been brought to my attention that there has been an incident in the Sherwood Forest Nature Preserve involving high-ranking members of both the Nottingham County and Nottingham City Police Departments, as well as a young citizen of the Town of Peach Creek.”

“Wait, what happened!?” Hilary exclaimed.

“Why didn’t the priest mention this today?” wondered Matilda. “Do they have TV or a computer in the priests’ house?”

Ed perked up a bit when he heard his hometown being name-dropped, but otherwise continued unabated with his gorging.

“I am unhappy to confirm that, while in search of other suspects, County Sheriff Thomas Elkins and Sheriff’s Deputy Matthew Goldthwaite very early this morning came across a fourteen-year-old boy who was trespassing in the forest after its posted closing time at dusk,” Mayor Norman droned, “whereupon the Sheriff and Sheriff’s Deputy used excessive force to suppress him.”

“Fourteen? Ed, is this a kid you might know that he’s talking about?” Hilary asked. But Ed didn’t hear him over the sound of his own feasting.

“Wait…” Matilda said, seeming to be putting some pieces together. “It wasn’t…?” She made her way over to the window that looked out toward the cul-de-sac.

“That boy is currently in Bethlehem General Hospital, where he is listed in serious but stable condition,” the mayor continued, almost seeming annoyed that he had to make such a mundane announcement.

That’s why all those cars are over there!?” Matilda shrieked as she peered out onto the neighborhood.

“What cars?” asked Hilary. “Over where?”

“Now, I must also confirm that the two highest-ranking members of my police force were present for the incident as well,” said the lion, his voice weaving in and out of a grumble. Maybe what was actually bothering him was how painfully still he had to keep his neck so as not to jostle the hat; he was only turning his head on its y -axis, and it seemed like his snout was getting in the way of seeing his notes since he either wouldn’t or couldn’t tilt his face down.

“There’s a bunch of cars in front of the hyenas’ house!” said Matilda. “I thought they were just having a family get-together or something!”

“Wait. No fuckin’ way,” Hilary said as he got up to make his own way to the window.

“In the scant few hours since the incident has transpired,” said the mayor, “I have already been asked of my public, why did Chief Eddward Woodland and Deputy George Nutzinger do nothing to stop the overreaction? And these criticisms are not invalid.” Mayor Norman visibly seemed to try really hard to believe that he meant that last sentence. Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Browne -- who, like most suburbanites, didn’t pay too much attention to the who’s-who of big-city politics -- did not have any familiar associations with the surnames ‘Woodland’ and ‘Nutzinger’; incidentally, they also didn’t know the maiden name of the wife and mother of the lupine family that lived at the corner by Harris Street, since it was none of their business and they never asked.

“I-I mean,” Matilda stammered, “maybe they are having a family get-togeth--”

“There’s cars out in front of Mercedes’ house, too,” Hilary interrupted. “Doesn’t the hyena kid fuck around with her daughter?”

Ed had a quick spark of thought about his parents’ conversation: they were frustrated together rather than with one another. Ed had the thought linger on his brain for a bit more before it faded away, but it was more of a still image than anything fluid that this narrator could verbalize; Ed did not have an internal monologue. He went back to his ravenous consumption.

“But I have spoken to the Chief and his deputy,” the man on TV assured, “and not only have they convinced me that they had done all that they could do, but they have gifted me -- gifted all of us, really -- something invaluable to our mutual pursuit of justice.”

“I-I want to call them and ask if everything’s alright,” said Matilda, “but if something’s going on, I can’t pry!” She walked away from the window, appearing as though she was on the verge of tears, while Hilary continued observing the neighborhood, not having much to say. “I know! I’ll ask Sarah to call the bobcat girl!” Matilda walked hurriedly towards the hallway. “That-that’s not too rude, is it?” She didn’t stop to wait for an answer and disappeared upstairs.

Hill just made his way back to his seat while the mayor kept talking.

“Chief Woodland and Deputy Nutzinger told me of their belief that it would have been futile, if not outright dangerous, to try to restrain Sheriff Elkins and Sheriff’s Deputy Goldthwaite,” Prince John continued; he seemed to be lightening up, as if he was happy to enlighten his citizens with some wisdom they would be grateful to receive. Chief Woodland and Deputy Nutzinger postulated a theory that the Sheriff and Sheriff’s Deputy would have been impervious to any physical resistance due to a state of heightened adrenaline, and that there would be no opportunity to stop their assault until the so-called ‘rush’ had passed.” Some murmurs in the crowd suggested that they saw where this was going and didn’t like it. “Far be it from me to blindly accept some pop axiom without evidence, I made several calls to some experts whom I consider friends. These were medical, psychiatric and psychological professionals. I must report that, while the Chief and Deputy were not flawless in their recitation of the inner workings of an angry man’s body, their hypothesis that it would be a fool’s errand to try to stop the attack on the boy was indeed more grounded in reality than in myth or fiction.”

“Well, he’s convinced himself that he’s good at convincing other people of things,” Hilary quipped to himself. “Prince John, you fucking maniac.” The crowd was similarly unimpressed.

“That is not to say that my men did nothing! Indeed, they had made do with what resources they had had at their disposal. Chief Woodland…” -- the mayor seemed to trail off as he went fishing in his pocket, but quickly extracted a small block of silver metal -- “...had had the mind to record the exchange with a mobile phone which, among other things, has the capabilities of a camera.” The mayor held up the phone -- he still barely moved his head -- and the crowd had no idea how to react. Some booed, some murmured in confusion, but most seemed to be silenced by disbelief that this was being heralded as a positive revelation.

For his part, Hilary just said, “ What ?” Ed was almost done eating.

“The video they recorded has provided indisputable evidence that Sheriff Elkins and Sheriff’s Deputy Goldthwaite have acted severely out of line, and at the expense of one of the very same citizens whom they had been sworn to protect. The video itself has already been viewed by officials from city, county, and state police departments, and will be transferred off this phone’s storage system and onto a computer as soon as this press conference has concluded, at which point it will be shared with those departments as well as local media, who may do with it as they wish. Though if I may quickly remark, in the interest of full and complete disclosure, if they should choose to release the video to public viewing, you may note the presence of another young person, a 14-year-old girl, also of Peach Creek. Rest assured, however, that, although surely unsettled, this girl was unharmed in the incident, and was taken into police custody only for questioning; she has since been released to her mother.”

“Uh… honey?” Hilary called toward the stairway. But Matilda had already returned, looking like she’d just witnessed a plane crash.

“I heard that,” she answered. “Sarah’s on the phone with her right now. She just got home from downtown.”

“Jesus Christ, Elkins, what did you do ?” Hilary asked the television set.

Despite his face being a bit hard to see on TV because of the graininess of the screen and the faraway vantage point of the news-camera, viewers such as Hilary Browne could tell that Mayor John Norman was now looking rather pleased with himself. After a rather somber start, he was starting to act as though he had to contain himself from beaming; one could even say it looked like he was smiling ever so slightly. It was almost as though he was getting to the part he was happy to announce.

“For my part,” the Prince Mayor continued, now having even more trouble hiding his self-congratulatory smirk, “I have spoken with County Commissioner Doty Roe, who has also seen the video and shares my abhorrence for the situation that has transpired. Commissioner Roe and I have discussed what is to be done with the state of the county police department with the disgraced state of its two highest-ranking officials and the rampant corruption that has been made evident at all levels of the county police force.”

“Oh, like you’re one to talk!” Hilary remarked. Matilda wasn’t in the mood to talk anymore. Ed was focused on extracting a Chunky Puff niblet that was stuck in a fold in the lining.

“Therefore Commissioner Roe and I have decided to merge the Nottingham City and County Police Departments. As a reward for their quick and correct thinking, my appointed Chief Woodland and Deputy Nutzinger will be fulfilling the roles of Sheriff and Sheriff’s Deputy of Nottingham County until the elections next November.”

Mr. and Mrs. Browne shared their non-verbal mouth-sounds of disbelief with much of the crowd of journalists, who at this point could no longer contain their biases. At this point, people across the Nottingham Metropolitan Statistical Area were cursing their ignorance of local politics.

“I… didn’t know that was allowed,” remarked Matilda.

“If he jacks up the taxes to pay for his expanded police force, I swear to God we’re moving out of this godforsaken state,” vowed Hilary. “I’d sooner pay sales taxes than I would pay him .”

His big announcement now out in the open, the lion entered the denouement of his speech: “I would like to thank the people of our local law enforcement who helped us begin to remedy this mess, as well as you, my citizens of both the City of Nottingham as well as the surrounding suburbs, and especially to Nottingham County Commissioner Doty Roe, whom has agreed to let me work much more closely with her in the future to help ensure that the needs and desires of the municipal and county governments are more closely aligned.”

“Define ‘closely,’ jackass,” Hilary spat. “Are you two fucking or what?”

“Honestly, I had always guessed that Prince John didn’t exactly prefer the company of women,” Matilda joked.

Hilary didn’t laugh because he didn’t realize she was joking and he agreed unironically. “Yeah, I’ve wondered if that thumb of his is the only think he’s been sucking on.”

“I trust that this goes without saying,” Mayor Norman finished, “but I have personally seen to it that Sheriff Thomas Elkins and Sheriff’s Deputy Matthew Goldthwaite have been relieved of duty, and I will be seeing to it that they are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law for their transgression of violating the trust of the people of Nottingham City and County. If there are any more relevant details which I believe my public should know, I will not hesitate to share them. I thank you for your time, my citizens, and I wish you a good remainder of your Sunday.”

The mayor collected his notes and stepped away from the podium, and the television feed cut to a live reporter at city hall addressing the camera herself.

“That was Mayor John Norman addressing an incident that occurred last night in the Sherwood Forest Nature Preserve near the Northwest Suburbs--”

“All gone!” Ed proclaimed as he jumped up from the couch and ran back to the kitchen with the empty cereal box and milk jug. His parents watched him scamper off, with melancholy looks on their faces now that they had to remember their son existed.

“Ed, remember to rinse out that milk jug, or the entire house is gonna reek again!” Matilda warned.

“Just like his room always does,” Hilary said as he rolled his eyes. When the two of them looked back at the TV, the baseball game was back on, and the Nationals were beating the visiting Mariners 2-0 in the top of the fourth, but neither of the Brownes were in quite the mood for sports. “Fuck that, I ain’t paying his taxes.”

“Hilary, let the record show that I wanted to move to move to Zootopia when we got married!”

“Oh, yeah, right, because I could really afford those tax rates.”

“Um, hello ?” Matilda said as she gestured toward the television, which was no longer displaying the likeness of John Norman, but both understood to pretend it did for her point of the argument.

“What, like anybody could have reasonably predicted this? Whereas anybody could predict that some bullshit planned paradise city would have tax rates up the ass to pay for that impossibly fucking all-accommodating infrastructure?”

“Well, at least there , you’d get the feeling that your money’s actually going toward something and not just being stolen from you, and not lining some fat-cat’s pockets,” Matilda said. “...Or should I say ‘malnourished-cat’?”

“Hey, you wanna find out how it really is over there? Go give the foxes a ring,” said Hilary. “Last I heard, Toni and Terry’s other son’s living in Zootopia these days. Ask them about his tax rates and how he feels about how his money’s being spent.”

“Oh, that kid was a sneak and a swindler!” Matilda scoffed. “He was more of a delinquent than that hyena kid! I’d bet he doesn’t even pay his taxes!”

“Hm. It kills me to say this, but you’re probably right about that one,” Hilary admitted. “But I’d bet he’s still more successful than our son’ll ever be.”

Matilda still had that look on her face. “It kills me to say this, but you’re probably right about that one.”

***

It was approaching eighty degrees that day, but Ed was still wearing his favorite green jacket over his favorite red-and-white striped shirt. If anything, his jacket was so baggy that it sort of ventilated him and kept him from overheating. It was just another piece of evidence in the hypothetical argument that where others saw Ed as an idiot for doing something odd, such as wearing heavy outerwear in the heat of summer, he was actually a genius in a most indescribable way.

When Mrs. Browne peered out the window and remarked that there were cars piled in front of Kevin’s and Nazz’s houses, it wasn’t inaccurate, it just wasn’t painting a complete picture. Those two homes did indeed have clogged driveways, but all the rest of the curb space on Rethink Avenue seemed to be similarly occupied. Decade-old sedans were concentrated around the Lafferty residence, and youthful SUVs and coupes driven by well-to-do cousins congregated near the home of Nazz and her mother. But Ed didn’t think about this very much. He didn’t think about anything unless he needed to. Whether this was further evidence of Ed’s inborn density or a subtle sign of a wise efficiency of mental energy was another round of the aforementioned debate.

Ed decided to check Eddy’s house first. Ed always checked Eddy’s house first. It was closer, and on the way to Double D’s house anyway. It was easier this way.

Ed waltzed up to the foxes’ doorway and rang the doorbell.

Ding-dong .

Two seconds later, he rang the bell again.

Ding-dong.

Precisely the same interval later, he rang the bell again.

Ding-dong .

Ed may as well have had a metronome in his head for the perfect rhythm he was keeping. Indeed, Ed loved the musical quality of doorbells. He loved how every doorbell had its own unique sound and pitch and consonance, and the adored phenomenon of hearing a doorbell’s chime oozing through a closed front door as the sound bounced around the walls of a house, with every home’s unique floorplan modifying its resonance in a way that gave its doorbell an added layer of uniqueness. To Ed, every individual doorbell was a musical instrument that could be found nowhere else on planet Earth, and yet an instrument that anybody could play.

After the seventeenth press of the doorbell button, Ed started to hear the door’s deadbolt and lock being disengaged. Ed was on his nineteenth ring when the door opened.

Terry already had his head craned all the way up when he opened the door. He wasn’t home during the day very often, but he had been around the house often enough to know that when the doorbell was being rung in immaculately-timed two-second intervals, it could only have been his son’s grizzly/Kodiak friend come a-calling.

“Hey, Ed,” Terry greeted boredly. He wasn’t trying to be unfriendly, but he wasn’t trying very hard to be friendly, either. He typically worked at the dealership both days on the weekend, but his manager more or less forced him to take this particular Sunday off in exchange for working next Sunday on Father’s Day. Terry still hadn’t made up his mind whether his manager was giving him a day of rest out of the genuine kindness of his heart or if he was trying to cut in on Terry’s opportunities to make serious commission money on upcoming-holiday sales of five-year-old Corvettes with sticky gear-shifts and four-year-old Vipers with secret transmission issues and six-year-old convertible Mustangs with soft-tops that wouldn’t stay on correctly if you drove over forty-two miles per hour to mothers trying to surprise the fathers of their children and young professionals trying desperately to gain the approval of their quinqua- and sexagenarian dads and fortysomething guys who won’t stop offhandedly mentioning that they’re buying themselves their own Father’s Day present because they don’t trust their wife/girlfriend/mistress/boyfriend/child/grandchild/great-grandchild/whatever-you-call-the-benefactor-of-a-sugar-daddy to buy for them when in reality they have no such people in their lives.

Terry was also none too pleased that his day of rest was being tarnished by the sounds of his obnoxious hyena neighbors and their entire extended family loudly losing their composure over the state of their son, and Terry just wished he could knock on the door and tell them that as much as his own son was no angel, their son was an asshole to his son and his idiot friends he didn’t feel sorry for the kid and while maybe he didn’t deserve to get his ass beat by the Nottingham County Police Department, he definitely deserved to get his ass beat by somebody, and that Mat and Hill and Sammie and Vince would probably back him and Toni up on that. But Terry couldn’t do that; he knew that, as he had successfully instilled in his older son, it was important to maintain good connections with people, even people you hate -- hell, especially people you hate -- because you never know when you’re going to need to ask them for a favor you can’t, or won’t, pay back. There was a reason why, in some circles, he was nicknamed ‘Classy Terry’.

To be fair, however, the Laffertys had mellowed out considerably since they first got back from the hospital around lunchtime, which Terry theorized they only left because a doctor or a nurse or somebody had to politely tell them, ‘Hey, sorry you’re kid’s in a coma, but it’s a fire hazard to have this many people in one room.’ Either that or they were asked to leave because their hyenic sobbing came across sounding more like cackling laughter that simply wasn’t appropriate for the ICU.

“Hi, Mr. Eddy’s Dad!” Ding-dong . “Can Eddy come out to play?” Ding-dong . Now that the door had been opened, the bell’s pitch and resonance had changed again and came together to make another combination of sounds that could not be quite replicated anywhere else in the known universe. Ed would truly never get tired of this.

“He’s hanging out in his room--” Ding-dong . “--with Double-D right now.” Ding-dong . “You can come in, if you’d like.” Ding-dong . Terry really would have found Ed’s sense of rhythm impressive if he wasn’t preoccupied with finding it annoying. Terry would have wondered if the kid had inherited some sort of genetic musicality, but he didn’t know Hilary or Matilda to be such virtuosos themselves. Heck, maybe if Ed and the sock-headed wolf-kid with the knack for the pedal steel guitar could work something out, maybe they’d have something decent going for them; Terry only wished his own younger son was so talented.

“Thanks, Mr. Eddy’s dad!” Ding-dong .

“Of course,” answered Terry as he stepped aside to make way for Ed.

Ding-dong ding-dong ding-dong ding-dong

“Ed?” Ding-dong .

“Yes, Mr. Eddy’s Dad?” Ding-dong .

“Just, uh…” Ding-dong . “Watch your head on the way in--” Ding-dong . “--will ya?”

“Oh!” Ed said as the trance was broken. He rushed into the doorway and immediately thunk ed his head on the top of the standard six-foot-eight-inch door-frame, consequently shaking the entire house in the process. “Ouch!” Ed said, but it was more akin to an exclamation of seeing something interesting than one of being in pain.

“You alright there, big guy?” Terry asked, crossing his arms and taking in the spectacle he was observing. This was not the first time this had happened, so Terry wasn’t worried about the structural integrity of his door-frame; if it was going to break, it would have already done so by now.

“Is everything alright?” Came a timid adolescent boy’s voice coming from within the house. “I heard a loud thumping sound, Mister-- oh, hi, Ed.”

“Double-D!” Ed cried in euphoria as he ran in the house -- thunk ing his head on the crossbar again, snapping his head back, but he kept going as though nothing had happened to justify stopping -- and came to give Double-D the customary suffocating bear-hug. “But where’s Eddy!?”

“I… can take you to him,” Double-D choked out as he struggled for air. “He’s in... his quarters.”

“Eddy got a quarter!” Ed bellowed, and he ran off to Eddy’s room carrying Double-D along the way.

“Have fun, kiddos,” Terry quipped to nobody but himself. He closed the door and went right back to vegging out on the couch, just in time to see the Orioles give up a two-run homer to the Reds’ stud hounddog hitter, Ken Gruffey, Jr., in the bottom of the fifth to break the 4-4 tie in Cincinnati.

The pitch was delivered courtesy of the Orioles’ erratic and overweight Aruban pitcher Sidney Pronghorn. Well, they said he was too good to cut after his DUI , Terry thought; I wonder if moments like these make management have second thoughts. The Reds were now winning 6-4, and this and the interruption for the news update were just two more things that further tarnished Terry’s day off.

Ed entered Eddy’s room to find that Eddy was laying perfectly still on his bed, his long tail and his little legs dangling off the edge and what could only be called a petrified smile on his face. He looked like he had just seen the face of a loving God as his soul was extracted from his body, at which point his corporeal being had turned to stone.

“Hi, Eddy!” Ed saluted, but Eddy didn’t avert his beaming eyes from the ceiling.

“Uh-- hey, Ed,” Eddy answered quietly, not wanting to break his state of bliss.

“E-Ed…” Double-D coughed as he squirmed his way out of Ed’s grasp, “May I ask for your assistance in reasoning with Eddy?”

“The reason for what?” Ed asked.

“I’ve been pacing back and forth in a fractional circle around Eddy’s bed while trying every combination of words and tones to convey to Eddy that it is unconscionable, repugnant, and downright disturbing that he should be so outwardly gleeful -- no! that he should be either inwardly or outwardly gleeful -- about what happened to Kevin!”

Double-D had succeeded in making Ed look worried, but it wasn’t the kind of worried he was hoping to get out of him. “What happened to Kevin, Double-D?”

Eddy just snickered. “I told ya he wouldn’t know about it. Ya owe me a quarter, Double-D!” Only now did Eddy turn his head toward the boys.

“Oh, I owe you nothing of the sort!” retorted Edd.

“But what happened to Kevin, guys?” Ed repeated.

Double-D simply wasn’t prepared for this. “Uh, well… last night, Kevin--”

“Kevin got beat up by some older kids!” Eddy cut in.

“Uh… sure,” Double-D conceded, only agreeing to go along with this because it seemed easier to lie to Ed than to explain to him the messy concept of good cops and really, really bad cops.

“And now he’s in the hospital because his head is broken!” Eddy said, once more focused on the ceiling.

“Y-yes, wh-what Eddy said,” Double-D mumbled; he reasoned with himself that Eddy’s last statement wasn’t really even a lie.

“Oh no!” Ed gasped.

“B-bu-but it’s alright, Ed! Um… the doctors are going to make him aaallllll better soon enough--”

“And then maybe he’ll know to stay in his fucking place and stop impeding our greatness!” Eddy exclaimed. “Or at least my greatness. That’s the other thing I wanted to see you two about, Monobrow: are you done ?”

“Eddy!” Double-D didn’t think Eddy’s shift in tone and topic was appropriate nor tactful.

“Done with what, Eddy? Ed already did his homework, thank you very much!” Ed answered, vexed that Eddy had inadvertently reminded him of school.

“Done with--” Eddy began, but Double-D felt the need to be pedantic as always.

“We have no homework, Ed; it’s summer break.”

Ed gasped, but all the breath he inhaled came right back out soon enough: “SUMMER!”

The other two braced as the house shook. Eddy’s mellow disappeared on the spot and Double-D lamented his pedantry.

“That’s right, guys, it’s summer!” Ed beamed. “I want to go fishing, and jump in a sprinkler, and chase an ice cream truck, and build a rocket ship to the moon, and fight a plague of zombies, and--”

“Hey, boys?” Terry called from the living room. “You don’t have to go play outside, and you don’t have to keep quiet, but you gotta do one or the other.”

“Uh… sorry, Dad!” Eddy replied, his joyousness now completely evaporated.

“Just be glad your mom ain’t home,” answered Terry, “or she’d plunk you in the skull with her bottle of migraine pills.”

Eddy sat up on the bed and the trio just regarded each other in an awkward silence for a moment. Then Ed said something that was either stupid or profound:

“I wanna have an adventure, guys!”

“Wouldn’t we all, Ed?” asked Double-D. “But surely Eddy will want us to work on restructuring his scam to sell fake--”

“No, no, don’t you worry your little head off, wolf-boy,” Eddy said. “I’ve had my enjoyment for the day. The plaaan for the fake IDs can take a vacation day. ‘Sides, I’d hate to bore you with a plaaan you’re not fully committed to. Now, how’s-about you boys plaaan your little adventure ?”

“Eddy, please don’t be so vindictive!” said Double-D. “I never suggested that all of our money-making schemes have been--”

“Double-D, let’s not fight in front of poor little Ed!” Eddy mocked.

“What’s wrong guys?” Ed asked, and then as he was wont to do, he grabbed Eddy and Double-D and forced them into another one of his trademark hugs, which made the fox and the wolf feel exactly as uncomfortable as you’d come to expect. “Ed doesn’t like it when Edd and Eddy are fighting!”

“Uh, we ain’t fighting, big guy,” Eddy choked out, and then set his eyes on Double-D: “ Now look whatcha did,” he grumbled.

Double-D tried to scoff, but couldn’t expand his lungs enough to get the required breath support.

“Are you suuure ?” Ed asked as he drew his two buddies closer to one another. “Ed just wants us all to be friends!”

“We’re friends, Ed!” Double-D pleaded, then glanced at Eddy as he added, “...For one reason or another.”

“Now how’s-about you lettin’ us down and we go have that summer adventure , eh, Ed?” asked Eddy.

“SUMMER!” Ed hollered again as he dropped Eddy and Double-D.

“Goddammit, Eddy!” Terry yelled from the front room once again; he didn’t bother wasting energy putting on his charming façade when addressing his son.

“So: any ideas, boys?” Eddy asked as he picked himself up off the floor.

“Well… I do have an idea for something we ought to do,” Double-D proposed hesitantly, “but it might not be the most adventurous exploit in the world. Though, who knows what adventure may come of it?”

***

Eddy’s fear of confronting the likely fugitives in the junkyard was greatly outweighed by his desire to shove it in Double-D’s face that he was right and Sockhead was wrong; Eddy found fewer greater pleasures in life than glorious vindication.

Unbeknownst to him, Double-D was already emotionally preparing himself for conceding victory. He still wasn’t entirely convinced that the well-spoken Englishman and his crass cohort were wanted criminals and masters of deception, but he was much, much more open to the idea after his conversation with Eddy the previous night. Eddy had done a bang-up job of articulating the fishiness of the strangers’ circumstances, but despite his sworn devotion to empiricism, Double-D just couldn’t shake his gut feelings; he was trying hard to force himself to be spiritually okay with the fact that a strong attachment to one’s own visceral feelings -- even when inherently illogical -- came with the territory of sapient thought. At this point, he was telling himself that this act of checking up on Misters Hood and Little was not just an act of neighborly kindness, but also one of testing to confirm or refute a hypothesis, though at this point he was so confused that virtually any outcome would surprise him.

Ed was also there. He was happy to be with his friends. He would have preferred a little more action in his adventure, and he would rather not have encountered his mean future self again, but he was happy to be with his friends. Ed liked being Ed.

“I’ll laugh my ass off if they somehow hotwired the thing and got it started again, and drove off with it,” Eddy attempted to quip, but it just came out clunky. “Or could the bear-dude even fit in that thing? What was his name? ‘Uncle Tom’?”

“‘ Little John ,’ Eddy; though you really should be referring to adults by their surnames,” said Double-D. “You’re getting his nickname mixed up with the titular character of the antebellum novel from which we had to read excerpts in Social Studies class.”

“Well thanks for correcting me, Encyclopedia Brown.”

“What have I done that’s reminiscent of a preadolescent detective, Eddy?”

“Double-D, what the hell are you talking about?”

“...oh, never mind.”

“Is ‘Encyclopedia Browne’ what I name my daughter before me and Eddy change our names in the future, Double-D?” asked the only one of the three who would ever ask a question like that.

The other two found this question more confusing than usual, but after a few seconds, they remembered the previous day’s case of mistaken identity.

“Now, Ed,” said Double-D, “I confess that I cannot prove this, but I don’t think that Misters Little and Hood are actually you and Eddy from the future.”

“Hm… are you sure, Double-D? Because they looked just like Eddy and me!”

“Uh… well, as an impartial arbiter, I can concede that you and Mr. Little did share a vague resemblance, but I can’t say that I’d ever describe Mr. Hood and Eddy of being similar in appearance, lest I sound like one of those blind bigots who thinks all members of a species other than my own look the same.”

“But I thought he looked just like Eddy!”

“I must disagree, Ed; for starters, Mr. Hood was --”

“Ya better pick your words wisely, Double-D,” Eddy said, only now reentering the conversation to warn Edd that he would not hesitate to lay malice upon his face if the wolf dared use the four-letter t -word, the three-letter b -word, either of the five-letter s- words, or the six-letter l -word, or any permutation thereof, in a way that was flattering to Robin and/or unflattering to Eddy.

“Uh, yes, uh… well, Mr. Hood was certainly more ‘red’ red, rather than orange.”

“And white instead of tan,” Eddy said, wanting to fill in the blanks as quickly as possible to get this moment over with. “And you two may not have noticed this, but the guy didn’t have any highlights on his tail or gloves on his hands and feet. My people pick up on those things.”

“Did he now? Interesting! I hadn’t noticed that, Eddy; I’ll have to keep my eyes peeled in the future, now won’t I?”

“And-- uh, nevermind,” Eddy sputtered as he decided not to bring up the thing with Robin’s eyes looking weird from certain angles, for fear that saying that would make it seem like he was really obsessively checking this stranger out (which wouldn’t have been untrue). Not to mention, the thought had crossed his mind that he was being too hard about the eyes thing -- the stranger’s bulbous-y British-y eyes might still have been preferable to, for example, the googly cartoonishly large eyes that his brother had. So with the eye thing off the table, would Eddy have traded bodies with the stranger? Well, if he could swap bodies with anybody, he’d rather be a tiger or something commanding like that, or maybe even would have taken the not-the-largest-but-still-safely-larger-than-average ursine frame of Little John, and no matter who he swapped with, he would have wanted to do so with someone his own age or younger so as not to inherit a bunch of extra mileage that he’d never get to use. But if he had to stick to his own species, he didn’t think he could come up with any reason to believe that the heroically tall and impossibly dashing gentleman fox was anything shy of a perfect vulpine specimen. Eddy was once again so wrapped up in jealousy that he was temporarily functionally deaf, not even noticing when Ed asked:

“...Or is ‘Encyclopedia’ the name of my son , Double-D?” Ed certainly would have enjoyed bearing witness to a Freaky Friday -type thing with Robin and Eddy, as it would have quenched his thirst for adventure; but fear not, dear reader -- this story isn’t going to get that bizarre.

They turned the corner around a mound of refuse, and there it was. The van was still there, its rear doors staring them in the face, perched right next to the mountain, unmolested by any rude guests, its pearlescent paint shining in the sun. All was calm, and all seemed right. And yet none of the three of them wanted to make the first step forward.

“Are they asleep, or are they gone?” asked Eddy.

“I’m… not certain, Eddy,” said Double-D. “Shall we investigate?”

Realizing that the other two weren’t going to, Edd forced himself to be the first to walk up to the van’s rear doors. The curtains were still drawn shut, and there was no noise coming from anywhere, inside or otherwise, that would indicate intelligent life was about.

“Uh…” Double-D murmured to the universe and raised a paw to the door, then held it there for a moment. He elected not to try to open the doors, and instead chose to rap his hand ever so gently on the window.

Tp, tp, tp.

Perhaps he knocked a little too softly, as Ed and Eddy, who were standing something like eight feet away, could see his wrist’s action but couldn’t hear a sound.

“Did you just pretend to knock?” Eddy asked quietly. He and Ed hadn’t taken a single step closer since Double-D initiated an attempt at contact.

“I didn’t pretend , Eddy,” Edd retorted, speaking a bit louder than Eddy. “I just don’t want to wake them up if they’re asleep!”

“Then go around to the side and peek in the window, Double-Dickhead!”

Double-D was getting a tad bit irritated by Eddy’s recent string of making good points. But he remained undeterred, and went around to the side door.

“Oh!” Double-D couldn’t help but say at full volume, “That was nice of them!”

“What?” Eddy asked, now having the motivation to work his way around to join Double-D. “Did they do something?”

“It appears they’ve taped a sheet of plastic over the broken window; I have my concerns that the sheet in question began life as a waste receptacle, but I can appreciate the kind gesture!”

“I think they would’ve heard us talking by now,” Eddy said, and jumped up on something bulky and metal to climb his way up onto the hood of the van. He gazed into the vehicle through the windshield: “Yeah, nobody’s home. Ed, open the trunk.”

Ed grabbed both doors’ handles and opened them at once. “Open says-a-me!”

Eddy went back to the rear while Double-D opened the side door to investigate the front seat. He found a few trace amounts of glass crystals, but not nearly as many as there would have logically been if their guests hadn’t done a pretty decent job of cleaning up. There was no waste or anything else unwelcome in the bench seat or on the ground below it, and upon opening the glove compartment, everything seemed to be in order. The first-aid kit was still in there and was as intact as it had been after its last usage; there was nothing missing that should have been there, and much to Edd’s relief, there was nothing in there that should not have been there. Not that Double-D had any specific idea of what he was worried would be in that glove compartment, just some vague idea that it may be hiding some sort of contraband that would confirm their status as criminals, such as stolen goods or money or perhaps even a gun.

At the rear, Eddy found all his accessories for his scam -- pardon me, plan -- were still present. They were in different spots and positions than they had been, but they were there.

“They moved my stuff, but they didn’t take my stuff,” Eddy said. “I guess I’m alright with that.”

“Oh, they probably just had to make space for sleeping,” Double-D said as he made his way over to the back. “Besides, you wouldn’t want to breathe in a bunch of toxic fumes while you’re trying to sleep, now would you, Eddy?”

“Hey, I said I was fine with it, didn’t I? What kind of asshole do you take me for?”

Double-D found the one and only piece of genuine trash left behind: a pair of coils of bandages with an archipelago of small blood stains upon each of them. He didn’t know how to feel about the fact that the intelligent fox had done something as ignorant as littering, but he wasn’t entirely sure that that’s what the intended action was.

“Well, this is the last sign of them,” said Double-D. “It certainly seems that they’ve likely moved on.”

“Yeah, to go walk on foot to some other junkyard fifty bajillion miles away,” said Eddy.

“I do have to wonder, though, if they’re simply out for the day and if they plan to come back to this place of refuge. They may be attending to business relating to the fire.”

“You still believe that?”

Double-D assessed the scene and took a deep breath before carefully choosing his words. “I believe that, whomever they were, they treated us kindly and treated our property -- though we have more or less acquired it via squatter’s rights, but I digress -- with respect. I believe that they were good, courteous guests to us, and whatever affairs they may engage in during the rest of their lives is, at this juncture, none of our business.”

Eddy just shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

“What if those band-aids were from a mummy that came and took them back to his crypt to devour them!?” asked Ed.

“Ed, ‘ Band-Aid ’ is a brand name, and they refer to an entirely different thing. These are bandages ,” Double-D said to Ed, hoping to confuse the bear into forgetting his own question, and then turned to address Eddy: “Shall we try again tomorrow?”

“What, is that how badly you want to see these guys? We came to see if they were still here. They aren’t; case closed. Did you want to give Rob a handjob while telling him to talk British to you?”

“Eddy, I’m in no mood for your crass vulgarity. I’ll go myself if I have to.”

“Fine. Me and Ed won’t be here when they rape and murder you.”

“I’ll come with you. Double-D!” said Ed. “I want to tell Mr. John to say hi to Encyclopedia for me!”

Double-D gave Eddy an I win, you lose, now shut the fuck up look.

“Alright, smart one,” said Eddy, “gimme your opinion: we’ve gotta keep the generators and the ironing stuff somewhere until I can get my hands on some more laminates and plastics and shit. We could hide this stuff in any of our places… but it might look fishy if our parents find it. And I don’t think even Ed’s stupid enough to agree to have gas fumes coming out of his closet. So you think this stuff is safe here?; should we take it home?; or do you have a better idea for where we can stash it all?”

Double-D still had no idea what to make of the strangers. Were they secret bandits, or were they just an unlucky pair of actors who responded to a bad situation in an unorthodox way? Double-D tried to tell himself that because they were nice to them, it didn’t matter, but he knew that if the boys had been harboring wanted criminals, it would have mattered. He also considered the possibilities that it didn’t matter that it did matter, or that it did matter that it did not matter. His own gray matter was doing its best to keep itself straight. This had not been a good few days for him, psychologically speaking.

“You tell me, Eddy: are you certain that Mr. Hood and Mr. Little aren’t coming back?”

“I can say that it’d be pretty fucking stupid of them if they did.” And as much as the strangers had filled him with an envious rage, Eddy couldn’t reasonably claim that they were stupid. At least not yet; he needed more information before he could deduce that.

“Then I’d propose that we take the ironing accessories and extension cables -- the less-suspicious of our implements -- back to one of our homes, and keep the generators here in the van. Anybody seeking gasoline to salvage surely wouldn’t look inside the cabin of the vehicle for fuel. The generators ought to be safe here,” Double-D said. “Especially if we check on them at least once a day.” He acknowledged to himself that there was risk in encountering these strangers again, but he liked the way that they liked him. Therefore he pretended that there was only a negligible chance that any scavengers would open the van and say fuck it, why not? and make off with the fully-filled generators anyway; in this, he could set up the chance that they’d all run into the strangers again. And Double-D was glad that he had been the one to make that choice; Robin and Little John had tabbed him as the boys’ leader, and he intended not to make them incorrect in their assumptions.

Ed didn’t very much care who led as long as they let him follow along.

***

It wasn’t much adventure, but it was something to tide the boys over until something more exciting happened to them. After leaving the junkyard with the iron, ironing board, and extension cables, they stashed them in the mess of Ed’s room, then went over to Double-D’s house to while away the afternoon watching television reruns. Ed did notice that Double-D seemed tense and Eddy seemed bored more than anything, but they were together, and they weren’t fighting, and that’s all that mattered.

All in all, it was a good Sunday for Ed. He got to spend time with his friends, and none of them were tormented by Kevin, who was conspicuously absent from the cul-de-sac for reasons that Ed still didn’t fully comprehend, but he didn’t want to ruin the mood by digging into it. He also wasn’t tormented by Sarah or her bro-ho Jimmy, both of whom seemed to be in no mood to antagonize them today, and he was not tempted by Nazz, who was also strangely absent from public scenes as far as Ed could tell. The sunlight had been abundant, the sunset was pretty, and the moon looked pretty darned nifty as it approached half-full. The Nationals beat the Mariners, and while the Orioles lost to the Reds, they lost in a manner that was more fun to watch than the manner in which the Nationals won, and Ed, who did not particularly care about sports, still found this to be a good thing, as he attributed it to why his father was so much more reserved today than usual. Perhaps the best part of that Sunday, however, was that Ed was allowed to enjoy every last second of it until it went away, and with no school in the morning, he had no apprehensions about watching monster movies well past midnight, at which point Ed’s Monday got off to a great start.

Chapter Text

  1. “Profiles in Anarcho-Monarchism”

Before he stepped into the limousine, he took off his top hat and stuck it on the head of his assistant.

“Hold this for me, Hiss.”

“Yes, sssire.” Charles’s voice was muffled now that his head was entombed by the top hat. The armless weasel actually looked not unlike a coat-rack in this current arrangement.

Mayor Norman pivoted his head in every conceivable direction; his neck was killing him, but it was a small price to pay to look classy -- or, perhaps more accurately, to look the way he thought he looked best. While there was a great public debate in those days -- as there is still today -- over whether the old adage of don’t worry about what other people think really was a virtuous ideal that promoted being okay with oneself in the face of ridicule and wayward malice, or if it was actually a rather tone-deaf and narcissistic way to go through life (with the idea being that people might have legitimate reasons for disliking you and you’ll never grow as a person if you don’t take their criticisms into account, even if they are from mean-spirited strangers) -- or , third option, if that old adage simply worked better in some situations than others -- nobody could deny that “Prince” John Norman embodied that mantra to a tee. He simply did not worry about what other people thought of him if it conflicted with his own self-opinion and if the person did not have the power to immediately endanger his life as inspired by their disdain for him. There was only one person, living or dead, whose approval Prince John desperately sought, and she had long since stopped living and become dead, so at the behest of a therapist (whom he no longer visited), Prince John tried desperately to put her in the past and live only in the present; he succeeded more on some days than others, though an outside observer could usually tell what kind of day it was for the mayor by looking at how dry or wet his thumb was at any given time.

The rhinoceros who was holding the door open was trying to find something else to look at as the mayor continued working out the crick in his neck all while making seething and high-pitched moaning sounds for the better part of a minute. Eventually, toward the end of the performance, the bodyguard did happen to see his recently-promoted sheriff and sheriff’s deputy jogging toward him. Woodland and Nutzinger’s respective new statuses had been made official earlier that day in a closed-door ceremony. Mayor Norman had been debating whether it would be convenient or just tasteless to present the new sheriff and deputy in the same press conference that he acknowledged a minor had just been the victim of police brutality, but his mind was made up when Ward and George weren’t back from their lunch break in time for the conference. Mayor Norman did, however, still want them to at least be present for the press conference, so he tried to borrow them some time, but they didn’t take the loan.

“We’re here, Mayor!” called Woodland as he approached, catching his breath.

“Maybe against our better judgment, but we’re here,” Nutzinger mumbled.

“Exssscuse me!” Hiss, uh, hissed, all the while still having his head engulfed in the mayor’s top hat and relying on sonic clues to determine which direction he should turn to in order to face his addressee. “Deputy Sheriff Nutzinger, how dare you insssinuate that it’s anything shy of an honor to be in the presence of Mayor Norman!”

“No, no, Hiss,” said the mayor, “Deputy Nutzinger has a valid fear that it would be, shall we say, unwise to show his and his superior’s faces immediately after they led me to make a fool of myself. Gentlemen, may I inform you that I delayed the press conference from one o’clock to one-thirty, then to one-forty-five, and even began that eight minutes late because I refused to give up hope that my loyal constables would show up?” The shame that the mayor felt was, of course, entirely self-imposed; it was entirely coincidental that the rest of Southern Delaware agreed with his self-assessment that he looked like a jackass after delaying a press conference by fifty-three minutes.

“Oh, Mister Mayor, Nutsy and I do apologize a thousand times over!” Woodland said.

“Sheriff Fatass here decided that he really, really wanted Hardee’s today,” Nutzinger added. “I know you don’t eat fast food too much, Mayor, so let me tell you that the closest Hardee’s is waaay out in the suburbs. Like, it’s not actually all the way in Maryland, but it might as well in Maryland.”

“Yes, it’s true, I couldn’t resist! There’s something about their chicken strips that just gets me going!”

“And why, pray tell, couldn’t you answer when I had other officers try to contact you over the police frequency?” asked Prince John.

“We were way out of town, Mayor,” said Nutzinger. “We were probably out of range.”

Prince John had no idea how police radios worked, and probably didn’t care, so he didn’t know that a county-level police department’s radio frequency should theoretically be able to reach all parts of the county. For that matter, his temporarily-blinded assistant didn’t know either, and while Rocky the Bodyguard knew, he also knew that he was there to be seen and not heard. Mayor Norman and his assistant completely bought the story that Ward was so possessed by his own gluttony that he’d do something so stupid.

And Ward and Nutsy knew that they could play up Ward’s affinity for junk food to cover their asses despite an enormous plot hole in their alibi. In reality, after having been working for many of the last forty-eight hours, they decided to turn off their squad car’s radio and pass out for awhile. When they woke up and realized what time it was, they quickly agreed that a fake story about Ward having an insatiable hankering for burger-joint chicken tenders would be less embarrassing than confessing that they had been blatantly derelict of duty mere hours after a major promotion. Maybe sometime soon they would have to spin a more sophisticated yarn to someone who wasn’t so easy to dupe, but they’d cross that bridge when and if they came to it; if nothing else, they could just say they were helping an old lady across the street again, except this particular old lady was very, very slow this time.

“Well, since it may be beneficial for me to parlay an abridged version of the events,” the mayor began, “the people are displeased by this development.”

“Shocking!” Nutzinger remarked.

“Deputy Nutzinger,” Hiss said, “do not use sssuch impudent sssarcasm in the presenccce of our mayor!”

“We’ve already established that I don’t regard you as an authority figure, Uriah Fucking Heep!” Nutzinger spat at the doubly-impaired weasel from the safety of the monstrous wolf’s shoulder. George Nutzinger had never actually read David Copperfield , but first learned of the character of Uriah Heep from a high-school extra-credit project on famous literary archetypes, at which point he realized that the infamous yes-man was also the namesake of one of his dad’s favorite bands, and having made that connection, he never totally forgot the name after that; never had Nutsy ever thought he’d actually say the name out loud, let alone use it to address somebody who embodied the character disturbingly well. As for Woodland, he had absolutely no clue who his deputy was talking about, and perhaps that was for the better, as he was keeping quiet so as to piss off neither his superior and his sycophantic servant nor his little buddy who could bite him in the jugular at any time if he really wanted to.

Hiss, who had read David Copperfield since it was required reading back in school in England, let out an offended gasp and turned vaguely toward the direction the mayor was standing in. “Mayor Norman! Why do you allow sssuch…” -- Hiss realized he could see a little out of the bottom of the hat, and turned more to more accurately face his boss judging by where the lion’s feet were -- “... sssuch rude characters to be the heads of your police force!?”

“Oh, Charles, do you not think before you speak?” asked the mayor, who was also familiar with the novel and character as a consequence of his English education, and who actually thought the comparison was not only rather fitting but also a tad bit amusing. “You think yourself in the right to chastise Deputy Nutzinger for what you perceive as insubordinate behavior, and yet you turn to me and question my decision-making immediately afterward? Are you trying to be ironic, Hiss?”

Nutzinger just smirked, and Woodland, feeling proud of himself for understanding the words chastise and insubordinate and ironic, was trying not to laugh. Rocky was glad he was wearing sunglasses to maintain his poker face. Hiss, who really hadn’t seen the irony in his actions until they were pointed out, simply hung his head in defeat.

“Er-I-- I’m sssorry, Your Majesty, I--”

“Brother, did you just call him ‘Your Majesty ’?” Nutzinger interrupted.

“Oh, he really is such an obsequious little soul that he sees me as like royalty!” said Mayor Norman. He thought he did a bang-up job concealing his shock that Charles had let slip one of his secret regal titles for him. “Give me my hat back!” the mayor said as he liberated the weasel from his confinement and placed the hat carefully back upon his own maneless head.

Ward and George were just nodding along with everything; even George, who sometimes read books recreationally, didn’t know what the fuck obsequious meant. He was starting to wonder if he had bit off more than he could chew when he decided to drop in a literary reference to prove to the mayor and his aide that he wasn’t just another uncultured American -- perhaps it had worked all too well.

“I’m sssorry, sssire--”

“Now you’re calling him sire?” asked Nutzinger.

“I believe he was calling me sir, Deputy,” said Mayor Norman, getting frustrated by his assistant’s uncharacteristic carelessness. “I believe it may be an accent quirk from his region of our homeland. But I admire your resolve to ask the questions that others wouldn’t dare, George.” John turned back to Mr. Hess: “Hiss, don’t you see that this defiance is an indicator of bravery? A bravery we need in our city’s police force?”

“Yeah, Chuckie!” said Ward, who now thought it was safe to speak again. “We’re the badasses Nottingham needs!”

Under his mortified countenance, Hiss was fuming. He tried to remind himself that some day soon he’d be the one in control of all of them, and then they wouldn’t think of him as such a Uriah Heep-type anymore, but he was losing his patience waiting for that day.

“Not quite the word I’d use, Eddward -- ‘badasses’ -- but I’ll allow it,” said the mayor. “But, er… oh, a thousand apologies, gentlemen, it seems I’ve lost the plot after our little spat here. Where were we?”

“‘Shocking! ’” repeated Nutsy. “You said the people didn’t like the news. You didn’t specify what news they didn’t like, but we couldn’t imagine anybody not liking anything when you say it. We were absolutely flabbergasted. Our feeble minds couldn’t comprehend such an eventuality.” Nutsy didn’t break eye contact or even blink as he reminded the mayor of the topic they’d been discussing.

“Ah, sarcastic as you may be, Deputy, you do speak truth to power, and I commend that,” the mayor lied. “But as for public opinion: to put it simply, we have much work to do, and I’m relying on you lads to help me. Now, because someone decided to defy my judgment--!” -- he stopped to try to give Hiss a stern look of disapproval, craning over the weasel and starting to look down before he realized his hat was slipping off his head, at which point he reeled back, tried to catch the hat, failed miserably, and watched it land back on Charles’s head; much blood was shed as Woodland, Nutsy and Rocky all bit deeply into their personal tongues trying not to laugh their asses off -- “-- I won’t have much time to give you the full details of my plan, and indeed the plan may still change based on what resources may become available or unavailable to us as we go along,” the lion said as he repositioned his hat delicately. “But suffice it to say this: we will need to make the people of this city, and this county, and of whatever other lands and jurisdictions we may find under our thumb, feel like they can trust us.”

Wait, what does he mean by that?, thought Woodland.

I don’t feel comfortable hearing this guy say the word 'thumb’, thought Nutzinger.

“We’ve already made one large step forward by convincing the people that the county police force are a bunch of brutish bullies,” John continued.

“I’m not so sure that we’ve convinced them that we’re much better,” said Nutzinger.

“That’s the next step, George,” said the mayor. “Now… how can I say this as theatrically as possible?”

“Jesus Fucking Christ, just say whatever it is,” Nutsy let slip. “Oh! I-I’m sorry, Mayor, I--”

“No, no! No apologizing! There’s that brave brazenness that I wish I had myself again!” said the mayor. “So to be blunt: while I convince the people that I am the most trustworthy of all authorities, you gain the trust of the people and convince them that they cannot trust themselves. Find the bandits in Sherwood, and any other ne’er-do-wells you may encounter, and make them regret who they’ve chosen to be. A-and make it clear to the people that they are evil and we are good! Give them the impression that there would be chaos and disorder without the Nottingham Police Force!”

The mayor delivered that line with a flourish and a self-impressed grin. George Nutzinger -- who, unlike many of the other gentlemen in this story, was usually completely at peace with his physical size in the scope of mammalian society -- just this one time wished he was lion-sized so he could knock that smile off Mayor Norman’s face, preferably in a manner that would cause physical pain and mental anguish. Ward Woodland would likely have shared the sentiment if he wasn’t spending all of his mental energy trying to keep up with whatever the hell the mayor was saying and trying to remember whether he knew what the heck a nairdoohell was; for all his time spent in the mayor’s presence, hearing him use big words didn’t mean anything if nobody was going to tell them what they meant.

“While you make the people fear a lack of power,” Prince John said, “I’ll make them fear power itself -- except for my own, of course! And then when the people want a strong leader…” -- the mayor extended his arms out at his sides and glanced to his left and then his right -- “...they’ll look around, and all they’ll see is me!”

Nutsy almost got knocked off of Woodland’s shoulder during the mayor’s demonstration, since Ward had turned his own head to try to see what his boss was looking at.

“Jesus, Ward, watch it, buddy!” said Nutzinger, grabbing hold of the wolf’s snout to keep his balance.

“Aw, sorry, Georgie. I guess there ain’t nothin’ to see.”

“Give this your patience, boys,” the mayor said, “and there will be much to see before you know! And you’re going to like what you see, I assure you!”

“And we’re going to be the pawns in your vague little plan to take over the world?” asked Nutzinger; he was now getting the hunch that the mayor wouldn’t want to undo all of his work at interrupting the status quo by firing his sheriff’s deputy the same day as his appointment, so he was feeling a little more flippant than usual.

“You know what, sssir?” piped up Hiss. “I will! I will sssay that I have doubtsss in your choiccces for the sssuperiors of your policcce forccce!” His tongue slipped on s sounds more than usual when he was flustered.

The mayor turned his head slowly toward his assistant and raised an unimpressed eyebrow.

“Well if you think we ain’t fit for the job,” said Woodland, “why don’t you do it yourself then?”

“Gentlemen, gentlemen, there’s no need to fight!” said Prince John. “I’ll say this to all the three of you: I believe in my heart of hearts that I need you each in the world I’m trying to build.” He then regarded the rhino for the first time since the cops had shown up: “And for that matter, you too, Rocky.”

The bodyguard nodded stoically. He was still holding the limousine door open and his arm was starting to fall asleep.

“As they say,” continued the mayor, “no man rules alone.”

“It’s an honor, Mayor,” said Ward.

“Yesss, yesss, Mayor! A right honor to be a part of your plans!” said Charles, trying to one-up Ward.

“What they said,” said George.

“Now, Eddward, George,” said the mayor, “if I were to send you into Sherwood Forest right this moment to go to that tree where the bandits may live, would you know precisely where to find it?”

“We’d certainly find it, boss!” Woodland said resolutely, hoping his ambiguous-but-determined answer would instill confidence in his boss.

“Your determined -- but ambiguous -- answer does not instill confidence in me,” Mayor Norman frowned. “You two need to be not just confident, but correct in the thoughts you’re confident about.”

“Mayor Norman?” came a female voice.

The five gentlemen turned to see Nottingham County Commissioner Doty Roe approaching, with her own assistant and bodyguard in tow. The deer appeared to be speed-walking, just a touch slower than Ward had been when he arrived, and looked like she was a turbulent mix of inwardly anxious and outwardly pissed.

“Ah, Commissioner Roe!” said the mayor. “What a pleasant surprise it is to see you here!”

“Mr. Mayor,” said Rocky, “Do you allow these people to be in your presence?” 

“Oh, I welcome their presence, Rocky, but good on you for thinking to ask.”

“I’m glad I got here before you took off,” said the county commissioner, sounding just a bit winded herself. “I called your office, but your secretary didn’t answer the phone. And then I--”

“My assistant was with me,” the mayor said as he gestured to the weasel. “You know he goes wherever I go.”

“I… did not say your assistant, Mayor, I said your--”

“I’m afraid we may have a misunderstanding here, Commissioner; Mr. Hess is the only one who answers my phones.” The mayor did not use Charles’s serpentine moniker outside of his inner circle, and with the commissioner’s mongoose assistant present, it seemed like it would have been a bad joke waiting to happen if he did.

The county commissioner just looked confused for a second before her assistant whispered something in her ear:

“Um, Miz Commissioner, I think I remember hearing that Mayor Norman fired his secretary when he bought a new answering machine last year,” she said.

“Uh… th-thank you, Krupa,” Commissioner Roe muttered. Returning her attention to the lion: “But I came here and walked right up to your office security guard demanding to speak with you in person if I couldn’t get a hold of you on the phone, and when he told me you were on your way out, I ran myself over here to catch you, and--”

“Commissioner, I’m flattered that you’ve gone through such an incredible journey just to see me, but I really must be on my way.”

“...As I was saying,” continued the commissioner, “after all that, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a moment of your time.”

“Oh, it is most certainly not too much to ask , but unfortunately, it is a tad too much for me to fulfill at the moment.”

“It won’t take long, Mayor. It’ll only be a moment.”

“Ah, but these gentlemen right here--” -- the mayor put his hand on Ward’s shoulder right behind where George was standing -- “have already requested a brief moment of my time, which I was kind enough to grant. If I were to grant my time to everyone who said it would not take long, then that would add up to very long indeed, now wouldn’t it?”

“Can we go now?” asked Nutzinger. Everybody ignored him.

“If you absolutely insist on speaking with me, Miz Commissioner,” the mayor offered, “you can accompany me in my ride to Bethlehem General.”

Doty blinked. “Mister Mayor… our car is parked here.”

“Oh, that’s quite fine with me.”

Commissioner Roe couldn’t tell if John was being stupid or being an asshole. “Mayor… our car is parked here--”

 “They will not tow you, Doty, I assure you.”

Yup, he was definitely being an asshole. “--and you’re offering us a one-way ride.”

“I beg pardon, Commissioner, but I only recall offering you a ride.”

The county commissioner was frustrated by this conversation, but she didn’t want to go back out into the world before her bone with Mayor Norman was thoroughly picked.

“Ryan, would you and Krupa take the car and meet me at Bethlehem General?”

“Sure, Commissioner,” the towering tiger said, “but are you sure you’re fine being out without either of us after the… uh…”

“...Unpopular announcement?” Krupa finished Ryan’s thought.

“I've made it this far as a woman in politics; I’ll manage,” said the commissioner.

“Don’t you two dears worry; Rocky will watch out for all of us until we rendezvous again,” said the mayor. “Now, Hi-- Hess , if you would please set up the private compartment for the Commissioner and I? And make sure the chauffeur hasn’t dozed off waiting!”

“Certainly, Mayor!” the weasel said, and he hopped into the limousine.

“After you, madame,” said the mayor, gesturing. The commissioner looked at her aides and nodded to dismiss them; they returned with nods and walked off as the doe made her way into the vehicle. “I’ll join you in just a second; I just need to say some parting words to my police officers!”

“Surely,” Doty said morosely as she disappeared into the limousine’s private compartment.

“Now... Eddward,” the mayor said slowly and deliberately, “these words are especially for you.”

“Okay, fuck this!” Nutsy shouted and started shimmying down the chief-cum-sheriff’s torso. “I’ll be in the car.”

“Nutsy, where are you going!?” asked Ward.

“I literally just said ‘to the car’; are you fucking deaf?” George stopped at Ward’s breast pocket to fish the car keys out. He regarded the mayor one last time: “Sayonara, Prince John-Boy,” he scoffed and hopped his way down Mount Woodland.

As Nutsy scooted off, the Prince Mayor relished in his regal nickname, and he took a small moment to fantasize about the day when he would have convinced his public to start calling him “King John” without his persuasion to modify the moniker seeming too inauthentic and obvious.

“Eddward, you understand that I trust you, yes?”

“Yessir, Mayor, sir.”

“I wouldn’t have selected you as my Chief of Police if I didn’t.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And your loyalty is something that I wish others strove to have themselves.”

“Thank ya kindly, Mayor.”

“But surely you know that I don’t like feeling betrayed.”

“...Y-yes, Mayor?”

“I don’t want this to feel like an attack, Eddward; I trust you, I really do. But we are not friends; we’re professional partners. And in that way I can never fully trust you like friends or lovers could trust one another. Please don’t take it personally, Eddward; you’re a good man.”

“I mean, I can’t help you if you’re lookin’ for a lover, but if you’re lookin’ for a friend--”

“Ward, I worded that poorly, and I apologize for--”

“‘Cause if you wanted to go bowling or sumpthin’--”

“Eddward, I misspoke, and you misunderstood. I’m not asking you to be my chum.”

“...Oh.”

“You know what? Let’s take a page out of George’s handbook and try straightforwardness: if I feel like you’re going to betray me, I will not hesitate to replace you.”

“...I see.”

“Please… don’t make me do such a thing. I would hate so deeply to do such a thing.”

“Uh… yes, Mayor.”

“I like you, Eddward. You’re the perfect Chief of Police, and you’ll be the perfect County Sheriff. You’re aggressive and driven, you’re forceful and commanding, you’re big and strong…”

“Why, thank ya, Mayor.”

“...and personally, I find your accent quite amusing. It cheers me up when I’m feeling low.”

“Thank… you?”

“Not to mention, while it’s rare that I get to witness it, it’s always a side-splitting sight watching someone your size and shape running.”

“...Uh--”

“But if I get the feeling that anybody -- anybody , be it George, or some stranger on the street, or even Thomas or Matthew after a reinstatement to the Force -- if I feel that anybody would be a more perfect Sheriff than you, I will replace you. Understood?”

“...Yes, Mayor.”

“You’ve been doing splendidly so far. There’s no reason to foresee you slipping up now.”

“Thanks, Princey!”

“One thing, though, Eddward?”

“Yessir?”

“Spell ‘sheriff’ for me, would you please?”

“Uh… su-sure, um… S-H… E-R-R--”

“Oh, dear, Eddward. Pick up a dictionary; it may help you be a more perfect sheriff. Or do you prefer to stay the Chief, since that’s easier to spell?”

“Uh… if you want me to!”

“Spell ‘chief’, then.”

“C-H-E-I--”

“Eddward, your first assignment is to pay a visit to the library. I don’t care what you and George do there, as long as it strengthens the community’s trust in the police and government, and it involves you learning to spell all the words you should really know how to spell.”

“Did I spell ‘chief’ wrong, too?”

“Speaking of George, perhaps he should have stayed around for this. Be sure to relay the message to him that if he falters, he will be replaced at my earliest convenience; he may need to hear it more than you do. Good day to you, Eddward.” The Prince Mayor turned and entered his limousine. “Thank you, Rocky,” he told the bodyguard, who himself turned and nodded at the sheriff before making his own way in and closing the door behind him. Elsewhere, the chauffeur was chugging a Pepsi to wake himself up and get ready to drive to the hospital.

When Woodland arrived back at the squad car, he glanced in the window and saw his rodent partner passed out on the wolf’s favorite car-pillow. He tapped a claw-nail on the glass.

“Gah! God… dammit! ” Nutsy shouted as he was awoken, and turned to see his boss making himself comfy in the passenger seat. “Ugh… so what did Mayor E-Norman-ous Asshole want?”

“I thought he was asking me to hang out with him ‘cause he was lonely, but it turned out to just be a spur-o’-the-moment spelling bee.”

“Did you pass--? Hey!” George protested as Ward picked him up to reclaim the pillow.

“I passed fine enough.”

Nutsy was going to try to at least pretend to bite Ward’s hand, but he didn’t have the energy.

“By the way,” Ward continued, “who’s that ‘Yuriel Heaps’ guy you two were talking about?”

“‘Uriah Heep’. A character from a British book I had to read about but never actually read , but those limey bastards probably both understood who I was talking about. I swear, the Brits mock our educational system for being nothing but one big circle jerk, even though theirs is basically the same thing.”

“But what’s so special about this guy?” Ward asked as he tried to position the pillow just the way he liked it.

“He’s an archetype. The ultimate suck-up. A kiss-ass to the point of being a manipulative asshole.”

Heh! Like ol’ Chuckie could manipulate shit!”

“If I were Charlie, I’d have fantasies of, like, puppet-string power, too, if I didn’t have any fucking arms.”

“Yeah, but he ain’t never gonna get it as long as he acts like as much of a suck-up as he is.”

“Agreed. I pissed him off good, though, now didn’t I?”

“Hey, when he ‘manipulates’ Prince John, you’re gonna be the first person he has killed!”

“Oh, I’m shaking.”

***

“John, what the fuck is wrong with you!?” The private compartment of the limo was as soundproofed as you could get for the midsection of a moving vehicle. Commissioner Roe was sitting on the right side of the limousine, opposite Mayor Norman.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Commissioner; it seems I’ve overdressed for this highly informal conversation.”

“Do you think saying things like that is going to ease the tension, John?”

“Oh, Commissioner, I do beg pardon; I couldn’t help myself but to--”

“I’m not the county commissioner right now; I’m Doty right now. And right now, Doty’s pissed .”

The mayor took a slow sip of his wine, tilting the glass to his mouth and keeping his head perfectly steady so as not to trouble the hat. “Now, I do have my hypotheses for what you may be cross about, but I’ll let you speak; in my years on this side of the Atlantic, I’ve been made quite familiar with the vulgar little American colloquialism about what happens when one does assume .”

“Why did you bring my name up?”

“Please explain to me how I could go about--”

Answer the question .”

Prince John raised an eyebrow and took another sip; this time he accidentally shifted his head just a little bit, and the hat started to slide down the back of his head, and although he did catch it and reposition it in time, the save didn’t look nearly as smooth as he’d hoped.

“I am well aware of the poor form shown in answering a question with another question, but to better understand your query, I must ask: How could I have explained that we were merging police forces without invoking your name but once?”

“Just don’t say it! Take responsibility for your idea, and when the press asks me later if I cosigned on it, I can answer in my own words!”

“But do you not want the people to think it was your idea, too?” The Mayor wanted to take a heartier swig of wine, so he said screw it and took his hat off and put it on the seat next to him. “Don’t you want them to think you’re a strong leader who makes strong decisions? Did you not want credit for action?” Sluuurp .

“You know, John, in most other cases, I’d say yes, but I correctly predicted that this wouldn’t go over well with the suburbanites. I didn’t want my name on this.” Doty wasn’t planning on consuming any of the wine offered her, but she was getting riled up enough to change her mind. Glulp . “I’ve already got to deal with egg on my face after stupid Tom and Matt beating the everloving shit out of a kid; if there were ever a day to be humble and run around with my tail between my legs, today would’ve been it.”

“Can that tail of yours even reach between your legs?” the lion asked the deer.

Doty gave John a mortified-but-angry look. “I don’t know what they teach you in aristocratic British society, but over here, it’s not polite to say anything involving ‘between your legs’ to a woman. That figure of speech was for me to say and for you to hear and that’s all. With your inability to read social cues, I don’t know if you’d ever be elected to any office legitimately.”

“Oh, I’m not always so egregious in my faux pas .” Prince John uncrossed his legs and crossed them the opposite way; he didn’t even flinch upon hearing the commissioner’s closing comment. “But back to our point, Doty, I cannot see any eventuality where I wouldn’t have included your name and title.”

“Then why didn’t you think about that before you promised not to use it!?”

The mayor couldn’t help but smirk. “Why didn’t you think of that before you believed me?”

Doty had had a feeling that she’d get a response like that, but she’d felt the need to try asking anyway. She took another draw from her wine. “John, just so you know… unlike your citizens, I don’t think you’re stupid. I just think you’re evil.”

Prince John looked intrigued by this revelation. “And when, may I ask, did you decide this?”

“Oh, long ago, John.”

“Was it before I paid your house?”

Doty was about to take another sip of wine when she heard that; instead, she put the glass back down. “Why does that matter?”

“Because I wouldn’t want to give gifts to people who think so... unflatteringly of me.” The words tasted good in his mouth as he spoke them. “So if it were the case that you thought I was evil when I did you such a kindness, I would very much like to rescind my gift. What about the car?”

“I’m… not giving them back to you.”

“Now, my memory is foggy -- did I buy you a Maybach or a Jaguar?”

“They’re in my name and you aren’t getting them back.”

“‘ They ’? Oh, yes, I bought you both, now didn’t I? And a nice Land Rover for Sundays with the family!”

“John, you lose this one. I manipulated an evil man for my own gain and his loss. I win; you lose.”

John took a sip of wine and tapped his fingers as he conjured the most melodramatic way to deliver his next thought. “Very well then; if I cannot get them back, I would like to at least receive credit for buying them for you… that is to say, in the public sphere.”

“...The hell are you talking about!?”

“I have the records. Receipts with my name on them, squeezed into a manila folder next to documents showing title transfers wherein I legally resold each of them to you for a dollar apiece.”

The commissioner picked up the wine glass again, but had no intention of drinking from it; she just wanted something to hold. “You really have your bases covered, don’t you?”

“If I understand that basketball metaphor correctly, then yes: I have all my eggs in a row. A lesser man may destroy the evidence, but I like to keep it around. Partially as a sort of scrapbook of memories, partially to give Charles something to do…” Sluuurp . “...but mostly for moments such as this.”

“And you’re willing to take yourself down with me just to get back at me?”

“I do beg your pardon?”

“You want to show the world that you embezzled money and spent it on bribes?”

“Oh, nowhere does it say where I got the money from. For all you know, it may still be what I’ve received from my family. In fact, as a matter of statistics, some of that money surely must have been mine legitimately.”

“I’m looking at a regular Machiavelli, aren’t I?”

“My, my, you really do think I’m simply evil , now don’t you?”

“Convince me otherwise.”

“Oh! Oh, but I shall!” And he got himself comfortable in his seat for his defense statement. “I have heard my people cry. I know that they are skeptical of my methods. I know also that a great many would describe my actions as selfish. But you must see, Commissioner, that I have never neglected the heart of my subjects -- I am simply preoccupied. For most of my life, I’ve been torn between my altruistic desire to be an effective and helpful and good person, and my -- shall we say -- animalistic drive to better my own lot first and foremost. And now I’ve--”

“That really seems like the sort of thing you should have straightened out before you assumed public office!”

The mayor tilted his head and feigned disappointment, as though he’d just witnessed a child make an outburst. “Now, there are many things I could say to that; I could say that the opportunity to become mayor only came once, and I was not going to allow it to pass me by; I could say that I believed that having such responsibilities thrust upon myself would then inspire me to ‘ straighten myself out ,’ as you say. But quite frankly, Doty…” Siiip . “...I simply wanted to be mayor! There’s that animalism again! Let me make this clear to you, Miz Roe: I truly believe in my heart that I will be a much more selfless person when the selfish side of me is satisfied.”

“Th-then when the hell will it be satisfied?” spat the commissioner, flabbergasted. She was beginning to lean ever so slowly forward.

“When the moment comes, I will know it. And I am just as impatient in waiting for it as you, madame. And as are my people; I yearn for the morning when I wake and I suddenly feel that I don’t need to tax my people to death to feel a numb, tired sense of victory. And yet it sets up its own endgame: the weaker my people become, the more powerful I will become, and if all goes well, the time that I am satisfied with my power will align with the time when my people recognize my power and turn to me for guidance when there are no other powerful figures to be found. When there is nothing to challenge me, I will surely have the confidence to lead them to bigger and better things.”

“‘ Leading your people to bigger and better things ’-- what the hell are you talking about?”

“We’ve already thoroughly discussed my need to feel satisfied for myself before I can feel confident in letting my guard down and letting my inner advocate out; did you think I was content just being a mayor of a midsize city in a nation full of hicks that I’m only in because my family dragged me here? Why do you think I let people call me ‘Prince John’ to my face? It’s because I’m holding out for the day that that title organically evolves into ‘ King ’.” Siiip . “It’s strange; this is much the same conversation I had with my men before you showed up. I almost feel the need to apologize for repeating myself.”

“Well… hey! Speaking of your family, why aren’t you content with your family’s wealth, you maniac?”

“Partially because I don’t only wish for material wealth, but more-so because it just feels better to have earned something for yourself instead of being gifted it, wouldn’t you agree?”

“I would disagree.”

“...Then that is your problem.” Sluuurp .

Commissioner Roe worked her hands all around the wine glass as she stared into her reflection in the liquid, which rippled in every direction as the limousine tumbled along the streets of Nottingham. She was now leaning completely forward and had barely noticed her position shifting before this point. “I-I’m sorry-- are we going to see me in the hospital? Did I hit my head on something, and this is a coma dream? Or did you really just confess that you’re going to Stockholm Syndrome your citizens until they help you take over the world?”

“And my citizenry is larger now as a consequence of your agreement to merge our police forces, and for that I thank you.”

The doe’s eyes were starting to sting from being excessively pursed open in disbelief. “You’ve gotta be joking.”

“Must I be? I confess that I’ve implicitly signed off on your using excessively dramatic words and terms like ‘ Stockholm Syndrome ’, but I think my main point is clear enough.”

“You’re a madman,” said the commissioner; she was so appalled and yet fascinated by what she was hearing that it was like a lucid dream, and now she wanted to say exactly what was on her mind, no matter how simple the thought, just to see what would happen next.

“If that’s how you feel, I will gladly take my blood money back.”

“You don’t belong in politics.”

“Oh? And you do? Do you or any of your other cohorts who’ve accepted my bribes? In the privacy of my mind, I’ve always considered that to be a means of networking, whereas it seemed that you and all the other elected officials in this state simply saw it as a greedy end.”

“That’s regular politician stuff. You’re some next-level crazy. And evil. I don’t know which word describes you more at this point.” Roe started to wonder if the driver, bodyguard or assistant could hear her outside of the little compartment. She didn’t know if she should care.

The mayor recrossed his legs; he still had not broken an emotional sweat. “You know, Commissioner…” -- siiip -- “I don’t actually very much like politicians. Or politics at all, for that matter. Nor government, really; it’s so easily manipulated, no matter the systems in place…” -- swirl, swirl -- “Perhaps by the time my people have come around to me, they’ll share in my sentiment. By then, perhaps, they won’t see me as another politician -- just the leader they need to guide them out of the darkness.”

“If you don’t like politicians, then why are you saying that to a politician? Are you an evil genius, or just an idiot?” Amid the flurry of emotions Doty was feeling was a strange sense of excitement from poking this odd creature. “I can tell all the other politicians in town how you really feel. About them and everything else.”

“Oh, they all hate one another anyway, now do they not?” Sluuurp . “Besides, I’ll just bribe them again until they’re on my side once more. Have you noticed how I give ten times more bribes than I receive, and the ones I do receive near-exclusively come from civilians and not civil authorities? It’s because when I want money, I can simply raise my taxes and get it like that; from other politicians, I crave their power . I can demand money from my people and I can demand power from my colleagues; the opposite is not the case.”

The commissioner stared at him blankly for a second, then coughed out a nervous chuckle. She leaned back in her seat, grasping the wine glass with both hands, and seemed to collapse into a state of delirium as a few more confused chuckles came out.

“I knew you’d used me, in the way that all of us use each other,” she said. “But… I’d never thought it was this… calculated .”

“Oh, I’m flattered, Doty.” Siiip . “Though even I would be the first to confess that at times I went ahead setting up for plans I hadn’t fully fleshed out. But the best memories are borne of spontaneous decisions, are they not?”

Doty’s gaze had turned to the ceiling and could be described as inward. So John Norman here was just openly spelling out that he was much more than the selfish piece of shit that everyone believed him to be. And the whole ‘selfish-side, selfless-side’ thing -- was this guy for real? How much alcohol did she drink? Was she drunk? Was she even awake? Did she fall from bed and hit her head and not wake up in the morning? Did she fall into a coma from an undiagnosed brain malady and now she was experiencing some hallucinations too mundane to be described as a fever dream but too implausible to be confused with reality? If this was actually happening, this John Norman character would be a great villain in some legendary tale of a ruler gone mad in every sense of the word at once. But in that moment, she decided with finality that this was, in fact, not really happening.

“So why are you telling me this?” she asked, still looking at nothing but the ceiling. “I-I mean… why are you telling me this?”

“After all you’ve done for me today, Commissioner, the gift of awareness is the least I can repay you.”

“But you hate politicians.”

“Well, you are a special one--”

“Do you hate politicians because of your brother?”

When she realized that he wasn’t answering, and that she could hear the sound of the tires treading on the pavement, Doty looked back down to be met with a glaring face. Any pretense of joviality was clearly off the table. But Doty still wasn’t sure whether this was just another element of the fantasy that overlapped with reality.

“I invite you to retract your statement, Commissioner.”

“I didn’t make a statement; I asked a question.”

The Prince Mayor put his wine glass back in the cupholder. “Commissioner--”

“I mean, in confidence, Mayor, you can tell me.”

“Doty--”

“Because I totally get if you’d be bitter that he’s in a much better position to take over the world than you.”

John answered by pounding on the window to the driver’s compartment. “Lawrence! Lawrence!

The mayor continued pounding as the window slowly rolled down. “What?” asked the driver.

“Pull over at your next convenience.”

“You gonna say please ?” asked the horse.

PULL OVER AT YOUR NEXT CONVENIENCE!

“This thing won’t fit in a parking lane on the side of the--”

“Lawrence, STOP THE BLOODY CAR! ” John hald-stood and stuck his head in the open window.

Lawrence, ever obedient, slammed on the brakes, much to the chagrin of all the cars behind him, whose drivers honked in protest, as well as to the chagrin of the limousine’s own passengers, who all jolted westward with the sudden change in inertia, most chiefly the mayor who had requested the stop in the first place, who found himself flying halfway through the open window with his face in the floor-mat beneath the passenger seat and the windowsill’s lip pressing unwelcomely into his netherregions.

The door to the compartment clicked with the key of the bodyguard, and Rocky popped in, with Charles Hess dutifully behind him, trying to catch a glimpse of his employer.

“You alright, Mayor?”

“GET HER OUT OF HERE!” he shrieked. That seemed to awaken some sense of cogency in the county commissioner.

“What, just kick her out of the--?”

“YES!”

“Wait…” Doty now, for the first time since their riveting conversation had begun, had the mind to look critically at the landscape outside the window; she now believed again that this was indeed happening. “Where exactly are we?”

“You’re the head of this county, Commi ssss ioner!” the weasel jeered. “Shouldn’t you know this pla ccc e like the back of your hand?”

“Do not speak to the Commission--!”

“GET OUT OF MY CAR!” hollered Prince Floor-Face.

“You’re just going to kick me out of your limo and make me walk--!?”

“What the bloody fucking hell does it look like, you stupid bitch!?”

“Miz Commissioner,” said Rocky, “I’m going to have to ask you to leave--”

“Just grab her!”

“Miz Roe, please don’t make me grab you. I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that.”

And the commissioner could see in the rhino’s face that he wasn’t too thrilled himself to be following the lion’s orders, but that he also didn’t feel like he had much say in the situation.

“He doesn’t need to grab me,” she said as she got to her feet and made her way toward the exit. “I’ll see myself out. Take care, you thumb-sucking motherfucker.”

She had now invoked Richard’s name and said the m -word all in the span in a few mnutes; this infuriated the half-incapacitated mayor, who grunted as he kicked wayardly around the cabin in an attempt to land a blow on the commissioner, but only succeeded in making contact with the bell of his wine glass, which promptly shattered, with much of the wine spraying onto the top hat on the adjacent seat and much of the glass embedding itself in the pads mayor’s foot-paw. John immediately stopped flailing his legs and started screaming again, but this time he wasn’t angry at any specific entity. And he was crying.

“Watch your step,” Rocky said as he helped the fuming commissioner out of the limousine. “Did you have a briefcase or a bag with you, or…?”

“No, Krupa has my briefcase. With my cell phone in it.” Doty looked around the neighborhood again, not knowing if she should be nervous or angry. The area didn’t look crummy so much as it just looked old, architecturally speaking. The streets were populated by pedestrians who didn’t look mean, but who didn’t look nice either, and several of these neutral nihilists were staring either at the out-of-place limousine stopped in the middle of an intersection or at the doe who looked strangely familiar.

“There’s a, um, pay phone, like, around the corner and down a block. It’s in front of a liquor store, if I remember right.”

“You know this area?”

“Yeah, I grew up around here.”

“What part of town is this again?”

“Georgetown.”

“...Oh.” The commissioner, having been raised in Apple River herself, always had heard of Georgetown as a bad neighborhood. Now she had to remind herself that it wasn’t that bad -- it was the kind of area where its lower-middle- and upper-lower-class residents weren’t so much violent as they were rough around the edges and perpetually bitter about life in general, and understandably so. It was the kind of neighborhood where most people wouldn’t mess with you unless you personally gave them a reason to, but once you did, they would not hesitate to mess with you. Doty was afraid that her actions earlier today, publicly disclosed on regional television, might constitute a personal offense to these people whose policing situation hadn’t changed but whose tax rates almost certainly soon would. It really could go either way.

“Thanks for the tip,” she continued, “but I don’t have any change on me.”

“Neither do I,” said Rocky. “I’d tell you which shops would let you use their phone, but--”

“Rocky, the Mayor reque sstss you come back into the car,” said Hiss as he poked his head out, only to immediately return to the private cabin to be with his superior.

“...But they wouldn’t help a politician out?” Doty attempted to answer Rocky’s statement.

Rocky simply said, “Well… they might,” and shrugged as he turned his body back toward the limo before turning his head. “Good luck, Commissioner,” he said and closed the door behind him.

The limo stayed there for a second -- Commissioner Roe correctly guessed that they were pulling the Mayor out of the dividing window -- and then took off through a red light, inspiring another cacophony of car horns that almost drowned out the distinct sounds of a fortysomething man with a British accent wailing for his mama.

***

Patients, visitors, and employees alike were instructed to stay clear of the hallways as the mayor and his entourage made their way to the hyena boy’s room. The only people still left in the hallway were the presiding doctor, the photographer from the newspaper, and the hospital security guard assigned to watch them both, just in case. There were no actual reporters or journalists to go with the photographer; the newspaper had been made aware that the mayor would answer any and all questions via phone when he decided to call them at his greater leisure.

The room was at the far end of the hallway, and the two groups of three made steady eye contact with one another long before they were within speaking distance. None of the six of them could gauge exactly where “speaking distance” began, which was a bit of a problem.

“Aren’t you going to stand before the mayor?” asked the mayor in a quiet inside voice from halfway down the hallway.

“What he say?” asked the photographer to the doctor.

The giraffe hadn’t heard much better, either. “I don’t know, but I think that I’m going to stand up just so he doesn’t think we’re disrespecting him,” he said to the opossum. The doctor -- whose head and upper neck was already well up against the ten-foot ceiling -- got back onto his feet, and now had even more of his neck parallel to the ceiling. He wanted a transfer to a newer facility that would be less murder on his spinal cord, but he knew that even the most modern and accomodating public spaces would only give twelve or thirteen feet of vertical space before it became financially unfeasible for the buildings to be constructed any larger for the comfort of such a small, tall demographic. Moments like these made Dr. Jordan regret going into medicine, and also made him have a moment of clarity about why all the other men and many of the women in his family were content with their low-paying outdoor jobs, doing things such as working on power lines.

“Is that what he asked us to do?”

“Maybe. It kind of sounded like that.”

“Did you hear him?” the opossum asked the buffalo.

“I did not,” said the guard flatly.

“If anything, you should sit back down, Doc. It looks like you’re not too comfy right now.”

“Yeah, I’m going to go on break and stretch on the roof after this. But I’m used to it.”

“That’s kind of messed up that they make you--”

Excuse me ,” said the mayor.

“Regards, Mayor Norman,” said the buffalo unenthusiastically. The other two looked to see him standing there with his assistant and bodyguard, having seemingly just materialized out of thin air before them like ghosts. All three of them thought something looked off about him, as though he was missing a certain oversized accessory that had recently been soiled, but none of the three of them could put their finger on it.

“The mayor asssked you nicccely to ssstand in his presence!” said the weasel.

“I asked if that’s what he said,” said the photographer. “We couldn’t hear you from all the way down there.”

“I believe I’d made myself clear,” said the mayor. John was getting vibes from the photographer similar to what he got from George Nutzinger, but this opossum’s remarks seemed completely genuine and without an ounce of biting sarcasm.

“You really didn’t,” said Dr. Jordan.

“If it was so easy to hear, then why couldn’t you hear us asking if that’s what you asked?” asked the opossum.

“...B-because I didn’t ask it, I said it!” said the mayor. “I said they ought to stand before the mayor!”

“Why?” asked the buffalo, to everyone’s surprise. “You’re the Mayor of Nottingham, not the King of England.”

The mayor’s face twisted in anger and rendered him effectively speechless, allowing his assistant the chance to cut in:

“Do you think that is any way to ssspeak to any cccivil authority, royal or else?”

“Brad, chill out,” Rocky said to the buffalo. “It was a rough ride over here.”

“Jeez, what happened to your foot, Mayor?” asked the doctor. The others hadn’t even noticed that his foot was covered in a pile of Band-Aids that were so densely populated that they seemed to be impeding each other’s ability to heal a wound.

“I was hoping you could check that out after we’re done here, Doctor.”

“Doctor Jordan. And I can get--”

“That’s nice.”

“...Um… and I can get you fast-tracked for some care downstairs with another doctor, but I really need to take my break soon. Or is it urgent?”

“May we get this photo shoot over with?”

“Brad, I’ve got the room, you can stay outside,” said Rocky.

“Actually, Dr. Jordan, why are you even here yourself?”

“Um… I-I’m here to walk you through the kid’s injuries--”

“No need. I’ve had a tumultuous enough day. I needn’t be weighed down with more negativity. We’ll have the photo-boy take a snap and we’ll be on our way.”

“You don’t want me to--?”

“You may take your break now, Doctor.”

The doctor was confused, but was in no mood to say no to a chance to alleviate the pain in his neck. He dismissed himself as the opossum followed the lion, weasel and rhino into the patient’s room, and the buffalo shut the door for them to give them their privacy.

The mayor hobbled over to the hyena and got a good look at him. To try to describe his present appearance was almost futile, not because it was too grotesque to put into words, but because one could say -- at the risk of sounding insensitive -- the victim’s injuries seemed almost generic at least at first glance. He didn’t quite have his head bashed in concavely, but it had its share of cuts and bloodstains, and some visible bruising under the fur where the light hit his body just right, and the same could be said for his arms and any other segments of his body that weren’t covered by the blanket. At first, the mayor was almost unimpressed by how straightforward the injuries were, seemingly a whole bunch of small, unremarkable injuries working in synergy by their sheer quantity. But as he examined the breathing tube and the precarious way it was perched in his mouth, the mayor realized that the boy’s snout seemed to be bent, which led him to notice that one of the boy’s eyelids was split open, and shortly after that he saw that there was a rip in one of the hyena’s ears, and then he saw that there were two in his other. It was entirely possible that any of these unsightly scenes had been there before his encounter with Elkins and Goldthwaite, but what was the likelihood that all of them had already been present? Maybe he wasn’t such a mundane beating victim after all. The mayor silently chided himself for being so unobservant at the beginning.

“Bloody, bloody hell. Charles, are you seeing this?”

“Yesss , Mayor,” said Hiss.

“How old is this boy, Photographer?”

“Fourteen, I think?” said the opossum. “My name is Russell, by the way--”

“There’s another question; what’s the lad’s name again?”

“Kevin Lafferty.”

“I admire your recollection, Photographer.”

“It’s on his chart right there.”

The mayor stopped scanning his eyes upon the boy’s battered body and stared into space for a moment. Without looking, he could see a shape in his periphery that was likely the medical chart bearing the boy’s name. John took a breath to process his mortification, trying to remind himself that this photographer whose name he didn’t know wasn’t the sarcastic asshole Nutsy was, but rather a simpleton with no filter who didn’t know better than to not disgrace the mayor.

The moment passed, and the mayor took his paw and started stroking the hyena’s cheek gently.

“Alright, take your picture.”

“How do you want to pose for it?”

“I don’t. Take your picture.”

“And we’re probably going to need a few.”

“Then take a good one on your firssst try!” said Hiss.

“Thank you, Charles,” said the mayor, still laying eyes upon the boy and caressing his cheek.

“Do you want to face the camera at least?” asked the opossum.

“That would be ingenuine.”

“Um… okay, then,” said Russell. He raised the camera, framed it up and got the best shot he could with the strange angle of the strange scene. He immediately pulled the image back up on the camera’s screen, and wondered if a shot like that, despite it being the best he could have rendered given the circumstances, would have gotten him kicked out of photography school for poor form. But then he remembered that the art college he went to was a diploma mill, so they probably would have let him stay even if he had turned in a blurry picture of a homeless man defecating into a city fountain for every assignment.

“Are we ready to leave now, Mayor?” asked Rocky.

But the mayor was enthralled by what he saw in front of him. This stupid delinquent kid who had been dumb enough to cross paths with a bunch of cops in a closed forest preserve at night was going to be the catalyst for all the good things to come. This hyena was going to be his Franz Ferdinand, a martyr whose (forecasted) death would be the spark that would lead to a flame of bitter, brutal conflict among statist powers, a conflict necessary for the truly righteous to rise to the top amid the chaos. Prince John only hoped that his cheek-stroking was comforting the unconscious boy, because John would never be able to repay him for his sacrifice. Well, theoretically, he could have a statue built to the kid or do something else to immortalize him, but that would almost be an overpayment of sorts and wait.

“Does this look creepy?” the mayor blurted suddenly.

“What was that, Mayor?” asked Hiss.

“The way I’m stroking him, does that look weird? Inappropriate, even?”

“Why, no, Mayo--”

“It kind of does,” said Russell, ever the honest type.

The mayor turned around sharply. “Rocky, what say you?”

“I, uh… kinda, yeah,” he confessed.

“Show me the picture,” the mayor said to the photographer.

Russell pulled up the image again and turned the camera around for the mayor to see. The mayor didn’t like it. Especially the smile he saw on his own face. If that smile was on Jesus Christ Himself in a Renaissance painting of Him healing a dying child, maybe then that smile would look appropriate, but in any other context, it just looked uncanny. But beyond even that, John simply didn’t like the way he looked without his top hat.

“We can take another picture if you want.”

“Burn the film.”

“It’s a digital camera; it doesn’t use film. I can just delete it--”

“Then burn the camera.”

“I can just delete it, though.”

Burn the camera .”

“The battery might explode.”

THEN TAKE THE BLOODY BATTERY OUT!

“Mayor--” Rocky began, but it was too late. The mayor grabbed the camera out of the opossum’s hand and, wincing through pain, quickly limped over to the window. He tried to open the window with one hand, but it wouldn’t budge. Determined, he stuck the camera in his mouth and used both hands, pushing up with his legs to get more leverage, but to no avail.

“How are people supposed to breathe in this hospital if the windows won’t open!?” the mayor hollered as he took the camera out of his mouth and held it up to heaven to show God what kind of an abomination his people had created.

“Year-round air conditioning,” Russell said. “Can I have my camera back now?”

“Rocky, help me destroy this thing!”

“Sorry, bud,” Rocky said to Russell as he walked reluctantly over to the window and grabbed the savila-soaked camera. He examined it for a second before finding the memory card slot and popping it out. He tossed the camera back to the photographer. “Here you go.”

“No, I want the whole thing destroyed!”

“Relax, will you?” said Rocky as he looked around for somewhere to dispose of the card that was more thorough than just throwing it in the trash. Eventually, he had found his target. “Uh… eat this.”

He grabbed Hiss around the back of the neck and head and popped his snout open and shoved the tiny memory card in his mouth, sticking it down there deep into the throat with one finger. Hiss was audibly struggling to swallow the thing, quite literally choking it down and reflexively flailing the near-invisible remaining fragments of his arms as the mayor and the photographer-whose-name-the-mayor-didn’t-know stared in amazed bewilderment.

“There,” Rocky said once the job was done, “we destroyed the evidence without destroying the poor guy’s camera. He didn’t do anything to deserve getting his--”

Cough, cough. Ffflllbbbrrrggghhhuuuaaahhh! ” Hiss retched, catching everyone’s attention. He caught his breath and observed the mess he’d made. “Well… I don’t sssee the chip in the… er…”

“Goddammit, I’ll get a nurse,” Rocky said, taking Hiss by the shoulder and sidestepping the puddle on the way out. The lion and the opossum just watched as they made their exit, unsure of what just happened.

After a moment, Russell started examining the puddle of vomit. “Yeah, I don’t see my memory card in here anywhere. Boy, that’s going to suck for him when it comes out the other end.” He gave the mayor a casual look as though they were old friends making witty banter. “Hey, how does he wipe his ass, anyway?”

“Get out of here!” ordered the mayor.

The photographer put the strap of the camera around his neck and gave the mayor a dirty look before making his own exit. “Jeez, he could have just flushed it down the toilet,” the opossum muttered as he closed the door.

The mayor returned to the hyena one more time, now having a moment alone with the one who had helped him so invaluably. Prince John slipped the fingers of his right paw through the fingers of Kevin’s left paw and grasped it firmly.

“Mister Lafferty,” he said quietly, “you may never know how much of a godsend you’ve been. You fell so that I may stand. I’ll stand high atop the highest mountain, exalted up on high, and all the earth will be mine, and in this world where every man thinks the world would be a better place if he were its monarch, I shall be the one to know how it feels to actually have such power, and it will all be thanks to you --!”

Snap, crack, crunch.

Prince John’s eyes popped open in fear and he released the boy’s hand from his own, and the hyena’s arm dropped back down onto the bed. The blood receded from the lion’s paw, and it almost felt numb by comparison soon after. He looked hesitantly down at Kevin’s hand and wondered if his fingers were already bent at that angle and he just didn’t realize it. Prince John certainly didn’t mean to do that; he didn’t even know he had the strength to do that.

The room was empty and there were no sounds of anyone approaching. If he left now, he’d be in the clear. The mayor turned to run out of the room, but promptly slipped and fell in the puddle of vomit. He shouted in pain, his knee and ankle twisted and his foot further agitated, and crawled to the door to the hallway, reminding himself that his thumb was dirty with floor- and hyena-germs so as to resist sticking it in his mouth.

Chapter Text

  1. “All in a Long Day’s Working Journey into Night”

You could usually tell what side of Nottingham you were on based on the street names at any given intersection. The north-south baseline was Millsboro Boulevard, named for a town that was annexed by Nottingham shortly after the boom in the Fertile Crescent; north of Millsboro Boulevard, the east-west streets were numbered, and south of the baseline, they were given letters, and after the letters ran out, it switched to unalphabetized proper nouns, surnames of early city leaders, until the neighborhoods gave way to the Great Cypress Swamp at the south edge of town. The north-south streets going westward were named after states in order of admission to the Union -- starting, of course, with Delaware Avenue, which served as the baseline. This did create some mildly confusing situations, such as how the Georgetown branch of the Nottingham Public Library system was located at 6500 North South Dakota Avenue, but it was too late to redo all the streets now, and besides, it was quite fitting how the west edge of the city’s limits bumped up against the southern tip of Sherwood Forest and the town of Apple River right around Hawaii Avenue, with territories taking the names of the few remaining streets in the gaps. North-south streets east of Delaware Avenue took the names of major U. S. cities, though since east was toward the ocean, these streets often ran through higher-end parts of town, and carried an air of ritziness about them accordingly; even though the most western of the city-name streets were still not the most well-off places to live, people would still think it was better to live on Boston than seven blocks away on Massachusetts. Of course, there were also some diagonal or meandering thoroughfares that broke the mold, such as the Georgetown-Millsboro Highway and its surface-level counterpart and forebear Sherwood Forest Road, and the streets in the old part of the downtown center were much more haphazard and European in their layout, but once you got out of Old Nottingham, the classic American grid system was reliably navigable, although some English expats might disagree with intuitiveness of a system where every street needed a directional prefix and every block had a value of one hundred.

Priscilla found herself walking along 73rd Street and after turning right from Baltimore Avenue in the Harbeson neighborhood. Harbeson was almost straight north of downtown, and some of its north-south streets were states while others were cities; Baltimore Avenue was the first major city-name street on the East Side, five blocks east of Delaware. Fittingly, it was regarded as a sort of transitional neighborhood, bridging the divide between the upper-class East Side and the lower-class West Side. It was regarded as being a tinge better than Georgetown -- that is to say that neither was necessarily rampant with gang activity, but whereas you were more likely to get your face clocked in by a resident in Georgetown, you were more likely to be mugged by a roving hoodlum (who probably lived on the west West Side) in Harbeson. Nevertheless, it was mostly a quiet neighborhood, though if the residents had one reservation about their area, it was that its geography meant that there were always people from outside the neighborhood passing through. It had Georgetown to its west and the Fertile Crescent beyond that, the college and hipster neighborhoods of Zoar Park and Hollyville to the south and the downtown area beyond that , the well-off neighborhoods of Milton Park, Nassau and Long Neck to its north and east and the beach towns beyond those -- suffice it to say that Harbeson’s reputation as a socioeconomic crossroads was not inappropriate. The locals weren’t morally opposed to the passers-by, though they did have some reservations about the arrangement, like how traffic on the major streets was always a nightmare, and how they had to watch their tongues -- just in case someone within earshot wasn’t in the know -- when speaking of the vagabond vigilantes who acted as their guardian angels.

Priscilla was one of the natives who was in the know, but hadn’t thought much about the Merry Men in awhile. She had only ever interacted with them when she was part of a larger crowd that they were addressing, and hadn’t seen them at all recently (except for the one former member she’d just seen today, but he didn’t count and she no longer consciously thought of him as one). She had more important things on her mind, like trying to add up how she was going to pay to feed her daughter five more meals a week now that school was out and weekday lunches were no longer paid for by the state. The mink was fortunate enough to own her own home, a small bungalow typical of the Harbeson neighborhood that stood out from the row houses of the West Side and the grander homes of the East Side, but homeownership wouldn’t have meant much if she couldn’t pay the utilities. Not only did she not get a refund from her April taxes, but she actually owed the state and federal governments money because her employer -- which, incidentally, was the City of Nottingham -- did the math wrong and didn’t withhold enough from her paycheck. Now Priscilla was kicking herself for not realizing that the boost in her direct deposits was a sign of incompetence rather than mercy from above.

For now, all she was thinking of was going to bed. She had gotten off her night shift manning a subway station in Zoar Park, and went straight to mass at St. Ursula’s, which was located at 70th and Wyoming right near the edge of the forest. There were other Catholic churches nearer to her house, but she had been going to St. Ursula’s since she was a little girl and now no other parish seemed right to her. Today the homily was done by Father Tuck, whose past was an open secret among the Northwest Side members of the congregation, whereas the parishioners from the suburbs were none the wiser. Priscilla was going to hang onto the small amount of cash she had on her person, but then Father Tuck went on another fiery rant about the importance of almsgiving, and did a deep dive into that story in the Bible where Jesus tells off a bunch of hypocritical scribes and makes a positive example out of some desperately poor woman who gives the last of her money to a synagogue charity collection, and Father Tuck’s thesis on the passage basically boiled down to, ‘Okay, I get it if you don’t want to be that charitable, especially in this modern world where you can’t survive with zero dollars and zero cents in your pocket unless you’re living off the grid (hint hint, wink wink), but always be aware that there is most assuredly somebody out there who’s even worse off than you are.’ That was paraphrasing, of course, but at one point, Father Tuck made incidental eye contact with Priscilla during his sermon, and something about that shook her and possessed her to put what she had in the collection bin -- minus what she needed for bus fare.

She then took that bus fare and took the 70th Street bus -- on the North Side, streets divisible by five were the major streets with bus lines, which were vital because Nottingham’s subway system was poorly designed and you couldn’t take the subway from the Northwest Side to the North Central Side without riding through the city center -- and rode it almost fifty blocks until she got off at Baltimore Avenue, whereupon she walked three blocks north and turned east on the residential 73rd Street toward her house on Chicago Avenue, one block east of Baltimore. And now all she wanted to do was give her daughter and hug and a kiss and then go to sleep.

Priscilla crossed the alley that ran between Baltimore and Chicago Avenues. To her left, she saw that there was graffiti on the side of the garage of the corner-lot house. Priscilla knew the owner of the house, a peaceful elderly woman who probably would rather that her garage wasn’t vandalized, but who also may have been zen enough to just shrug it off with a soft smile and say, hey, it’s not tangibly hurting anyone, and since she was planning to stay there for the rest of her days, she probably wasn’t too concerned about her home’s resale value, either. The graffiti in question had two parts, seemingly one in response to the other.

First, in white paint on the red bricks, written in all-capitals and just a smidge left of dead-center, with the first word stacked upon the second: FUCK BUSH .

Immediately to its right, squeezed between the original graffito and the edge of the wall, was a case-sensitive continuation written in a dirty yellow that probably came from a spray-can labeled ‘ gold ,’ and similarly formatted with the words stacked, though misaligned enough from the first statement to make it clear it was a sovereign thought: And Fuck Prince John!

And as she came to a complete stop there in the mouth of the alley, the mink had mixed feelings about what she was seeing. While she had her reservations about how the old Mrs. Rooney would feel about the graffiti, and while she worried that a similar tag would soon be written upon her own garage, she was mostly conflicted about the message and its methods of communication. Priscilla also harbored a disdain for the two figureheads on their respective macro- and micro- scales, one for impersonal reasons (mostly -- she and many others at 73rd and Chicago blamed him for sending the Taylors’ poor son to die in Afghanistan last year), and one for much, much more personal reasons that need not be elaborated upon. But she didn’t know if she liked seeing it written there on Mrs. Rooney’s garage. What was it meant to accomplish, being written there? It wasn’t like the Mayor, let alone the President, was going to see this graffiti on a random house in Harbeson and suddenly have an epiphany that their public hated them and subsequently have a change of heart about all of their unpopular policies. Yes, she was sure that the original artists would say that it was intended to sow seeds of unity among the downtrodden of Nottingham, but while Harbeson wasn’t nearly as downtrodden as the likes of, say, Hermosa Park on the West Side, it certainly wasn’t as socioeconomically tranquil and self-impressed as a place like Long Neck or Belltown. Who in this neighborhood wasn’t opposed to Dubya and Dingleberry? Of course, there was also the argument that this was vent art, and its creation was its own goal, but then that got Priscilla wondering if somehow, someway, this was Mrs. Rooney’s doing.

Priscilla was so fascinated by the new art installation that she didn’t notice the puma and the porcupine exit the opposite alleyway and calmly walk across 73rd Street right toward her turned back.

“Stay right there,” said the puma.

“Wha--?”

“Turn around slowly,” said the porcupine.

Priscilla obeyed, though the shock had inspired her to also reflexively jut her hands into the air. She just imagined that this was something that the strangers would want her to do anyway.

Her shocked reaction inspired a different shocked reaction in the strangers, who twitched into defensive positions, weapons drawn from their persons and presented to be clearly seen.

“Hey, don’t fucking jump like that!” said the porcupine, who was holding a jet-black pistol.

“Or are you not as harmless as you seem?” asked the puma, who was holding a large knife that was probably manufactured for wilderness survival.

“What are you talking about!?” begged Priscilla.

“You got any weapons on you?” asked the puma.

“Empty your purse and take everything out of your pockets,” said the porcupine. Both of these strangers seemed to be teenagers, two boys most of the way through adolescence but not quite there yet, who were nevertheless trying their hardest to speak in the lowest register possible. The puma was wearing a yellow-on-purple Lakers snapback with its Mitchell & Ness authenticity sticker still intact and a black hoodie, zipped all the way up despite the stifling heat, bearing a white “ZY” logo that people of a certain age might recognize as belonging to a skateboarding company. The porcupine was wearing a t-shirt that read “SYSTEM OF A DOWN” and sandy-tan cargo shorts. 

“Why are you doing this to me?”

“Because we’re smart enough to survive, and you were dumb enough to stop moving,” said the puma.

“No, I mean, I live here , do you think I’m not hurting for money too?”

“You’re gonna be hurting for a lot more than money if you don’t drop this attitude,” said the porcupine. “Now the purse and pockets.”

Priscilla slipped the purse off her shoulder, unzipped it, and dumped it out on the pavement. Out fell a small wallet, a hairbrush, some lipstick, some loose change, and not much more than that.

“That’s it?” asked the porcupine. “What about your pockets?”

“Women’s pants don’t have functional pockets!” Priscilla answered. “There’s nothing I could have on me!”

“Goddammit, gimme that,” the puma swore as he grabbed the purse. “Bro, check if she has any bulges on her, and grab the wallet while you’re at it. I’ll see if there’s anything in the other compartments.”

The porcupine gave her a look-around as the puma unzipped the smaller compartments of the purse, where he didn’t find anything of worth, only things like rudimentary and low-quality feminine beauty products and some scraps of paper with phone numbers on them. The porcupine didn’t see any strange shapes under the mink’s clothes to indicate a knife or a gun or a taser, so he decided it was safe to pick up the wallet, his head turned to and gun pointed at Priscilla just to dissuade her from literally kicking him while he was down.

“I knew I should have bought pepper spray,” Priscilla lamented.

“With what money?” asked the porcupine as he thumbed through the wallet. “You seriously don’t even have any cash on you?”

“Hey, we take plastic,” the puma said as he grabbed the wallet. He saw that there were two cards in it -- not much, but it would do. “Are these credit or debit?”

“Green one’s debit, silver one’s credit,” said Priscilla. “There’s hardly anything on the debit and the credit’s almost maxed out.”

“Yeah, that’s what we’d say if we were in your position. Debit card got a pin number?”

“One-one-one-six.”

“Eleven-sixteen. Is that your birthday?” asked the puma with a self-impressed look.

“It’s my daughter’s birthday,” said Priscilla, who was trying to contain her rage if only for her own safety. “A daughter I won’t be able to feed if you take my money.”

“Well then, she should start robbing people,” said the puma. “Girls can be muggers, too.”

“Yeah, we’re feminists,” said the porcupine. “That’s why we’re being as rough with you as we would be with a man.”

The puma let out a voiceless chuckle at that. “He isn’t joking, though,” he clarified.

“My daughter can’t start robbing people; she’s six .”

“So start her robbing young. Everyone who’s good at something started at it when they were young. We can offer to teach her now that we know she lives at, uh…” -- the puma slid out Priscilla’s driver’s license -- “...7311 North Chicago Avenue. So, the credit card,” he said as he used his knife to gesture toward Priscilla’s face. “You need to punch in a zip code to use these, right? What’s your zip code?”

“Boy, you must not be from around here if you don’t know the zip code,” came a bass-baritone voice with a vaguely Southern or Midwestern twang not often heard in the Mid-Atlantic.

“Huh?” the puma asked as all three turned to see a rotund grizzly bear casually standing in the alley, one foot planted and the other foot crossed over that, right arm coolly propping him up against a garage and his left arm akimbo with his fist digging into his hip, and a long, thick stick about as long as he was tall stood up along the wall right behind him. He was wearing a green t-shirt, which from this distance one could vaguely see had once been emblazoned with the words “PHILA. EAGLES” along with the team’s old logo from a decade ago, these decals’ former presence betrayed by adhesive residue that stayed after the easily-identifiable markings were carefully removed; he was also wearing a smirk on his face that seemed to say you fucked up, and I’m going to have some fun with kicking your ass .

“Who are--?” -- swoosh, tink! -- “Gah!”

Swoosh, plunk! “What the--!?”

Swoosh, yoink.

In the course of hardly two seconds, an arrow had come from out of the ether, struck the blade of the puma’s knife and knocked it out of his hand, ricocheted into the porcupine’s gun and knocked that out of his hand, and made its way back toward the bear, two grabbed it out of the air and tossed it up to the roof without even looking. Up on the corner of the slanted roof was a lanky fox wearing a polo shirt -- also green, albeit a lighter shade with a slight yellowness to it -- under a quiver full of arrows strapped around his back. The fox held a large bow, which he shifted from his left hand to his right to catch the arrow tossed up to him.

“It’s astounding, really,” said the fox in an English accent that towed the line between refined and folksy; he had a smirk much like the bear did, but being a fox, it just looked so much more fitting on his face. “So often people just don’t think to look up .”

“Is that a fucking bow and arrow!?” shouted the puma; at that point, any earwitnesses in the vicinity would have immediately known what was going on, and would have been very tempted to run over and catch a glimpse of them, but they restrained themselves because they knew it surely wasn’t a situation to interfere with.

“That it is!” the fox beamed. “And I’m good at using it because I’ve been practicing since I was young !” He gave a knowing wink to celebrate his clever callback.

“Wait a minute…” the porcupine mumbled to himself, but nobody heard him amid all of this. He was on the verge of remembering something he had forgotten.

“Although, I must admit,” continued the fox, “I couldn’t have pulled off that trick shot if it weren’t for you boys holding your weapons at precisely the right angles. You two really gift-wrapped that one for me!” He held the arrow to his cheek and stroked it with a forlorn look on his face, looking like a sad child hugging a teddy bear. “And then this poor baby would have hit the ground, and then she’d surely have been damaged, and then I’d never get to use her again…”

“So what’s the deal, boys?” asked the bear as he grabbed his stick and moved toward them. “Why are you harassing the lady?”

“B-because we need money!” the puma stuttered. Meanwhile, Priscilla was feeling a slight uptick in adrenaline as she wanted to see where her saviors were taking this. The porcupine, lost in thought, wasn’t moving a muscle.

“What, and she doesn’t!?” growled the bear.

The fox slid off the corner of the roof and made his way over to the puma, who was presenting himself as the brains of the duo.

“Or is this simply a matter of you not caring about somebody else’s needs because you’re you and she’s someone else?” the fox asked. As tall as this specimen was, he was still at least a foot shorter than this teenage cougar. And yet the puma found the fox strangely intimidating; something about the fox’s air of impenetrable confidence made him come across as one not to be fucked with (of course, having immaculate control of a medieval weapon certainly helped the fox’s intimidation factor).

The puma didn’t know what to say. But then he remembered something: actions speak louder than words.

He ducked down to grab the gun laying at the porcupine’s feet. The bear saw this and wasted no time tweaking his grasp on his staff and holding it up over his head, winding it up to come crashing down.

As the puma stood back up, he saw the motion of the staff coming down upon him, and he dropped the gun and collapsed to the ground with a shriek. The bear, of course, stopped the staff before it ever would have made contact with the cougar’s cranium.

“You see now, children, this is why we don’t even need modern weaponry,” said the fox.

“Wait a minute,” said the bear, and he leaned in to examine the gun, now at his own feet. He examined it for a second before picking it up to get a closer look. After a few moments, he had come to a conclusion: “This is a BB gun.”

“What!? No it isn’t!” protested the puma, still on the ground.

“Okay, then…” -- and the bear pointed the gun at the puma’s face -- “ Run.

Aaahh! ” the puma screamed and covered his head with his arms. But he didn’t run.

“I’m from the South, kid,” said the bear, “I know my guns around.”

“Now why can’t you be more cooperative, like your friend over here?” the fox asked as he gestured to the stunned porcupine.

“I know who you are,” the porcupine finally said.

What!? ” said the puma.

“Is that so?” asked the fox.

“About damn time,” said the bear.

“Dude, I know who these guys are,” repeated the porcupine to the puma. “These-- I think these are the guys who helped my mom out after my dad left.”

“Wait… these are those guys!?”

“I think so.”

“How do you know!?”

“The medieval weapons. The British fox who’s tall as fuck. It just sort of clicked in my head.”

“Hold up. Are these… are these the same guys who saved Mike’s dad from the police?”

“I think so.”

“A-a-and the same guys who… who robbed the guys in charge of foreclosing on Claudia’s parents’ house?”

“I think so. And I think they’re the ones who steal from rich people and give it to poor people.”

“They do what now!?”

The bear scoffed. “I thought we were famous around these parts.”

“What part of town are you boys from?” asked the fox.

“Hermosa Park,” the boys said in unison.

“Ah,” said the fox, looking like his mood had just gone down the slightest notch. “That explains it.”

Hermosa Park, on the far West Side, was indisputably the worst part of Nottingham, to the point that even Robin and Little John actively dreaded going there. The Merry Men did still force themselves to visit Hermosa Park and deliver assistance to the locals, but not as often as they would have liked. Some would argue that this infrequency just made the situation worse. While most Hermosa Park residents appreciated Robin Hood and Little John’s help, there was a sizable faction in that part of town that were angry that they didn’t show up enough, and another sizable faction who would rather that Rob and Johnny just fuck off since their giving them temporary financial aid wasn’t actually going to have any lasting effects on the residents’ social mobility. Suffice it to say that the reason Hermosa Park got less attention than places like Georgetown or Harbeson wasn’t just because it was the place they’d be most likely to be shot by a wayward bullet (which Little John actually was back in their second summer of duty, but thanks to his thick ursine pelt, he didn’t realize until days later that strange pinch he’d felt on his posterior hadn’t been a bee sting); it was more of a matter that charity excursions to Hermosa Park had the highest chance of backfiring and becoming a waste of time. If Harbeson was home to the “depressed poor” and Georgetown was home to the “jaded poor,” Hermosa Park was home to the “aggressive poor,” for absolute lack of a better way to put it. A visible minority of people in Hermosa Park were enough to make Robin and John question whether their mission to bring joy to Nottingham’s poor was a fool’s errand, and while the boys weren’t going to let that lead them to neglecting the majority of Hermosa Park denizens who would accept their gifts, it was always a hiccough when someone looked them straight in the eyes and said “Explain to me how a few hundred bucks is going to lift me out of poverty forever,” or “Yeah, thanks, this will really make me feel less afraid to leave my house,” or “Your charity isn’t going to stop institutional class warfare,” and shut the door on them. In life, there would always be those who were too proud, or too cold, or too angry to allow themselves to be helped, no matter how much they clearly needed it; a disproportionate amount of those people lived in Hermosa Park. If there were any children raised in poverty in Nottingham who didn’t know for a fact that Robert “Robin” Hood and “Little” John Little were real people, then those children surely would have been raised in Hermosa Park.

“Well then,” continued the fox, “Tell the people back home that we’re sorry we can’t be around their neck of the woods as often as we wish we could be. Of course, we’ll tell them ourselves the next time we’re there. But in the meantime, I must ask… if you knew of us, then why did you rob this poor woman? Why would you victimize someone just like yourselves when you know that we do the work we do so that you don’t have to do such things?”

Neither of the teenage boys had a good answer, so they said nothing.

“If you know about us,” the fox continued, “what are our names, then?”

The porcupine seemed to think for a second, not as if remembering something he’d forgotten, but rather as if he were double-checking his answer before submitting it. After a moment, he said:

“Robinhoodan’littlejohn.” He said it just like it were all one word.

“Very good, young man,” said Robin.

“I think I’ve heard those names before!” said the puma, still huddled on the asphalt.

“Who doesn’t know the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest Nature Preserve?” Priscilla piped in.

“Ma’am, I’m so sorry to be talking through you,” said Robin, “we just want to make sure these boys are straightened out before we let our guard down.”

“Oh, it’s not an issue, gentlemen,” said Priscilla, “I feel safer already.”

“You call yourselves ‘the Merry Men ’?” asked the puma. “That’s a stupid name!”

“Dude, hush--!” said the porcupine worriedly, but Little John needed to say a word to this delinquent little shit cougar kid. It didn’t help that John had a bad history with large-species teenage boys with nasty attitudes.

“Boy, stand up! You look pathetic down on the ground like that!” John barked, and the puma slowly and carefully got to his feet. “We call ourselves that because we’re a bunch of happy-asses who love our work. And because this guy’s from Merrie Olde England,” John said as he gestured to his British buddy. “Most good decisions in life aren’t made for just one reason, kid.”

“I thought there were more than two of you, though,” said the porcupine.

“Honestly, so did I,” confessed Priscilla. “I mean, we all know about-- um…” -- Priscilla made the sign of the cross to hint at which former Merry Man she knew for a fact was still living, and Robin and John understood, while the boys cocked their heads in confusion -- “...but weren’t there others?”

“Things fall apart sometimes,” said Little John. At that, Priscilla and the porcupine both looked bummed out at this revelation, assuming it meant the worst, while the puma was just further confused.

“Though our jobs could be made easier if the youth of this city stopped undermining our efforts,” said Robin sternly. “We try so hard to bring hope to the lowly people of Nottingham, and yet the poor still victimize the poor. Why do we bother, then?”

“It’s pronounced ‘ Nottingham ’, not ‘ Knotting’em ’, britfag,” said the puma.

“‘Fag’? But I’m not even smoking a cigarette!” Robin quipped, but the puma clearly didn’t get it. “Young men, what are your names?”

“Alex,” said the porcupine.

“Why would I tell you my name?” asked the mountain lion. “So you can get me in trouble?”

“His name is Landon, sir.”

Landon tried to smack Alex on the back of his head, but aimed too low and got exactly one quill stuck in his hand. Landon grasped his paw in pain and tried not to squeal, while Alex rubbed the back of his head with only mild frustration.

Little John scoff-chuckled. “Poor bastard.”

“You don’t have to call me ‘sir’, sir,” Robin said to Alex. “Now, you mentioned that once upon a time we gave your mom a hand. Does she need some more help?”

“Uh… I-I guess so…” the porcupine murmured.

“What about you, Land-o?” asked Little John.

“What are you gonna do? Give my parents a check for a million dollars?” the puma spoke up to the bear, trying his best to stand tall and look formidable; it wasn’t working.

“Do you want help or not?”

“...Nah.”

“Alex, you?” Robin asked.

“Yes,” he said firmly. “Please. For my mom.”

Robin spotted a scrap of paper and a pen that had fallen out of Priscilla’s purse. “Do you mind if we borrow these, madame?”

“Go ahead,” she replied. “And you can call me Priscilla.”

“Thank you, Miz Priscilla.” Robin picked up the pen and paper and handed it to Alex. “Here; write down your address and we’ll stop by when we have something to deliver.”

“Are you just trying to bust him to his parents in person?” demanded Landon.

“Don’t worry, Alex,” Little John said, “we’ll tell your parents to punish you con structively, not de structively. My dad beat my ass, and now I’m the kind of guy who reminds a couple of kids that I’m being nice to them and I could easily’ve knocked them off the mortal coil after I saw them robbing a woman at gunpoint.”

“Jesus, John,” remarked Robin, perversely impressed.

“Hey, I’m just giving an example. Maybe a solid argument to their parents can save them from an ass-kicking.”

The example worked and Alex wrote down his address and his mom’s full name, and handed it to Little John, who was closer. Little John went to shove the piece of paper in his back pocket, but surprised himself when he felt something cold and metal under the back of his shirt and pants that he’d forgotten was on his person. Luckily, nobody saw the shocked look on his elevated face, because Robin was saying something:

“Now, don’t tell them that we’re coming; we want it to be a surprise. Besides, we don’t know when we’ll have time. It’s been a slow couple of days for, er, access to redistributable wealth , shall we say.”

“Um… okay,” said Alex.

“And between you and I, Johnny and I’ve promised ourselves to try to speak somebody from our past today; I won’t spill the details, it’s all rather personal, but it’s probably going to be a long conversation. But we’ll make time to see your mum, Alex.”

When Little John snapped out of it, he did so with an observation that seemed completely out of left field.

“Hey, by the way, you kids are terrible robbers if you’re wearing recognizable clothes like that,” John noted.

“Well it’s better to dress like normal people than to walk around wearing black sweatpants and ski masks!” retorted Landon.

“I literally don’t remember the last time I saw someone in Nottingham wearing a Lakers hat. And what’s that logo on your hoodie even supposed to be?”

“What, this? It’s Zoo York; it’s a skate company! And I can just go home and get changed after I rob somebody! Problem solved!”

“And when you’re running from the cops and they know exactly what you’re wearing?”

“I just said, I’ll go home and change!”

The other four exchange looks of incredulity, amusement, disappointment, and confusion.

“I don’t think he gets it,” said Priscilla.

“Maybe it’s best not to give him robbery advice, Johnny,” said Robin.

“Hey, wait, where did you kids even get these clothes from anyway!?” Little John turned to Alex to let him know that he was on the hook for this, too. “The kids in Georgetown don’t usually have trendy hats and -- what the fuck is ‘System of a Down’?”

“A band,” said Alex.

“They can’t usually afford band t-shirts, neither!”

“H-hey, hey, it’s-- it’s cool, w-we, we, we, uh…” Landon stuttered.

“We really did buy these legally, though. We didn’t steal these,” said Alex, speaking much more calmly than Landon was.

“And where did the money come from?” asked Robin.

Now Alex wasn’t looking so calm anymore. The boys’ silence spoke volumes.

“Well, boys,” Robin continued, “do you have anything to say to our friend Priscilla here?”

“Uh, yeah, um…” Alex turned to face the mink. “Uh, s-sorry, ma’am. We won’t, uh… we won’t do it again.” The porcupine then bowed like someone who had only ever seen people bow while practicing karate.

“And Landon?” asked Robin.

The puma looked down at the mink, locked eyes, looked frustrated, and then closed his eyes and took a deep breath through his nose. “...I’m sorry, Miss Priscilla.”

“Well, then,” Priscilla said as she turned back to the Merry Men, “I didn’t think this interaction would end like this !”

“Oh, I know!” said Alex, and he knelt on the ground and started collecting the contents of Priscilla’s spilled purse. “I can help clean up!”

“I like this kid more than the other one,” remarked Little John.

“Now, Alex,” said Robin, “that’s actually a very good idea for an apologetic gesture, but it might be best to let you boys skedaddle and Little John and I will help her clean up.” This was very much a measure to assure the kids didn’t pocket anything they found while the adults weren’t looking.

“C’mon, Alex, let’s go,” Landon said, already making his exit.

“Wait, real quick,” said Alex, “Can I ask you guys a question?”

“What’s up?” asked Little John.

“How do you guys run across town when you’re carrying such big weapons?” the porcupine asked as he pointed at the fox’s bow and the bear’s staff in quick succession.

Little John let out one sharp guffaw. “You’re asking a couple of masters of hidin’ and disguisin’ to just tell you our secrets?”

“It’s just something you get used to, and you learn to adapt,” said Robin. “For awhile I had a second bow that was collapsable, but the string just couldn’t keep its tension. I’ll say this much, though: our travels take us across a bunch of rooftops -- as you may have noticed,” he said as he gestured to the garage he’d been standing on. “That and using our bow and staff with telephone wires, like ziplines and such.” And that was true, although it avoided the full story of how they also utilized sewers, subway tunnels, dirty alleyways, shortcuts through people’s backyards (where they often stumbled and fell goofily over people’s outdoor furniture and garden installations), and waiting sometimes upwards of twenty minutes for a break in traffic to cross a busy street with no other logical concealed crossings -- and even then, they sometimes just got tired of waiting and made a mad dash across the road, avoiding moving cars like Frogger .

“Cool!” said Alex.

“Yeah, but you’re record’s spotty, so you can’t join us,” said Little John. “At least not yet.”

“Well, time to start cleaning up,” said Robin, and he bent over and went straight for the knife and BB gun. “I think we’ll be keeping these.”

“Wait a minute!” said Landon, turning back around to protest. “Those are ours!”

“Well, we steal from the rich to give to the poor,” explained Little John. “You boys have some cool duds, while we live in the woods. I think we’re the poor ones here.”

“Not to mention, you almost walked off without them,” added Robin.

“That, too.”

Landon just glared, and Alex looked conflicted, like he didn’t know who to please. After a moment, Landon walked off toward Baltimore Avenue without a word, and Alex followed after.

As the porcupine left, he walked with his back turned toward the adults, and said, “Thanks for the, uh… thanks.” And he turned back around was gone.

Robin and John got on their knees to help pick up Priscilla’s stuff, which they handed to her and she carefully placed back into her purse.

“Thank you boys so much,” said Priscilla. “How could I ever repay you?”

“Oh, you needn’t repay us,” Robin insisted. “Just keep supporting us and keep resisting the Prince Mayor and his tyrannical idiocy, in whatever way you think you can.”

“Oh, but surely I can offer you something. Wouldn’t you say that would be supporting you?”

“The lady’s got a point, Rob,” said Little John.

“It really isn’t an issue--” Robin began before John had an idea.

“You know, Priscilla, Rob and I were on the fence about even bringing our weapons into town today,” he said. “Good thing we did, but now we’re about to head into enemy territory, and the more we think about it, the more we think the heat’s up on us today and we should have left these at home. So we might need a safehouse to keep our stuff for a few hours.”

Robin let John take the reins on this one.

“But are you sure you won’t need them again?” Priscilla asked.

“The kid was onto something; these things are hard to hide. We’ve survived this long without these things constantly by our sides; we’ll survive a little longer without them now.”

“Not to mention, we’ve got a knife and a toy gun now if we really need them!” Robin added like a giddy little kid hoping to enter a grown-up conversation.

Priscilla thought about it for a second. “I’d need to keep it away from my daughter while I’m asleep -- I just got home from work -- but I can probably find a place to stash them.” She stood with her purse and its contents now again intact. “Would you like to come meet her?  I’ve told her stories about you guys a couple of times, truth be told.”

“Really!” said Little John “We’d love to meet her! Lead the way!”

Priscilla walked off toward her house, and Robin began to follow, but Little John grabbed him by the shoulder with an uncertain look on his face.

“Everything alright, Johnny?” Robin asked; he was trying to forget how jarring it was to be reminded that, despite recent events, Little John could still make his own decisions for the both of them without needing Robin’s permission.

Little John started walking to follow Priscilla, but he and Robin were keeping a few feet back.

“Hey, Rob, I’m sorry that I keep acting like an asshole in front of complete-ass strangers,” the bear said in a hushed tone. “I don’t want there to be a bad guy between us.”

“Nonsense, Little John; those kids deserved your tone!”

“Yeah, but… something about that mountain lion, something about-- not just his attitude, but, like, the structure of his face… it reminded me exactly of one kid from back home.”

--IllI--

The porcupine wasn’t the only denizen of Nottingham who referred to the fox and the bear as though their first and last names were conjoined. Especially among the younger set, these two constant members of the West Side’s favorite band of vigilantes had just sort of always been there for as long as they could remember. 

In the very earliest days of the group’s operations, they had made a point to try to keep a low profile; that plan did not last long. But it was all for the best that their devotion to anonymity fell apart exactly when it, as Robin realized that they could connect a lot more with the people they were helping if there were names and faces connected to these mysterious figures who would swoop in and bring them gifts of hope and joy and monetary contributions, and yet they had stayed nameless for just long enough to gain the people’s trust and have confidence that the people would not use their details to betray them. The timing of the change in philosophy was perfect.

So it was that the last two remaining members of the crew were practically mononymous. The kids who were now teenagers had first heard of these characters seven years ago, having overheard their names from the adults, and the legend status of these two was germinated amongst the youth so thoroughly that there were even a sizable number of adults who had heard the names bounced back from the teenagers and now themselves emphasized Robin and Little instead of Hood and John when speaking the names aloud, as opposed to putting the stress on the second names as they would with anybody else’s.

--IllI--

He didn’t like the sound it made when his car hit that bump. He stopped in the middle of the alleyway and got out to inspect it. Sure enough, he had a flat tire. Upon giving it a closer look, there was a carpenter’s nail sticking out of it. He expected that the alleyways behind his house would be cleaner than this; he wouldn’t have bothered buying a house two blocks from the Inlet if he knew Oak Orchard wasn’t as immaculate of a neighborhood as it seemed.

He popped the trunk of his luxury sedan and moved a bunch of junk that the world was never meant to see. Finally, he uncovered the hatch that contained the spare tire and the emergency tool kit.

The lemur knelt down and tried to make heads or tails of the implements at his disposal. He had been fortunate enough in life so far as to not have to change a tire before in his life, and now he was wondering whether he could figure it out in a pinch.

“Do you need any help there, stranger?” asked a voice.

The lemur turned to see a pair of scruffy-looking fellas in ratty clothes walking toward him, a bear and what was either a large fox or a red coyote with an extremely thick tail. The look on their faces seemed friendly enough, but their way of dress struck fear in him.

“We can help you with your tire if you want,” said the fox-yote, although something about his accent seemed off.

“I don’t need your help guys,” said the lemur. “Don’t sweat it.”

“What, do we look scary or something?” asked the bear.

“I don’t know you. Don’t take it personally.”

“If something about us strikes you as uneasy,” said the fox-yote, “you can tell us. How are we supposed to know if we offend if nobody tells us?”

“I dunno? Just get the hint?” the lemur said as he turned back to his car.

“C’mon, just let us help you!” the bear begged. “We’ll feel better about ourselves if we can help you!”

“You’ll feel better about yourselves when you get some nicer clothes! What are you two doing in this alley, anyway? You don’t look like you live on this block.”

“Oo-de-lally! Now why would you say a thing like that?” the fox exclaimed.

Oo-de-lally ; the codeword that meant go for it . The clandestine communicator for one of the Merry Men to tell any quantity of the others that they were personally certain that they had found an unkind rich person deserving of victimization and that it was conscionable to proceed. The phrase was Will’s idea; on one of his last days as a free civilian, he was watching reruns of cartoons at Marian and Annie’s apartment in DC, and one episode of a show about a boy genius with a secret laboratory ended rather oddly with a short sequence devoid of context where the titular character is having a dream wherein he’s going to town on an infinite pyramid of burgers, only to awaken and remark “ Oo-de-lally , I’d better become a vegetarian!”; Will thought that phrase was the perfect balance of plausible enough to be a thing an eccentric might say but rare enough not to be confused with anything else you’d hear someone say, and the others agreed it was a perfect codeword.

If any other member disagreed with the call, and felt that they needed more time to get a read on the subject, they need only reply with “ Golly !”; if they agreed with the green light, then nothing more needed to be said.

But the lemur was nevertheless caught off-guard by the phrase. “What the hell did you just say?”

“I said that’s quite a remark to make about a couple of strangers who’re just trying to help!” the fox-thing said.

“We were walking down the street when we heard a pop !” the bear said. “Now, c’mon, let’s get you some help!” he said as he lumbered over, the maybe-fox in tow.

“No, no--” the lemur began to protest. “I-I have a cell phone! I can call the police from anywhere!”

“Oh, there’s no need for that, friend-o!” said the bear as he picked up the scissor-jack. Then he looked to his right, then he looked to his left.

“Buddy, just put my jack down,” begged the lemur.

“Oh, okay!” Then he dropped the jack on the lemur’s head. “Oops! Sorry!”

--IllI--

One might think after seven years of living off the grid with only each other (and a few others who ultimately fell away) that Robin and Johnny’s social skills would have deteriorated from lack of use, but with all the community work they did, it was almost like they never left. Almost would need to be stipulated -- they certainly had taken some psychological bruises and mild Stranger-in-a-Strange-Land Syndrome from having less than full contact with a rapidly-modernizing society, but not nearly as many as some others might in their situation. They just so happened to live in the woods, but as those woods bent around Nottingham’s Northwest side and captured the communities of Georgetown and Harbeson and Hermosa Park and Piney Grove and Wood Branch and Gum Hill and Hardscrabble and Stockley in a loving embrace, that just made them neighbors to everyone.

And they were neighbors who everybody -- barring the most jaded and militantly hopeless of Nottingham’s lower-class -- was happy to have next door. By the time that second summer rolled around, Robin Hood, Little John, Alan A. Dale, Tucker “Friar Tuck” Brock and Will Scarlett were names that did not need an introduction in Nottingham. Of course, it helped that the face of the gang was the single most compelling fox you ever did meet, a real English gentleman whose oozing charisma and charm were entirely natural -- at least as far as anybody knew. With him at the helm, the boys couldn’t help but to integrate themselves into the community.

At first, the other four thought that Robin was being reckless with how outgoing he was, but when they saw that he was the catalyst for getting two-thirds of a major American city to back them up unconditionally, they said screw it, this kid must know what he’s doing. (Incidentally, it was this revelation that Robin had singlehandedly peopled his way into getting thousands and thousands of people to be their peripheral allies that for the first time caused Little John to consciously wish he could be like Rob, but it manifested itself in admiration instead of bitter self-loathing, further helped by the fact that Robin was simultaneously working his magic on his new grizzly bear friend to help John let his rough guard down and rediscover his inner fun-lover that he thought had been beaten out of him.)

When Will passed that third summer, the people mourned with them. When the Prince Mayor set up an archery contest that next summer to try to snuff out the criminals with a knack for outdated weaponry and it backfired hilariously, the people partied in the forest with them (and what a bizzare, classical period-piece that hoedown was, but nobody was in the mood to be cynical about it). When that fall came and the way of American life was changed forever and Prince John was this close to successfully convincing/bribing the Delaware National Guard to come garrison the city just “ in case ”, the people lay awake at night with them -- perhaps not in the same space but nevertheless under the same autumn moon, its glow piercing through the cold clouds, not a single airplane in the sky, over a town that was silent save for the rustling of dead leaves being rushed down the sidewalks by the wind and police sirens that always seemed far away no matter where in the city you were -- the people fearing for the safety of the ones they’d come to know less like neighbors and more like family who worked very busy schedules on very odd hours and only got to see them every sweet so-often.

The effect had on the Merry Men’s street cred by Alan getting incarcerated and Tuck tapping out for medical reasons could be the subject of much debate, and indeed there had been several occasions where Nottingham residents would debate the topic during the last four years since the Men had reached their zenith in the summer of that fateful year. Some would say that it gave Rob and Johnny the ultimate sympathy points, cementing their place in the hearts of the true believers. Others would say that the culling of the Men’s numbers had -- through no fault of Robin or Little John’s -- put a mark on them that they would never be able to scrub off. The mark was not that there was anything specifically wrong with Robin or John; the mark was that there was something wrong with the fundamental structure of the Merry Men, something irreparably wrong. With Will, Alan, and Tuck out of the equation, the outlaws of Sherwood Forest Nature Preserve would never, ever be the same as they were. It used to be that there were five of them, all bringing their own skills to the table, they were relatively young, they were running on pure adrenaline and nothing could stop them and their guerilla tactics that confused the NPD to no end. Now there were two of them, one of whom would soon be pushing forty and who was carrying far more weight than you’d think someone living a life of voluntary poverty would, ursine metabolism be damned (and who didn’t have a legitimate medical condition to blame it on like Friar Tuck did), and the other who seemed to be healthy, but who was now also on the wrong side of thirty, and whose impressive vulpine height stopped being impressive and started being concerning -- after all, if a seven-foot wolf or a nine-foot grizzly is fated to have a slew of back and knee problems, then the clock surely must be ticking on the almost-five-foot fox. All of this was still disregarding the advancement of technology that now saw even regular people being able to afford small silver bricks that they could keep in their pockets and purses with which they could summon the authorities in five minutes if they saw a fox and bear making a mess they didn’t like. Imagine how badly the people’s confidence in the Merry Men would be shaken if word got out that between the two of them, there was trouble in platonic paradise.

This is by no means to say that the everyday people of Nottingham had given up on the Merry Men themselves, but there were those who were starting to believe it was too late for them to achieve their ultimate goal. They would still exalt the names Robin Hood and Little John and welcome them into their homes and accept their gifts and offer them something in return and tell them to their faces how grateful they were to have people like them in their city, and they wouldn’t even be lying to say that, but in the backs of their minds they would think that their scheme of the redistribution of wealth wasn’t actually going to scare Prince John off his mayoral throne. They thought that if it were ever going to happen, it would have happened if the events that occurred up the coast four years ago had never happened and the three-and-a-half remaining Merry Men were able to keep their momentum, and maybe then there would be a breaking point where one day you’d just see John Norman running down the streets, bare-ass naked for no apparent reason, pissing and shitting and sucking his thumb all the way out of town and into the suburbs, where hopefully he’d have learned his lesson before becoming some other town’s problem. The people of Nottingham quietly accepted that Rob and Johnny would be there as long as they could to make their lives a little better in the short-term, but there was a stark loss of faith in any results for bettering their lives in the long-term.

It was this complacency that some of the most violently frustrated residents of Nottingham despised. These malcontents hated that people would allow Robin Hood and Little John to carry on their merry way acting like they were going to permanently solve the class conflict and socioeconomic immobility in this town forever ; these were often people who also were not great fans of the elder Norman brother’s mayorhood either, wherein Richard genuinely tried his best to care for even the lowliest of his citizens, but -- according to the agressively cynical -- his best simply would not do, and even what he did accomplish was nothing his idiot brother couldn’t undo. Robin had always tried to ignore these characters and hoped that by bringing hope leading by example, they would eventually come around to his way of thinking; Little John, traditionally the more cautious one of the two, had tried to push the doubters out of his head, but had confessed to Robin that he had the thought cross his mind on several occasions that maybe the naysayers were right. Such naysayers had always been there since Day One, mostly to be found in Hermosa Park, but there were increasingly more of them in more areas of the North and West Sides. There were also those who had observed this trend and added it to the list of reasons why the Merry Men were on their last legs, but such people were fewer in number.

Most of Nottingham’s poor were still on-board with the Merry Men’s mission, but while they absolutely believed that there was still time for things to turn around and for some new iteration of the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest to come turn the tables on Nottingham’s corrupt political machine, few would say that this ‘could-happen’ scenario actually would .

Of course, the skeptics would have a laugh and say that deep down, the allies had always known the vigilantism was doomed to fail. Their case in point: in the seven years that Robin Hood, Little John, and company have made the City of Nottingham, Delaware, and Sherwood Forest Nature Preserve their own backyard, never once did even one of the many lost, aimless, unemployed, hopeless-yet-hopeful people in the city nut up and ask the Men if they could join the club. That said, there was once one person who tried to gain entrance to the band of thieves, but since his failed attempt happened right around the time of Will Scarlett’s passing, he kept his mouth shut, thinking it best not to speak unflatteringly of the Merry Men in their time of grief. The identity of that person may as well have been lost to history.

--IllI--

“Shine your shoes, citizen?” asked a bear to the impala. The bear was sitting next to a fox against the wall at the entrance to a luxury high-rise apartment building in downtown Nottingham. They each had a shoe-shine box, the fox with a smaller one and the bear with a bigger one.

“I-I’m sorry?”

“Shoe shine, sir?” asked the fox in a vaguely transatlantic accent, like something out of an old film. “Only five dollars!”

“You’re looking pretty snazzy, mister,” said the bear, “but we can make you look even snazzier!”

“Uh… sure, I’m in no real hurry,” said the impala, and he placed his right hoof on the fox’s shinebox. The fox got right to work, grabbing some spray bottle from beneath the box and moistening his rag.

“We appreciate your patronage,” said the bear. “It’s awful hard to earn an honest living for some people.”

“Oh, I’m sure of it. But at least you two seem to be doing something about it.”

“We know it’s just our lot in life to have to live so lowly.” The bear was making sure to maintain eye contact and keep the conversation going so he the impala wouldn’t be tempted to look over at the fox, whose eyes were sizing up the impala to estimate his worth.

“Oh, what’re you talking about?” asked the impala in a cheer-yourself-up sort of way. “You two are running your own business, aren’t ya? You might be able to make something out of this.”

“But so many people we know say it won’t change nothing, so we might as well not try.”

“Well, fuck ‘em. You’ve got work ethic. I like that.”

“Other shoe, please,” said the fox, and the impala complied. When Robin went to grab the spray bottle, he scared himself when he almost grabbed the chloroform bottle instead.

“Well, I know that some people think us poor folks are nothing but criminals, and we don’t deserve to get ahead in the world,” said the bear, trying to recapture the impala’s attention. The conversation was meandering a bit too much, so he was trying to be more direct with his statements to hear what he needed to hear from the man. “And it sure seems like it’s the people who run the world that think that who feel that way, so who are we to fight it?”

“What, you mean like our dumbfuck mayor?” the man asked; it was exactly the answer Little John was waiting for. “Who cares what he thinks? He’s not even half the mayor his brother was -- Rich had issues, but at least he tried . I don’t know how he got elected to Congress, but I wish he didn’t, because he left us with his idiot brother, who everyone knows just got nepotism’d in.”

“Why, you mean a rich man like you doesn’t support our mayor?” Little John asked, hoping he wasn’t sacrificing too much subtlety.

“Oh, God, no. I’d call the man functionally retarded, but, you know, it’s not nice to mock the actually mentally handicapped.”

John and Robin allowed themselves a genuine chuckle.

“Haven’t heard that one before, sir!” said the bear.

“Well, my closests friends and I aren’t too fond of the guy, but my colleagues at work are in love with him. And I get it -- he makes our lives easier -- but at whose cost?” The impala looked kind of melancholy for a moment. “I’d love to do more to help guys like you, but, hey, I’m only one man. What can I do?”

“Well, golly ,” said Little John, “we appreciate the sentiment.”

And he did. A golly without an oo-de-lally meant the speaker thought that the target was more of a good guy than a bad guy, and should be let free to go. The same rules applied for negation: no other codewords meant that nobody dissented. Of course, if anarchy-phase Alan were here, he’d probably oo-de-lally on a guy like this eight days a week for what he would call “malicious neutrality,” a guilty complicity through inaction, but Robin and John thought that victimizing the well-meaning rich folks would just start an all-out class war, and that would be counterproductive if nothing else. And when the impala said ‘What can I do?’ -- they both felt that. Especially recently, the boys were no strangers to feelings of helplessness. They weren’t going to tab somebody as viscerally evil for refusing to fight a war when they genuinely didn’t think that they could win even a single battle; maybe they would qualify such a person as a moral coward, but even then they would prefer to think of such a person as needing help instead of deserving shame -- Robin and John would take allies wherever they could find them.

“Well, there’s a little I can do,” said the impala, and he pulled a twenty-dollar bill out of his pocket and handed it to the fox. “Keep the change, boys.”

Robin and John, maintaining their friendly smiles, just stared at the bill in his hand for a second, then glanced at each other. The impala wondered if he’d done something to offend them.

After a moment, the bear and the fox both stood, grabbing their shineboxes but not touching the twenty.

“You know what?” said the fox; now that he was standing, the impala was surprised to see how tall he was. “If you really want to help us, keep that for now and give it to somebody who really needs it, more than us.”

“Yeah, we can find more customers,” said the bear, who also surprised the impala with his standing stature despite it not being much different from when he was seated, thanks to a combination of a thick ursine posterior and short ursine legs. “Others worse off than us might not be so lucky.”

As they started walking off, the impala just looked dumbfounded. “Did I… do something wrong?”

“Whaddaya talking about?” the bear turned back to ask. “You did everything right ! You passed the test.”

“T-test? There was a test?”

“Yeah, and you passed it. Don’t sweat it.”

“Actually,” the fox said, and he turned and walked back to the impala, “do you have an idea of how to pay it forward for us?” His accent was sounding much more British than it did earlier.

“N-no? What do you mean?”

“Ah, yes, that’s our fault. We should not’ve put you on the spot like that,” the fox apologized, and yoinked the twenty from the confused impala’s hand. “Pardon my curtness; we’ll do it on your behalf for now. But start brainstorming how you can pay forward a different twenty dollars next time.” He shoved the twenty in his pocket, picked his shinebox back up, and walked off with his colleague.

“You take care now,” said the bear.

“Um… alright,” said the impala, who stood there for a few moments afterwards, watching them walk off and wondering what the hell just happened.

--IllI--

It was probably a good thing that the Merry Men’s mission statement from the get-go was to give their winnings back to the poor, because if they were to have kept their liberated assets to themselves while living in those woods, they may not have survived that first winter.

Nobody remembered exactly who was the first beneficiary of the Men’s exploits. All they remembered for sure is that they didn’t start giving back until about a week after all five of the members had joined that May, because the original plan was to save up a huge sum and dump it on the people of Nottingham altogether at once, but this was later revised to a “give it as it comes” method that would make them look less like the bad guys. Robin could have sworn that the first recipient was the elderly antelope who lived around 44th and Minnesota in a row house with storm door that was falling off, while Little John was certain that it was the beaver who was sitting on his porch on Louisiana Avenue, gently petting his pet parakeet while having a bummed-out look on his face when the bird saw the five strangers walking aimlessly past and flapped over to them, affably perching itself upon high on Little John’s shoulder; John insisted that this was the first recipient of reappropriated funds, because he remembered telling the beaver as much five seconds before Will mentioned that the man should probably get the bird’s wings clipped. But the fact of the matter was that all of those first cases blurred together in Robin’s and John’s memories. It took them awhile to figure out how to approach strangers, often at their front doors, and give them a financial stimulus package with no strings attached and based solely on the way that they appeared to be someone whose wallet could use a little pick-me-up; even Robin, with all the powers of his natural and nurtured social skills combined, had trouble figuring out the best way to break the ice for such a bizarre proposal.

And for the longest time, they didn’t really figure it out. People would give them side-eyes and tell them in no uncertain terms that they were skeptical; some thought that it was a trap and that the five of them were going to rob them and use their winnings to bait the next victim, some thought that they were troublingly eccentric rich people who were getting some masturbatory high on charity, and some didn’t know what to think. There were some tough customers those first few months. While most people did cautiously accept the strange assistance, there were a few who denied the gifts out of distrust, and others who declined out of pride. There were those who tried to test whether these strangers were really as selfless as they seemed, asking them for specific favors, like yard-work or fetching groceries, to which the Men always replied with some permutation of, We’ll try, but we might have to take off at a moment’s notice if the cops show up . Indeed, there was at least one instance where the gang got dangerously close to apprehension when the loud sound of a lawn mower drowned out the approaching sirens until it was almost too late.

There was also a time during a night in the very tail-end of June when Robin woke up abruptly, shooting straight up in his sleeping bag and visibly freaking out in the moonlight, because in his half-asleep state he thought he had heard a very near gunshot. But then he heard another one, and he knew he wasn’t asleep anymore. Then he heard another one, and another. The others awoke to the loud sounds, but quickly reassured Robin that those weren’t gunshots, they were fireworks being shot off by some people who just couldn’t wait a couple of days until the Fourth of July. Granted, they sounded like they were rather close, so they probably were coming from one edge of the woods, but they likely wouldn’t come any closer than that, since shooting off fireworks in a thick forest probably wasn’t the best idea.

Robin had completely forgotten that Independence Day existed. Will -- who as a schoolchild back in England had always agreed with his teachers and other authority figures when they said his improper and irreverent ways would be much more suited to the brash and bratty American culture -- began to explain the story of the holiday to his half-brother, but Robin did not need to be retaught; he just needed to be reminded. After all, he’d been in the States for longer than Will had, and he’d attended a few Fourth of July events in the six years that he’d been a legal resident alien. He knew that there were fireworks; he simply wasn’t that much more familiar with the sound of an M-80 than he was with the sound of a Glock 44. But it did give him an interesting idea.

While the modern tradition is to blow off fireworks on the night of the 3rd and save the 4th for barbecues and other summer activities better suited for daytime, July 4th fell on a Saturday that year. The celebration across the nation was going to be stretched from Friday night straight into the wee hours of Monday morning. This meant all the more opportunity for Robin to meet the people he was trying to help in a neutral, jovial setting. Robin told Tuck to send Pope Gregory a prayer saying thanks for such chronological windfall from the calendar he had created (and then got an ear-full from Tuck about how Catholics don’t pray to saints, they pray through saints, and hey wait a minute, now that he thinks about it, the Pope Gregory who made the calendar wasn’t even the same Pope Gregory who got canonized, et cetera, et cetera).

Robin thought it would be weird if all five of them went, so he implored Tuck and Alan to stay back at the Major Oak to keep watch over their stuff -- he implored Will to stay, too, but Will wanted so badly to come along, and luckily Robin remembered that it was also Will’s birthday weekend before Will had to mortify him by reminding him -- while he and Little John went to go mingle with the townspeople at the various public fireworks shows across the North and West Sides; Robin figured he needed an American with him to help them blend in, and he didn’t just choose Johnny because Tuck was too old and Alan was too crazy and John was the closest in age to Robin besides Will (although those were definitely factors that did reinforce his confidence in his decision). Even though the bear -- who had done his damnedest to hurt Robin for daring to cross his path when they first met seven or so weeks prior -- was still coming out of his shell, Robin felt a weird click with the guy. He was getting some reads that there was a heart of gold under all that fat and muscle and fur that just needed to be dusted off, and Robin wanted to be the one to clean it, and not just to gain a loyal ally, but to gain a loyal friend. Hey, if he couldn’t bring joy to one of his partners in crime, how could he bring joy to the people of Nottingham?

Robin, John and Will were wearing very basic disguises, nothing too fancy, just enough to get the job done. Their story was that Johnny and Rob were work buddies and Will was Robin’s brother who gelled well enough with the other two to tag along -- which you, Dear Reader, may realize was not very far at all from the truth of their dynamic. They meandered from park to park, chatting up friendly-looking people, saying they were from the far-out suburbs and were looking for livelier festivities than the ones they had out in the likes of Seaford or Selbyville, but not quite as rowdy as the celebrations in the beach towns like Rehoboth or Fenwick. They casually brought up in their conversations that they’d heard there were some weirdos knocking on doors throughout the blighted side of the city, and asked what their interviewees would think and do if such people arrived at their door one day offering to give them an unofficial tax refund apropos of absolutely nothing.

Some of the people they met had heard of the Merry Men, others had not, and at least one person who the trio thought was by himself turned out to be married to a woman the boys had already given a donation to, but by some miracle she didn’t recognize them through their rudimentary disguises. However, the responses seemed to have a common theme: the people would probably accept the gifts, but they would feel weird with it all happening out of the blue. Alright, nothing the boys hadn’t heard before.

But then on that Sunday night, just a few minutes before the final fireworks started in Antonucci Park, the trio were talking to an aardwolf couple who had a young son, a hyperactive little boy who wanted to show all the people in the park his newly-invented semi-improvised dance. Robin had just popped the question of how the aardwolves would react to a sudden donation from a couple of strangers when the son -- whose name was either Tyler or Taylor -- insisted that the three strangers join him in his dance. Robin was not one to say no to such an innocent request, so he played along, soon joined by Will (who was slowly getting over his teenage predisposition for thinking that cheesy things, like dancing with a little kid, were stupid and should be shunned), and finally, after much beseeching from the foxes and the young rug-cutter, Little John let loose, too (and later confessed that it was much more fun than it should have been). While Tyler/Taylor’s parents didn’t join the dance, they did look on with soft smiles as these kind strangers were able to entertain their child, and as Robin and Will eased their way out of the dance -- Little John kept going with the aardwolf, secretly not wanting to stop, and the big bear and the little pup were actually playing so well off each other that it would have been a crime against performance art to stop them -- the conversation got back on track, and after seeing such a heartwarming moment, Tyler/Taylor’s parents had the inspiration to say exactly what Robin was looking for.

The mom mentioned that although receiving help was nice and she would be grateful for it, it might be a tad bit awkward if it came from a complete stranger who had no rapport with her. The dad then put it more bluntly: he’d feel much better accepting such unconditional assistance if it came from a friend, even if it was a friend made just then during the duration of the transfer of funds.

Robin was so flabbergasted to get such a perfect answer that he debated revealing his and the boys’ identities right then and there, but he restrained himself. He hastily mentioned that he and his entourage had other friends to meet at the event, and took off back for Sherwood with Will and Johnny (after Will and Robin each grabbed one of Little John’s paws and dragged him out of his hedonistic trance). While the rest of Nottingham had their eyes turned to the sky, the three of them made their way safely back to the forest preserve, where Robin hatched a very simple plan to win over Nottingham’s hearts.

--IllI--

Ding-dong!

The elephant opened the door and glanced down to see a sickly-looking brown bear, seeming aged in a shawl and an old-fashioned flat-cap, and farther down was a fox who also appeared to be advanced in age, holding a cane and sporting thick coke-bottle glasses. She would guess they’d be about her parents’ age. Neither of them seemed to be able to afford a more fashionable wardrobe.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” said the bear, “we hate to bother you, but--”

“Who are you?” asked the elephant impatiently.

“Oh, were just two old men who got lost trying to find a detour to the veterans’ cemetery in Lewes,” said the fox. They both had very strained voices, as if speaking was a struggle.

“Well, it’s not around here,” said the resident of the house. “You two aren’t from around here, are you?” The fox and bear noticed that she was dressed rather fancily for a quiet Sunday.

“Oh, no, we’re from Georgetown,” said the bear. “We’re just trying to visit our friend--”

“Your friend doesn’t live here. You two are going to have to leave.”

“Our friend lives in the cemetery!” said the fox. “We’re begging you for directions!”

“Well, we don’t take kindly to beggars in this part of town. If my husband were here, he’d make sure both of you stood off his doorstep!”

“Are you home alone today, ma’am?” the fox asked. “It would be such a shame for a lady like yourself to spend a day like today alone!”

“Excuse me? You think I’m some kind of loner!?” the elephant exclaimed. “I have dinner plans for later this evening! And my husband is on a business trip -- which is something it looks like neither of you’ve ever been on!” Furious, she started to close the door on the old men.

But Little John put his arm out and kept her from closing it. “Now listen here, little missy!” the bear said to the elephant who was larger than him in all three dimensions. “Show some respect for your elders! We fought in Korea!”

The elephant was so unimpressed by the ‘ little missy ’ comment that she opened the door all the way again just to tell them off. “‘Little missy’? Hardly. I’m fifty-one.”

Oo-de-lally , you don’t look a day past twenty-eight, young lady!” the fox remarked.

“‘ Oo-de-lally ’? I’ve never heard that phrase before in my life--”

Hack! Hack!

The bear keeled over and tried to catch himself on the side of the doorframe, coughing horrifically; intriguingly enough, he seemed to be coughing directly into the doorframe itself, and spitting something up in the process.

Eww! ” the elephant squealed. “Get out of my house, you sick old man!”

The bear slowly got himself back up, grasping the door frame to prop himself up, as well as to discreetly shove his fingers into the lock and deadbolt slots, as if pressing something into place. “It’s alright, it’s alright; I’m going to be fine--”

“I don’t care if you’re going to be fine! I want you off my doorstep!”

“But won’t you please give us directions to the veterans’ cemetery in Lewes?” asked the fox.

“No. Now, leave--”

“But our usual route is crowded with traffic going to the luxury mall!” said the bear. “We heard on the car radio that they’re having a sale on plus-size négligées!”

“I don’t--!” the elephant started, but took a second to process what they said. “...I don’t care. You have to leave, or I’m calling the police. And they won’t escort you to Lewes.”

The old men looked dejected, and walked away without saying a word in that slow, silent way that dejected old people do. The elephant watched them walk all the way off her property and shut the door, and went to the window to make sure they kept walking after that.

Twenty minutes later, she locked up the house and pulled out of her driveway in her convertible, her husband’s credit card safely in her purse. Five minutes after that, the old men casually waltzed up to the front door, moving much more spryly than earlier, and took a quick glance to make sure nobody was watching before they gently shook the front door and fiddled with a card in the gap and a bent paperclip in the keyholes until the lock and deadbolt both disengaged. They entered nonchalantly. The old gum trick had worked again.

--IllI--

For the rest of that first summer, the five of them very slowly eased their way out of the social shadows. When they met citizens for the first time, they subtly communicated amongst themselves to determine who it was safe to open up to, share their names and faces with, and establish a relationship with wherein trust and distrust was not an issue. They were excited, but hesitant; as much as they were itching to have meaningful interactions with people outside their group, they were worried that they were going to be jeopardizing their safety, and that if they built a bridge, they would just have to run right back across it. But Robin promised them that the only way that they were going to get the city on their side is if they stopped being strangers.

By that fall, a fair chunk of Nottingham would consider the five vagabond bandits their friends, even as rarely as they saw them. Such people probably wouldn’t say they knew the five of them inside and out, but they would likely say they felt comfortably familiar with the pious Irish-Catholic badger from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who got kicked out of the Navy while stationed at Norfolk because he couldn’t control his weight (though he swore he tried, and while the navy’s doctors gave him the benefit of the doubt, his commanding officers didn’t) and bounced aroung homeless shelters in Nottingham for twenty years before he ran into a group of four men; familiar with the kooky coyote from rural Oklahoma who was the closest thing the gang had to an outdoors expert (which is to say that he had been camping and bird-hunting a few times under pristine conditions and vaguely remembered the most basic survival skills that he’d been taught in the military), who had seen some shit in the Gulf War and had nicknamed himself “the Rooster” after the Alice in Chains song that he could just feel was written about himself or someone like him the first time he heard it back in 1994 during a rare moment when his pickup truck’s radio wasn’t tuned to the country station, and who was nomadically driving around the country a few years later when he ran into a group of three men; familiar with the younger of the British lads, who was a rebel with several dozen poorly-defined causes, rejecting his well-to-do upbringing, and who had harbored a strange love affair with the United States ever since he discovered that he preferred Black Flag, Bad Religion, and the Descendents over The Clash, the Sex Pistols, and The Damned (and although he was aware that the stateside punks probably had mixed feelings about their own homeland, he didn’t think that was a dealbreaker for his dreams of America), and who had run away from his legal guardian in DC to the Delaware forests to join a group of two men; familiar with the lumbering bear from Nashville, Tennessee, who slowly but surely rediscovering his sunny side and overcoming his frustrations with the first thirty years of his life not going quite the way he’d hoped and whose only source of self-esteem at the time was his size, and who decided to try to make a consequential dent in the world around him when he was angrily walking through Sherwood Forest to blow off steam and just happened to cross paths with one man; and familiar with the Englishman who started it all, who originally wanted to be an actor in America alongside the love of his life before deciding that his dreams coming true wouldn’t mean much if he had had the chance to make other people’s dreams come true and chose not to, consequently making the toughest and most selfless decision of his life, and while his origins before that were a tad bit hazier than that of the other four (people faintly understood the Rob and Will to be brothers, and they certainly looked like it, but they had different last names, so was there more to the story than that?), whoever had raised this fox clearly knew how to cultivate a gentleman.

It was just in time for the weather to start getting colder, and for a permanent life in the outdoors to start looking like a bad idea. The Men tried reassuring themselves that if their distant ancestors could survive through the worst of nature back when there were no doors to be outside of, then surely they could survive with modern camping gear, but it wasn’t long before they shook their heads and said, no, that was then and this is now.

It killed them to do it, but they had to start taking up the citizens of Nottingham on their how-can-I-ever-repay-you? offers. It seemed so damned hypocritical and counterintuitive and borderline shameful, and they had already had arguments amongst themselves about how much of their loot money they should keep for basic supplies, but they resolved that they weren’t going to be much help to Nottingham if they died of hypothermia.

They told themselves that they would only accept reimbursement offers that were simple and/or necessary: absolutely nothing that required the citizen to spend money on them directly; it either had to be something that they already owned (and preferably didn’t need anymore) or a service that cost nothing but time.

Splendid, so an agreement had been reached. Now they argued about how to ask. Little John thought it would be as simple as saying “yes” when they asked Can I give you boys some _______? , but Tuck was nervous that that would come across too strong, and thought they should only accept gifts from people who were really insistent that they accept, but Will thought that it was a wee bit urgent and that they should just pop the question themselves while explaining it was quite literally a matter of life or death, because who would argue with that? Then Robin came forward and volunteered to do all the talking.

And just as he anticipated, most of the interactions followed the script to a tee. They would offer, Robin would coyly decline, they would offer again, and then Robin would accept in such a way that it looked like he was accepting to make them feel happy -- which it often did. It was seriously like watching magic happen. This guy could say exactly what he wanted to say in a way that his listeners wanted to hear. You could see the way women’s hearts would melt when he spoke, and how men would feel compelled by his confidence.

Alan and Tuck, who had long since accepted that they weren’t ever going to be so silver-tongued, were impressed; Little John, meanwhile, was also outwardly impressed, but the seeds of jealousy were in the process of being planted. Long before Robin had to deal with Little John’s rekindled insecurities, however, he had to deal with Will’s.

And Robin sincerely wished that Will wasn’t so jealous of his way with people, and not just because it was counterproductive to have bad blood amongst co-conspirators. Robin actually felt kind of disgusted that the etiquette classes Robert had forced him to take were paying off dividends, the same etiquette classes that Will had defiantly blown off and walked an hour home from mere minutes after Robert dropped him off, every single Saturday, until Mr. Scarlett acquiesced and let him stop going (ironically, this showed a level of chutzpah in Will that Robin was jealous of). But Robin did not want to risk making the mood even worse by bringing up the subject of their father, nor did he want to confess that a fair chunk of his magnetic personality came from a classroom in Sheffield, lest it come across like he was saying all of his charm was artificial. Robin still did privately fancy himself some natural foxlike talent with making friends and influencing people, but he had to confess that the classes did help him hone his craft; indeed, while the idea of taking an etiquette class was rather snobbish, the classes themselves actually provided some rather useful information on how to cordially interact with people of any class or social status, such as how to pretend to politely decline a gift and still manage to receive it anyway. Of course, he also had plenty of practice speaking with adult strangers as a lad, seeing as many of them thought that he was an adult because he certainly was the size of one. There was also the way that he grew up simultaneously inhabiting both the world of the working-class back home with Brianna and Oliver and the world of the aristocracy when Robert dragged him away to do rich-person things as his “project child” or whatever he called him -- come to think of it, Robin had had plenty of help cultivating his legendary personality, but he would be slow to say so. After all, a magician never reveals his secrets.

With the people won over, a supply line was established. Reasonable offers were always accepted. Well-worn clothes and hand-me-down kitchenware, old blankets and leftover food when the residents had accidentally cooked too much and couldn’t possibly finish it all before it went bad. Maybe once in a blue moon they’d accept a ride if the person was driving in the direction they were headed anyway (and had a car that could fit all five of them). And maybe some fresh-baked cookies here and there.

As the weather got worse, the five of them pow-wowed to decide whether it was a security risk to both themselves and their hosts if they were to accept invitations to stay in their homes on a cold winter night. They all came to the same conclusion: hell yes it was a security risk, but it was still better than the alternative. They tried to limit their overnighting to when it was actively raining or snowing, but after they consulted a camping guide that laid out clearly how bad of an idea it was to suck up the cold, they swallowed their pride and started asking for shelter when the nighttime temperatures were projected to drop below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

As the year came to a close, they accepted an invitation to spend their first Christmas with a widower hound dog who ran a modest tool-and-die shop in Georgetown. He wasn’t hurting too badly financially, though a new tax on small businesses in certain areas of town (“to discourage disturbing the peace of a residential neighborhood by bringing commerce to it,” was the lame reasoning the then-fairly-new mayor had given for it) was certainly taking its toll on him. The six of them had a quiet, cozy holiday, chumming around and sharing stories and spinning fantastic yarns while Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life played on the television in the background with the volume set to ten percent. Then the hound dog stepped away and said that he was retrieving their present, having been fully cognizant that they had asked for no material possessions but consciously choosing to ignore their polite request, and returned with an enormous rolled-up tent, a high-end model which boasted being large enough for four medium-sized mammals and a grizzly bear, and being impermeable to temperatures down to 15 degrees. He said it was so that they wouldn’t have to be as reliant on people’s kindness if they didn’t want to.

They shared their thanks before revealing their present to him; although he had similarly insisted several times over that they not bother getting him anything because the only present he wanted was company for Christmas, they were far too gentlemanly to take that for an answer. Their offering was a large painting of the hound dog and his late wife on their wedding day, its detail impeccable and its scope breathtaking, all bounded by a flourishing golden frame; the Men had secretly snapped a Polaroid picture of a small photo of the same scene they’d seen on his mantle two weeks prior, then commissioned an art-school kid in Zoar Park to put it on a canvas, under instruction to add just a touch more flair to it while still keeping it recognizable, and he had done splendidly.

The toolmaker was immediately overcome by emotion, and they waited patiently for him to let it all out, soft smiles on their faces. When the dog looked up again, he said something that shook them: he didn’t want them to stay at his house on Christmas next year. He wanted them to spread the joy to everyone all over Nottingham; he felt so selfish keeping their generosity to himself.

It then seemed so obvious. They agreed to his terms to start spending future Christmases doing the best they could to be modern, real-life Santas; it just made too much sense. In return for the invaluable guidance, they began to regard the hound dog as one of their closest civilian confidantes, and whenever the weather was too dangerous and there was no immediate threat of police -- or when there was an immediate threat of police and they needed a safehouse now -- he was always their first choice to ask for a place to crash. Even when he was at his shop, the men knew where he hid his spare key.

It was a good thing that he had suggested the Santa Claus Christmas routine, because the Merry Men’s new tradition of tossing out flour-bags full of cash to needy people was a highlight of the slower winter months, when the Men couldn’t help but let the inclement temperatures get to them. But when spring and summer rolled around, their activity would be back in full swing; many would say that this is why the merry month of May was the favorite page of the calendar on Nottingham’s West Side. But of course, now it was June, and freezing to death was quite the opposite of Robin and John’s meteorological concerns, and the fact that their favorite month was now freshly behind them was just another thing to add to their list of reasons why they worried that it would be a long while before happy times would return.

--IllI--

Knock, knock, knock .

“Hey, Otto! You home?” asked Little John as he bent down to peek through the door’s semicircle window. There was a faint sense of urgency in his voice. Otto Smith was not the person they had been planning to surprise with a visit today, but sudden natural urges and geographical convenience had squeezed him onto their list of appointments.

“Do you see any lights on or anything?” asked Robin with a similar voice of urgency. He leaned over the stoop’s railing to see if he could see any signs of life in the diemaker’s house; despite being exceptionally tall for a fox, he was still a member of a smaller species, and Robin was still too short to see into the window on the door. “I can grab the spare key.”

“I’m not going to go into the guy’s house just to use his bathroom, then leave. Let’s just run to the library or something,” Little John suggested.

“No, no,” said Robin as he went over to the other side of the stoop to try to look into the other window. “Then we’d have to do a publicity tour before we can excuse ourselves to the facilities.” Robin secretly didn’t have to go that badly; what was urgent was that he have a quick moment to speak with Otto while Little John wasn’t around, now that Robin realized this was the perfect opportunity to get an outsider’s perspective.

“Well, now I guess I understand why some people can’t handle being celebrities.”

“Could you make it back to Sherwood?”

“I can not make it back to Sherwood.”

“Can you make it around to his backyard?” This part of Georgetown had the typical mid-Atlantic row housing, so to get to Mr. Smith’s backyard, you had to either pass through his house or walk all the way down the block to the alley and around the back.

“What good would that do?”

“I’ll keep watch for you; just go behind his house. I’m sure he’ll understand--”

“Rob, I’m not gonna take a leak on the side of the man’s house after all he’s done for us!”

“We’ll hose it off afterward--”

“And also I don’t just need to pee !”

“Oh… I see…”

“Goddammit. You wanna find me a quiet alleyway and keep watch while I uncover a manhole and--?”

Just then, they heard the lock disengaging. Otto opened the door and greeted them with a smile that was warm, but a little embarrassed.

“Sorry to keep you waiting boys, I was in the bathroom,” said the hound dog. “You boys alright?”

“We’re so sorry to bother you, Otto, but we were hoping we could--”

“Can we use your bathroom?” Little John interrupted Robin. His voice sounded as pained as every part of his body looked.

“Oh, sure,” Otto said as he stepped aside and opened the door all the way. “Don’t let me stop you--”

“Rob, give the man some money,” Little John said as he rushed in, failing to duck enough to clear the doorframe. “ GAH! Jesus lordy fuckin’ Christ! ” he swore, putting his paws on his head to simultaneously rub the point of contact as well as keep his head from dragging on the eight-foot ceiling that was just a smidge too low for him. He speed-walked toward the lavatory, instinctively knowing the path around all the ceiling fans and light fixtures from years of navigating around this house built for medium-sized mammals. Robin and Otto watched until they saw him disappear into the bathroom and slam the door behind him.

“Yikes,” said Otto, “is the poor guy gonna be alright?”

“Oh, I’m sure he’ll be fine,” Robin said as he walked inside the house. “Between you and me, I’d be more concerned about your bathroom fixtures.”

Otto let out a light chuckle as he closed the door and locked it, just for good measure. “Well, you won’t have to pay me just for the privilege of using my bathroom… unless he breaks something, then damn straight you’re paying me!”

“Duly noted,” Robin said as they both had a seat in the living room.

“Little John, help yourself to some aspirin while you’re in there!” Otto hollered toward the hallway, then turned back to Robin. “Did you have to go too?”

“Not that badly; I’ll take the opportunity if you’ll allow it--”

“I will.”

“--but I was more hoping to ask you a question.”

“Oh? What’s up?”

Robin had rehearsed the question in his head a bit, but he still wasn’t quite sure of the direction he wanted to take it. “Well, Otto, I feel like I need to qualify this question by saying that you are probably the person we see most often, aside from one another.”

“Really? Me?”

“Well, who else would it be?” Robin asked playfully, but realized it may not have come across that way. “I didn’t mean that to sound so sarcastic, Otto, I--”

“No, no, you’re fine. I just thought it would be Tuck or someone like that.”

“Tuck’s asked us to help him keep a low profile in his new lease on life, and we’re not going to deny him that. We still see him, but it’s very much on an as-need basis.” Robin realized that he didn’t know how long Little John would be in there, so he jumped right into it: “So does Little John seem in any way… different to you?”

“‘ Different ’?”

“I know that’s a broad question worthy of a broad answer, but perhaps that’s for the best. Free-associate. Tell me the first thing that comes to mind.”

Otto just looked confused. “Uh… nothing, really. I haven’t been paying that much attention.”

“That’s fair.”

“Why? Have you sensed anything different in him? Is there something going on between you two?”

“You say this like he and I are a couple.”

“Well from what I’ve seen, you two have a better relationship than a lot of married couples I know. But seriously, is something up?”

“Er, there was , but I think it’s mostly passed. I do have my concerns that it may pop up again.”

“Tell me about it.”

“I… I really shouldn’t--”

“Then why did you bring this all up?”

“I was trying to get information out of you , not the other way around!”

Otto gave him a look that said tell me anyway .

“...He’s just been sort of… ‘moody’ might be the right word?” Robin asked himself.

“Well, how so?”

“He’s just starting to lose faith in everything. And I do mean everything .”

“Well, that’s perfectly understandable. You two have been doing this for… what, eight years?”

“Seven.”

“Oh, close enough. All that would take its toll on anybody.”

“Are you losing faith in us, Otto? Faith in my and John’s ability to change things for the better?”

“I wasn’t, until you asked that question.”

Robin and Otto heard the toilet flush, then stop abruptly. “God, dammit! ” Little John screamed, the bathroom door only slightly muffling his booming voice. “I knew that would happen. I knew that would happen!”

“Plunger’s under the sink!” Otto called out to Little John.

“I know where the fuckin’ plunger is, Otto!” Little John called back. “You don’t have to remind me!”

Otto turned back to Robin. “You may indeed owe me some money in a few minutes.”

Robin -- much like this narrator -- was starting to get a sense of malaise from this scatalogical turn of events, but it was likely to be expected to happen, and there was nothing to do about it now. But Robin realized that this bought him some more time.

“Okay, for fairness’s sake, would you say you’ve noticed any changes in me ?”

“Well, you seem to be a little less confident than usual today.”

Robin’s eyes popped open. “ Me? Not him -- me?

“I mean, you just asked me to reaffirm your faith in yourself. And you’re making less eye contact than usual.”

“B-because this is a strange situation! This is something I’ve never dealt with before. I’ve experience in speaking on all sorts of situations, but this isn’t one of them!”

“Like I said, this isn’t something I’ve been realizing for awhile. It’s basically just today -- hell, these last couple minutes -- that I’m starting to wonder if something’s going on that I don’t know about.”

“Based on?”

“The fact that you felt the need to ask me for an outsider’s perspective to tell you that nothing’s obviously changed about either of you.”

Robin didn’t know what to say next, so he turned his head toward the hallway for a moment and stared into space. He couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t believe that he was having his confidence shaken by simply having someone else say that he appeared to have his confidence shaken. Then again, he had asked an impartial arbiter for their judgment, and he got it.

“You alright, Robin?” Otto asked. “Something had to have happened that inspired this question; you wouldn’t just ask it out of the blue.”

“I can’t refute that,” said Robin, but he heard the sounds of a struggle in the bathroom finally settling down. “I don’t think I’ll have time to delve into details, though.”

“Do I need to moderate a chit-chat between the both of ya’s?”

“No, no, if anything, make sure Little John doesn’t know I asked this.”

“If you say so, my lips are sealed… Oh! I almost forgot! Have you been anywhere near a TV screen for the last, oh, two hours?”

“Er… no, why?”

“After the County Sheriff and Deputy beat up some kid in Sherwood, they merged the County department with the city’s.”

“... What!?

“Yeah, and everyone’s saying it’s to get tax dollars out of the suburbs for Prince John. But it’s probably that, plus he just wants to make it easier to find you two.”

While Robin’s jaw unhinged itself to drop open as dramatically as possible, the sink in the bathroom turned off and Little John opened the door.

“Your turn, Rob,” Little John said. “Uh… if you still want to.”

“I can hold it a bit longer, Johnny. But, er-- Otto, run that by us again? I want to make sure I heard you right.”

--IllI--

The news had thoroughly ruined their day. As they left Otto’s house, they told themselves that they would feel better when they went out and distributed the day’s winnings, but they really were in just no mood for it.

As they roamed the streets of Georgetown in their street clothes, knowing that they were in friendly territory, Robin and John did not speak to one another, not because there was any sort of tension, but because they would have plenty more time to shoot the shit some other time, and keeping their ears peeled for sirens couldn’t hurt. Of course, this just allowed them time to be inwardly upset by the circumstances.

But while Little John was fuming that the mayor had somehow pulled off an insane move to get another leg up on them, Robin was frustrated about that and the way that Otto had inadvertently given a blow to Robin’s self-esteem simply by alluding to the sheer idea that Robin’s self-esteem could take a blow. It was like unconfidence had been manufactured out of thin air. Or maybe it didn’t materialize out of the ether, and Otto was on to something? The logic seemed clear enough: to need to ask a question would indicate the questioner had a lack of confidence on the subject matter, and since the subject matter was himself , well…

And Robin had a strange awareness that the more he let this bug him, the more it became a self-fulfilling prophecy that he was losing his grip. He tried to remind himself that it was completely normal to have lapses in confidence from time to time, and indeed he did have moments where he questioned his self-worth, especially when thinking about whether he’d ever be worthy of Marian’s love again after abandoning her for a life of crime, or whether he was a bad son for not telling his mum and Oliver what he was doing, or whether there was an inherent evil deep inside of him that he had to confront every time he saw his reflection and observed all the other genetic traits he had inherited which made it clear to everyone back in Loxley that he was his father’s son, or whether in a million eventualities he could have handled the situation with Will so it would have ended less shamefully tragically, or whether he could have done a better job of being a role model for Skippy and Toby, or whether he was born the wrong species in a world that sometimes seemed like it had no place for foxes…

But it was an insecurity about insecurities themselves that had now made his vulnerable confidence visible to the world, and a person who experienced visible lapses in confidence simply was not the kind of person Robin wanted to be. These moments of public insecurity were not just inconvenient to their situation, but they were strange and foreign and alien to him after all these years of being surrounded by people who had nothing but good things to say about his character and ability; Robin fundamentally loathed this feeling of visible diffidence, and if he never felt this way again, it would be too soon. Robin was sure someone would say that he should not strive to never lack confidence, but rather to be able to muster his confidence when he needed it; but that just didn’t match the standards to which he held himself. He had been so good for so long at hiding his moments of weakness; why was this the thing that pierced the veil?

Little John kicked a rock at just the right angle to send it damn-near a football field down the sidewalk, and as he slowly looked up to see it roll along its merry way, he noticed somebody standing at the end of the block.

“Rob, hold up,” Little John said in a harsh whisper, and Robin, who had similarly been walking with his eyes upon the ground, jerked himself to a halt at the strange command.

“What?”

“Look,” Little John pointed.

At the corner was a very well-dressed doe who looked like she was trying to pretend she knew where she was and where she was going. But with clothes that nice on a random day in Georgetown, it was clear she wasn’t from around those parts.

“Is that who I think it is?” Little John asked.

“Who do you think it is?”

“The head of the county.”

“Er… I mean--”

Doty incidentally turned her head toward the bandits, and the boys ducked into an alleyway, just in case she saw them.

“I mean, I don’t know her face as well as I know Prince John’s,” said Little John, “but how many other well-dressed does would you see in this part of town?”

Robin thought about that for a second. “Well, if we aren’t sure… we can just ask her, now can’t we?”

“Coming on a little strong there, don’t you think?”

“We can charm her.”

“My question is, do we rob her?”

“Well, if Otto relayed the story of the police merger correctly, then she’s certainly deserving of some retribution…” -- Robin peeked around the corner just to see if she was still there -- “...but she really does look lost out here.”

“You’d feel bad kicking her when she’s down. Or do you think it would be a bad look to rob a woman in the middle of the day on a busy street?”

“Ah… a bit of the former, a bit of the latter, I’d say,” Robin mused. “How about this: we’ll offer to get her wherever she needs to go, safely… and then we guilt her over it until she overpays us for the favor.”

“Ooh, Rob, I like that!”

And just like that, Robin had his self-confidence back.

Commissioner Roe was staring at the street sign at 55th and Nevada, avoiding the glances and gapes and glares of passers-by, trying to remember the order that the states were admitted to the Union to see if that would spark something in her brain to remind her of the way to Bethlehem General Hospital, when she heard a soft-spoken voice with a non-rhotic accent, and not one from up the coast, either.

“Excuse me,” said Robin, “but we couldn’t help but notice that you seem to be lost. Could we offer our assistance?”

Doty was understandably startled by this, and Robin and John were prepared to make themselves come across as non-threatening as possible.

“Sirs, I don’t need any help,” said the commissioner, as firmly as she could. “Please just leave me alone.”

“Ma’am, we understand that it’s a strange thing to offer out of the blue,” Little John said. “So we’ll turn it over to you: how can we prove to you that we have the best intentions?”

“You can’t.”

“We understand it’s a tough sell, ma’am,” said Robin, “but we won’t be able to sleep tonight if we don’t do our best to help you.”

“Do I look like I need your help?”

“Ma’am, we couldn’t help but notice that some people are giving you strange looks,” said Little John, “and although we know this neighborhood and its people and we’re sure that most of them would never want to hurt you, I can’t imagine that’s a risk you’d want to take in an unfamiliar neighborhood.”

“Are you saying that this is a dangerous neighborhood or not?”

“Ma’am, please be frank with us,” said Robin. “Are you County Commissioner Roe?”

Doty merely glared at him for daring to ask the obvious. “You two haven’t even introduced yourselves yet.”

“Alex,” said Robin.

“Landon,” said Little John. “What are you doing out here, Commissioner?”

“It’s a long story and it’s none of your business.”

“But you look like you’re lost,” said Robin. “Are you sure we can’t help guide you somewhere?”

“Where did you come from? Where did you go?” asked Little John with a silly grin. “Where did you come from, Commissioner Roe?”

And Doty was mortified to cough out a little chuckle at that. (Robin didn’t get the reference until it was too late.)

“I-I’m sorry,” Doty apologized for her unprofessional laughter. “My daughter just graduated kindergarten; a few months ago, they had one of those… ‘ plays ’ where they just dance to goofy music, a-and, that… that was one of them.”

“Oh, there’s nothing to apologize for,” said Little John said with a self-impressed smirk that he hoped to hell came across as friendly and not predatory; he thought he had made a breakthrough. “But really, where are you headed?”

“Bethlehem General. If you have directions, I’ll take them.”

“But are you sure you don’t want us to escort you?” asked Robin.

“I don’t know you guys. I’m not getting in your car.”

“Oh, we don’t have our car with us. We were just going to walk you there, if you’d allow us. It’s not too far a walk.”

“And we’d stick to major streets with lots of people around, where you wouldn’t have to worry about us or anybody else pulling a fast one on you,” Little John added.

Doty looked unsure, and sized up the men making the sudden offer. “What’s in your pockets?”

Robin and John tried to contain their surprise; they hadn’t heard that one in awhile. They were both wearing unfashionable but practical cargo pants -- Robin in shorts, John’s were full-length -- which were fulfilling their intended duty. Their many pockets were filled with cash and cards and valuable-looking knickknacks they had acquired throughout the day, which they had kept on their person because they were getting ready to start knocking on doors at random and dropping them off. But this predicament was nothing that a little quick thinking couldn’t fix.

“Oh, not much,” said Robin as he started fishing through his main pockets, inspiring Little John to follow his lead. “House keys… wallet…”

“I’ve got my Epipen on me in case I get stung by a bee,” said John; they were taking an enormous gamble in hoping that she wouldn’t call their bluff. “Do you want us to empty our pockets, or--?”

“No, no,” said Doty, “it’s fine. Really, I ought to take myself to a police precinct and get a ride from them--”

“Oh, believe us, Commissioner, the cops in this town are creeps .”

“Hey, if you two really do mean well, I’m sorry for drilling you. But if you’re up to something… I just want you two to fuck off. After what I’ve been through in my life, I have trouble telling the difference until it’s too late now.”

“Well, listen,” said John, “let me put it this way: if we were gonna hurt you at a major intersection in a major city at -- what time is it?”

“3.”

“--3 in the afternoon, wouldn’t we have done it by now?”

Doty just looked at the negative space between the two of them. She thought that was a fair observation. Or was that just what they wanted her to think?

“Hey, come to think of it,” said Robin, “ we don’t know you either! How do we know you aren’t going to hurt us !?”

“Yeah, uh-- Alex!” said Little John, briefly forgetting Robin’s alias. “I’d bet a face like that could break a few hearts.”

Doty heard that and wanted to feel flattered, but the allusion to relationships made her wonder again if they were looking for something inappropriate. But what ultimately made up her mind was her realization that time was ticking, and Krupa and Ryan were probably confused by her absence. She would have plenty of time during the walk to convince herself that this was as good a time as any to try reestablishing her trust in well-meaning strangers of the male persuasion, and (heaven forbid) to test those self-defense skills she’d been teaching herself. But she had one last question.

“Why do you two want to help me so bad?” she asked.

“Because there have been times when… ahem Landon and I have needed help from strangers,” said Robin, ready to answer such a question without missing a beat. “Sometimes we were fortunate enough to receive it, and sometimes not.”

“So we figure we might as well pay it back,” said Little John.

Doty shuffled around a bit, checking her watch and adjusting her collar, not looking at either of the boys.

“...Landon, I’d prefer if you walk in front of me.”

The three of them still got some strange looks on their way to Bethlehem Hospital, but unbeknownst to Commissioner Roe, the looks were not exclusively directed at her. Hell, if anything, there were more eyes on her while she walked with “Alex and Landon,” since everyone in the neighborhood knew the fox and the bear, but not everyone was so well-versed in local politics as to know the face of Doty Roe offhand. The denizens of Georgetown noticed two familiar faces walking with a different familiar face and realized there was something incongruous about the three of them being altogether at once, seemingly at peace. But as they walked by or drove past the three of them, they didn’t say a word, trusting that there was a brilliant plan going on that they were not to mess with; tentatively, they were correct.

The trio exchanged pleasantries and small talk as they walked down 55th Street down to Montana Avenue, then down five blocks to 50th Street, and kitty-corner to Bethlehem General. By the time they arrived, almost all of Doty’s apprehensions were gone; something about these two strangers was boding oddly well with her.

They got to the end of the walkway that lead to the visitors’ entrance. “Well,” said Robin, “I think you ought to be able to find the rest of the way by yourself now.”

“Indeed I shall,” said Doty. “But thank you guys for, uh… joining me on that walk.”

“The pleasure is ours,” said Little John.

“Although -- and it kills us to ask this -- we might have walked a bit too far out of our way,” said Robin.

“You see, Alex and I need to be up early for our jobs at the sanitation works,” said Little John.

“Our shift starts at midnight, and we have to go until the morning crew comes in at eight,” said Robin. “We really ought to be in bed already, but it’s just so hard to sleep when the sun’s out on a beautiful day like today.”

“Besides, a nice long walk gets us nice and tired,” added Little John.

Doty looked justifiably suspicious. “...Oh?”

“Could we trouble you for some cab money back home, Commissioner, after all we’ve done for you?” Robin asked rather loudly, gaining the attention of plenty of eye- and ear-witnesses.

“...How were you going to get home otherwise?”

“We met you before we’d walked so far out of our way.”

Doty glanced around, nervously looking for an out.

“Can I just give you bus fare?” she asked, nodding toward a crowded bus shelter not even twenty-five feet away.

“Oh, with the slow pace of the bus and the transferring between lines, it’ll take forever for us to get home,” Little John moaned. “At least an hour. A cab would be much faster.”

“I don’t have my purse on me; I’d have to find my assistant first--”

“We can help you find them!” Robin exclaimed.

Doty realized the people at the bus shelter were watching, waiting to see what she would do. Those were people who she may have needed to vote for her one day.

“...Goddammit, how much do you need?” she asked under her breath while leading the way into the hospital.

“Well, I’m all the way on the Southeast Side in Frankford,” said Robin.

“And I live in Harbeson,” said Little John. “Which isn’t too far, but the cabs for larger types like myself cost more. I mean, I guess I could squeeze into a medium-sized one--”

“Oh, Landon’s just being modest. Please don’t make my friend feel claustrophobic again, Commissioner,”

“Alex, I’m trying to get over it--”

“And you’ve tried hard enough and you deserve to not have to force yourself to be uncomfortable.”

Somewhere along the line, Doty stopped walking to just glare at them.

“You walked from the Southeast Side to the North Side to the West Side all just for the hell of it?”

“Oh, it’s great exercise, Commissioner!” said Robin.

“Oh, and my brother’s a cabbie back up in Philly,” said Little John, “so I won’t feel right unless I tip handsomely.”

--IllI--

“I’m telling you, Rob, that bodyguard of hers must’ve been one of my old roommate’s kids!”

Little John and Robin Hood were making their way due south, trying to find one specific home in Hermosa Park. Their pockets were now even more full of loot after their dealings with the county commissioner. They had scored a solid couple hundred bucks in the deal, thanks in part to Little John’s last-minute idea to bullshit something about needing money for insulin after his pharmacy filled an order incorrectly.

“You say that about all the tigers we see. Or at least all the ones our age or younger.”

The guys stepped around a passed-out homeless otter propped up against the side of a small pub; it wasn’t clear whether it was alcohol possessing him or some other substance. This was another reason that the Merry Men were hesitant to give out money in Hermosa Park: if there was anywhere in Nottingham where the rich people were right to say that a poor person would just spend their assistance on self-destructive vices, such helpless addicts would most certainly be found in Hermosa Park. Rob and Johnny both knew that the best option would be to get them help, but getting all the addicts in Hermosa Park to a rehab clinic -- whether those addicts consented to go or not -- was an undertaking bigger than the scope of their powers. Not to mention, they would probably all be kicked out anyway for a lack of ability to pay. Seeing people like that otter just made Robin and John feel powerless all over again.

“Yeah, and the more I think of it, Tom wasn’t as tall as this guy, either. But I swear could just sense a resemblance when I saw his face.”

Someone threw a glass bottle from a third-floor window onto the sidewalk below; it exploded right at Rob and John’s feet, but they pretended it didn’t phase them. They did allow themselves to glance up at the window from whence it came, but whoever threw it closed the window quickly afterward and was nowhere to be seen.

“You really are on a face-hunch kick today, aren’t you, Johnny? But I think he was too old to be your roommate’s son.”

The two of them turned down a side street.

“I’m not so sure. Tom was a lot older than me. I remember him bragging that he’d been fucking around in jazz clubs since the Seventies. And I do mean fucking around . I think he had some kids who were almost my age -- maybe your age. And he was still knocking twentysomething girls up when I met you, sooo…

They started paying more attention to the numbers on the houses.

“Really? You never told me that about Tom! I thought he was your age, maybe a little older. Why haven’t you told me more about this fascinating character?”

They both set their eyes on one specific house in the near distance, but didn’t say anything about it.

“He wasn’t that interesting. He wasn’t home half the time, and when he was, he was locked in his sex chamber.”

“‘ Sex chamber’ ? Is that what you’re calling it, or did he --”

“I think we’re here, Rob.”

The row house at 1313 North Utah was pastel-blue if you recognized the paint flakes that were still hanging on. Evidently the boys had been here once before, but it wasn’t ringing a bell yet.

Robin knocked on the door; he and John had long ago agreed that Robin should knock on the doors of mammals smaller than the both of them, and John should knock on the doors of mammals that dwarfed both of them; they only had to converse about who should do the duties when it was a member medium-sized species they were calling upon.

The door unlatched and opened tentatively, revealing a timid-looking middle-aged porcupine.

“Pardon us, ma’am, but we’re searching for a Miz Sarah McQuillan; do we have the right address?” Robin asked with a smile, confident of the answer.

“I’ve been expecting you,” she said calmly. “Long time, no see, boys.”

“Y-you have ?” Robin’s confidence was once again uncharacteristically misplaced. “Huh. We even told Alex not to spoil the surprise!”

“Alex told me everything. He knew you were coming, so he wanted to get his punishment out of the way. I guess you two put the fear of God in him.”

“I hope you didn’t punish him too severely.”

“Let’s just say that if you two put the fear of God in him, I glued it into place,” she said with a wink; she had interpreted Robin’s sentence as dry wit and didn’t realize she was talking to two people who had rather negative views on corporal punishment.

“Is he here now?” asked Little John.

“No, I sent him to some neighbors down the street. Some old people who need help re-grouting their bathroom.”

“Could these old people use a little pick-me-up?” John asked, rubbing one paw’s fingers together to specify he was talking about dollars and cents.

“Will it cut into my share?” Sarah asked, then chuckled after a beat. “I’m just fucking with you. I’ll take whatever you offer.”

“And so it shall be,” Robin said, producing a small wad of bills from his front pocket, which Sarah accepted. “But Johnny here poses a serious question: are the old couple, er, ‘fans of ours?’”

“You know we aren’t too popular in this part of town,” said Little John, which inspired him to glance around just in case anybody was giving them the evil eye as they stood there out in the open.

Sarah thumbed through the currency and counted it in her head. “Um… they could take you or leave you, I guess. They’re old-school. They probably think that they’ve lived this way for long enough, they can probably hang on until the end.” She put the money in her blouse pocket. “And thank you, guys.”

“But wouldn’t they agree that things’ve gotten worse under Prince John?” asked Robin.

“Uh… they wouldn’t, honestly. I mean, not saying I agree with them, but… they wouldn’t, honestly.”

“You know how cynical old people can be,” said Little John.

“But yeah, they’re a capybara couple at the end of the block and across the street,” Sarah said, and started walking backwards to close the door. “Thanks again, guys--”

“Wait!” Robin said. “One last question. What about the other boy’s family?”

“Landon,” Little John clarified. “The mountain lion.”

“The pumas?” asked Sarah, a bit surprised. “...Yeah, don’t-- don’t go looking for them.”

“They won’t take free money?”

“Not from you two. And if they see you, they might get into a fight about it.”

“How so?” asked a curious Robin.

Sarah get out a small embarrassed chuckle. “I mean, it’s not like they regularly have debates about you, but… I did see them have an argument about you two once. She thinks you’re too radical, and he thinks you’re not radical enough.”

“Shit, we just can’t win, can we?” mused Little John.

“Well, it’s flattering that we’re the topic of a philosophical debate among people who don’t even know us,” said Robin.

“Well, good for you that you feel flattered, but it was really uncomfortable to listen to,” said Sarah. “I didn’t actually participate in the conversation; I just was in the room when it broke out. And don’t take this the wrong way, guys, but they both made pretty good points.”

“Oh, really?” asked Robin. “Go on then; convince us that our actions are more harmful than helpful. I welcome a differing viewpoint.”

“C’mon, Rob, let’s go,” said Little John. “I don’t think it’s safe to just be standing on this lady’s stoop for much longer.” He had been watching for the looks that passers-by were giving them; so far he had seen four people who looked pleased to see them, three that looked hostile, one who didn’t seem to recognize them, and five who didn’t even notice them standing on the stoop.

“No, I’m curious.”

“You’ve already heard all the arguments.”

“I’m trying to instill faith in her by putting the dissent to rest.”

“Can I talk now?” asked Sarah.

“Oh! Yes, please! Apologies, Ms. McQuillan.”

“Well, uh -- shit, where do I start? -- I guess, just, Tina was saying you guys were encouraging bad behavior -- like, other people starting robbing, but not for noble reasons like you -- and that you guys were reckless and, uh… just generally that you guys are overkill, I guess.”

“And to that we would say that we do our best to work with the community to make sure they leave the vigilante stuff to us, and that we make a point to try to only rob from people we can prove deserve something to balance their karma.” Robin spoke with a warm smile, confident that he was doing a good job pleading his case to this undecided voter. “And the husband?”

“Greg just plain thought that you guys were pussy-footing around and that if your, uh, ‘vigilante’ shit was ever gonna work, it would have worked by now. He thought you guys should just storm a press conference and--” Sarah switched to pantomime as she acted out popping off a few rounds of a revolver at an implied target. “Y’know, get it over with. You already threw your lives away.”

“Well, if we should ever come up in discussion again, send them our word that we strive for non-violence whenever we can, because while our little forced-charity operation may be a bit, er, agitative , we know for a fact that political violence will cause chaos on levels we could never imagine. And say the same to the people who think we’re too extreme. I hope we’ve done well to put your mind at rest, Ms. McQuillan.”

“Well, that’s just the thing. They basically kissed and made up when they both agreed that you guys were just making everything worse.”

“Yeah, that’s a pretty Hermosa mindset, if you ask me,” Little John remarked, and he went right back to keeping watch.

“I have to agree with my friend here, Sarah,” said Robin. “We really do think that life in this city would be unbearable if we weren’t here to help out; we wouldn’t keep doing this if we didn’t. But I have to ask: do you agree with them?”

“Well, the idea was that you guys are just pissing the cops and the government off and now they all hate poor people.”

“Like they didn’t already?” quipped Little John.

“I shoulda mentioned, this was right after the cops shot the shit out of those guys who robbed the liquor store on--”

“Huh?”

“Wait, when did this happen?” asked Robin.

“Oh, five years ago, at least. After I already met you. And the others who were with you. Sorry about what happened to them, by the way--”

“I’m sorry to cut you off, Sarah, but…” Robin tried to find the right words. “...you referred to that botched robbery like it was some major event everyone should know about. Is there something about it we missed? Some important details, I mean? Because otherwise, it would sound pretty mundane to me.”

Sarah didn’t know that they didn’t know. She looked Robin in the eye and took a breath so she could answer the question without hemming and hawing.

“When the police had to publicly answer why they shot him, they said it was because they thought the robbers were with you.”

“What!?” Robin was flabbergasted. “Why did no one tell us about this?”

“We thought you knew. We thought that was why you guys weren’t in the neighborhood for, like, three weeks afterwards.”

“Nuh-uh! No way!” Johnny interjected. “That couldn’t have happened. The NPD’s never publicly acknowledged we exist. We have connections who would tell us if they did.”

“They didn’t specifically say you or anybody else; they just said something about a possible gang of bandits trying to steal for poor people. Coded language and all that.”

Little John just shook his head while Robin kept staring forward. “We gotta wring Otto out for dropping the ball on that one,” John grumbled.

“They… they shot some blokes because they thought they were with us?” Robin choked out, trying to process the information.

“I mean, that coulda been a cover. But I honestly think that the cops have been a lot more… brutal in the last five years.”

“Because of us?” Robin just spit it out without bothering about tact.

Sarah once again didn’t know that they didn’t know, but her sympathy for their unpleasant surprise was starting to turn into impatience. “Again: we all thought you knew. We thought that’s why you don’t show your faces around here as often as you do up north or down south.”

“We’ve been having trouble with this area since the day we started!” Little John protested. “We try our best not to leave you guys behind, but for Christ’s sakes, lady, when half the people would tell us to our faces that they think we’re fuckin’ looney tunes for offering them free money, and the other half wanna spend the money on crack, and when I have a scar on my ass that won’t ever heal that I got from a stray bullet in this very neighborhood , then yeah, it’s kinda hard not to feel tempted to just circum-fucking-navigate this place and stick our fingers in our ears and go ‘ na-na-na can’t hear you! ’” Little John put an arm around Robin, who at this point was staring into space lost in thought, and pulled him into himself. “Me and this guy’ve lied the fuck awake at night feeling like shit because it really seems like people in this place refuse to be helped. But we force ourselves to do try anyway because we know not everyone in this part of town is like that. So we’re sorry if our best isn’t fucking good enough, but it’s not like we see any of you guys coming out to Sherwood to give us some other ideas! Maybe not leave us alone to be two guys against the world!”

Sarah McQuillan would usually feel terrified being spoken to sternly by an angry brown bear, but since it hadn’t even been five minutes since she was reassured that they were committed to nonviolence whenever possible, she didn’t think she had much to be concerned about.

“Well the fact of the matter is that I know the people in this neighborhood better than you do, and a lot of them think that things have gotten worse here with the police being dicks and the mayor coming up with bullshit laws and taxes to keep us down, and they think it has something to do with them taking their anger with you out on us .”

“Then why would they be doing it here and not the entire West Side!?”

Robin still wasn’t saying a word.

“Are they not? I don’t know how things are in Georgetown or Harbeson or Phillips Hill or wherever the hell you guys spend all your time. Maybe they’re only doing it here because they think that the worst neighborhood in the city would be the most likely to produce some crazy radical motherfuckers like you two who think that robbing rich people at point-blank range and giving the money to poor people at random is going to solve anything.”

“Well if nothing else, it’s supposed to boost your fucking morale! It’s not our fault you’re all so goddamn miserable that you won’t even give hope a chance when it’s staring you in the face and standing on your goddamn stoop! The people in Georgetown and Harbeson and Phil Hill are broke, too, but they don’t tell us to fuck off because they think our good intentions are paving a road to hell!”

“Well, you’ve got to convince a whole lot of other people of your good intentions, not just me,” Sarah said with a pose that said she was just about done with them and their well-meaning ignorance. “You said you think people around here don’t want to be helped, or something like that?”

“Yeah, I did!” stated Little John.

“Fine, suit yourself,” Sarah said as she pulled the wad of cash out of her pocket and tossed it off the stoop onto the pavement below. “I’ll survive without it. And if I don’t, maybe I shouldn’t want to. Apparently my fucking kid can find his own money.” Sarah took a step backward and grasped the door handle. “By the way, they prefer to be called ‘pumas’ or ‘cougars,’ not ‘mountain lions,’ you fucking racist. Get out of my house,” said the porcupine, and she slammed the door shut.

“We’re not in your house!” Little John hollered. “And that delinquent little puma shit straight-up called my buddy a faggot for no reason, so you ain’t gonna convince me I’m an asshole for calling him a mountain lion!” He then realized that he should maybe keep his voice down around these parts. He glanced left and right, and saw a few people on the street staring at him, some angry, some starstruck, some confused, and one elderly rabbit sitting in a rocking chair on the sidewalk, who had not been there when they arrived, smoking a pipe and looking coolly entertained.

Then the bear glanced down at his fox friend, who appeared to pondering something he would rather not have pondered.

“Hey, Robin… you, uh… you okay, little buddy?”

Robin closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths through his nose.

“Rob? Buddy?”

“...It’s been a long day, Johnny.”

“Well, we certainly got our exercise today,” Little John said, relieved to hear Robin speak. He kept his arm around Robin and walked him off the stoop and down the street. Neither of them remembered to pick up the cash Sarah had thrown back at them, nor did they remember to go seek out the elderly capybaras.

“You still want to go to see Amanda?”

“We can wait till tomorrow. Let’s just grab our things from Priscilla’s and head home.”

“We can’t go home, Rob. Remember?”

Robin didn’t say anything. John wished he had phrased that better.

Little John was acutely aware that this was exactly the kind of openness with bad feelings that just the other day he’d implored his friend to start showing, for both of their sakes. Now Little John was starting to wish he’d been careful for what he’d wished for, because he didn’t know if he could be as helpful to his friend as he thought he could be. Little John was well used to Robin being mildly bummed out about Marian or Will or Skippy or his parents, which was something John could easily cure with a jocular pep-talk, but this kind of hard shut-down was something Little John was ill-equipped to handle. The only times he’d ever seen Robin like this were right after Skippy and Toby got sent to juvie, right after Marian had to go back to DC after she spent the summer of That Fateful Year in town, and in the days and weeks immediately following Will’s apparent suicide; in all those cases, John tried his best to help his friend, but the only thing that seemed to have helped was the passage of time.

“Rob, we aren’t responsible for those guys getting shot.”

“Oh, yes we fucking are.”

“No, we’re not. We’re not responsible for anybody’s actions but our own.” Little John prayed he was being helpful.

“If only it were that simple. And all the other misery we’ve caused… because we were too cowardly to help the place that needed us the most...”

“Oh, don’t say that; we’ve helped this neighborhood plenty. We’ve done plenty more good than bad.”

“I have no patience for myself doing anything bad.”

“You wanna talk to Tuck about it?”

“You know he’s not allowed to see us.”

“You wanna talk to Otto about it?”

“I don’t think he’s equipped to talk about things like this.”

“You want to talk to me about it when we get back to the junkyard?”

“I don’t think so.”

They were back on major streets now, but in light of recent revelations, Little John was keeping an extra sharp eye out for squad cars waywardly patrolling the streets.

“You know you’re the greatest guy I know, Rob.”

“And I appreciate that, Little John.” -- John noticed that Robin didn’t call him ‘Johnny’ like he was expecting -- “But please don’t be so damned jealous of me; you’re doing yourself a disservice.”

“Brother, I’ll stop being jealous when I got everything that you got!” Little John was hoping the light levity would cheer his friend up a little bit. While Robin appreciated the effort, he did little to show it.

They crossed the major street and walked down another side street to give themselves a bit more privacy.

“Just be grateful for who you are, John,” Robin said; his voice seemed to be getting somehow drier. “This is one of those times I really wish I were in your shoes.”

Little John saw that this conversational direction wasn’t going anywhere, so he changed the subject. “We need to recruit. I mean it. We can’t go on like this alone.”

“Agreed,” was all Robin said.

“Hell, we probably should have asked Alex.”

“Too late for that, I guess.”

“Rob, if I lose you…” -- Little John looked around to make sure nobody was watching -- “...I’d be screwed in more ways than one.” He pulled his small friend in tighter and patted him twice on the chest. “You’re really all I got left, man. Don’t take that away from me.”

“I wouldn’t think of it, Johnny.”

Little John didn’t say anything as he waited for Robin to say something along the lines of ‘ don’t you leave me alone, either ,’ but evidently Rob wasn’t going to say anything else. Little John looked down at Robin and realized that he had not made eye contact with him since they were standing on Ms. McQuillan’s stoop. In fact, he didn’t think Robin had turned his head in any direction away from straight forward, with the possible exception of glancing down. John understood what Robin meant when he insisted he not be jealous, but Little John really wished he could have Robin’s magic right now.

As for Robin, he was wondering if allowing himself to break down in tears and openly weep in the streets of Hermosa Park would inspire its people to forgive him for his sins. But he decided against it; only so many of his sins were theirs to forgive.

Chapter Text

  1. “The Great Convergence”

Despite being a literal trash heap, the junkyard usually didn’t smell too bad. The vast majority of things in the mountain range of waste were things that weren’t particularly odorous, like discarded packaging or broken machinery, so unless you were standing right next to a cache of rotten eggs or if you stepped on a piece of newspaper that once lined the cage of someone’s pet iguana and got literal shit stuck on your shoe to follow you around all day, one would probably find the scent of the junkyard fairly tolerable -- not pleasant by any stretch of the imagination, but you would need to be particularly fussy to still be complaining about the smell after giving yourself a few minutes to acclimate.

That day was an exception to prove the rule. The temperature was climbing to the upper eighties, and the trash was cooking in the sun, producing smells like an olfactory hell’s kitchen. It was still something most people could probably get used to after a while, but few would want to stay long enough to build up that tolerance.

Of course, some mammals have stronger senses of smell than others. The canid species were famous for it. But as the fox and the wolf winced walking through the junkyard, there was a piece of information to which they would have had different responses if enlightened about it. If someone were to materialize out of thin air and tell them that, statistically by species, the one with the best sense of smell among them was actually their bear friend in tow, Eddy would probably have scoffed and said that Ed must not be a good specimen because there’s no way he could tolerate the junkyard on a day like today, let alone his own entire borderline-unsanitary way of life; Double-D, however, would have replied that he already knew that, but he also knew Ed, and taking all of his observations into consideration, he had deduced long ago that Ed absolutely did have a good nose on him, but simply didn’t find most odors offensive as other people did.

And Ed really didn’t mind the smell of the junkyard. He didn’t mind a lot of things. He didn’t mind the vague conflict happening between his friends, so long as Eddy and Double-D made up in the end. At the moment, it seemed like whatever issues they had had the previous day were now water under the bridge.

And Double-D was hoping that was the case, but he couldn’t get that strong of a read on Eddy one way or another. The fox had been purposefully very coy that whole morning as they rendezvoused to make their way to the junkyard to check on the generators. Edd could tell by Eddy’s terrible acting ability that Eddy was just pretending to feel blasé about the fact that they were still hanging out two days after he had explicitly told Edd not to bother showing his face if he wasn’t going to be a team player. It didn’t help that Double-D was trying to decipher his own emotions about the three’s previous visit to the van-cum-hostel. Would Misters Hood and Little be back? If they were, would they turn out to not be who they claimed? If they hadn’t been lying, would Ed or Eddy or even Double-D himself commit some sort of faux pas that would cause the men’s high opinion of him to deteriorate? Double-D would have liked to imagine he’d have the mental strength to get through a situation where either the strangers turned out to be violent criminals or where he and Eddy got into a public falling-out, but he couldn’t even pretend that he would be capable if both of those things happened at the same time.

And Eddy didn’t know why the fuck Edd was here, either. He knew that Double-D claimed to be invested in the plan because he had volunteered his house to be the delivery point for the contraband, but Eddy didn’t buy that for a second. Eddy, for one, wholeheartedly believed that Rob and John were gone and weren’t coming back, and thought that any logical person would have come to the same conclusion, so he didn’t know whether Double-D’s musing soliloquies about the chance of seeing them again were some sort of juvenile over-hopefulness or whether Double-D was actually stupid in that “everything-he-knows,-he-knows-from-books,-and-he-has-virtually-no-experience-living-in-the-real-world” sort of way. Eddy didn’t get why Edd wanted to see them again so much -- or at least that’s what he would say if prompted. He understood entirely why Edd wanted to see them again -- the wolf admired them as a pair consisting of a well-spoken, well-groomed, well-educated gentleman and a much realer guy who must have had similar qualities by proxy to win the first guy’s companionship, and he liked that they liked him back -- but Eddy didn’t know why Edd wanted the things he wanted.

On the way to meeting up at Ed’s house that morning, Eddy was struck with the ability to put his big question about the wolf into words: why couldn’t Double-D just be normal? Hell, for that matter, why couldn’t Eddy have any friends who were normal? Sure, abnormal people make life more interesting, but when you have no normal friends, then surely you can’t just be their ‘normal’ friend, can you be? Eddy was starting to wonder if something was wrong with himself that the only two real friends he could call upon were a couple of weirdos. He needed to make some new friends. Not only that, he had to make several new factions of friends. He could keep Ed and Double-D around as his jawbreaker pals, but he needed some regular people to hang out with to keep him in touch with reality; hell, maybe his bad luck at business had something to do with his fundamental disconnect from the normal people he was trying to market to. On that note, he also needed new friends to help with his enterprising new plans. But then again, they always say to never go into business with your friends, and perhaps that’s how he’d gotten into this mess in the first place--

“Eddy?” Double-D asked, breaking the fox’s introspective trance. “Are those our generators outside the van?”

The contents of the glove compartment were removed and shoved neatly under the passenger’s seat, and the compartment was filled back up with all the money and other valuables Robin and John had collected the previous day, but which they had lacked the energy to redistribute at the time. Their personal items were splayed out on the front seats, and their weapons shoved into the space wherever they may -- John’s staff sticking well out of the open driver’s-side window, which luckily was obscured from outside view by the two piles of refuse that bounded the vehicle -- and with the glove compartment occupied, Little John just kept the cold metal piece in the back of his pants, hoping to hell that his butt didn’t accidentally disengage the safety, but still thinking that the risk an involuntary discharge would be less likely than the surefire frustration Robin would present if he found out John was carrying a stolen gun on his person. Little John didn’t want to risk pissing off the only person in the world he was certain still cared about him. At least not now that he had a clear head.

Ironically, it was now Robin whose head was unclear. They had gotten back well before sunset the previous evening, but were up well past midnight as their minds raced, filled with tormenting thoughts. Robin lay on the mattress, staring at the wall of the van, wondering if all of this -- all of this -- had been one huge mistake; John lay there, facing the other direction, lamenting that he didn’t know what he could do to make his favorite person feel better.

Little John had tried talking to Robin last night as they lay in the van not facing each other, but the conversation just went in circles, with Robin not saying much more than variants of “I feel terrible,” peppered with the exact phrase “I’ve killed people I was just trying to help,” murmured dejectedly to himself -- John picked up on how Robin was saying “I” rather than “we”, but didn’t know what to make of it.

And Little John entertained the thought that he was a bad person for not feeling as bad as Robin did about the liquor store robbers’ fate. Perhaps Robin had a point that they had started a domino effect that had gotten some complete strangers killed -- strangers so strange that they didn’t even know anything about them other than that they once lived, and for all they knew may have been terrible people who Robin and John couldn’t have saved from a life of crime and a violent end by giving them desperation money, and actually fuck it maybe they never even existed and Alex’s mom had gotten her facts wrong or possibly even outright lied to Robin and John just to psychologically torture them. But John really didn’t believe that there was any blood on their hands; maybe it was because he was raised in a very conservative, individualistic environment, but he believed that there was no way they were culpable for some dirty cops they didn’t know using excessive force on some liquor store robbers they’d likely never even met -- and, again, who may have never even existed. If there was a more direct connection between them all, then John would have been more likely to agree that they held some responsibility, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that this was a bridge too far. He told Robin as much, but each time Rob just mumbled something to refute it on the spot. For all of his imploring Robin to be more open about the fact that he sometimes felt bad like a regular person, it had never crossed John’s mind that Robin would so soon be in a place where he’d just lose the ability to communicate altogether.

John didn’t dare look at Robin after their cyclical conversation finally trailed off, so he couldn’t tell whether Robin was crying. Robin certainly wasn’t loudly weeping, but John heard some sounds that he couldn’t tell whether they were teary sniffles or just Robin’s fur brushing along the surface of the mattress as he shifted in place; maybe the sounds were a mix of both. After a few hours of these sounds -- Little John just knew Robin was still awake the whole time, as two people who have to room together for seven years can just kind of tell -- John almost had a breakdown himself, not because he agreed that they had made everything worse despite their best intentions, but because he just didn’t know how to change Robin’s mind. John didn’t enjoy feeling like a fundamentally weak person; he had felt that way for most of his life, and he had been starting to think it was finally over these last few years, but now it all came rushing back, manifesting itself in a way he never could have imagined. That’s why he didn’t let himself start sobbing again. He thought that if he wasn’t smart or wise or agreeable enough to be a leader like Robin, he ought to at least try to be a good follower and prop Robin up when Robin couldn’t stand on his own two feet. If Robin couldn’t be strong for himself, he would have to be strong for the both of them. He just hoped he was doing it right.

At one point, John broke the silence to say that he was still awake and if Robin wanted to say anything more he could just say it, and if John fell asleep he had permission to wake him up. Robin just made a mmhmm sound and that was that. Neither of them knew who finally passed out first, but it was still several hours after that, Robin busy wondering whether he was evil, and John focusing on the silence in case his friend wanted to say something. But Robin never did.

Once they were out, however, they were out like a light, and the sun and the heat and the smell combined weren’t even enough to wake them up as the day grew closer to high noon. In fact, they almost slept through the knock on the trunk door.

Tap, tap, tap.

“H-hello?” asked a high-pitched voice through the walls of the van.

“Hrm?” asked Robin.

“Dhrrrmhhdrm,” Little John replied.

“Hrrrrm, hm,” Robin concurred.

“Rrrmdhrrm, svvrrrhmm.”

“Mmm.”

“Vrrrhrhhhmmm…”

Knock, knock, knock! The sound came harder this time, and from the glass rather than the sheet metal.

“Huh?” asked Robin, this time opening his lips more than an imperceptible fraction of a millimeter.

“Wha’?” mused John.

“Hello?” asked the voice on the other side of the drawn curtains.

“Ahh!”

Gah!THUNK.FUCK!

“John, what happened!?”

“I hit my fucking head again!”

“I can hear them!” came a different adolescent voice, this one noticeably much raspier.

“I did, too, Eddy!” said the earlier voice.

“It sounded like Future Me and Eddy, guys!” came a deeper third voice.

“John, I think those lads are back!” Any traces of the previous night’s existential crisis were gone.

“Yeah, I can hear ‘em.” Little John had collapsed back onto the waterbed, his giant paws clutching his head, eyes closed and speaking to the roof, making no effort to sit up again.

“Are you gonna be alright, Johnny?”

“I will be when we don’t have to stay in this fucking van anymore!”

“I meant do you need the wolf-boy to give you first aid like he did with me?”

“Just open the doors and say hi. And tell them to give me a minute.”

Robin started to scoot his way over to the trunk, but when he looked back at Little John to ask one last time if he was alright, he realized something.

Shit! They might see our stuff in the front seat!”

“Well this is as good a time as any to recruit them.”

As Robin processed John’s statement, he could faintly hear the boys talking outside, but wasn’t listening hard enough to figure out what they were saying. “Little John… are you serious?”

“Shit. Jesus. I was serious before you put the doubt in my head! I’m just sayin’, man, you regretted not asking Alex, and these kids seem cool enough. You’ve got an opportunity; take it.”

“I… see your point.”

“Feel them out some more if you feel like you need to. But they did us an enormous favor, so some people would say we owe them the truth.”

“If we told everyone who was nice to us who we are, we would have been found out a long time ago!”

“No shit, Sherlock,” John scoffed. He still wasn’t moving his head or opening his eyes. “Remember, we got the chloroform just in case they don’t take it well.”

In the head of the moment, Robin had not, in fact, remembered that.

“Go on. Work your magic,” Little John continued. He then added as a mumbled afterthought, “Like only you can.”

Robin didn’t hear that last part; he just thought it was John murmuring in mild agony.

“Well… here goes nothing,” Robin said as he grasped the door handle.

He opened it just as Ed decided to knock on the window, and in typical Ed fashion, he knocked right through the glass.

CRASH. “It’s okay, Future Me and Future Eddy!” Ed hollered as he knocked on the first solid surface his hand found past the glass, which incidentally was the top of Robin’s skull. “It’s just Past Me and Past Eddy and Double-D! We wouldn’t hurt you, lest we also hurt ourselves as we are also you also!”

THUNK, THUNK, THUNK. Between the pounding on his head and the glass exploding in his face, Robin was trying really hard to scream. But he was merely a mortal, and he had his limitations.

“God-bloody-fucking-DAMMIT!” he shouted as he grasped his face and head and collapsed back onto the waterbed, being in much the same position as Little John. Robin had faced much danger in his seven years as an outlaw, but he had never been so thoroughly incapacitated by broken glass as he had been these last couple of days.

The sounds of shattered glass and his friend crying out in pain were enough to send Little John shooting up in bed. “Rob, what’s wro--!?” THUNK!FUUUCK!” John collapsed back into roughly the same position as he had been five seconds prior.

“Ed, what have you done!?” Double-D shrieked as he reached through the broken window to open the door from the inside.

“I just knocked on the door, Double-D!”

“Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear…” Double-D said as he seemed to dance in place at the end of the van, wanting to tend to his injured houseguests but not wanting to go crawling through broken glass to get to them. “Mr. Hood, can you make your way around the glass to the door so I can see what happened?”

“I think some glass got in my eyes!” Robin answered, trying to sit up but collapsing back down onto the mattress. The creeks and rivers of blood running down among the fur on his face weren’t too wide, but there were a lot of them.

“Oh, no. Eddy! Please go to the glove compartment and retrieve the first-aid kit!”

“M’right,” Eddy said as he walked toward the side door in absolutely no hurry; he’d sustained worse injuries from Ed’s idiocy before and had never needed first aid for them, so he genuinely didn’t see what the big deal was.

“Ed! Please brush off all the glass you can--”

“Wait!” Robin said as he shot up all the way this time, hand still over his eyes so as not to irritate them by moving his eyelids -- which he failed to do, compulsively wincing as he sat up. “Errrgh! Er-- don’t go to the glove compartment!”

“Wh-why not?” asked Double-D.

Robin just hoped that their injured state was distracting the boys from seeing the large medieval weapons in the front seat were already clearly visible from the rear of the van; so far, it was working. “B-because we’ve, er, we’ve put a bunch of our belongings in there, and it’s a real mess, everything strewn about, and, er--”

Click. All four of them went silent when they heard Eddy open the door at the side of the van. A moment passed.

“Is that a fucking bow?” Eddy asked. “Like for arrows?”

Double-D looked past the strangers toward the front seat, and indeed there were some very large objects that had been hiding in plain sight. One was indeed an archer’s bow, but the other appeared to just be a big fucking stick.

“And what’s with the big fuckin’ stick?” Eddy continued.

Simultaneously but separately, all five of the characters’ minds started turning.

Eddy was pondering why these very, very old-timey weapons seemed to ring a bell. While it had been him who told Double-D that he suspected these strangers were the infamous bandits of Sherwood Forest Nature Preserve, that suspicion had slipped his mind by the sheer shock that they would leave the van only to come back a day later, and now he thought they were just an odd couple of guys more than anything else, possible criminality being irrelevant. But seeing that bow and that staff put his mind on the precipice of remembering a detail -- a detail that was only rarely brought up when the Merry Men were being discussed by the suburban students of Peach Creek Middle School, who were not as well-versed in the legend as the children of the inner city -- that would give him reason to think his hypothesis had been right the first time.

Double-D, who had never known the detail about the medieval weaponry being a trademark of the forest outlaws, was trying to rationalize where these weapons came from and why they would need to be here. The idea that Robin and John were the legendary outlaws was on his mind, but… a bow and a quarterstaff? Really? In modern America? That would be a strange couple of weapons of choice for career criminals, but would it make any more sense if they weren’t criminals? Was he sure this wasn’t all just a very strange dream? For Christ’s sakes, Ed just knocked through a window; it was entirely possible that this was all a bizarre dream. But Edd still had a feeling that this was all still too realistic to be confused for a nocturnal hallucinations.

Robin, who was operating functionally blind, was well aware of his uncharacteristic lack of eloquence in his last few attempts at a sentence, but was telling himself that this was symptomatic of getting bonked repeatedly on the head concurrent to having glass explode in his face. He realized he was at a juncture: either keep lying or tell them the truth. What complicated matters was that these boys already knew Robin’s and John’s real names. Robin was kind of wishing he hadn’t told them, but he also thought that if put in that situation again and again, he probably would have told them every time. Part of it was out of gratitude for giving himself and John a place to lay low, and part of it was that he had genuinely thought that they must be fairly impoverished (and therefore sympathetic) kids if they were hanging out in the junkyard, but for the most part, he had historically been able to trust young people with such information; younger children wouldn’t tell the adults because they would be awestruck by his heroic and friendly aura -- almost like he was their cool big brother -- and would be more than willing to keep his secrets safe with them, and older kids and teenagers wouldn’t tell the adults because they were all rebellious assholes who wouldn’t be telling the adults in their lives anything they didn’t have to; so far, the only known exception to this rule was fear-stricken Martin, and even then he wasn’t sure if that kid had actually dropped their names. Robin thought that these three boys would follow the model, but in his blinded panic, he was suddenly starting to think that perhaps kids who lived comfortable suburban lives might have less incentive to keep their mouths shut. Robin had gone seven years without letting the Nottingham Police Department and Municipal Government find out his and John’s real identities (well, TBD vis-à-vis Martin) as a consequence of impeccably good judgment of who to share that information with, and he’d be damned to let that streak break now. All he knew was that the last time they’d spoken, the boys didn’t recognize Robin and John by their names or faces, so unless they asked around, there was a good chance that the reveal might still come as a shock to them. But could he and John afford to go without help for that much longer? Even if they couldn’t, should that help come from a ragtag trio of teenagers they’d just met, at least one of whom they each had a rather low opinion of? Maybe he would have to do as Little John said and just work his magic, but -- and maybe this was the glass in his eyes scrambling his confidence -- these kids might prove to be tough subjects.

Little John was similarly lamenting Robin’s big mouth; he kind of understood why Rob told them their names, but he didn’t understand even more. But beyond that, he was wondering whether he should be proactive and make a decision on behalf of the both of them. In a perfect scenario, he’d have time to talk it over with Robin, but with each passing moment, it was looking less and less likely that they’d get such an opportunity. John wondered how he would even go about making such a decision -- he’d already made up his mind that he was going to invite the boys and if they rejected his offer he’d simply put the fear of God in them so they wouldn’t squeal like Martin did, but how would he make sure that he was making the right decision until it was over? Did Robin always know he was making the right decision, or did he just deal with whatever consequences came as a result of his choices? Aw, goddammit, John was finding himself thinking of Robin as Mister Perfecto again, and he knew it. John felt so embarrassed in so many ways for these thoughts: the way he deified Robin, relegated himself to the background, and not to mention the part where he questioned whether he knew how to make a decision as though he’d never done such a thing before in his life. Though this did beg an interesting question: would Rob be displeased with him if John were to make the decision for the both of them? John wasn’t as convinced that Robin was a clinical narcissist as he was a few days ago in the tree, but he wasn’t completely sure that there weren’t detectable quantities of self-importance inside Rob somewhere -- seven years of being propped up as a hero by the local populace would do that to anyone. Now John was no longer worried about his ability to make a decision; he was now worried that any decision he made would be a negative one by virtue of automatically stepping on Robin’s toes.

Ed thought in pictures and scenes rather than words. He saw the bow and the staff and imagined Future Eddy and Future Himself fighting alien zombies in a post-apocalyptic world where modern technology was gone and all they could rely upon were weapons from a thousand years ago. Deep down, he knew that Robin and John weren’t actually himself and Eddy from the future -- quite frankly, he didn’t think Eddy would ever get to be that tall (or that red, or that British), and he hoped to hell that he himself would never become so grumpy as Mister John -- but Ed couldn’t let go of the idea. He was afraid that his friends’ bond was crumbling, and the idea that he and Eddy would still be friends in the future, fighting monsters and saving the world, brought a bittersweet joy to his heart -- bitter, because he just wished that Double-D was there with them. Not being privy to the legend of the robbers in the woods, Ed had absolutely no idea what was about to unfold with the revelation of the bow and the big-ass stick, but all he cared was that he and Edd and Eddy were all friends in the end. And if the older fox and bear wanted to be friends with them, as long as they didn’t want to do boring grown-up stuff, he’d be happy to let them in.

“Oh, we had some time to… go back to… our place, and… get some things of ours!” Robin sputtered. After decades of conditioning himself to speak smoothly, the shock of hearing himself trip over his words begat a negative feedback loop and he just got worse and worse. It also bred new anxieties out of thin fucking air: suddenly he was struck by the notion that he had barely visually seen the boys today, and for all he knew they had figured out who they were in their absence and had come back with some weapons (or very quiet authority figures) to make a citizen’s arrest. He knew he was coming up with insane scenarios, but if the knock-punching through the window had been a purposeful attack to neutralize him, it would have been a brilliant strategy.

“Why do you own a bow and a big fucking stick?” asked Eddy as he walked back to the end of the van. Something was on the tip of his tongue, and he was hanging on their response to see if it would make everything make sense.

Robin could feel his hands get sticky from the blood from his forehead. He didn’t know it, but he was looking almost directly at Double-D, who was growing very worried by the fox’s unconfident answer.

“Er, erm, we-we-we… we collect old weapons like that! And we think they’re safer with us than in an old smoke-damaged apartment! Of-of course, they’ve sustained smoke damage -- and water damage from the sprinklers! -- so we thought it best that they air out here--”

“They looked fine to me,” Eddy said dryly.

“Oh! I, er, erm…” And that was that. The legendarily silver-tongued Robin Hood had successfully psyched himself out using only the fear of psyching himself out.

Any further words from Robin were abandoned with the sound of Little John grunting. The bear sat up much more carefully this time, propping himself up with an elbow that sank into the waterbed. He didn’t know what the hell had come over Robin in the last twenty-four hours, but he couldn’t stand to see his friend struggle like this.

“You boys want to go on an adventure?” John asked nonchalantly, his eyes half-closed and his head still aching.

Once again, a confused silence overcame them all, but this one lasted much shorter.

“‘Adventure’?” Ed asked.

“Oh, God,” Eddy muttered and scuttled off to go find something, not anything in particular, just something to fulfill a quick and specific purpose.

“Now, Ed, use your inside voice--” Edd requested.

ADVENTU--” Ed was surprised to find a broken microwave shoved into his mouth. He was so overcome with excitement that apparently his nerves went numb, seeing as he didn’t even feel Eddy clamber up his back and stick the appliance in there.

“Ed, shut up,” Eddy said to the air in front of his own face.

As for Double-D, this begat a new moment of anxiety that took precedent over the mystery of the archaic weaponry. “Eddy, get that filthy old thing out of Ed’s mouth! Who knows where it’s been?”

“Can we get some help for this guy over here?” Little John interrupted. “The one with glass in his eyes?” Little John realized that this was the second time in these kids’ presence that Robin had not only been hurt, but had been too damned polite to demand the assistance he needed. This was making John revisit his hypothesis that Robin was too emotionally weak to allow himself to appear weak, even in a situation such as this where it would have been objectively beneficial to do so.

“I mean, I might not have glass in my-- aargh!” -- Robin compulsively winced his closed lids again, and something was making that action painful -- “Okay, never mind, I have glass in my eyes.”

Little John turned himself back over and reached for the first-aid kit in the front seat, then turned back over and tossed it out of the van to Double-D, who tried to catch it but just muffed it and watched embarrassed as it hit the ground. He picked it up as John crawled backward out of the van and grabbed Robin to move him around the glass and into the light of day.

Double-D had a lot of questions running through his mind at that moment, but he forced himself to put them aside and focus on tending to Robin’s injuries. John sat himself on the ground and positioned Robin into his lap, holding the fox’s head back so he faced upward and Double-D could get all the light he needed to see what he was going with his patient. Edd put on his gloves, took a breath, and told himself to focus on the task at hand.

“I’m sorry, Future Eddy,” said Ed morosely as he craned over the scene and blocked out the sun.

“It’s, rhgh--” -- Robin seethed in pain again -- “--quite alright, lad.”

“It really isn’t,” said Little John.

“Ed, we appreciate your desire to apologize, but if you’d please give us some space for a moment?” asked Double-D.

Dejected, Ed stepped away without a word, and went back over to Eddy, who was browsing a new pile of trash, seeing if there were any print magazines with nude women of compatible species, completely unimpressed that this heroic type whom he was so bitterly jealous of twenty minutes ago couldn’t handle a little of Ed’s slapstick.

“I just want Double-D to make you unblind so you and Future Me can go back to fighting the Space Outlaws with our sticks and arrows,” Ed said to Eddy.

And that’s when it clicked with him. Something about hearing outlaw and arrow spoken aloud in the same sentence made it all come together. Eddy recalled the few times that the discussions of the Sherwood bandits got detailed enough to stipulate that they were famous for having medieval weaponry, including the main dude being a badass with a bow and arrow. Eddy remembered, and unless the entire thing was some misunderstanding wherein Robin and John were the forest-dwelling medieval-weapons people in question but the “bandits” part was falsely attributed to them, he had his decisive piece of evidence.

“Ed? Do you... uh…” Eddy was about to tell him, but he thought Ed might overreact as he usually did.

“Yes, Eddy?”

“Can you… do me a favor?”

“What is it, Eddy?”

“So when they’re all done over there, the five of us… we’re all gonna have a little chit-chat. And when we do, there’s gonna be something that really freaks Double-D out.”

“Ooh! What is it, Eddy?”

“I can’t tell you yet, because it’s not my secret to tell. Is those guys’. You get me?”

“I think so, Eddy.”

“So the favor I’m asking of you is that you don’t freak out.”

“But what if I can’t help it, Eddy?”

“Then help it. And I need you to side with me when I tell Double-D I told you so.”

“Hm… But I don’t want to hurt Double-D’s feelings, Eddy!”

“Well if you don’t help me out, you’re gonna hurt my feelings. Do you want that to happen, big guy?”

“... No?”

“Then there ya go.”

Ed and Eddy watched patiently as Double-D used a couple of Q-tips like chopsticks to extract any strange foreign objects from Robin’s eyes, carefully scanning over a second, third, fourth, and fifth time just to make sure nothing was missed.

“Well, Mr. Hood, it appears you got off rather lucky, all things considered!” Double-D announced brightly; he was quite pleased with himself for not only administering attentive and efficient first aid, but for also compartmentalizing his paralyzing fear that his patient and his makeshift nurse both weren’t who they seemed. “Now let’s begin treating your cranial lacerations!”

“Doctor Eddward, I still insist you not call me ‘Mr. Hood’,” said Robin.

“So what’s the word?” Eddy asked as he and Ed walked back over.

“It seems that he shut his eyes at just the right time, Eddy,” Double-D said. “Some shards got into his lashes, and a few chunks got caught between his lids, but there appeared to be nothing tucked under his eyelids nor any visible damage to the corneas.”

“You got lucky again, Rob,” said Little John.

“I supposed I did, eh, Johnny!” Robin said, and in his blind spot Eddy rolled his eyes upon seeing that the elder fox was right back to his unflappably-confident persona. Eddy was honestly starting to think the whole cool-guy act was fake.

Robin sat up under his own power and gave Ed and Eddy a good look for the first time that day. “Ah, now let’s refresh the old memory about who our hosts are. Let’s see, we’ve got EdEdd… and--” -- he locked eyes with Eddy and cocked his head with a smirk -- “--now what was your name again?”

What!?

Robin let out a deep, hearty laugh, and Little John let out a deeper one.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Eddy my lad, I couldn’t resist!” Robin remarked, and he gave Eddy a friendly smile.

Eddy did not reciprocate, and he could tell in Robin’s face that Rob was surprised Eddy was still fuming over it. Of course, it was not the joke itself, but this guy lording over Eddy again with his excellence at life in general that was rubbing Eddy the wrong way. Robin’s face looked like absolute shit with his eyes red and puffy and coagulated blood clumping his fur together all over his head, but Eddy had a funny feeling that there would still be plenty of people the world over who would find his face compelling in several different senses of the word. Eddy wondered if his brother would also harbor the same hostile jealousy if he ever met this guy. On the one hand, it seemed unlikely, since his brother likewise considered himself a smooth-talking persuader and might even see himself in this stranger; on the other hand, Eddy realized, his brother might be devastated if he realized the one key difference between himself and Robin was that Robin was persuasive inasmuch as he was a well-spoken gentleman and Eddy’s brother was only persuasive inasmuch as he was a successful con-artist, and nobody remembers a con-artist fondly. In that moment, seeing that battered and bloodied smile from the lanky vulpine Englishman, Eddy suddenly didn’t feel so jealous of his brother anymore.

“Now Mr. John,” Double-D said, “if you could hand me the cotton balls and the hydrogen peroxide?”

“Hey, while you do that, we’ve got a question,” Eddy piped up. “What was this adventure you were offering us earlier?” This was the part Eddy still wasn’t sure about. He had no idea what adventure they had in mind, but he had a feeling that it would somehow involve them showing their true colors. And even if the adventure was some sort of trap -- like if they were going to try to rob the three of them -- Eddy believed the feeling of vindication would be worth it.

Double-D, Robin and John were all jarred to hear that brought back up, but Ed had the most visceral reaction. “ADVEN--!”

Hush,” said Eddy, clearly in no mood for more distractions.

And Ed did. But now Edd needed to say something annoying.

“Eddy, let’s please not think about that until I’ve finished with, uh, Robin’s injuries, would you please?”

“It’s fine,” said Robin, “We can talk as you work.”

“Uh-- n-no, it’s not that I can’t multitask-- no, I’m a good multitasker!” Edd spit out, clearly getting more unnerved with every syllable falling out of his mouth. “But whatever you’re offering may be too interesting to allow me to maintain my focus on something so important as this.”

Little John decided to push the envelope. “You seem nervous, bud. Something on your mind?”

“Uh, n-no, not really.”

“Well, there’d better be, because if you’re this nervous for no reason, I don’t trust you to operate on my friend.”

“Nonononono, I, um…”

And Eddy was milliseconds away from saying ‘Double-D’s nervous because he thinks the adventure is that you’re going to rape and murder us,’ so as to force Robin and John to say who they really were as a way of refuting Eddy’s accusation, but then he had an idea for a more straightforward approach.

“He’s nervous because he heard a rumor yesterday that there’s two guys running around in the woods with old-ass weapons, robbing rich people and giving the money to poor people,” Eddy said as matter-of-factly as he could while suppressing his self-impressed smirk. “He’s afraid you might be them.”

Double-D’s blood ran cold as he turned around to give Eddy a look. And what a look it was: one of the wolf’s eyes made it look like he was about to tear the big-mouthed little fox limb from limb, while the other made it look like he really needed an adult.

But with his head turned, he didn’t see the nonverbal communication of the adults right in front of him. Robin craned his neck up to look at Little John, who gave Robin a head-tilted-left, lower-lip-out, eyebrows-raised, left-shoulder-shrugging, right-hand-out-interrogatively-with-the-palm-three-quarters-to-the-sky look that seemed to say, ‘What do you think?’, to which Robin nodded calmly a few times with his eyes closed.

“Eddward, young man, you don’t need to fear us,” Robin reassured him. “All we want is to help the poor. And we don’t like using the word robbing.”

Double-D almost snapped his neck from how quickly he turned his head around.

“Yeah, so don’t use that word if you wanna hang with us,” Little John added, then looked up to include Ed and Eddy in his audience. “By the way, did you guys wanna hang with us?”

Eddy didn’t enjoy his moment of validation as much as he thought he would, since he wasn’t as emotionally prepared as he thought he was to hear Robin and John just casually say that they were indeed wanted criminals with a record likely thicker than the dictionary, and the part where they asked them if they just as casually asked if they wanted to join them was, among other things, flummoxing. Ed was more confused than anything, since he had no previous awareness of the urban legend, but in an attempt to please Eddy, he used all of his mental energy to keep himself steadfast, trying to focus his mind on Double-D, who went from looking blankly at Robin to looking blankly at Little John, then to Robin for a bit shorter of an interval, then back to John, and back and forth and back and forth until it looked like he was nodding.

“Is that a yes?” Little John asked half-jokingly, since it really did look like the wolf-boy was nodding.

All of the seagulls, pigeons, and other birds in the junkyard flew away hurriedly at the sound of Double-D’s scream. The poor creatures must have surely thought the world was ending.

“Oh, Jesus Christ,” Little John groaned as he leaned over, picked up Double-D, held him close to his chest like a stuffed animal, and put a paw around his snout to shut him up. “I guess that’s a no, then.” He glanced up and again regarded Ed and Eddy. “Are you two good? Because I only have two hands.”

The younger fox and bear were still thoroughly dumbfounded.

“Uh…” Eddy tried to say something. “Let me get this straight. You want us to--”

“We want some new people to join us in robbing the rich and giving to the poor, until the rich finally give up with being dicks,” Little John said bluntly. “Which might sound like a completely fuckin’ bonkers plan, but we almost pulled it off a few years back before… some shit happened.”

Eddy was going to ask what shit Little John was referring to, but he noticed that Edd looked more uncomfortable than usual in the bear’s grasp. “Uh, I… don’t think he can breathe,” Eddy observed.

John noticed that he had carelessly placed his paw in such a way that it was not only closing the wolf’s mouth but also blocking his nostrils. “Oh! Shit. Sorry, kid!”

GASP. “AAA--!” Double-D wailed in the split second when Little John took his hand off Edd’s mouth to reposition it. John looked down at Robin, who was still sitting in his lap, and gave him a look that clearly said ‘this was a bad idea and I regret it’.

“But why us?” Eddy asked.

Robin felt composed enough to stand again, and stepped a few steps in front of John and Edd. “Because we’re a bit desperate right now, truth be told,” Robin explained, “and maybe our judgment’s been knackered by recent events, but--”

“‘Knackered’? What?”

“...Maybe we’re wrong, but it sure seemed like you three could be just the help we needed. For one thing, you were kind enough to give us a place to stay. And the fact that you were hanging out in the junkyard in the first place told us that you boys might be up for anything -- even a crazy proposal like ours. And then there’s the way that you seem like you’re nothing at all alike, and yet here you are, all hanging out together, with a clear bond between you that we could see after knowing you for, what, not even an hour? We need more than one person to join us, but we need them all to be able to cooperate with not only me and John, but each other. Then we see the three of you, all seeming to bring your own skills to the table, and you all seem to already be pretty tight friends. You three are like a package deal!” Robin had prepared for that question while Double-D was tending to his eyes, and it proved to be a great way to take his mind out of his body in that moment. His spiel wasn’t completely ingenuine, but the details he had listed weren’t as impressive as he’d presented them. It seemed better to augment their appeal as a group than to tell them that they chose them out of convenience more than anything else.

Then Ed had something to ask: “You want us to be bad guys with you?” he asked in an unusually small voice.

“Ed, we’re not the bad guys,” said Robin. “But right now the bad guys are in control, and they made doing the right thing wrong and doing the wrong thing right. And they want you to think we’re the bad guys for doing the right thing.”

“I’m confused,” said Ed. “So you’re good guys?”

“I can promise you this much, young man,” Robin said; “We’re doing our best to do what we think is the right thing. But some bad people made rules and regulations that… let’s just say that right now, we’re in a spot where it seems that doing the right thing requires us to break some rules.”

Robin turned around and locked eyes with Double-D, who was too afraid to look away. “And we have our internal conflicts about what we do. Absolutely! Every single day! But we’ve thought long and hard about it and we’ve come to the conclusion that we’re simply in an unwinnable situation. But again, we’re doing our best.”

Then he turned to the younger fox, the one he regarded as an arsehole and thought going into this was going to be the hardest to convince to answer the call. “And we believe this because we see the effect that it has on the people of Nottingham. All over the West Side, people are grateful that we come by and help them out when nobody else could, or would. People are starving, people don’t have enough clothes, people can’t find jobs, the people who can find jobs can hardly afford to get themselves to work, renters are being evicted because their landlords are greedy and homeowners are getting priced out of their homes because of a mayor who says he thinks he can forcefully raise an area’s land value by jacking up the property taxes! ...But we all know he doesn’t actually think that’s how it works...”

Robin trailed off for a second to get a good look at Eddy. He still looked deeply unimpressed. So Robin tried to pitch the concept in a way that Eddy might like to hear.

“...I know you kids and your comfortable suburban lives might not fully understand the situation on the other side of the forest, but I can assure you that those people adore us for the work we do to make their lives bearable. It’s the most rewarding work we’ve ever done. To them…” -- Robin thought for a moment to carefully pick his choice of words -- “...we’re heroes.”

And that word did indeed catch Eddy’s attention, but he would never show it. He still wasn’t convinced that this guy’s personality wasn’t completely fake. As a way of feeling better about himself, Eddy started telling himself that other people would surely see this British guy acting like a classical gentleman and surely think it was fake, too. But then again, Eddy had very little frame of reference for how well Robin’s personality went over with other people, and if Robin was correct in saying that a large chunk of a major American city loved him, then maybe whether his gentlemanliness was fake or not was irrelevant; after all, it had won over Double-D.

“So long story short,” Little John said, “morality is gray, there ain’t no good or bad people, just people who do more good things than bad things and vice versa.” He then looked down at Double-D and forced the kid’s head up to make sure he looked back at him. “And we thought you boys were smart enough to get that. We’d sure hate to be wrong about that, now wouldn’t we be?” he asked sternly.

Double-D gave him a look much like he gave Eddy. In one eye was a fire of rage at this monster who -- being a million-times-over repeat-offending criminal -- had the iconoclastic audacity to say that he and his friend were morally and intellectually superior to him, a law-abiding model citizen (granted, Double-D clearly heard the part where Little John refuted the claim that they thought that they, or anybody else, was a necessarily good person, but Double-D quite frankly didn’t believe that); the other eye shivered in a blizzard of fear and uncertainty, silently mourning the death of justice.

Little John continued. “We’ve never killed anybody, we almost never give somebody major injuries, we don’t strike first when we don’t have to, and when we get the inkling that somebody’s good enough to be let off the hook, we let them off the hook. How old are you kids?”

“Fourteen,” Eddy answered; he himself wouldn’t be fourteen for another month, but he didn’t think that detail was worth stipulating.

“Yeah, we guessed somewhere around there. We thought that you guys had good hearts inside of hearts of teenage rebels; we thought you guys would hear what we did and would think it was some punk-rock way of saying ‘fuck the world’ while simultaneously improving the world. I… maybe we were wrong.”

Little John found himself getting bummed out over bad memories -- the way John described how he thought the Eds to be basically described Will to a tee. John forced himself to plow through it, drawing attention away from the fact that these same thoughts had compelled Robin to look down at his own feet and focus his eyes on nothing in particular for longer than a confident-seeming person would.

“You kids don’t have to join us if you really don’t want to,” Little John concluded. “But you owe it to yourselves not to squeal on us. We’re just two people trying to do the right thing. We met once, we’ll go find somewhere else to stay, and you stay out of our business and we’ll stay out of yours.”

“Well… hey, man--” -- Eddy was right back to being nervous now that the scary-looking Little John was talking -- “...it’s not me and Ed you gotta worry about squealin’ on ya. It’s Sock-Head who’s all anal about rules and stuff.”

Little John looked down at the wolf in his grasp again. “‘Sock-Head’? Is that what they call you?”

Double-D saw the upside-down face of his grisly grizzly captor. Edd’s fear of germs was quite literally crippling as it prevented him from being physically capable of soiling his undergarments.

“I’ll tell you what, Sock-Head,” said Little John. “If you get the cops on us, you’d better hope they kill us dead, because if we’re still alive, we’re gonna tell them you harbored a couple of wanted criminals!”

“Little John!” said Robin. “Calm down! You’re scaring him!”

“Good! That’s what I’m trying to do! I’m tryna cover our asses, Robin!”

“Hm. Fair point. But you’re giving them a bad impression of how we operate.” Robin turned to Ed and Eddy. “Don’t worry, lads; we only use coercion when we absolutely need to, such as right now.”

Neither Ed nor Eddy knew the word coercion.

“I think Double-D wants to say something!” said Ed.

“Does he now?” asked Little John sardonically. He looked at Double-D. “Kid, I’m gonna let go of your mouth, but you better say actual words, or I’m gonna swing you around by the tail and do my damnedest to send you into outer space. Do you understand me?”

Mmhmm!” Edd pleaded.

“I don’t like being this mean to you or to anybody else, alright? Because people were mean to me like that before and I know it didn’t make me want to be like them. But when people really, really, really piss me off… I don’t think straight. I don’t think about trying to convince them to be different. I just want to be really, really mean to them. Understand?”

Mmhmm!

“And I ain’t proud of that. I wish I could win people over and change them. Which is why it’s all the worse when people piss me off. Because if you put me through a moment of weakness… goddammit, I’m gonna try to make you feel even weaker. And right now, you’re pissing me off. You understand?”

Mmhmm!

“I’m sorry for the long speech, kid, but if we’re gonna be working together, I need you to know that. I can be friendly if you give me a reason to be friendly, but I can--”

“I thought you said you were sorry for the long speech!” shot Eddy, suddenly emboldened by the revelation that the large bear was currently feeling emotional weakness.

“Hey, you’re next!” John shot back. “Everything I’m saying to him, I’m saying to you, too!”

Eddy was very tempted to call his bluff about the swing-him-around-by-the-tail thing, but he resisted the urge.

“Alright,” said Little John. “Open sesame.”

He unclasped his hand from the wolf’s snout, and Double-D gasped as though he had been suffocating the entire time. In reality, he just wanted to open his jaw for the first time in as long as his raddled mind could remember.

“Oh, c’mon, kid, I wasn’t squeezing that hard on your nose!”

Double-D took a couple of deep breaths through his mouth, eyes unfocused and staring off into space, and slowly came back down to earth.

“Now remember, if you wanna have a civil conversation, you hafta converse civilly,” said John.

“We haven’t hurt you yet, lad,” Robin said as he walked over. “We aren’t going to hurt you now.”

Double-D looked slowly from Robin to John to Robin again, and tried to think and pick his words carefully. He also glanced over to his friends, pleading with his eyes to help, but it was clear that they wanted no part of this.

Edd, still being held close to Little John’s chest, chose to address Robin first.

“I… trusted you. And you misled me.” Double-D’s voice quivered as he spoke.

“And for that, we apologize,” said Robin.

“Wait,” said John. “We didn’t lie that much, did we? I mean the microwave-fire thing was a lie, but we told you our real names for Christ’s sakes. We don’t usually share that with people we just met.”

“Oh, you told us you were actors!” Double-D protested, his intonation wobbly and flustered.

“Yeah, that really wasn’t a lie,” said Little John.

“Oh, really!? Explain yourselves!”

“We dress us in disguises and compel people to give us their money, we don’t stick a gun in their face and tell them fork over their wallets! What the hell do you take us for!?”

THIEVES!” Double-D’s throat sounded like it hurt as he screamed. “I take you for thieves! Cooks! Criminals! Bandits, outlaws, scoundrels, hooligans, scourges upon civilized society! I take you for devils, thugs, bullies--!”

“Hey, Rob. Do you think that having the fuckin’ dictionary memorized is a useful skill to us?”

“Oh, does my intelligence make you feel inferior!?”

“Wh- th--!?” Little John sputtered as he turned the wolf around to face him. “Holy shit, you actually think I’m stupid, don’t you? You really think you’re a genius and I’m a dumbass, don’t you?”

In the flurry, Double-D didn’t notice the repulsed look on Robin’s face. Said look was not directed at John.

“An intelligent person doesn’t live as a serial mugger!” Double-D said. “And they especially don’t speak as vulgarly as you!”

“Well I’m sorry that you think the culture I grew up in is inferior, you fucking racist!” John shot back, half in jest.

“If you were truly intelligent, you would have abandoned all tenets of your inferior, unintellectual, and quite frankly bigotted backwater culture!” Once again, he was prepared for death at any moment, and standing up against ignorance was a hill he would be honored to die on.

Little John’s eyes burst all the way open, and he almost had the urge to let out a stupefied chuckle. He couldn’t believe how badly this kid was burying himself. “Rob, you hearing this?”

“To my disbelief, I am,” said Robin. At that comment, he and Edd shot each other unimpressed looks, their opinions of one another thoroughly deflated.

“Well, listen, kid,” said John, “I’m not gonna swing you around by the tail. But I am gonna throw you really, really far.”

What!?

Little John stood and placed his hands around Double-D as though he were a football. “Fasten your seatbelts, Little John Airlines Flight Ten-Eighteen is takin’ off for Timbuktu!”

Wait, no!

Little John wound up to toss him, but never actually let go. He just brought him back around to face him again.

“Chill out, kid, I’m not gonna actually--”

NO!” came a dopey voice. Thump. “Oof!”

Little John realized he was suddenly staring at the sky. “What the fuck?” He looked down and saw that Ed had tackled him.

“I’m not gonna let you throw my Double-D into space!” Ed cried.

Beyond their huddled mass, he could see the two foxes. The small one was stifling a laugh while the large one just looked confused. John could not, however, see the wolf.

“You ain’t gonna let me throw him, but you’re gonna let yourself suffocate him?”

Ed took a second to process the words before he hopped up to see Double-D flattened on John’s stomach. Double-D clearly had the wind knocked out of him.

“Oops. Sorry, Double-D,” Ed said as he picked up Edd, who looked like he was about to go into shock if his diaphragm didn’t get working again soon.

“But that’s why we asked you,” Robin piped up. “That kind of devotion to save your friends and to do what you think is right, even if it means putting yourself in danger and hurting bad people.”

“Without taking enjoyment in hurting bad people, because we’re not fucking psychos,” John added, himself a bit winded from impact and grateful that the firearm in his pants didn’t discharge. “We had a friend who… over the years, he got more and more enjoyment out of robbing people. Like, too much. It stopped being noble and started being disturbing. But he’s in jail for doing extracurricular stuff we had nothing to do with, so you’ll never have to meet him. Just in case you thought we were like some kind of self-righteous sadistics who want to overthrow the entire country like he did. We want to help people, not start an all-out class war.”

Eddy jumped in: “Are you sure you don’t like hurting people for fun? Because Double-D thought you did!”

John looked at Double-D, who was still catching his breath. “Oh, I love a good brawl! And I hate how much I love it!” He smirked. “You see? We ain’t just criminals; we’re complex!”

Complex!” Robin echoed. “Perfect choice of words, Little John!”

“Thank ya kindly, milord.”

Robin walked over to Double-D. “How’re you feeling, lad?”

“Don’t speak to me! I reject you!” Edd spat.

“And you know what? I understand that. When I was your age, I would have reacted in exactly the same way to meeting someone like us.”

“Then where along the line did you decide to dispose of what is clearly a well-bred upbringing and become a scoundrel?”

Robin was tempted to point out that he was only half well-bred, but he decided that either he would have plenty of time in the future to clarify that, or he wouldn’t, in which case it wouldn’t matter. So instead he decided to respond more poignantly.

“I decided that when I realized that this world is far too messy for morality to fit into black and white,” Robin answered. “And I wish that it didn’t have to be this way. John and I both wish we didn’t find ourselves in such a spot where we think a life of crime is the best life we can live. But here we are.”

“You think that victimizing innocent people is going to make anything better!?” Double-D snarled.

“The people we prey on ain’t innocent,” said Little John. “Rob, didn’t I already mention we screen people before we rob them?”

“You did, John,” said Robin, “though he may have been too flustered to pay attention. But Eddward-- or shall I call you ‘Double-D’?”

“I repeat: I do not want you to speak to me at all!” Double-D repeated.

“Double-D,” Robin spoke, “I pray you don’t take this question as some sort of gotcha, truly I do hope, but in all genuineness, I need to ask: what do you plan to do to remedy the rampant poverty and subjugation in the city?”

And just as planned, that shut Double-D right up.

“Maybe you don’t have a plan yet,” Robin continued. “And that’s fine. You’re kids; I can’t expect you to have solutions to problems the adults can’t even fix. But surely you must understand us when we say that when John and I go about stealing from callous, bullying, mean-spirited rich people who seem to be delayed in receiving their comeuppance, and we give that money to some downtrodden soul who…” -- Robin found himself getting upset just thinking about it -- “...who doesn’t know whether they’ll still have food and shelter in a week’s time, and we see the look on their face, their eyes light up, and it’s like we’ve just given them the will to live all over again, and, and… Blimey, where was I going with this sentence?”

“‘You must understand us when we say…’” said Little John.

“Ah, yes! You must believe us when we say that when we do that, and we can see we’re making a positive difference in people’s lives, then in that moment, it would be a tough sell to tell us that we’re simply evil and nothing more.”

Double-D looked like he was trying to stay angry.

“And maybe we’re wrong,” said Robin. “Maybe you’re right and we really are making things worse. Heaven knows the thought’s crossed our minds. But the fact of the matter is that people are hungry and tired and naked and cold and just miserable… until we show up. To us, this is a solution. So I ask again: would you have a better idea? Because we would love to hear it.”

Robin was putting on his patented welcoming look to try to get the best possible answers out of the wolf-boy, but he was prepared for this communication to break down even further, as it looked very much like Double-D was about to start crying self-loathing tears in realization that he was in philosophical checkmate.

But Robin wasn’t looking at Eddy, which is a shame, because the younger fox was visibly intrigued by the tales of being regarded as a bringer of light in a world of darkness. He wasn’t too happy with the part where they were taking money from the rich, which was a demographic that Eddy aspired to one day be a member of. But he really liked the part where -- assuming this wasn’t all complete bullshit -- they had the admiration of the public. All Eddy wanted in life was wealth and acceptance; now he was starting to wonder if he only wanted one as an avenue to the other.

“...Or do you not want to help the starving people in the city?” Robin asked, tired of waiting, and allowing himself to indulge in some passive aggression. “You do know they’re starving, right?”

“Th-th-they can… vote!” burst Double-D. “They can vote for officials who will--”

“Shit, he really doesn’t get it,” remarked Little John. “Kid, voting is great and all, but it doesn’t guarantee that any of the candidates are going to give a shit about the people they serve. In a lot of places, there just aren’t any good options. Hell, in this town, anybody who would want to challenge John Norman is either paid off or scared off.”

This was news to Double-D. Although he could probably list all of the presidents and vice presidents of the United States in chronological order, he didn’t actually know too much about how politics worked in reality. “B-but surely there’s someone who can run for mayor who’s not bound in the clutches of corruption! An everyday citizen could--”

“An everyday citizen? Kid, do you know how much clout you have to have to get taken seriously on the ballot? Do you know how much election campaigns cost? And even if some random guy had a chance at taking on Prince John, they--”

“‘Prince John’?” Double-D asked for clarification.

“That’s what we call John Norman,” said Robin.

“Because he’s barely a mayor but he’s bratty and whiny enough to be a spoiled little prince,” explained John. “But yeah, kid, there’s too many ways to cheat in politics, and even if there wasn’t, what? You’re gonna wait until November of next year to get elected? And then, like, what?, half a year after that to get sworn in? Push some new laws through the city legislature? If the lawmakers aren’t already in your back pocket, that’s gonna take forever, and again, who’s to say it’s gonna pass? Wait, hell, there’s another thing! You’d have to find good people to replace a lot more people than just the mayor! The system’s infected all the way up and down, and you’d have to--”

“Johnny, Johnny!” Robin cut him off. “I think he gets your point. You don’t need to get so worked up over this.”

Little John looked like his rant had made him feel exhausted. “Jesus, kid, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I don’t want to be the bad guy when I’m stealing shit from people, I don’t want to be the bad guy when I’m in a fistfight, and I don’t want to be the bad guy when I’m talking to some kid I only met a few times. But… I need to say, kid. Me and Rob were really putting ourselves out there by asking you guys to join us, because the rich people are getting meaner and we could really use some help. Then you guys respond worse than we ever coulda imagined when we took a risk and asked you, and quite frankly, that made me lose my goddamn mind. And I know how fucked up it is that I put my life on the line every day, running from bullets and shit, and this is the thing that gives me anxiety, but--”

“‘Running from bullets’!? How daredevilish are your exploits!?”

“You see? There ya go. We thought you kids would be up for something exciting -- something fulfilling -- but I guess we got a really bad read on you. And like the poor people downtown’ll tell you, nothing brings out the worst in you than when you really need help and the people you ask for it from tell you no.”

“Can I say something?” asked Robin. “Double-D… going back to the whole idea of fixing everything… John and I don’t pretend to have a long-term solution. What we do first and foremost is a short-term solution to curbing misery. If we find a way to use our tactics to scare all the politicians in this town straight so that they’ll never be corrupt again--”

“Which we almost did a few years back, before something out of our control happened!” Little John interjected. “But you suburban kids probably never heard about it because Prince John was so embarrassed that he paid off all the newspapers and TV stations not to talk about it.”

“So if you didn’t hear it straight from a Nottingham native’s mouth, you probably never heard of it at all. Do you know what we’re referring to, Eddward?”

Edd shook his head.

“Ed, Eddy?”

They shook their heads.

“It’s amazing the difference two sides of a forest can make,” Robin remarked. “But Double-D, in many ways I admire you. You seem like you would much rather fix this problem from the inside and without breaking any eggs. I wish -- I wish -- I had the mind and patience to do that, and I’m sure Little John does, too.”

“Damn straight, I wish I could work miracles like that.”

“But our flaw, Double-D, is that we’re just too impatient. People need help now, and as Little John said, I just can’t wait for political change to come about organically. You know, Eddward, I was like you once. I was raised to be studious, straight-laced, polite… but above all, I was bred to be unrebellious. I was told to always follow the rules, as I could trust that the rules were the rules for a very good reason.” Robin called upon his training as an actor and put up a dramatic pause to evoke the feeling of internal conflict and anguish. “But then I saw that that was not the case. And at the time, it ruined me. It made me wonder if everything I was built up to be was for the wrong reasons, to keep me a cog in a system that isn’t necessarily broken so much as it is being used for ill-begotten means. I really do hope you never have such a moment of realization, Eddward. I hope you can maintain your innocence. Because you’re a good lad, Eddward. And the ferocity you showed when you tried to defend the straight-laced life you’ve always known? If we could channel that to defend the poor? Oh, we’d be set! But I can’t force you to do something you’re not comfortable with if you have good reasons to not be comfortable with it. That’s not who we are.”

“You’re not comfortable forcing me to join your rascalry but you’re comfortable forcing people to give your their money!?” Double-D shot back.

“A fair point! Imagine if we had your cleverness on our side! Maybe you can be the cunning one and Little John can be the strong one, and I’ll simply be the one who isn’t the best at anything but keeping the group’s cohesion together!”

Off to the side, Eddy felt a strange resonance with that statement.

“Double-D, I’ve rambled long enough. I just want to end by saying this: I -- we -- have a moral compass, and we’re trying to follow it where it leads us. We understand if you don’t agree with it, but we only ask that you respect that we’re doing our best to be the best men that we can be.”

Edd recognized that there was nothing else he could say to sway them, so he tried to be the bigger man. “I do not agree with your worldview or tactics, Mr. Hood, though I will dignify that you are doing what you believe to be the right thing.”

“Excellent. I’m glad we could have this talk.”

“So is that a hard no from all of you?” asked Little John. He looked to Ed and then to Eddy. “How about you two? You guys haven’t said much.”

“Oh! Uh, just, uh… just listenin’!” Eddy said. “But, uh… I’m kinda still confused about the bow and arrow and the, uh…”

“The big fuckin’ stick?”

“Uh, yeah, that!”

“What can we say?” said Robin. “We prefer them. They give us a distinct style that nobody else can copy.”

“Doesn’t that make you stick out like a sore thumb?” Eddy asked.

“In some ways, absolutely, but in other ways, you can’t hear these from miles away like you could a gunshot.”

“Besides, guns and bullets are too easy to trace, and not much easier to find when you’re wanted criminals,” John added.

“And in the hands of experts like ourselves, a bow and a staff can scare the bad guys, maybe hurt them if we need to, but not quite kill them. We don’t want to do that.”

“Like we said, we’re not evil,” said John. “I actually used to have a bow, too, but it broke and we’ve never had a chance to get me a new one. Maybe we could find one when we’re finding something you guys can use?”

“Oh, don’t worry about us,” said Double-D insolently, “we’re not interested, now are we, Eddy?”

Eddy was lost in thought. He was imagining himself doing such things, robbing people with outdated weaponry and then being exalted as a hero for it. He wasn’t too keen on actually doing it -- again, this could all be bullshit -- but it was an interesting thought to ponder. Although he couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something ridiculous about running around with a bow and arrow and acting like a hero. Not because it was inherently shameful, but because it was reminiscent of something else that teenage boys would typically find shameful.

“Hey!” Eddy exclaimed. “You guys are kinda like, uh… wha-what’s that story that they turned into a Sidney movie?”

Eddy knew exactly which film from the ubiquitous family-movie studio’s animated canon he was thinking of, but it wasn’t cool for teenage boys to like Sidney movies. According to any teenager in America, the best way to dispel rumors that you like something uncool is to feign ignorance of it altogether.

“Where they’re running around with bows and arrows in, like, Old-Timey Land?” Eddy continued, hoping someone else would fill in the blanks.

Ed didn’t know which Sidney movie Eddy was referring to, because even as a young child, Ed had always preferred watching scary movies and paranormal TV shows on cable.

“And they live in the woods because they’re outlaws?” Eddy continued still. “But they’re supposed to be the good guys because, um, the government is corrupt or something?”

Double-D did know what mythos Eddy was referring to, but he didn’t want to say it. His embarrassment had nothing to with adolescent insecurities like it did with Eddy, but more-so that he was afraid that having a knowledge of animated films marketed toward young children would conflict with his reputation as the intellectual one. Or at least that’s what Double-D would tell himself. The fact of the matter is that he had a history with that movie and he didn’t dare speak its name.

Eddy was regretting ever saying anything. “And in the Sidney movie they’re all humans for some reason?”

Oddly enough, it was the adults who recognized which children’s movie the children were confused about.

“Do you mean the legend of Adam Bell?” asked Robin.

“Yeah, that’s it!” said Eddy, relieved to be relieved.

“Yeah, who could forget ol’ Adam Bell?” asked Little John. “I mean, I never actually got to see the cartoon movie because my dad didn’t want me watching kid stuff like that, but I remember when it came out when I was a little kid. Everybody knows the story of Adam Bell! A timeless classic, cartoon or not!”

“Of course!” added Robin. “I myself wasn’t old enough to remember it when it was new, but I saw it on re-releases, and a few years after that, I saw it on tape when VCRs started coming about!” While Robin’s nuclear family wasn’t quite moneyed enough to acquire a VCR when they first became widely available in the early 1980s, Robert and his family were, and as a frequent guest of the Scarlett house, young Robin had full access to their collection of children’s movies; Sidney’s Adam Bell was one of those movies, probably one of his childhood favorites, and if Robin ever found out that the date that film debuted in Los Angeles was also the date Robin himself was born in Loxley, he would find that to be a very pleasing coincidence.

Now Robin remembered the first few times he sat down and watched a movie on videocassette at the Scarlett house, circa 1982, his toddler half-brother Will sat next to him on the oversized seat under an afghan blanket, and he remembered how the creeping discomfort of being a stranger in his illegitimate father’s house was assuaged by the warm presence of the young boy who had always adored Robin and seemed to know from the second he laid eyes upon him that Robin was his brother. He remembered how so many moments that he shared with Will back home in England were tarnished by Robert’s presence as he shuffled them through no-nonsense aristocratic activities like banquets, balls, low-velocity yachting, highly-supervised sword-fighting practice, the aforementioned etiquette classes that Will refused to even attend, and other activities hostile to the young mind and spirit, and yet he found himself thinking that maybe this made him appreciate more of the rare moments when they just got to be normal kids together, whether that was kicking a football around, splashing around in Robert’s pool, playing unsupervised with plastic toy swords, or just running through the Scarletts’ enormous garden, or even just sitting down to watch a cartoon movie together, unbothered by the adults who didn’t understand them as they sat alone in a spare room, the eight-and-a-half-year-old’s arm around the three-and-a-half-year-old’s shoulder to keep him feeling safe in the room that was dark except for the fantastic technicolor coming from the grainy screen and the light seeping in from the gray English Sunday afternoon outside the window.

Splendid, now Robin was sad all over again, and for the second time today over Will specifically. But this was no time to show it. He made a mental note to stare wistfully into space while pondering whether he should lament that he didn’t have more innocent moments like that with his brother or be grateful that he had just enough to appreciate how special they were. Now it was time to go back to educating a bunch of Yankees on English culture.

“Yes, I may have taken some inspiration from Adam Bell. I confess,” Robin continued. “The stories of him and William of Cloudsley and Clym of the Clough running around Inglewood Forest outside of Carlisle and raising hell for one hell of a good cause… who wouldn’t find that almost romantic? You boys must remember what a strong part of my country’s culture the legend of Adam Bell is, so it mustn’t surprise you too much that the stories of him would always be in the back of my mind!”

“My sister Sarah doesn’t like that movie because she thinks it’s weird that they’re all humans,” Ed chimed in. Meanwhile, Double-D -- still in Ed’s arms for lack of a better place to be -- was trying to avoid eye contact with anybody until the conversation went in a different direction. Suffice it to say that the topic was doing nothing to assuage Edd’s internal conflict about his perceptions of good and evil.

“You guys really run around with a bow and arrow and never get caught?” asked Eddy.

Robin began to reaffirm their story. “Lad, you’d be surprised by how well we--”

And then, an epiphany came to him.

“...You know what?” Robin asked. “I think actions speak louder than words. Little John, tell me if this is a good idea: lads, I invite you all to come witness us in action -- from a safe distance, of course! We aren’t going to throw you into the fire right away -- hell, we’d rather keep you away from the fire for now. We just want to show you who we are, what we do, and what we’re all about. Perhaps that will help to better develop your opinion of us. After all, there’s only so much we can convey with words; there’s so much more we can show you by showing you! Little John, am I crazy?”

“I mean, you are crazy, but that’s a good idea!” John answered. “It’ll be like a ride-along!”

“Precisely! So, are you boys willing?”

And once again, he was met with blank stares.

“Oh, I’m sorry to put you on the spot like that, boys,” said Robin. “I’m just excited to get the chance to--”

“I’ll do it.”

“Huh-- what?”

“I’ll do it,” Eddy repeated. “I want to know who you guys really are.”

“In that case, Eddy, we’d be happy to show you!” Robin beamed, pleasantly surprised that the nastiest one of the boys was the first to come around to their way of thinking.

“Um, Ed? Mr. Hood? May I have a moment to speak with Eddy?” asked Double-D.

“Most assuredly. We’re not the kind to keep friends apart.”

“Um, Ed, could you let me d--? Oof!” Double-D landed with a thump, then made his way over to Eddy, who was still standing coolly in the corner, not making any effort to meet Edd in the middle.

“‘Sup, Sock-Head?”

“Eddy, have you lost your mind!?” Double-D said in what he thought was a quiet enough voice.

“You know what, Edd? I didn’t lose my mind. I lost my confidence in our group dynamic.”

Double-D noticed Eddy called him Edd instead of Double-D again, and that the usual franticness in Eddy’s voice was once again absent.

“I get it if you don’t want to take these guys up on their wacky-ass offer, Edd,” Eddy continued, “but I need a change of pace. Let me make my own decisions and see the world outside of this cul-de-sac. If it sucks, I’ll let you know and I’ll come back to you, but we’re gonna be adults before you know it, Double-D, and as much as I don’t want to waste my youth, I don’t want to be unprepared for being a grown-up, either. I want to live now, Edd; I’m tired of waitin’. Join me or don’t.”

And Double-D wanted to knock some sense into his little fox friend, but between all the absurd revelations and traumatic talking points of the day, he just had no mental energy left. In fact, as he often did when his brain was tired, he found himself vulnerable to Eddy’s persuasion.

Ed lumbered over behind them. “What’s going on, guys?”

Eddy didn’t answer. Double-D did answer, but he didn’t answer Ed.

“Very well, then. Where are we off to first?” the wolf asked the elder fox and bear.

“Wait, you!?” asked Little John, who was just now standing back up off the ground. “I-I mean, you’re still welcome to come, we just… didn’t think you wanted to.”

“We stick together. It’s an Ed thing,” Double-D replied resolutely. “Your end of the deal is to give us that adventure you promised, and don’t make us regret it.”

“Adventure!?” asked Ed. He didn’t care what path he went down as long as Edd and Eddy were there to walk down that path with him.

“Yes, Ed,” said Eddy calmly, pleasantly surprised by Double-D’s resolve. “Adventure.”

“So again: where are we going first?” asked Double-D firmly.

“Lads, lads, we’re glad you’ve decided to accept our invitation,” said Robin, trying to conceal his own surprise at Double-D’s decision. “But we’re going to need some time to get ready. How about you boys head home, have a nice lunch, and meet us back here in, oh, three hours’ time?”

“And change into some clothes you won’t mind getting dirty,” said Little John. “Not because we’re gonna throw you in a mud pit or something, but because we’re gonna be walking straight through Sherwood. Come to think of it, bring some walking shoes, too.”

“In three hours’ time, we’ll be here,” said Double-D, and he started to walk off.

“Hey, one quick question,” said Little John. “Just in case this one tattle-tales on us --” -- he was pointing to Double-D -- “--what’s his address?”

“What?” asked Edd, his determined countenance vanished.

“201 Rethink Avenue. In Peach Creek,” said Eddy with a smirk, and Edd gave him a dirty look.

“Rethink Avenue?” asked Little John. Robin shared his confused look at the quirky label.

“Yup!” said Eddy. “A block over from to Reimagine. His house is at the corner with Harris Street.”

“...That’s a stupid name, but I won’t forget it.”

Eddy walked past Ed and Double-D, and the other two followed him back to the cul-de-sac.

“See ya later, Future Me and Future Eddy!” hollered Ed.

“See you soon!” bid Robin.

“Later, bucko,” said Little John; as soon as they were gone, he looked at Robin. “Jesus fuck, those kids have issues.”

“As people, or with each other?”

“Shit, both.”

“Well, you must remember Johnny, we were very lucky to find each other,” Robin said as he made his way back toward the van. “It’s not terribly common for two capable specimens to also be compatible as business partners.”

“And friends,” John added, just in case Robin wasn’t going to.

“And of course as friends.”

Without telling one another to do so, they both started wiping off the glass shards from the mattress.

“...This isn’t gonna end well, is it?” asked John. “With the kids.” And with us two, he thought.

“We’ll have time to plot our course,” said Robin without looking at him. He seemed vaguely morose again.

“Rob, why do people always think I’m stupid?”

“Because people are quick to judge,” Robin answered, still not looking at John. “You needn’t worry; you’re doing everything right. I and everyone else who cares about you knows you’re as smart as they come.”

Yeah, but who cares about me besides you at this point? John thought. “Sure, but is there something I could be doing differently? So people aren’t so quick to judge?”

“You’re doing everything right, Little John.” He still wasn’t looking at John as he shoveled the glass bits off to the side with his shoe.

“Do I need to start speaking like you? Because the wolf kid seemed pretty hung up on the way I talk. Or do I need to lose my accent? But then ya say my accent isn’t even that strong anymore.”

Robin stopped fussing with the broken glass and gave a broken look to his friend.

“Do you remember the other night when I told you that I liked you just the way you are?”

Little John suddenly stopped worrying about his public image. “Rob… you okay, buddy?” Upon seeing Robin’s face, John now felt a tad alarmed, and regretted that he may have come across as whiny in his last few sentences.

“I’m just not completely over last night,” Robin confessed. “And some things said kind of made it worse.”

“Like what?”

“It’s too much to explain.”

“Do you want to talk about it while we go look for breakfast?”

“I actually ask that I can have a few moments alone,” Robin said as he opened the side door and started pulling out his bow and quiver. “I’ll go look for food while you stay here and keep watch over the van.”

“Robin, no, I can’t leave you alone out there.”

“I need to recharge for a moment, Johnny. Usually talking to people makes me feel lively, but that conversation just made me feel… exhausted.”

“Then you should stay here and go back to sleep while I go get food.”

“I recharge well in the presence of nature, Little John, you know that.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to talk about anything? Because it kills me to see you like this. This isn’t the Robin Hood I know.”

Don’t remind me, Robin thought. “You won’t have to see me like this if you give me a bit to get this out of my system.”

Little John breathed for a moment. “Goddammit, just be careful, Robin.”

“You know I always try to.” Then Robin went back into the van and retrieved the pencil pouch. “Actually, I would like to talk, but... with some people I haven’t spoken to in a while. Do you mind if I borrow this?”

Little John understood. “Alright, but just don’t lose it.” Aw, hell, it’s mostly your friends’ stuff in there anyway, he thought.

“Thank you, Johnny. I shan’t be long.”

“You sure you can reach the berries off the branches by yourself?” John asked, hoping to add some levity to the conversation.

“I’ll find a way.” Robin was unfazed.

“Rob, seriously, man, remember: I love ya, brother.”

“And I don’t ever want you to feel like I don’t reciprocate that.” Though I really wish I thought as highly of myself as you do, Little John. “But right now I just need a bit to myself. To think.”

“Don’t do anything stupid, Rob. And if I hear any screaming, I’ll come runnin’! Y’understand?”

“Neither of those will be a worry, Little John. But I appreciate your concern.” And Robin walked off toward Sherwood Forest alone.

As he crossed the Peach Creek and waded his way into the thicket of trees, Robin thought about what to say when he had a moment alone with his photos of Marian to ask for her guidance and forgiveness, and then what to say when he was alone with his photos of Will to ask for his guidance and forgiveness, and then if he felt he had time, he might call upon his mother or Oliver as well. He wanted to think he was asking them for a sign in what to do next, and although he knew he would get no answers, he wanted to at least verbalize his fears and concerns and regrets to the people he wished he could tell them to.

But as he stepped over broken branches and exposed roots, he thought of all the great relationships he had squandered because he was too impatient, or too reckless, or too daring, or too foolish, and he thought that if Woodland’s forces popped out of the wildwood and shot him dead right there, he certainly wouldn’t be happy with that arrangement, but it would be fitting, as it would bring another premature end to his last surviving bond with another living being.

Chapter Text

  1. “Auxiliary Document 1”

The following audio transcript is from a video of unknown origin. The video is near-exclusively audio with a still constant caption reading “Nottingham mayor John Norman calls me” appearing to have been rendered in Windows MovieMaker. The original title of the video, its original upload date, and the identity of the uploader are unknown, although it is widely believed that the uploader is also the unidentified male voice in the video. Given clues in the audio to the date of its recording, the video may have been one of the first videos uploaded to YouTube; URLs supposedly leading to the video and the uploader’s channel state that the video has been deleted and the account associated with the video has been terminated. It has since resurfaced on LiveLeak in 2011 and DailyMotion in 2013, with the DailyMotion uploader clarifying in the post’s lengthy title that they were not the original creator of the video, nor did they have any connection to or knowledge of that individual.

(click)

MALE VOICE: Hello?

NOTTINGHAM MAYOR JOHN NORMAN: Do you have the results yet?

MV: ...Huh?

JN: The DNA test! Are the results in yet?

MV: Hey, man, I think you’ve got the wrong number.

JN: Ha! Very funny.

MV:  I mean, I don’t know you.

JN: Excuse me, sir, but I expect an employee of mine to understand that this is no time for levity.

MV: Hey, all I know is I’m hearing a British accent, and I’d better not be getting charged for a long-distance call for answering this.

JN: Must I repeat myself? I’m in no mood for joking about.

MV: You still haven’t told me who you are.

JN: You don’t recognize the voice of your own mayor?

MV: I’m pretty sure my town’s mayor isn’t British.

JN: What a card you are.

MV: And I think it’s a chick.

JN: Well if you want to live and work in the City of Nottingham, you’d best familiarize yourself to the sound of my voice.

MV: I don’t want to live and work in the City of Nottingham.

JN: Then how unfortunate it must be for you that you already do live and work here.

MV: I don’t.

JN: Well you won’t be keeping your job for very long if you don’t drop this banal ruse and answer my questions.

MV: I’m not fucking with you, buddy, I really think you have the wrong number.

JN: Pardon your French. Did you find any forensic leads from the pig mask?

(silence)

JN: Hello!?

MV: What?

JN: Did you hear me?

MV: No, I took the phone away from my ear for a sec’ to check that you had an American phone number.

JN: Would it matter if I called you while I was visiting back home?

MV: I mean, I don’t pay the phone bill here, so I really don’t want to piss someone else off if I get us charged for a call from England.

JN: Of course you don’t pay the phone bill, WE pay your phone bill!

MV: Pretty sure you don’t.

JN: You’ve examined the pig mask, yes?

MV: No.

JN: Well I’ve waited all weekend for you idiots to come in to the labs and you don’t even get around to your most urgent task? It’s lunchtime already! What have you been spending your morning even doing!?

MV: I actually just woke up, like, twenty minutes before you called.

JN: Oh, so you decide to take a half-day when you have a task of the utmost importance at hand?

MV: Well it’s summer, so--

JN: So you think you can just laze around!

MV: Basically, yeah. That’s the point.

JN: Well whenever you feel like doing your job, get to analyzing the mask.

MV: What mask?

JN: The pig mask!

MV: Uh, okay.

JN: And I will tell you right now that you’re looking to confirm or refute that there is fox hair on it.

MV: Why fox hair?

JN: Because I have a very strong feeling that this criminal is a fox.

MV: And why exactly is that?

JN: Because although different eyewitnesses have claimed seeing different species, the most common claim is that the suspect is a fox. Claims of a coyote with a poofy tail come in a distant second.

MV: Oh. There’s actually eyewitnesses?

JN: Including myself. Several times. I believe he is a fox.

MV: Alright, I thought you were just guessing that some dude robbed some place and it must have been a fox because of course it would’ve been a sneaky fox. Like, from the way you were talking, it sounded like someone left a mask behind at the scene of a burglary and nobody saw him but you were assuming it was a fox. I was gonna say, if you think that way about foxes, you might as well hang up right now.

JN: Are you a fox?

MV: Guilty as charged.

JN: I didn’t know there were any foxes working in the forensics department.

MV: Neither did I.

JN: Oh, you amuse me.

MV: If you have this many eyewitnesses, why do you even need to prove it’s a fox then?

JN: Because to instill trust in the people of this city, I need to be right about everything.

MV: Fair enough, I guess. You don’t have any other details to go on? What kind of fox are you looking for? We ain’t all the same.

JN: A red one, to start.

MV: Alright, then he ain’t one of my people.

JN: Who are your people?

MV: I’m an Arctic.

JN: Interesting. I don’t run into too many Arctic foxes in my city.

MV: I don’t live in your city.

JN: Poppycock.

MV: So how is confirming that it’s a red fox going to narrow it down?

JN: You do your job and see if there’s a DNA match with anybody in our system! Or fingerprints, I don’t care!

MV: In the meantime, you have no other details to go off of?

JN: Certainly we do. He’s described as being exceptionally tall for his species.

MV: How tall we talking?

JN: Witness reports vary widely from four feet to five-and-a-half feet. Likely somewhere in the middle of that range.

MV: Jesus Christ, that’s tall for a fox.

JN: Precisely why some people think he’s a strange-looking coyote.

MV: I can imagine.

JN: He’s also been heard to have a British accent.

MV: He’s British too?

JN: I’ve heard him speak myself.

MV: So you’re having trouble locating a five-foot fox with a British accent? I mean, I don’t want to sell my people out, but that guy seems like he’d stick out pretty well.

JN: And I would be wont to agree, but he’s successfully eluded capture for seven years, so--

MV: Seven years!?

JN: Have you even read the dossier? This is why we need to turn to forensics to get any clues we can. On the topic, don’t be shy to tell me if you find DNA from any other species. Perhaps we can sniff out one of his co-conspirators. His right-hand man is often reported as a brown or grizzly bear.

MV: That makes sense.

JN: Why does that make sense? Do you know something I should know?

MV: “A fox and a bear make a great pair.” That’s the old saying.

JN: Is it now?

MV: You’ve never heard that before?

JN: Never in my life. Why do they say a fox and a bear make a great pair? Maybe this can give us a clue as to their dynamics.

MV: I mean, it’s just, you know, one brains, one brawn.

JN: Is that it? Because I can think of many pairs of species that could fit that archetype.

MV: Yeah, but it’s like, uh, brains from a species that -- in their culture -- doesn’t value brawn, and brawn from a species that culturally doesn’t value brains. So they’re playing toward their strengths without any fighting over who’s the smart one and who’s the strong one. Operating as a unit and not worrying about who gets to be the better one. That’s the logic behind it, I think.

JN: Fascinating. Now, I do understand that logic, but I still could see several different species filling those two roles.

MV: Plus, you know, “bear” and “pair” rhyme and “fox” just… fits the cadence of the saying well, I guess.

JN: Naturally.

MV: But you’re kind of not supposed to say that saying anymore.

JN: And yet you just did.

MV: Because, you know, in its purest form, it’s stereotyping. I mean, foxes are cool with it, we’ll take “clever” as a compliment eight days a week, but other species think it’s bogus to bears to assume they’re cool with being the stupid ones.

JN: So there may be a power struggle between the fox and the bear after all?

MV: Well, you know, bears could take it or leave it, because for one reason or another they keep hanging out with us. Like, Tim, he’s my boy, we’re tight like no one else. He’s a black bear. He thinks it’s bullshit that people assume his species’ culture is, like, brutish and militantly anti-intellectual, but he doesn’t actually think the “fox and a bear” saying is actively racist, just kind of, like, ignorant in a roundabout way. Well-meaning, because foxes and bears do make good bros and we appreciate each other, but ignorant.

JN: I’m going to remember this in case I have to use it against them.

MV: Plus I know bunnies don’t like that phrase because it reminds them of a fox and a bear who stalked this rabbit and tried to eat him back in, like, 1870s Georgia or something. Like, the Reconstruction South.

JN: Duly noted. So how quickly can you check the mask for DNA?

MV: I don’t have the fucking mask, dickhead.

JN: Then GET the bloody mask, dickhead! Get it and check for a DNA match!

MV: Match to who?

JN: Anybody!

MV: So you said you’ve been looking for seven years for these guys?

JN: Roughly, yes. Please don’t remind me.

MV: Seven years and you don’t have any clue to who they are.

JN: Please… don’t remind me.

MV: Nobody’s overheard them call each other by name?

JN: (unintelligible)

MV: Huh?

JN: There was… the boy.

MV: What boy?

JN: The boy from the scene where the pig mask was found!

MV: I am not familiar with this boy.

JN: Then read the bloody dossier!

MV: So what about this boy?

JN: He’s been… he’s been trying to tell us. He was able to get enough out to tell us the culprits were in the woods, but beyond that, we haven’t been able to understand a word he’s said. He’s just babbling and pointing and gesticulating. It’s frustrating because I’ve asked the investigators to simply ask if he heard their names, and they say he perked up and seemed to try to make an attempt at answering but all he could articulate were muttering noises. They say the lad is so shaken that he can’t even keep his mouth closed.

MV: Damn, that’s a bummer.

JN: We’re so close to a breakthrough and yet those monsters have rendered the only eyewitness mute.

MV: What exactly did they do?

JN: It’s in the dossier.

MV: Then send me another copy of it because evi-fucking-dently I lost mine.

JN: Fine, I will.

MV: ...Really?

JN: If I must.

(silence)

MV: So… are we good here?

JN: (unintelligible)

MV: What?

JN: I’m just thinking that… if it makes it easier for you… I might have a name to guess.

MV: To guess for what?

JN: The identity of the outlaw.

MV: We’re calling him an outlaw now? Is this the Wild West?

JN: No, come to think of it, I mustn’t interfere with your processes.

MV: Well, did you have a suspect in mind?

JN: Yes, but as I mentioned earlier, it’s imperative that my people trust me, so I must be right about everything. I don’t yet feel confident on gambling that my guess is correct. And yet I feel so strongly that it is. But I’m trying to be a man of science about it and disregard my blind guesses. Your end of the bargain is to hurry up and identify the outlaw to prove my hypothesis.

MV: What’s your hypothesis?

JN: I mustn’t be sharing such rumors with employees of the City of Nottingham.

MV: I’m not an employee of the City of Nottingham.

JN: Oh, you. (silence) … He may be… somebody with whom I have a history, and yet whom I’ve never met.

MV: How can you have a history with him if you’ve never met him?

JN: Well, of course I’ve met him now during our close encounters, but we’ve never been… formally introduced, as it were.

(silence)

MV: Don’t leave me hanging here, man.

JN: It may be my… brother’s… goddaughter’s… male friend.

MV: ...Really, now?

JN: Again, I’d never met him, I had never had any interest in doing so. But they’re both described as tall English foxes.

MV: I can see how that narrows it down. But does this guy seem like he’d be the kind to moonlight as a criminal?

JN: As I said, I’d never met him formally.

MV: Well if he’s been fucking around in Nottingham for seven years, he must live close by. Go knock on his door, pay him a visit.

JN: He lives in Sherwood Forest.

MV: ...Did your brother’s goddaughter hook up with a homeless guy?

JN: He went missing seven years ago.

MV: ...What?

JN: My brother’s goddaughter’s boyfriend went missing seven years ago. It lines up perfectly with when the outlaws started to wreak havoc out of Sherwood Forest. Hence my hypothesis.

MV: ...Oh, shit. That’s a lot of reasons for your hypothesis.

JN: But he went missing in the District of Columbia.

MV: That’s not that far away. I mean, I don’t want to sell out my kind, but if this guy’s a real criminal, I think you’ve got your man. What’s this guy’s crime again?

JN: Being a thorn in my side more than anything.

MV: What do you mean?

(silence)

MV: Hello?

JN: You know what? Thank you, sir.

MV: For what?

JN: You’ve helped me make up my mind. I think… I think I now feel confident in saying the outlaw is my nephew-in-law.

MV: I thought you said he was your brother’s goddaughter’s boyfriend?

(silence)

JN: Oh, to hell with it! I’ll say it! I’ve known for years! And I’ve been afraid to confront the fact that this criminal mastermind… that he wasn’t just a stranger. I’ve been terrified to let people discover that the greatest threat to our city is a mere two degrees of separation from myself. And now… now you’re the first person I’m telling this to. I haven’t even told my trusted assistant, for fear that he would lose his admiration of me. You’ve given me courage, good sir, and for that I wish to thank you.

MV: Well, um… I am honored, but immensely confused. Profoundly confused, even.

JN: Four years ago when my niece was in town for the summer, I even tried to use her as bait to draw the bandits out, but I’m afraid that may have just emboldened them.

MV: If you know who the son of a bitch is, why don’t you just tell the police?

JN: Because I didn’t want my people knowing that I’m related to an outlaw!

MV: How would they know? You’re not even a fox, are you?

JN: No, sir, I am a lion.

MV: (muttering) Yeah, you’re a big pussy alright.

JN: I beg your pardon?

MV: So how would people know?

JN: In my paranoia… I simply always thought word would make its way around.

MV: They could have found out even if you didn’t up and tell them.

JN: I’m realizing that now.

MV: Even if they did know, who cares? You’re not responsible for the actions of your… um… whoever he was to you.

JN: I’m realizing that now. You must understand how clouded my judgment has been these last seven years. Seven years of them trying to kill you would make anyone paranoid--

MV: Wait, they’ve been trying to ASSASSINATE you?

JN: ...More or less.

MV: Man, the way you were talking, I thought they were just serial burglars or something!

JN: Which is why I want to thank you for giving me the courage to make his identity public. But not quite yet. I first need your team and your forensics to prove me right.

MV: You know I can’t do that.

JN: Find a way to make it happen anyway. Again, I cannot afford to be wrong where others can see me. It wouldn’t inspire their confidence in me.

MV: I mean, why are you so hung up on his name at this point? Haven’t you put up wanted posters and stuff that just say “we don’t know who this guy is but he’s a menace to society”?

JN: We have not.

MV: Why not?

JN: Because I would find it so deeply publicly mortifying if the entire world saw that there was a band of criminals that were trying to oust me, and yet I and all my men were powerless to stop them for nearly a decade.

MV: And you let that get in the way of taking logical steps toward bringing these guys to justice?

JN: You still misunderstand how much this torments my addled mind! It’s psychological torture what they do to me! They’ve ransacked my home numerous times, they’ve ransacked my office numerous times, and on a few occasions they’ve even left me notes mocking me, notes that I can’t show my police because they have the bandits’ names on them, they’ve--

MV: (distorted from loud volume) YOU HAVE NOTES WITH THEIR NAMES ON THEM AND YOU DIDN’T EVEN TELL THE COPS WHO WORK FOR YOU!?

JN: And in the notes, they even say things along the lines of, “We know you will not tell even your closest confidantes our names because you don’t want them to know you’re related to a criminal; Marian always did say that you were so terribly worried about your image.”

MV: Marian?

JN: And they were right. They mocked me for being too paranoid to tell anybody who they were, and that made me too paranoid to tell anybody who they were. Yet the most frustrating part is that they seem to think I’m worried of others’ opinions of me, when in reality what I fear is my own opinion of me.

MV: Who’s Marian again?

JN: My niece. Brother’s goddaughter. It’s easier to simply call her my niece.

MV: Oh, they’re the same person. Okay, so… you’ve gotten notes from them signed with their actual, honest to God names on them, and you withheld that from the police working to catch them?

JN: I’m not proud that their psychological tricks worked on me, but they did.

MV: ...You fucking maniac.

JN: In my defense, they haven’t left notes recently! It’s been years! If I had decided several years ago to start showing their newest notes to my police, I wouldn’t have any notes to show them.

MV: You absolute fucking maniac.

JN: Oh, I may as well let it all out! There were times where I could have sworn I’d heard people say their names aloud. Either they themselves or the townspeople who adore them. But I always--

MV: Why do the townspeople adore them?

JN: Some fancy them as vigilantes. I prefer to call them domestic terrorists.

MV: Got it. Continue about how you once a-fucking-gain got hard evidence of their identities and did absolutely nothing with it?

JN: But it was no hard evidence! Voices in a crowd! Noises amid a cacophony of shouts and hollers from a maddening mass! My men and women heard something resembling names, but could never make it out clearly. I only was able to piece together the names from the distorted sounds because I knew the names to listen for. And I couldn’t just tell them myself because I was... I was--

MV: Too broken to live?

JN: ...I know my critics would say that. But they could never understand how… opaque my judgment was in those trying times, and neither can you.

MV: You absolute fucking maniac. Are you even fit to lead?

JN: I’ll have you know that while we haven’t yet quashed the rebellion, we also haven’t yet succumbed to it! Indeed, we have been holding our own for years now. But I cannot let this war of attrition go on much longer. I need to break this stalemate. When one is unsatisfied with the way things are, one must make a change. I plan to do that now. I will tell my assistant and my highest-ranking police the identities of the criminals, and I want to thank you for giving me that courage, a courage for which I’ve been searching for so, so long. But you can make it easier on me by confirming their identities with a DNA match from the abandoned pig mask.

(silence)

JN: Or a pawprint match. I am not picky.

(silence)

JN: Are you still there?

MV: Yeah, I’m just… speechless.

JN: I thank you for everything. I will thank you again when you finish analyzing the mask. Even if you can just confirm the species, that would be a great step forward.

MV: These guys’ names’ve been shouted in the fucking streets multiple times and not a single member of your police force heard them clearly once?

JN: When the bandits show up, things get loud! Can you really hear everything all the time perfectly?

MV: Yes.

JN: ...Well, you are a fox, so you lot are known for having absurdly good hearing--

MV: My dad was right, people in the city are retarded.

JN: What kind of crass language is that to use toward your mayor!?

MV: How do you know that they -- your cops -- that they don’t all know their names and they’re just waiting to see how long it takes you to put the pieces together because they think it’s hilarious that you’re such a raging dumbass?

JN: Because I--! Er…

MV: …Because you what?

(silence)

MV: Oh, this ought to be good.

(silence)

MV: Whenever you want to speak, honey, I’m listening.

JN: ...Because I…

MV: Yes, baby?

JN: ...What if my officers know… but they haven’t formally recorded it… because they know… that then… they would have to search for them in earnest?

MV: ...Come again?

JN: What if they’re afraid of confronting them? What if my men are cowards?

MV: ...Not where I was going with this, but an interesting thought all the same.

JN: Goddamn you!

MV: Oh, what did I do now?

JN: You give me confidence, and then you take it away.

MV: Oh boy.

JN: You’ve ruined me! Disregard the outlaws, it is YOU who is psychologically torturing me!

MV: I’ve done nothing of the sort, dick-heart.

JN: Tell me: would you think I’m less of a fool if I told you that it’s also been years since I’ve heard their names shouted in the streets!? Perhaps they’ve gotten more careful! Perhaps this was all a plan to trick us into thinking they never actually existed! They’re trying to induce amnesia!

MV: So in other words, they’re getting smarter while you’re getting dumber.

JN: Why do you say such things!? Don’t you want this city to be safe from bandits?

MV: I don’t know at this point, they kind of seem like badasses. Maybe I want them to win. It might make a better story.

JN: You-- My own forensics department is betraying me!? WAIT! What if this goes all the way down?

MV: Down to where?

JN: What if my police are on the side of the outlaws!? (distorted) AND THAT’S WHY WE HAVEN’T CAPTURED THEM IN SEVEN BLOODY YEARS!?

MV: You are damaging your phone.

JN: (distorted) THAT’S WHY THEY’VE NEVER KILLED ONE OF MY MEN!

MV: Wow, you may genuinely be one of the most paranoid people I’ve ever met.

JN: I don’t care about how you feel about me! I only answer to myself!

MV: Then why is it so fucking imperative that you don’t make mistakes that the people of Nottingham can see?

JN: Because I don’t want to be someone who makes mistakes in public!

MV: It sounds like you care a lot about what others think of you--

JN: A lion does not concern himself with the opinions of sheep! Or foxes!

MV: --but you’ve convinced yourself you haven’t because you’re seeing their opinions of you through, like, the lens of how you… want to see yourself? How you actually see yourself? I’m not totally sure where I’m going with this, but there’s like a… dichotomy going on here.

JN: You’re no psychologist! You’re merely a forensicist! Who are you to make such statements!?

MV: I want to see you go to a psych doctor. It’s like, you don’t care that the people trust you, but you care very deeply that you feel that you are trusted by them. There’s gotta be some depth to mine there.

JN: I’ll have you arrested for questioning my competency!

MV: So now you trust your cops again?

JN: I changed my mind! I don’t think they’re actually siding with the outlaws. I think. My paranoia had just run rampant.

MV: Hot freaking dog, you are a fascinating fellow. I’m so glad I recorded this.

JN: I beg your pardon?

MV: Yeah, I’m recording this.

JN: Why on earth are you recording our conversation?

MV: I always record calls from numbers I don’t recognize. You never know where they’re gonna go.

JN: I don’t recall giving you permission to record our conversation!

MV: I thought you didn’t care what I thought of you? Why does it matter?

(silence)

MV: Are we done here?

JN: I’ll have you arrested for this.

MV: What?

JN: You illegally recorded this conversation without my permission! I’ll have you arrested for this!

MV: No you won’t.

JN: Yes I will!

MV: No. You won’t. I’ve looked it up, it’s not even illegal in Delaware.

JN: What’s your name, forensicist?

(silence)

JN: WHAT IS YOUR BLOODY NAME!?

MV: ...Justin Timberlake.

JN: And where is your place of residence, Mr. Timberlake?

MV: Uh… 69… Back Street. 69 Back Street.

JN: And what part of town is that in, Justin? So we may more easily find you.

MV: For the sixty-millionth time, I don’t live in the city, you enormous fucking retard! I live in Delmar! (under breath) Wait, shit, Justin Timberlake isn’t even from the Backstreet Boys, is he?

JN: Then I-I-I’ll come to Delmar and have you arrested! No journey is too far in the pursuit of justice!

MV: Well I have a copy of this recording and you don’t, so you don’t have any evidence to show a judge. Plus, you can’t arrest me because I don’t live in your city, so you’d have to take it to the county or the state. For something that isn’t even illegal in this county or state.

JN: Did you not hear the news!? The city police IS the county police now!

MV: ...Wait, really?

JN: Yes! So the Nottingham County Police can--

MV: When did this happen?

JN: Yesterday!

MV: How was that possible?

JN: My assistant looked over the books; it was never explicitly disallowed, so we did it.

MV: Well if nothing else, I can just leave the county then.

JN: What? You’re going to abandon your home forever to evade capture? Just like the outlaws in Sherwood Forest did!?

MV: I don’t have to leave home forever; my house is literally across the street from Maryland. I can just jump across whenever I need to. Now if I lived across the street, then over there it would’ve been illegal for me to record you without your express permission.

JN: Then we’ll just--

MV: Actually, I’m looking out the window and I see the mailman across the street right now. Hold on, let me open the window.

JN: Wait, are you--?

MV: Hi, Mr. Mailman!

MR. MAILMAN: (distant) Hello!

MV: Hey, Mr. Mailman, what state are you in right now?

MR. MAILMAN: (distant, unintelligible)

MV: Did you hear that? He says he works in Maryland.

JN: Are you… not actually in the lab right now?

MV: Naw, man, I’m at home.

JN: Is this a… is this your mobile phone number?

MV: I mean, it’s a cordless phone, but no, it’s a landline.

FEMALE VOICE: (distant, unintelligible)

MV: Hold on, my mom heard me screaming and now she’s probably going to want me to get off the phone.

JN: Your mother?

MV: The very same. But hey, it’s been good talking to ya.

JN: Wait, I’m… lost--

FV: (distant) Who are you talking to?

MV: The mayor of Nottingham.

FV: What?

MV: The mayor of Nottingham called the wrong number and he thinks I’m his forensics guy.

FV: No fucking way.

MV: Talk to him yourself. (growing distant) By the way, I’m recording this, so don’t delete anything from the answering machine.

FV: (full volume) Hello?

JN: ...Er… hello…

FV: Jesus Christ, this really is John Norman.

JN: Yes, er… to whom am I speaking?

FV: You called us! Why have you been harassing my son?

JN: Yes, yes, dreadfully, er, dreadfully sorry, I had told my assistant to call the forensics laboratory.

FV: How do you get that number mixed up with anything else?

JN: It must have been a slip of the toe when he was dialing--

FV: His TOE?

JN: Yes, my assistant is a double amputee. He misdialed. It happens every so often.

FV: You chose a cripple for your assistant?

JN: What else is he supposed to be doing for a living?

FV: Evidently something else if he can’t even dial a phone right! Don’t you have your forensics team on speed-dial or something!?

JN: Well, another reason that I hired him was that we both don’t care for such technology.

(silence)

JN: ...Are you still there?

FV: Get a phone from the twenty-first century. Don’t ever call here again.

JN: Are you aware that your son recorded me without my permission, and proceeded to psychologically torture me for his own mad amusement?

FV: You harassed a seventeen-year-old without HIS permission. Now get bent.

JN: I’ll have him arrested! I know you live on the state line in Delmar! This narrows it down for us to find--!

(click)

Chapter Text

  1. “Show and Tell, Pt. 1”

On the way into town, they told them everything. It was a long walk and they had plenty of time to kill, so they told them everything.

They knew it was just making all of this an even bigger risk by bringing some random kids along on their exploits -- suburban kids that they couldn’t even assume came from backgrounds that would make them sympathetic to the cause, as they could have reasonably assumed of kids from the West Side of the city. But their entire lives were a risk, and everything they’d done for years was a risk, and the coin came up heads often enough for them to still survive, and they were witty and resourceful enough to deal with the consequences when it came up tails. Besides, they thought that maybe if they gave a more detailed version of their stories, it might make it easier for the three kids to warm up to them. But just to be safe, they kept all the other characters in their story nameless. And they had the bottle of chloroform on their persons just as well.

So they told them everything. They told them how Robin had moved to the States with His Girlfriend about thirteen years prior to attend theatre school in New York with her and support her in her dream of becoming a Broadway actress, and maybe try to cut it himself, as he had grown up with an adult in his life who had instilled an appreciation for acting in him. They told them how the summer after they graduated, they realized life in New York was just too expensive for them, so they reluctantly moved to Philadelphia, but Philadelphia was also too expensive, so the next spring they moved down to Washington right around the time that Robin’s Girlfriend’s Uncle (who was really her godfather and an old friend of her family’s from back home in England, but for the sake of convenience and sentimentality, he was her uncle) was moving from Delaware to DC to begin a new career path; Robin and His Girlfriend received heavy financial support from Robin’s Girlfriend’s Uncle as they shared a two-bedroom apartment with Robin’s Girlfriend’s Scottish Friend Whom She Met at College in New York, as well as Robin’s Half-Brother, who had had harbored a weird romanticized image of the United States for most of his teenage years, and who had turned eighteen the previous July and dropped out of his first semester of university a few months after that. In Washington, Robin and His Girlfriend struggled to find work -- they couldn’t get acting roles because they were both too tall to play their own species but too small or misshapen to play any others, and they couldn’t get regular jobs because they had Bachelor’s degrees in Theater. But while they were in that funk, Robin tried to make himself feel better about his predicament by telling himself something: he told himself that he was still better off than a lot of the impoverished people that inhabited the nation’s capital. His strategy to tell himself this absolutely backfired. What started out as a way of making himself feel better about being stuck in life wound up just making himself feel bummed out and even a little bit angry, knowing that there were so many people whose lives were even crummier than his own. He also noticed that here in Washington, D.C., a notoriously rough town for those who weren’t politicians or their families, the poverty seemed to be even worse than it was in Philadelphia, much worse than in New York, and nothing like he’d ever seen in the major cities back in North-Central England.

They told them, however, that things came to a head when, after about a year of living in Washington, Robin and His Girlfriend and His Girlfriend’s Uncle went to Nottingham to visit His Girlfriend’s Uncle’s Family, minus His Girlfriend’s Uncle’s Arsehole Brother, who didn’t want to see them and who Robin had never even met (the Eds didn’t understand why Robin mentioned this part, precisely as Robin hoped). There Robin saw that the situation in Nottingham was even worse than it was in Washington. Many of the poor people there were two steps past Anger in the Stages of Grief and were now well into Depression. Topping it all off was that it seemed to stem from the Mayor, John Norman; after his beloved brother left office after being elected to Congress a year and a half prior (the Eds still didn’t seem to make the connection to Robin’s Girlfriend’s Uncle), the city’s political machine left his idiot brother as the only viable candidate. In a year’s time, “Prince John” had implemented a bunch of laws that were actively hostile to the poor and beneficial to the rich, the latter of whom Prince John desperately wanted to rub shoulders with. Among many other things, the Prince Mayor’s favorite method of oppression was dicking around with tax rates and coming up with insipid and obscene explanations for how he thought they would make life better for everyone.

They told them how seeing this just made Robin angrier. It got to the point that when they were back in DC, Robin needed to privately confide in His Girlfriend and tell her that it all made him just want to break stuff. That was when she told him that while his anger and frustration were justified, that anger in and of itself was not going to solve anything. Anger toward the bad people was de structive, she said, and if he wanted to make the world a better place, he needed to channel that anger into compassion for the good people being victimized and do something con structive for them . They told them that she couldn’t have known what she had just inspired in him.

They told them that that was precisely when Robin decided to leave civilian life behind and start taking the retribution of karma into his own hands. He told His Girlfriend; she felt like he was abandoning her over a problem he couldn’t solve; he felt like her feelings were valid but that he just needed to try to do what he could to fix things or he’d never be able to live with himself; she conceded that he seemed genuine in having a need to serve his conscience; he pleaded with her to forgive him; she said there was nothing to forgive, and they told them that to this day, Robin didn’t know whether she was truly at peace with his decision. Nevertheless, they said their teary goodbyes, Robin told His Rascally Half-Brother that he couldn’t come with, and he filled up a backpack with all that that he needed to survive in the woods for a few days and hopped on a one-way Greyhound bus over the Chesapeake Bay to Nottingham, DE.

They told them that while all of this was happening, Little John was losing his goddamn mind trying to come to terms with the fact that he was now thirty, which was being made harder by the fact that he was now closer to thirty-one. Having left Somewhere Ambiguously in the American South when he was eighteen to get away from his fucked-up family and neighbors, he found himself twelve years later living in an apartment in Harbeson with some older dude who the kids these days would probably describe as a “player”, and only ever having held odd jobs such as fast-food lackey, warehouse sorter, security guard of things and places that weren’t really all that important, budget construction worker, gravedigger, a whole lot of work down by the docks, and other lowly positions that wouldn’t pay the bills if he wanted to live a life strangers would respect. It wasn’t just that Little John didn’t have a fulfilling career; he also didn’t have a fulfilling personal life. Between friends, family, and females, he had none. He had told himself for years that it was because he was always working his stubby little tail off to survive and didn’t have time to develop any kind of relationships with any kind of people, but he was starting to think that something wasn’t right about that -- either that was no way to live, or he was doing something wrong, possibly both. He was starting to think that his upbringing -- upon which he would not elaborate -- had made him not only cold and hardened, but also kind of afraid of people, which caused him to act even colder and hardened-er so people wouldn’t think he was a pussy. Suffice it to say that whenever His Older Womanizing Roommate would offer to hook him up with one of the large-species ladies he had known-in-the-biblical-sense who was looking for a serious relationship, John would put on an act of being a laconically disinterested brute as a cover for the fact that he had absolutely no idea how to reply. In short, Little John was angry, not just in his perpetual outward attitude, but angry at the factors that had contributed to his perpetual outward attitude of anger. Note that at this point, Little John made deliberate eye contact with Ed, Edd, and Eddy each to make sure the teenage boys weren’t silently laughing their asses off over his inability to get laid; if they were, they stopped when John looked at them. Also note that, in an effort to not look even more troublingly insecure in front of these kids he was trying to recruit, he completely skipped the part where his medically-absurd growth pattern coupled with the size obsession ingrained in the culture of his species (and arguably the culture of society in general) had made him feel like he was a decade behind in life and had done severe damage to his psyche that had healed significantly but not completely and possibly never would; this was certainly one of those times where Little John would agree with Robin that it was best to pretend not to have problems to avoid people losing confidence in you.

They told them how John was blowing off steam one day by walking his usual route through Sherwood Forest Nature Preserve, which was well off the designated path. When he came to one particular fallen dead tree that formed a bridge over the Peach Creek, he saw that there was some fox already crossing it -- an exceptionally tall one, but still a little guy in the grand scheme of things. Already pissed at the world, John was in no mood to wait for this fox to cross, so he started his own way across it as though Robin wasn’t even there. They told them that Robin had just arrived in Sherwood a few days earlier and was suppressing his burning urge to start robbing people until he got a camp set up in the forest because he thought that was the responsible thing to do, but now here along came some random brown bear who looked like he was aiming to fuck with him just for the hell of it, and Robin didn’t need any more obstacles like this, so he didn’t back down. They got within a few feet of each other before they both stopped, and as much as John just wanted to plow this fox over, he instead asked him why he didn’t have the good sense to get the hell out of his way. Robin said he was there first. Their passive aggression escalated into active aggression, and it led to John leaning down and breaking two huge branches off the tree’s carcas. He tossed one to Robin and challenged him to a duel; a few minutes later, John’s ass was in the water, and now the big little fox was looking down at him . The fact of the matter was that while Robin was indeed fairly decent at old-fashioned stick-fighting as a consequence of his upbringing, he had mostly played good defense against a bear who was usually very good at old-fashioned stick-fighting (also as a result of his upbringing) but wasn’t used to going up against someone that much smaller than himself and just didn’t know how to accommodate for Robin’s lower center of gravity.

They told them that despite John being mortified, he could see that the fox was handling his victory rather graciously. He was speaking of it like it had been a cheery spar between friends, and he almost seemed apologetic for John’s predicament. The way Robin was acting would seem condescending and sarcastic coming from most anybody else, but to John, he seemed genuine, or at least damned good at faking it. Robin offered John a hand to help him back up -- not expecting him to actually accept it, fully anticipating the bear would just swat his hand away and knowing damn well that he couldn’t pull this guy’s weight back onto the bridge -- and John took his hand, promptly pulling Robin into the water with him. Little John, moved by how this Englishman seemed to be trying really hard to be kind to him like nobody else in his life had ever tried (especially notable considering that they were in a violent conflict mere minutes prior), remarked that now they were even, and that they probably both deserved to wind up in the water as a price for their pride. Robin agreed. They got out of the water, introduced themselves, and as soon as Robin got the read that Johnny was a good candidate, he popped the question; Little John answered by asking if he could run back home for a few hours to grab the bare necessities of life before coming back to Sherwood. With John’s help (and some housewares from his apartment), the two finished setting up the camp that same night. Robin and John briefly paused the story to have a small argument over which of them had been the one to invoke the old adage that “a fox and a bear make a great pair,” and which of them had been the one to quote Casablanca and say, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

They told them that they knew they needed more people, but didn’t know how to find them. Then they got very, very lucky. First, Robin’s Half-Brother appeared out of thin air, looking completely knackered after wandering all of Sherwood for a day and a half to find Robin. Apparently the little hellraiser had remembered he was an adult now and he didn’t have to stay back in Washington with Robin’s Girlfriend and Her Scottish Friend Whom She Met at College in New York if he didn’t want to. Robin’s Half-Brother was also extremely tall for his species, a genetic gift from their common parent, but Robin still cleared him by a solid number of inches, which visually suited Robin’s Half-Brother’s role as the quintessential rambunctious younger sibling. He was a resolute rapscallion whose only tangible goal was to shake things up. He desperately wanted to be a righteous outlaw; it was the perfect combination of the badass he wanted to be with the positive force he wanted to be in the world. Robin -- who wouldn’t even turn twenty-five himself until that November -- really didn’t want to put his newly-adult little brother in harm’s way, but he could see that His Half-Brother wasn’t taking no for an answer. Given the circumstances, Robin figured he shouldn’t want to deny him anyway.

They told them that they next encountered a character whom they referred to as The Rooster; even though he was not actually a talking chicken, they would not disclose his true species. This guy had gotten back from a tour of duty in the Middle East earlier in the decade and his head still wasn’t back on right. He’d had trouble finding a job when he returned home to Oklahoma, so he said screw it and took his guitar and his Ram pickup truck and went off to see the country, making just enough money playing songs and doing odd jobs to pay for food and gas. During this time, his bond with the common people grew and his opinion of the government diminished. When Robin, John, and Robin’s Half-Brother met him, he was playing his guitar while sitting on a log near the edge of Sherwood about a thousand feet from the parking lot. And he was playing well; The Rooster offhandedly mentioned that his uncle was a fairly-well-known country musician, somebody who Robin and His Half-Brother had never heard of but who Johnny the Southerner knew well (Little John noticed when he mentioned this that the three suburban kids didn’t seem curious to know who the country musician was, so he didn’t even offer to tell them). The four of them talked, The Rooster explained that he was feeling lost and disillusioned, and Robin said the magic words. The Rooster accepted immediately, but had qualms about what to do with his truck, which might betray his secret new residence. They tried to navigate the truck toward the Major Oak to use as a multipurpose room and storage implement, but there simply weren’t any gaps in the trees wide enough for it to fit through, so they just ripped the license plates off of it and pushed it into the deepest part of the creek.

They told them that the last major member was a guy they called the Friar because of his religiosity, his tattered clothes like those of a monk who’d committed to a life of poverty, and the unfortunate bald spot on his head; again, they did not clarify his species. The Friar was a homeless navy reject who was walking around the Georgetown neighborhood when he needed to sit down on the sidewalk for a second and rest, seeing as he had some trouble carrying his own mass for long periods of time -- in a world where the old joke is that the hyperobese falsely blame their condition on some ambiguous disorder, The Friar swore that the reason he maintained his size on a homeless man’s diet was because he really did have an issue with his thyroid; this would be confirmed to the rest of the Men by a doctor years later. But on that day, the four Merry Men stumbled upon him as they were on their way to the East Side to go get some goodies, and he asked them if they had any spare change. They told him that they didn’t actually have anything on their person at the moment, but they were about to go get some, and soon enough they would be sharing it with him and all the other needy people of Nottingham. The Friar asked how they were going to get it. They told him in no uncertain terms that they were just going to go rob some rich people. The Friar asked how they were planning to do that . They told him that they would be more or less playing it by ear: if they saw a pocket to pick, they’d pick it; if they saw a car to jack, they’d jack it; if they saw a house to break into, they’d ransack it. Robin and company made it clear that they weren’t proud of their methods, but they didn’t have any better ideas for how to fix the situation in Nottingham, and that the four of them agreed that action is better than inaction. The Friar agreed that good action gets stuff done better than sitting around and complaining, but bad action could make things worse, and he then asked if they had any weapons on them. They said not really, all they had were a few pocket knives, though they agreed that bad action was worse than no action and they didn’t want to preemptively hurt people lest that make the situation worse, and if they had to play defense, they had fists for punching, teeth for biting, feet for kicking, and legs for running; if nothing else, The Rooster had a wrist slingshot with him. The Friar suggested they get some weapons anyway, and if they weren’t comfortable with guns and switchblades, he knew where they could get something a bit more… classical . He was joking, but little did he know that he was talking to two foxes who were trained in various classical weapons, a bear who was itching to learn new skills so he could be more helpful and people would think he was more interesting, and a mammal called The Rooster who was down for anything. So The Friar told them that, as a consequence of living on the streets in this city for something like twenty years, he was privy to the fact that there was a rich guy in Long Neck who liked to collect medieval weaponry, and that the guy in question would probably be away from home for the rest of that afternoon. They went and loaded up on all that they could carry; everyone got at least one bow, staff, and sword, but of course everyone had their preferences: Robin with his bow, Robin’s Half-Brother with a sword, John and The Friar with their staffs and The Rooster preferring to stick with his trusty slingshot. Maintaining such antique instruments while living in the elements for seven years would be a challenge, however, and now the bow and staff that the Eds saw in Robin and John’s hands were two of the four remaining pieces of the collection -- five if you include The Rooster’s slingshot -- and the other two (or three) had been taken out of commission for reasons that would soon be apparent. But seven years ago, the Merry Men were not thinking about the upkeep of their items, only that they may have just found their dorky-cum-badass calling cards, and since they’d be living in the woods without the distractions of modern diversionary entertainment, they would have plenty of time to practice their skills with them. They also told them one more thing about The Friar: it turns out having a guy with you who’d lived on the streets for two decades without succumbing to the elements in spite of an ambiguous medical disorder is a big help when you’re making your home out in the wilderness.

They told them that they were then ready to begin their mission. They had a bit of a rocky start as lots of the people they were trying to help just thought they were weird, but eventually, after a little charming, the populace warmed up to them, and ultimately fostered a sort of symbiotic relationship: the Men would give the citizens the means to live under a corrupt city government, and the citizens would give the Men the means to live in the woods year-round.

They told them that after a year, things were going great. That second summer in their first full year -- the recollection paused here to resolve some brief confusion over how the math of all of this worked, but it was resolved that since their anniversary was in May, the Men were now in their eighth summer after having just completed their seventh year last month -- but that second summer may have arguably been their best. It wasn’t just that that was the year that they established themselves as a force to be reckoned with, a guerrilla that struck fear in the hearts of those who ran Nottingham and its environs; it was also the year that the five of them had the most fun. They truly put the “merry” in “the Merry Men”. They found joy in their work and fulfillment in their mission, and they revelled in their success; Robin noted that during this time -- and he stopped to stress to the Eds that he had been young and stupid and impulsive and irresponsible for doing this -- they even robbed the mayor’s mini-mansion and left him taunting notes -- on several occassions -- signed with their real names, daring him to tell someone that he had been bested by a ragtag bunch of misfit bandits living in the woods. That first full year, which contained that second summer -- the math was getting really confusing, but Rob and John agreed that it wouldn’t sound natural to state the specific year every single time -- that was also the time that the five of them got to fully enjoy one another’s company. The previous year had been spent slowly growing on one another and working on their group cohesion; that year they finally achieved that true friendship and got to enjoy it. As for the next fiscal year, well…

They told them that the next year was the one wherein Robin’s Half-Brother passed. At this news, Ed looked scared, Double-D offered his condolences, and Eddy simply demanded to know what happened (much to Double-D’s annoyance). Robin said that while he would rather not talk about it, he did allow himself to state that it wasn’t natural, but then he mused aloud that that probably wasn’t a satisfying answer, and it might even scare the Eds off if they assumed that to mean that Robin’s Half-Brother fell in the line of duty, to which Double-D allowed himself to indulge in some impoliteness himself and say that that was exactly what he was afraid of when he heard Robin say that. John offered to say it for Robin if Robin would allow it, and Robin allowed it, and Little John told them plainly that Robin’s Half-Brother had committed suicide over guilt of doing inadvertent harm to a civilian. Robin did not look at anybody or anything in particular as John told them, and he had no more to say on the topic of his half-brother’s demise.

They told them that before that happened, that summer was shaping up to be even better than the previous one. Obviously, that did not turn out to be the case. They kept up their act through the summer and into the fall, but Robin was badly shaken for a good long while. The other four just tried anything they could to help Robin moved past it, but -- Little John told the Eds this part, and Robin didn’t fight him over it -- Robin just maintained a deep sense of personal responsibility for what happened to his brother; while all of the Men were familiar with the concept of survivor’s guilt (and indeed, the other four weren’t too cheerful those days, either), this was the most hardcore case of self-loathing over another’s passing that any of them had ever seen, not because it made Robin unfunctional (which it didn’t) but because of how long and how unflappably it persisted in someone like Robin who was usually impossibly resilient after his failures. At a certain point in the story, Robin asked Little John to move on from this detail, if for no other reason than because it might be boring and/or bumming out the boys; Little John clarified that he was just trying to instill confidence in them that Robin wasn’t one to lose faith in himself, and John was trying to do this by over-elaborating on how shocking the exception-to-prove-the-rule was, but he acquiesced all the same. He wrapped up this chapter by mentioning that it was on Halloween of that year when Robin got his groove back. Halloween was usually a day that the Men took off, both because they didn’t want to ruin the night for all the kids trick-or-treating in the event that the cops actually get a run on them and kill the mood by infesting the city looking for them, and because Halloween fell nicely between Little John’s birthday in late October and Robin’s birthday in early November precisely three weeks after John’s, and therefore Halloween was always used as a joint celebration. That Halloween, some kids from the city -- maybe third- or fourth-graders --  actually wandered all the way into Sherwood, taking advantage of their lack of adult supervision to go and hang out with their local heroes. But they got lost and quickly got tangled with some malicious high-schoolers from the upper-class suburbs who were in the woods to get intoxicated. The Merry Men (themselves a little buzzed from their merrymaking) heard the children screaming from a mile away -- Robin always did have impeccable hearing -- at which point they came running, scared the mean big kids off, got the kids home safe, and by the time the night was over, Robin offhandedly mentioned that he felt like he was “back.” Something about saving those kids refreshed his sense of purpose.

They told them, however, that Robin’s bouncing back wasn’t going to save the state of the Merry Men. His confidence in Robin’s leadership having slightly wavered that year, The Rooster started reading up on sociopolitical philosophy and ultimately started spending some time on his own to play music and contemplate what he really believed in. Meanwhile, The Friar, for his troubles, got Lyme disease. Evidently a tick had gotten stuck somewhere in his fur, bit down, and never let go. The Men were fortunate to know a few doctors who were sympathetic to their cause, and took him to one when his mysterious symptoms got worse. This was shortly after Robin’s birthday, not even a few weeks removed from Robin’s Halloween rebirth, and the Robin and John both had memories of watching the post-election brouhaha on the TV in The Friar’s hospital room when the doctor walked in remarking that it was a miracle The Friar was still alive, not just because of the unchecked Lyme disease but because of the thyroid thing going untreated for decades, both of which were news to Robin, John, and The Rooster. Speaking of miracles, that winter was spent getting help from their civilian friends to forge some documents saying that The Friar had completed seminary training so he could live a safe life as a priest. The Friar would remain a close associate of the Merry Men, but now was most assuredly an auxiliary member, being too old and sickly to regularly engage in the kind of activities as he had for the last two years. The band was starting to unravel, but they weren’t done yet.

They told them that that next year was one hell of a rollercoaster ride. It all started that May when Mayor Norman had the balls to bring himself to Sherwood Forest for what was advertised to be some press conference on environmentalism but was clearly supposed to be a poorly-planned ambush to get the remaining Merry Men. Not only did his guards fail to capture them; Robin and John (but not The Rooster, who at this point was disappearing to God-knows-where for days at a time) took the liberty of dressing up in drag and robbing the motorcade itself. It was easily one of their best hauls ever, and good timing for it, because the mayor had recently raised taxes again; Robin and John had long ago lost track of the timeline of which tax hikes Prince John had implemented and when, but they agreed this particular one must have been a property tax one, because Prince John was sending his highest-ranking officers around as tax collectors to personally repossess stuff from people who couldn’t pay the new tax and couldn’t afford a lawyer to step up in court and say “Your Honor, there’s no way this shit can be legal.” They specifically remembered a rabbit family -- Robin immediately regretted letting their species slip, but he said whatever and moved on. The Mother Rabbit was a widow with a rabbit-y number of offspring, and when she couldn’t pay up, a cop just swiped her newly-seven-year-old son’s birthday money -- oh yeah, did Robin forget to mention that the cop crashed the kid’s birthday party? In any case, Robin showed up just as the cop was on his way out and decided to make it up to the Rabbit Kid by giving him his bow, arrow, and his bycocket hat; Robin clarified that a bycocket was the kind of feathered cap that they wore in Ye Olden Days and which Robin thought went quite nicely with his choice of weapon, and after picking up some nice green, yellow, and blue ones while restocking on arrows at a Renaissance Faire during the second summer, he and Little John wore them proudly and unironically for a few years before they all either got too tarnished or just sort of disappeared. Robin then apologized for going on a tangent about medieval hats -- God, he loved those things, dorkiness be damned, he really thought he and John pulled them off well for two citizens of the new Twenty-First Century, and he might even go so far as to say that the presence of those hats correlated with the best times for the Merry Men -- but he promised that the part about the gifted bow and arrow would be important later on.

They told them that after the motorcade robbery, Prince John was more hellbent than ever to get the Merry Men. Sometime shortly afterwards, a lightbulb went off in his head, and he decided to capture the criminal mastermind known for using a bow and arrow by setting up an archery contest. (Now Robin mentioned to the Eds that this wasn’t the part where the bow and arrow was relevant, just in case that made things confusing; Robin was so used to spinning good yarns on the fly that he sometimes got tripped up when recalling the details of real events, and “impromptu nonfiction storytelling” was one of the few skills Little John consciously knew Robin was jealous of John having while Robin himself didn’t.) Prince John spent a few months preparing and organizing the contest to get it the most exposure possible and to guarantee that the bandits would hear about it and be enticed into participating. He also had one of his favorite police lackeys taken off duty to train at archery for hours a day so that when the outlaw did show up, he would have to be at his best to outshine the officer… at which point his extraordinary skills would betray his identity, and then Mayor Norman could capture him in front of the whole populace of Nottingham and publicly declare the existence of the Sherwood Forest Nature Preserve bandits for the first -- and last -- time. A rather cogent plan, Robin and John must admit. Prince John, truly proving to the world that he really didn’t understand the value of money, set the grand prize at $25,000, and while getting a chunk like that out of the city treasury was enticing enough, there was another reason why Robin wanted to throw caution to the wind and enter the contest anyway.

They told them that somewhere along the line, Robin and John got word that Robin’s Girlfriend was in Nottingham. And she wasn’t just visiting; she was in town for awhile, living with Her Scottish Friend Whom She Met at College in New York. And to put it bluntly, Robin was lovesick. (Little John remarked to the Eds that Robin that summer would spend more time than usual taking his bathroom breaks, if they knew what he meant, and each of the boys chuckled while Robin silently blushed, silently confessing to himself that John wasn’t lying about that part.) Robin never stopped having feelings for her, but he had long since come to terms with the idea that he would never see her again. Now that he might feasibly see her again… hoo boy, he just couldn’t think straight. He wanted so badly to reunite with her, but he got it in his head that they were done. A woman like Robin’s Girlfriend was just too good to be in love with a vagrant criminal. Not to mention, the idea that she had been in town for a while by that point and hadn’t come to find them when she surely would have known they were still there, well… they didn’t know whether it was because she thought it was dangerous to go out in search of armed bandits, of if it was because she thought no self-respecting woman would go running blindly into the wilderness to find a guy who abandoned her several years prior, but either one was understandable. Just as Robin was about to uncharacteristically lose his composure again, Little John reminded him of something: he was Fucking Robin Hood. He was not only a risk-taker, but a risk-taker who knew how make his risks more likely to pay off. If Robin could handle a life of crime, he could handle speaking to his own girlfriend, and although Little John had never met Robin’s Girlfriend, Robin certainly made it seem like his confidence was one of the things she found the most attractive about him (although, John quipped, Rob’s dashing good looks probably helped; Robin then played up being flattered and they had a moment of playful friend-flirting with one another, which Ed and Double-D found amusing but Eddy found just a tinge uncomfortable to watch, just a tinge). In short, Little John argued that Robin going back to His Girlfriend was well worth the risk, and if his hypothesis was correct, the sheer act of doing it might guarantee its own success. Robin found himself agreeing.

They told them that it was as soon as this conclusion was reached that The Friar came out of the literal woodwork and arrived at the Major Oak to deliver news of the planned archery contest, and that Robin’s Girlfriend, who had some connection to Prince John -- Robin halfheartedly theorized that she may have been interning at City Hall or something but clearly didn’t try too hard to come up with a concrete answer -- was going to be there; in fact, there had been rumblings that Prince John’s wacky ass actually planned to have part of the grand prize be a kiss from Robin’s Girlfriend before some person or people stepped up and told him that treating a woman like a literal trophy probably wasn’t a good idea in modern America. Robin immediately declared his intention to go to that contest and wipe the floor with everybody to impress His Girlfriend, and uttered a curse upon political correctness because he really wanted that kiss to be his prize, and maybe a little bit more, but he would find a way to get it anyway. Little John, meanwhile, cursed his ability to uplift his friend, now that it had just inspired him to go into a place armed to the teeth just to get some tail. But nevertheless, Robin broke the recollection for a second to express his gratitude to Little John for always knowing exactly what to say to make him feel better and always having the guts to say it, and although they both knew that Little John wasn’t quite so confident in his propping-up skills as of late, they also both knew that those were outliers caused by excessively dark circumstances, and they both knew that Robin would never hold John’s failures in these outlying instances against him, and they both knew that Robin didn’t think there was anybody else on planet Earth who could do a better job being his hype-man than Little John, and they both knew that John wouldn’t protest the compliment. Robin wrapped his arm around the bear’s wide back as far as he could in a show of appreciation, and Little John pulled his big arm out from between himself and Robin and draped it over the fox’s shoulder and pulled it in toward his torso and hip to reciprocate the sentiment, and walking a few feet behind them, Eddy -- who was not offended per se by the goofy platonic play-flirting two minutes prior but nevertheless felt like he was witnessing something he was conditioned to see as taboo, almost like Kevin would materialize out of the ether and punch him in the stomach just for looking at it -- felt a similar malaise as before, but this time it was out of uncertainty that he would ever share such fraternity as he was witnessing now with any other living person. Little did Eddy know that right next to him, Double-D was having similar thoughts about whether he would ever have such a real friend; Ed, for his part, was operating under the assumption that he already had such a bond with Eddy and Double-D, but they just chose not to express it in such ways as the elder bear and fox did.

They told them that if teenagers like themselves didn’t have any recollection of a widely-publicized archery contest in the area a mere four years ago, it’s because the marketing campaign was a flop and not a lot of the citizenry actually cared. Robin and John knew that at least one of their civilian friends theorized that even people who were casually interested in watching strangers shoot arrows at a canvas target would have gotten their fill from the Olympics the summer prior and wouldn’t have much interest in watching amateurs and hobbyists do it to vie for a big chunk of wasted taxpayer money. That said, it wasn’t like the event was abandoned or anything; it was just that the crowd was comprised of a few very specific factions: legit archery fans; the regular Ren Faire crowd; the mayor’s goons who were there to capture the eventual winner; some rich folks -- who were the closest thing Prince John had to friends (and who included a ridiculously-disguised Little John on a mission to butter the mayor up) -- who had a personal desire to see this character apprehended; and people from the West Side who knew who the archer in the skinny panther costume really was.

They told them that the competition was actually pretty competent. A lot of the other entrants were hardcore hobbyists and Ren Faire regulars, and even one guy from New Jersey who had allegedly barely missed the cut for the Olympics the year before. Most surprising, however, is that the mayor’s favorite cop -- Robin and John still weren’t giving any more specific identifiers than that -- was giving the “panther” a run for his money. Apparently all that forced training was paying off, because this guy was routinely making shots within two inches of the bullseye. Robin was planning on sandbagging to quell suspicion, but at a certain point, he saw His Girlfriend in the crowd, and then all his inhibitions fell away; it was time to show off. Robin then made the conscious decision to sink every shot perfectly and proceeded to bumslay everybody. He was so consumed by pride that he completely forgot that this was exactly what Prince John needed to weed him out, despite Little John’s attempts to convince the mayor that it was an unbelievable case of beginner’s luck.

They told them that at a certain point, they held a tiebreaker between the obese cop and the malnourished panther. (Robin let the qualifier “obese” slip, and Double-D briefly entertained the thought that it might have been a certain officer he knew, but he dismissed this, thinking that his uncle surely lacked the discipline to become amazing at archery in a month, and Double-D told himself to be a polite and attentive listener and to go back to focusing on the adults’ story.) The officer went first and nailed it perfectly; they broke out the tape measure and they literally could not perceive any variance between the point of impact and the geometric center of the target. They then proceeded to not actually remove the arrow from the board. The panther protested, the mayor’s eccentric new pal protested, and even Robin’s Girlfriend and many strangers in the crowd protested, but all were told to be adults and live with it. So Robin went ahead and shattered the officer’s arrow, waltzed over toward the crowd with eyes locked on His Girlfriend (whose intuition made the panther’s true identity no mystery), and asked for his prize while a large chunk of the crowd cheered him on, some even excited enough to be chanting his actual name. His victory lap did not last long.

They told them that it was a shitshow. They sort of glossed over the fine details, but they mentioned that Robin was disrobed and revealed, and the mayor was ordering his cops to shoot him in the head if he dared to move a muscle, but Little John “convinced” the mayor to change his mind with the help of a switchblade at his neck (at this point, Little John turned to the Eds and clarified -- making eye contact with Double-D more than the other two -- that this was an emergency action and that they never had premeditated intentions to kill anyone, and judging by the look on the wolf-boy’s face, Johnny was glad he made that clear), and along with the objections from Robin’s Girlfriend and many others in the crowd that they had precisely no evidence that this panther was a wanted criminal, Prince John actually told his cops to let him go outright. Then the crowd rioted anyway. Amid the chaos, there were many injuries, much broken glass, and a marriage proposal, which Robin’s Girlfriend accepted on the spot. Robin clearly looked very content as he recalled this part, though he did confess that he had no idea if she would still honor their verbal engagement if she met him again today. That said, he did have a ring for her, fashioned out of a soft-stemmed flower, which he put on her finger as he showed her around Sherwood Forest that night, during which time they caught up, took in the moonlight, walked by the small waterfall, and just basked in the wonder of each other’s presence. Robin didn’t look at the Eds as he mentioned that he wished they would be lucky enough to know young love, thinking they were at that age where they may crave sex but couldn’t appreciate romance, but he also avoided looking at Little John, who Robin was afraid might have a moment of intrusive thoughts about how he had not been so lucky to know such a thing and probably was now chronologically disqualified from ever experiencing it.

They told them that their tender moment was pleasantly interrupted by one of the quirkiest parties they’d ever been to. A bunch of people from the city had made their way out to the Major Oak for what they could only think to describe as an “urban hoedown,” wherein a bunch of city dwellers who would typically not care for country and folk music danced, drank, and made merry to the songs played by Little John and The Rooster (who was kind enough to stop being AWOL for a few hours). Little John even sang a song mocking Prince John, which he and The Rooster (when he wasn’t MIA) had secretly been developing in their heads for a few months by that point. This was an important detail because the song was actually a very catchy earworm, with Little John giving about half a dozen encores, and rumor had it that after a week’s time it had spread so much that the mayor heard his assistant and the cop from earlier singing it to themselves in a false moment of privacy and damn-near cracked the officer over the head with his cane when he discovered them. The mayor, by the way, had probably spent the unclaimed prize money from the archery contest -- and a lot more from both personal and private funds -- to pay off all the media entities in town to just pretend the archery debacle didn’t happen. He was now on a warpath, and the Men had to make something happen before something happened to them.

They told them that before they could make the first move against the mayor and his elite, he made a move against the people. Prince John implemented some “emergency tax” to remedy the city’s sewage and drainage systems, which he claimed were still backed up after a tropical storm had brushed by coast two months prior in June -- and to be fair, the sewers were still malfunctioning two months later… but only in the neglected parts of town. Therefore he only implemented the tax in the parts of town that needed fixing, and when the poor people couldn’t pay up, he tossed them in jail for tax evasion. This included The Rooster, who was mistaken for a regular homeless man unaffiliated with the Merry Men while wandering aimlessly around Georgetown, and The Friar, who was the unfortunate one to answer the door at the clergy house when the tax collector/police officer came knocking; John Norman knew damn well that churches were tax-exempt, but he framed it as taxing the clergy as individuals instead of taxing a Catholic Church, just like how Protestant ministers have to pay civilian taxes. In fact, word on the street was that the mayor was trying to get The Friar the death penalty because he had just said fuck it and fought back against the cop at the door of the clergy house, and then they framed it as a much more extreme attack then that; depending on how thoroughly Prince John could talk up the court that oversaw his trial, there was a fair chance The Friar would actually get booked for a lethal injection. There were some rumblings that there wasn’t really any plans to push for capital punishment, and that it was just a ruse specifically to lure Robin Hood and Little John to come bust The Friar out. Nevertheless, Rob and John -- who were starting to come to terms with the fact that the Merry Men would ultimately boil down someday to just the fox and the bear who made a great pair -- decided to stage a jailbreak.

They told them that Prince John’s haughty laziness actually made it much easier for them. Because the city was taking its sweet-ass time processing its offenders, exactly zero of those arrested actually were sent to a full-fledged correctional facility, nor did any of them even see a judge for that matter. They were literally just being kept in the holding pen at the city police headquarters, all of them -- dozens and dozens of men, women, and children whose parents and guardians were arrested (John Norman would later say to the only journalist with the balls to ask him that he thought keeping the kids with their parents was more humane than separating them and throwing them into foster care). Since the Paranoid Prince’s mini-mansion was not even a block from the main precinct (a very deliberate design choice), only separated by the Peach Creek as it ran through that part of town on its way to the ocean, Rob and Johnny decided to perform double duty: Robin would loot the mayor’s house while Little John freed the people. Simple.

They told them that they don’t know exactly where it all went wrong. One moment, everybody from the mayor to the cop guarding the holding tank were fast asleep and it seemed like everyone was going to be home free, the next, everybody and their grandma was awake and trying to kill them. Robin said somberly that that was the closest he’d ever come to meeting his maker, and when he jumped in the creek to escape the guards’ bullets and didn’t come up from the water for what seemed like a solid minute, Little John -- who had been watching from the banks of the creek along with the freshly-liberated Rabbit Kid, refusing to let their friend be left behind -- certainly thought that Robin had finally learned the answer to the old question of what happens to our conscious minds after our bodies can’t continue any longer. Little John had just turned his back to the water, overcome by grief and not knowing what on earth he was going to do with himself now, when the Rabbit Kid noticed some movement in the water. Little John said he had never felt such elation in his life. They all went back to Sherwood with the newly-freed citizens, and although all of them were physically exhausted, they had all found the strength to party for another sixty hours. The only thing that made this party worse than the previous one was that Robin’s Girlfriend couldn’t be there, because as somebody connected to the mayor, she was expected to help clean up the mess her secret fiancé had made. She was expected to leave town soon afterwards, and to date, Robin had never seen her again; the last thing they spoke of was the morning after the hoedown after the archery contest, when upon stating that she needed to get back to civilization, she realized that Robin’s Half-Brother had been nowhere to be seen; Robin, not wanting to ruin their goodbye, sheepishly fibbed that His Half-Brother was captured somewhere along the line and now they had no idea where he was. Robin morosely mentioned that he still kicked himself every single day that his semi-permanent farewell to the love of his life was not only such a downer, but a lie at that.

As an aside, they told them that they would not expect the Eds to subject themselves to such danger as seen in the jailbreak… unless they really, really wanted to.

They told them that they specifically remembered that the jailbreak happened on a Thursday night going into the Friday morning after Labor Day. The city government spent Friday cleaning up the mess and covering up their embarrassment, took the weekend off to collect their thoughts, and announced on Monday that the emergency tax was cancelled, all the debts tied to it repudiated, and all the people apprehended “let go.” Word around town was that Prince John was just one bad minute away from resigning for his own personal safety. Any day now and all of this could all be over. It seemed as though all that hard work, all the pain, all the sorrow, all the days and years of their lives sacrificed wholly in service of the common people, was about to pay off. And if things had been different, perhaps it all would have been worth it.

They told them that the boys probably remembered that Tuesday. Robin and John sure did. They were making their usual rounds, a bit more casually than usual since they believed their goal was in sight, when they realized that there were a lot of cops out for the morning rush hour, and that there were a few helicopters buzzing around. The first friendly civilian they saw flagged them down and told them in no uncertain terms that they’d best head back to Sherwood and take the day off, and probably a few more days after that. They politely ignored the citizen’s implorations, but after three or four more people told them basically the same thing, they started to get the feeling that something wasn’t right -- not that those people were telling them what was up, because they didn’t know much more than Robin and John did. The two of them went back to the Major Oak, only to find that The Rooster was there too, and he didn’t know much more than they did. He had heard that there was another hurricane off the coast -- but, like, way off the coast, like by Bermuda -- and that the beaches were closed because of some nasty waves, and his best guess was that there was some weather-related mess, even though it had only drizzled a little bit before sunrise that morning. The three of them played cards, took turns reading a book out loud, practiced sparring, attempted writing some new songs, and quite frankly tried to stave off boredom. All the while, they kept hearing sirens in the distance, though the helicopters seemed to trail off throughout the day. Toward the evening, out of ideas for what to do, they just laid down in a clearing and stared at the clouds as they slowly turned orange. During this time, Little John had the thought that he couldn’t see a single airplane in the sky, but Robin and The Rooster were talking about something else and John didn’t know if it was actually that weird, so he didn’t bother mentioning it; maybe he had just never noticed that there weren’t any flight-paths over Sherwood. The next morning, the three of them went to pay a visit to The Friar to find out what the heck had happened. When he told them, they were in such disbelief that they went around to a bunch of their other civilian friends to ask them to corroborate the story. The Merry Men weren’t just scared and heartbroken by the news of the events; they were also worried because they had no idea how this would affect them, and while they certainly didn't want to think such selfish thoughts after such an occurrence, the coming weeks, months and years would confirm their fears that they were, indeed, screwed.

Prince John, the sick fuck that he was, was more than happy to have a reason to kick government security into high gear. He petitioned the governor to send the Delaware National Guard to Nottingham so they could just sort of, you know, hang out, just to be around in case some people with “extreme” beliefs and “radical” values were to engage in behaviors that could be construed as an attack on the city and its people. While he didn’t succeed in getting a militia to patrol the city, he still had plenty of excessive force to go around, and, shockingly, a scared and confused populace found themselves faintly supporting him; they were in no means in love with the guy, but terrible leadership was still better than no leadership, and now more than ever, the people really needed a leader. In this bizarre world where the poor of Nottingham found the tyrant to be somewhat tolerable, and where said tyrant was now justified in acting upon his paranoia in the name of protecting his people against a newfound evil, the Men understood that they now needed to mind their P’s and Q’s more than ever. What was probably the darkest day anyone alive had ever witnessed had given John Norman a new lease on life.

They told them that, if it wasn’t already obvious, all of their progress was undone, all of their momentum was gone, and all of their hope seemed lost. They kept doing what they were doing, but much more carefully now; no more signed notes to the mayor, and no more of their fans shouting their names in the streets. “They” also started consisting exclusively of Robin and John. The Friar asked politely if he may be excused from service going forward, save for maybe some extraneous circumstances, and Rob and Johnny granted him his honorable discharge. As for The Rooster, it turns out that he really had done some thinking during his times away from the others, much of which turned out to have been spent in Zoar Park and Hollyville with people with big ideas, and somewhere along the line he had embraced no-shit, for-realsies anarchy, and not the “guy who holds radical beliefs and reads a lot of political literature and wears a lot of knit sweaters but is functionally harmless” kind of anarchism, but instead the “robbing the rich to give to the poor is great, but in the interest of remedying society, we can also go about destructively disrupting society in its present state as its own end, which will be effective in and of itself” kind, the “Weather Underground seemed like an upright bunch of kids, but they would have been better to distance themselves from statism” kind, the “liberals get the bullet, too” kind of anarchism. (Robin and John felt the need to spell out Alan’s politics, just on the off chance that any of the boys identified as an anarchist and would be turned off by the insinuation that that was a bad thing to be, not because any of the Eds outwardly seemed like the kind who would, but because they were teenage boys, and Robin and John knew that there was always a chance that any given teenage boy in the United States could be the kind go around proudly calling themselves an anarchist without really knowing what that word meant.) The Rooster thought that the excessive patriotism in the aftermath of those dark days was grossly inappropriate and borderline evil, and he was legitimately pissed at Robin and John for not wanting to start breaking shit to get stuff done. The Rooster was genuinely confused by how they weren’t on board, and he argued that the whole “rob from the rich to give to the poor” schtick was essentially anarcho-communism anyway. And Robin and John didn’t really have a good rebuttal to that, because, as they told The Rooster on several occasions, they had never really thought of their actions through the lens of political theory, only through the lens of Good and Bad; they thought that it was Bad that people were being taxed to death in Twenty-First Century America, and they thought that they had found a way to do Good by toeing the line of “constructive action that will have a positive effect”, whereas The Rooster’s ideas struck them as “destructive action that will just make things worse”. Indeed, when Little John straight-up told The Rooster that, despite the inherently political nature of their actions, he just didn’t give a rat’s ass about politics on a day-to-day basis, The Rooster called him cowardly, a redneck, convictionless, and a fascist all in about three seconds; when Robin cosigned on John’s statement to back up his buddy (not knowing himself whether it was completely true that he felt precisely as John did, but knowing damn well that he wasn’t on board with The Rooster), The Rooster said plainly that he expected the Englishman to be more enlightened. In what became a sort of inside joke between the fox and the bear, they told The Rooster that the last thing they wanted was an all-out class war. But The Rooster just seemed disappointed in them. Robin and John acknowledged to the Eds that they were probably boring them with all this talk of political theory (much like how The Rooster bored them to tears when he wouldn’t shut the fuck up about something-something about bread), but wrapped up this section of the recollection by saying that The Rooster didn’t abandon them yet; he was certainly content to keep his stuff at the Major Oak and had no problem eating their food or borrowing their toilet paper. But he kept growing more and more distant as he spent many days going off and doing his own thing, becoming more like an annoying roommate than a partner in crime, and many nights were spent with arguments going well into the night, with The Rooster doing most of the talking, seemingly to himself. (Little John nearly mentioned the time when Alan seriously crossed the line by telling Robin that Will had basically been a radical anarchist and if he were still around, Will would side with him in a heartbeat, and John had to break up a fistfight between the two of them, picking Robin and Alan up by the scruff of their necks and making them talk it out while two and a half off the ground, but John bit his tongue, not wanting to remind the prideful Robin that the country coyote had been well on his way to kicking the lanky fox’s ass.)

They told them that they both hoped the boys would never experience such a tragedy as the ending of a friendship; it was a truly gut-wrenching thing, but since there are so many worse things a person can experience, people rarely recognize it for being as tough as it really is. It wasn’t quite like a breakup with a significant other, they posited (not that Robin nor John were experts, since they’d only ever had one girlfriend between the two of them); a relationship could (foolishly) be built upon sexual attraction before anything else, but a friendship just leaves raw chemistry, so for something to interrupt that, something really must have gone wrong. John and Robin said didn’t hate The Rooster; in fact, they still cared about him, and might even go as far as to say they still loved him as a brother after all that time they spent together, but they didn’t really want to hang out with him anymore, and they most certainly didn’t feel comfortable working with him if he was liable to start stirring shit for the sake of it. They knew that the changes he went through were products of his own pain and grief, but that understanding didn’t make it any easier for them to deal with those changes. If they saw him tomorrow, lying on the side of the road and dying of thirst, Robin and Little John would both give him something to drink, and neither would leave his side until he was well again, but they wouldn’t stick around much longer after they nursed him back to health. After all, your brother isn’t necessarily your friend.

They told them that there was virtually zero chance of seeing him tomorrow, however, lying on the side of the road or otherwise, because The Rooster was the guy they had told the Eds they didn’t have to worry about ever meeting. For a while, he continued redistributing wealth his own way, in addition to other extracurricular activities that may or may not have actually been quite as helpful to anyone, but after a few years -- this would have been about two years ago, on Valentine’s Day before the Merry Men’s fifth anniversary -- The Rooster got busted. It turned out that his big idea was to steal cop cars, have them repainted, and give them to the poor of Nottingham. Robin and John conceded that it was actually a rather creative idea, one that they kind of wished they’d come up with themselves, but there was a major flaw in the plan. They didn’t know whether The Rooster just forgot that cars have VIN numbers, or if he just thought they wouldn’t be traced, or if he thought that they couldn’t be traced because it would be too much of a hassle á la the serial numbers on a dollar bill, or if he did try to erase the VIN numbers but just never thought to replace them with fake ones and therefore made it even more suspicious that a Crown Victoria with a dark spot where the “POLICE INTERCEPTOR” badge would be also doesn’t have a Vehicle Identification Number, but in any case, it was easy for the cops to ascertain that the paint shop in Wood Branch servicing a disproportionate number of Crown Vics with no titles or registration attached to them probably got them through illicit means. The authorities raided the operation, and The Rooster had the misfortune of being there at the time. Robin mused that, as far as they knew, The Rooster never actually killed anyone, (though he was certainly booked for several dozen counts of Attempted, as well as a bunch of other charges owing to his sheer recklessness), nor did he engage in many of the extreme behaviors for which he had verbally advocated (they had certainly never heard of him nor anybody else planting IEDs at City Hall), but while his intentions were noble, he seemed too hung up on saying Fuck Tha Police and Other Tenets of the Establishment instead of trying to cut the snake off at its head.

They told them that they fucked up in their recollection and got so wrapped up in their schism with The Rooster that they forgot the payoff to why that Rabbit Kid’s gift of a bow and arrow were important. So backtrack to the fourth summer and fall, four years ago, right after everything got messed up. Apparently the Rabbit Kid and his friend went trick-or-treating that Halloween as members of the Merry Men, with the Rabbit Kid donning the hat and carrying the oversized bow rubber-tipped arrow. Somewhere along the line that night, the kids -- two seven-year-olds who had just started second grade, perhaps they should have been trick-or-treating with adult supervision at that age -- came across a cop, who told them that he didn’t like what their costumes stood for. The Rabbit Kid pointed the bow and rubber-tipped arrow at the officer, his friend raised the branch that was supposed to be a sword or a quarterstaff (it was whatever he was feeling it to be in a given moment, really), and they both demanded money from the officer to be given to the poor of Nottingham. Several more cops showed up, and instead of dropping the act, the kids just escalated it. Both of them were sent to juvenile hall after a quick trial. Little John quipped that it was moments like that that made him understand why The Rooster had such a hate-boner for cops specifically. In any case, Robin and John weren’t there to save them because they were in the woods, getting drunk alone with each other on their joint birthday (not to suggest they didn’t get drunk fairly often without any special occasion before about two years ago, at which point they decided they needed to cut back on their namesake merrymaking if they wanted to survive). They were telling the Eds this because it was one of their biggest regrets, especially to Robin, who felt like he shouldn’t have trusted that kid to be as mature for his age as Robin had thought him to be. They told them that between the Rabbit Kid and Robin’s Half-Brother, they weren’t ever going to make any more mistakes that would endanger young lives ever again. That meant them.

They told them that they were racking their brains to think of whether there was anything they were forgetting. It seemed like the answer was “not really”. The last four years, and especially the last two, had been a blur, and not in the “time flies when you’re having fun” sort of way, but in the “time flies when you’re worried you’re wasting your life” sort of way. Their progress had been as stagnant as swamp water, and they were stuck in a stalemate with Prince John and his associates, who might win by default simply because there were more of them. And that’s why they were looking to recruit some people like the Eds. There were those who thought the Merry Men were too radical, and some (like a certain Rooster they knew) who thought they weren’t radical enough, but there were even more who beyond all that were just worried for Robin and John because they thought they were doing everything right but just didn’t have the manpower to pull it off. There had been times when the two of them considered going The Rooster’s route, but they saw how well that ended; there had also been times when they’d considered throwing in the towel, but they knew that there was no guarantee that anybody else would step up to the plate and take individual action to make things better for people as they had tried to do. They remembered how they were so close to succeeding once -- so close -- before they were derailed by the most unforeseen of unforeseen circumstances. They told themselves that this must mean that they knew what to do, they just needed help getting that close again, and this time, they would be sure to pull it off. All they needed was help. All they needed was for someone to step up and say that they wanted to be a Merry Man. Or a Merry Woman, or a Merry Boy or Girl, or a Merry Being of Ambiguous Age and Gender, but it’s not exactly like they’d had any luck attracting any one demographic over another in the past seven years. All they knew was that the Eds seemed like cool kids, and now they wanted to share their world with them because they wanted to see whether they’d like to join them there. And they knew it was a risk to show them their world, and they told them as much, but they knew from seven years of doing this shit that nothing new gets done without taking risks -- at least not in this line of work. Once upon a time, some motherfucker somewhere -- maybe it was Einstein, maybe it wasn’t -- said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Robin Hood and Little John were done doing the same shit over and over without making a change, because it was making them go insane. They were hoping that the addition of Ed, Edd and Eddy to their lives would be the change they needed to make. And if they weren’t comfortable joining them, that was fine, because they couldn’t reasonably expect otherwise. But Robin and John had to offer. They needed to show somebody their world because otherwise those new people would never know how rewarding it could be unless they saw it firsthand. And they needed the help, so they needed someone to see how rewarding it truly was. They were taking this stupid risk because it was riskier in the long run to not take the stupid risk. Does that make sense? Do you understand us, boys? Are you lads still on board with us? That’s what they told them.

--IllI--

“If you kids remember even half that, I’ll be surprised,” Little John remarked.

“What, are ya calling us stupid?” asked Eddy.

“No, I’m just saying that it was a lot of information to take in. Chill, bud. We wouldn’t’ve brought ya with us if we thought y’all were too dumb to live.” Little John wasn’t lying, but between Ed’s absentmindedness and the other two’s strangely equal but opposite lack of social awareness, he hadn’t made up his mind yet whether any of them were too dumb to live. He certainly thought that the midgety fox kid -- Little John couldn’t believe he caught himself mentally calling this kid “midgety” considering his own past, but that was the word he thought, and it wasn’t an entirely inaccurate descriptor -- he thought Eddy was definitely a hothead, but perhaps there was still a way to channel that into positive energy. After all, Little John himself used to be full of wayward anger at the world, and he turned that around. Hell, maybe between being extremely late bloomers and harboring anger issues that just needed some guidance, Little John found himself thinking that he might have had a lot more in common with Eddy than he originally thought.

“But just so we can make it clear once and for all,” Robin said as he stopped and turned to the boys, “the three of you are all alright to continue with us? We won’t think less of you if you tell us no, especially after all the information we’ve unloaded onto you three, but we’re about to leave the forest, so this is your last chance to scoot off without making a public scene. Shall we keep going? Can I get three yeses?”

Ed was just going to wait for Edd and Eddy to answer first so he could just go with whatever they said, but Little John was making eye contact with him. John didn’t have any particular reason for looking to Ed to answer first, only that from his vantage point he was the easiest to look at. But Ed was a mere mortal, and his recent concern for the health of his friends’ bond was no match for his long and storied history of making impulsive decisions on his own accord. The little bit of him that felt like he should be the last to answer was outweighed by the part of him that felt that he was in the presence of some real cool characters. These guys might have been presenting him the opportunity for that summertime adventure he craved so dearly. The actual moral and sociopolitical implications of the decision didn’t even cross his mind; Ed was making a very self-serving choice. If he got to dress up in costumes and play around with bows and arrows and big fucking sticks and run around the city back to his home base like one big game of tag, then he was sold, and if they could later convice him that he was an actively good person for doing so, then that would just be icing on the cake. “Take Ed with you!” he said.

For Eddy, it wasn’t a matter of specifically wanting to go last, as he had made his mind up a long time ago. He was just damned curious what Double-D was going to say and wanted to find out as soon as possible; if that meant not giving his answer until Edd was goaded into answering faster, then that’s how it would have worked. But after Ed answered, a brief bout of silence made it clear that Double-D was willing to risk disgrace if pretending to be childishly bashful meant that he got to get Eddy to answer first. Eddy wasn’t too invested in this game of chicken, and if these two weirdos turned out to be two guys he’d like to hang around with -- which, if their purported legendary status could be verifiably proven, might go from being “possible” to “very possible” -- he would hate for them to think that he was too gun-shy to pull the trigger and answer a simple question. He wanted to see what these guys were all about, and he was ready to let them know it. “Sure,” he said. “Let’s check it out.”

Double-D was very nervous. Attentive as always, he had been paying very close attention to the details of what tales Robin and John told of their exploits as outlaws, and precisely as the Men had feared, Double-D didn’t feel interested in any of it. Double-D believed that they believed they were doing God’s work, and they certainly painted a picture that they were doing more good than harm, but his parents had always instilled the names of Law and Order into him, and not even these two charismatic creatures could convince him to concede his convictions that quickly. And then there were the uncanny parallels to the legend of Adam Bell and the outlaws of Inglewood Forest, which… Double-D didn’t even want to think about his feelings about that story and its characters.  And yet here he was. Eddy had challenged him to live his life, Ed had implored him to be a team player, and he had dared himself to give a chance to these two who had so thoroughly won him over before he discovered their secrets. Consequently, he was now standing at the far edge of Sherwood Forest Nature Preserve with two strange adults who were unabashedly proud of their vigilante methods of social change. Double-D knew that there were people twenty minutes from his house who were going through situations tougher than he could ever imagine, but he believed that there must, there surely must have been a way to better their lot in life, a way that was much more composed and civilized, a way that did not endanger anybody’s safety, a way that did not require deceit, violence, or dirty socks. But because he was raised to be polite to adults, and because he was raised to think that giving people a chance to make their case -- ludicrous as it might be -- was the polite thing to do, Edd was allowing himself to partake in some foolish risk-taking in the name of what Ed might call “adventure.” And if it all went south and these strangers sought to harm them, well, if this was to be his deplorable lot in life, then Double-D would be prepared for death at any moment.

“Penny for your thoughts, Eddward?” asked Robin.

“Reassure me, if you will: we will not actually be participating in your actions, merely observing them from a safe distance to better understand how you operate?” the wolf asked.

“Eddward, I reassure you,” said Robin. “Actually, allow me to be more specific: We insist you keep a safe distance during the robbery part. But we invite you to join us in giving back to the community. We promise you that the poor of Nottingham will not hurt you while you’re with us.”

“So they’ll hurt us when we’re not with you?” asked Eddy. Everybody ignored him.

“And this is not a commitment to join your band, correct?” asked Double-D.

“No it ain’t, buddy,” said Little John jovially. “All it is, is us doing some show ‘n’ tell.”

Double-D told himself that if all of this was a charade to lure them into some sort of trap, then by this point they’d put on such a performance that they’d’ve earned the right to trap them. “Then I will accept your invitation,” Double-D affirmed.

“I like how the guy asks for three yeses and not a single one of you says anything even close to the word ‘yes,’” Little John couldn’t help but remark. All these thoughts of the way they used to be had John thinking about whether the recent turmoil he and Robin had gone through was causing him to relapse into his former perpetually-grumpy self. He still believed that a little bit of sarcasm in moderation was a nice touch for flavor here and there, but he was trying to monitor himself so he didn’t slip back into being the snarky, un-fun asshole he used to be.

“Johnny, don’t be such a snarky, un-fun arsehole!” said Robin. “This is a great day! We may have just made three new friends! Don’t scare them away!”

John really didn’t need to hear that, but he didn’t want to have an extended chit-chat about it in front of the kids. “Well, hell, if they can’t handle a few remarks, then I guess they can’t handle me.” Little John wasn’t being sarcastic this time, he was just stating a fact with a shitty attitude.

“Oh, nonsense! They just happen to have only seen you when you have a good reason to be frustrated. When our fortunes turn up again, then they’ll see the better side of the bear I’d call my brother.”

“Okay, Mister Broken Record Player, that’s literally not even the first time you’ve said that,” said Eddy. “And it wasn’t any less weird when you called him your ‘brother’ the first time.” Now it was Eddy who was kicking himself for his habitual snark. He didn’t want to get on these guys’ bad side. But he also didn’t want to think that he was going to jump from being the leader of his own band of misfits to being in a spot where he was constantly reminded that he was the third wheel to history’s greatest bromance.

Robin just cocked his head at Eddy with a smile, one of those vexed-but-determined looks. “I really feel like I ought to thank you for this opportunity to practice my persuasion skills on a tough customer like yourself. We’ll get you in groove with us yet. And I must say, Eddy, though it might not seem like it, I really like your energy. We just have to channel it into something positive.”

With all his head eight feet in the air and all the others’ attention on the foxes down below, nobody noticed the bizarre wince on Little John’s face. Channeling his energy into something positive … Was Robin reading his damn mind today? It was honestly kind of getting bizarre, and yet if there were actually some telepathy going on, then why would Rob keep stepping on his toes? The more John thought about it, the more he lamented that it would be awhile before he would have a chance to have another extended private talk about it. Of course, all this talk of the past reminded him of all the guys in his life who would chide him for wanting to have a conversation about feelings with another guy, and he now was starting to lament that wanting. He decided that they ought to stop burning daylight, and with any luck, he might have forgotten about Robin driving him crazy by the end of all this.

“C’mon, Rob,” said John, “we’re probably boring them again. Where we gonna head to?” Fuck! he thought to himself as soon as he said that; he realized he had just handed Robin the keys again to make a decision for the both of them, and furthermore was establishing himself in front of these kids to be Robin’s underling. And Little John would have remedied his error immediately by proposing a location himself, but with his head wrapped up in his newfound self-loathing, he just couldn’t think of any place to go. And then he thought that maybe this was why Robin was the one to make most of the important calls and not him.

“An excellent question, Johnny!” answered Robin, who then turned to the boys. “Now, gentlemen, we have a few different strategies for how we go about collecting. Do you boys know Sherwood Forest Road?”

“Yeah,” answered Eddy.

“Since that road is used disproportionately by the rich, we often like to play a bit of dress-up and pretend we’re also some rich blokes who’ve had a breakdown and need assistance, try to flag them down. The rich won’t help many people, but they’ll certainly help their own.”

“And then what happens?”

“We drug ‘em,” said Little John matter-of-factly; he was making a specific point to not let Robin do all the talking. “We don’t hurt them if we don’t have to. We keep them comfortable while we clean out their pockets and the trunks of their cars.”

“I-I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that,” stammed Double-D predictably.

“As we imagined,” said Robin. “But you needn’t worry, lad; we’re not going to be doing that with you today.”

“Besides, we usually save that for nighttime,” explained Little John. “It’s almost rush hour, isn’t it? Too many people out for a targeted… uh… targeted…?”

“‘Operation’?” Robin offered.

“What he said,” said John.

“We also sometimes make house calls, but not as often as we’d like.”

“Everybody’s stepping up their home security systems now. I swear it seems like technology’s jumped fifty years in the seven years we’ve been doing this.”

“Don’t remind me, Johnny; I don’t fear much in this world, but I’m not looking forward to the day one of our donors realizes their new fancy mobile phone has a camera built into it. Now I ask you, when on earth did these come about!? But lads, again: don’t worry, we won’t ask you to come loot someone’s home with us until you’re ready.”

“If you’re ever ready.”