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no compromises

Chapter Text

 The metro is dark and silent, the only sound coming from one of the leaky pipes in the ceiling, water trickling in from the sewers. The rickety lighting system and the faint turquoise glow deep within the lone telephone's casing barely light up the surroundings.

The stillness is broken by a loud crash as a figure falls in through the ceiling, the fifth to come down, and the telephone regards it in distaste. With a groan, the figure rights itself and stands, fabric shuffling slightly as a scrap of it is thrown over one shoulder, fluttering to hang down to about ankle height. The headset around their neck glints brightly, adding another source of light to the metro. The telephone watches them silently.

The figure strides back and forth in front of the telephone, muttering to itself, something about finding a skull or Hawaii? The telephone doesn’t know what came over this newcomer, though it doesn’t care once it sees the pointed ears and the ink tank.

An Inkling.

As if overcome by an impulse, the telephone wobbles on its stand, making a whirring sound. The Inkling spins around, raising that oversized paint roller that they called a weapon, but seemingly finding no one, lowers it.

Some species are just so dumb.

The telephone gargles, something that might sounds like laughter if one would listen closely. The turquoise glow in the back of it intensifies and starts to spill through the cracks, the Inkling stepping back in horror.

“What the--”

Perfect. The telephone would smile to itself if it had an internal visual process, but it doesn’t, so it can’t. It doesn’t need to go through testing this time. The subject is right where it wants, like those other four who came down earlier, similar to this one.

The telephone raises its speaker, the one that qualified as its mouth, and the turquoise builds up inside, ejecting itself right as the Inkling looks directly at the telephone.

It catches the Inkling in the head, somehow missing their entire face and instead latching onto the side of it, solidifying into a swirl of turquoise ink. The Inkling screams in pain and falls to their knees, thrashing, while the telephone watches silently.

The noises subside after a while, replaced by heavy breathing. The telephone feels like smiling now, but its speaker isn’t meant to stretch that way. Another pawn. Another subject.

A device falls from the Inkling’s pocket as they stand, but the telephone makes no notice of it.

Maybe that was its mistake in the end.  

It blinks, flashing green, the text scrolling on the small screen with three letters repeated over and over: S.O.S. The Inkling’s foot quickly comes down over the device, crushing it in a splinter of plastic and metal, but the damage is done.

Far above ground, an Inkling named Stealth is awakened by an incessant beeping coming from his team leader’s room.

 

Chapter Text

Stealth rolls over in his bed, shoving his pillow over his head as someone's alarm goes off. It's probably Rider, because his leader has a habit of waking up at unholy hours to go train, but it isn’t like Rider to leave his alarm blaring for what seems like five minutes.

He can hear grumbling coming from outside his door and he reluctantly leaves his bed to find Bamboo and Blazer standing in the hallway outside Rider’s door. Blazer raises a hand to knock and the sound is drowned out by the alarm, almost irritatingly so.

“Can we go in?” Bamboo has to shout to be heard. It’s like the alarm is getting louder by the second, faster and more insistent too. It’s almost an ongoing screech at this point and Stealth just shakes his head at her, reaching for the doorknob. The anxiety over entering Rider’s room unannounced is overruled by his want for more sleep and he shoves the door open to a room that is completely devoid of Rider.

The alarm seems to be coming from the nightstand near the bed and Blazer is the first one to react, hurrying forward and tugging at the drawer.  “It’s locked,” she says, frowning, and looks around for a key while her teammates enter the room as well. They’ve never been inside their leader’s room before, and it’s almost sacred in that aspect. Not only that, but they have no idea where to find the key to the drawer if there is any.

“We shouldn’t be poking around in here,” Stealth says nervously. He’s wide awake now, so all thoughts of sleeping have gone out the window. His gaze keeps sliding to the door like Rider will suddenly appear and admonish them for looking through his things. Blazer, on the other hand, is tearing through Rider’s closet, rummaging so far inside that her head is completely submerged in clothing. “Blazer!”

“Yeah?” She emerges again, tentacles a mess. She sees the look on his face and shrugs. “What? I don’t want my ears blown off, nor do I want a noise complaint! If Rider can’t turn off his stupid alarm, we’ll have to for him.”

Bamboo meanwhile is sifting through Rider’s desk, frowning. She pulls out a ring of keys and holds it high. “I think I found it.”

“Awesome!” Blazer bounds over to her and grabs it before vaulting over Rider’s bed to fumble at the lock. She tries at least five keys before she finds one that fits; when she pulls the drawer out, the alarm increases tenfold and all three of them double over, covering their ears.

“Blaze!” Bamboo shouts. “Turn it off!”

“I’m trying!” Blazer is covering one ear with her hand, the other covered by her shoulder as she uses her free hand to rifle through the drawer. She pulls out a device that looks like a rectangular phone, no thicker than her palm and throws it on the ground, stomping furiously on it before Stealth or Bamboo can stop her.

The noise dies and is replaced by a deafening silence. Stealth releases the breath he didn’t know he was holding and crosses the room to Blazer, kneeling to pick up the device. It’s crushed by Blazer’s foot, but the display is still blinking faintly, the same three letters scrolling through the LED screen: S.O.S.

“This is Rider’s right? Who is he communicating with?” Stealth almost jumps out of his own skin when Bamboo speaks from right behind him. He didn’t even hear her coming.

“I don’t know,” he says finally, when his heart rate finally slows enough for him to talk. “It could be coming from Rider himself for all we know.”

“Why would he even use this?” Blazer asks. “It’s sketchy; think about it. This device starts going off at two in the morning, and it was in a locked drawer, full of--” she gestures to the contents of the drawer she had opened; it’s full of pictures, booklets with strange symbols on the cover, and photo IDs. “--this stuff.” She purses her lips and leans forward, picking up a photo ID. “What the heck does this say? Agent Three? Squidbeak Splatoon? What’s that?”

“Let me see that.” Something sparks Stealth’s memory and he looks over her shoulder at the ID. Rider stares up at them, wearing a pair of strange headphones around his neck, dressed in what looked like crossing guard gear. His jacket is thrown on over the neon clothing and he’s looking at the camera with a signature scowl. The signature below it is labelled to be “Cap’n Cuttlefish” followed by Rider’s own signature. True to Blazer’s word, the title next to Rider’s name is Agent Three, the organization named the Squidbeak Splatoon. Where had he seen those names before?

On impulse, he turns to the drawer and looks through it, coming up with a booklet with the same symbol on the ID card on the cover. He flips through it until he sees what he’s looking for.

Squidbeak Splatoon. Agent 3. Day Ten. I have successfully -- with the help of Agents 1 and 2 as well as that old man Cuttlefish -- rescued all the zapfish. The Great Zapfish will be returned to the Plaza, as the other Agents reassured me it was okay for me to return to my normal life.

Stealth scans the rest of the pages. By the looks of it, the Squidbeak Splatoon was the one responsible for returning the Great Zapfish after it disappeared. Sure, it was missing again, but the knowledge that Rider helped with saving Inkopolis lifts Stealth’s hearts slightly. Sure, he didn’t tell his team, but the Agents or whoever they were probably had to be sworn to secrecy.

“Whatcha got there, Stealthy?” Blazer rests her chin on his shoulder to see what he’s reading. “Oh my cod, Rider helped return the Great Zapfish?”

“Let me see.” Bamboo’s at his other side and he hands the booklet to her, letting the girls pore over it while he looks through the rest of the contents.

There are photos of Rider on his missions, most likely on the way to restore power to Inkopolis, engaged in battle with an octopus with huge speakers, and talking to what Stealth assumes are Agents 1 and 2. The other booklets inside the drawer are more informative, talking about DJ Octavio -- the octopus Rider was fighting at some point -- the octolings, Octarians in general, the mission of Squidbeak Splatoon, and just general day-by-day recordings of Rider’s days in what he called Octo Canyon.

He’s thoroughly shocked by the time he’s finished. Rider had led a double life for almost two years without anyone knowing, and Stealth holds so much more respect for him than before, not that Rider wasn’t held in low regards to the other either.

“Did you know he did all this stuff?” Blazer asks, laying back on Rider’s bed. Stealth and Bamboo are too absorbed in their own thoughts to reprimand her.

“No. Did you?”

“No way.”

“Well, that doesn’t explain the box thing,” Bamboo says finally, voicing Stealth’s own thoughts. “Who’s calling for help? What do they need?”

“I think it might be Rider,” Stealth responds slowly. “When was the last time we saw him?”

“Two days ago,” Blazer says immediately. “He was sneaking out in the middle of the night and told me not to tell you two. I’m so sorry about that, but it was an in-the-moment thing and I promised him I wouldn’t tell.”

“So he’s in trouble,” Bamboo sums up, gaze flicking to the device that lay forgotten on the floor. “And we need to find him.”

“We don’t even know where he is,” Stealth protests. “We can’t just blindly go into this. We have to plan this out.”

“He probably is in Octo Canyon,” Blazer says, flipping through another booklet. “That’s the place he kept going to right?”

Stealth frowns. He wants to believe his friend is right, but something feels a bit off about this. “I can try to track the SOS signal,” he suggests. “I don’t think it’s safe to rush in without any plans.”

“You can do that?” Blazer sits up, eyes wide in amazement and Stealth nods a bit hesitantly, confused. “That’s amazing, Stealthy!”

“Eh, it’s no big deal,” Stealth replies, face flushing slightly at the compliment. “I can probably get an exact location in a few hours.”

“So let’s meet back here in a few hours, then.” Bamboo stands, stretching. “Blaze and I can go get ready for this. Ink tanks, weapons and all that.”

Stealth nods, stomach churning with anxiety already. Looking for his leader in dangerous, unfamiliar places isn’t how he wanted to spend his day, but Rider could be in trouble. “Alright. See you then."

Chapter Text

Forge doesn't remember the last time Army's been this late. He was the one to schedule this meeting at least a month in advance, and while he's been absent for the past week, it's not like him to miss a meeting. He had shown up to one while running a fever and his teammates had to force him to go back to bed.

So she's left staring at the door in apprehension as if wishing it would make Army appear in front of her. Nothing happens, of course, but she can't help hoping.

"Where's Army?" Blue asks her. His eyes are on his manual, but Forge can tell that he isn't reading it.

"I don't know." Forge stands, more out of a need for something to do than anything else. "He's never this late."

"Not to mention, I haven't seen him around lately, have you?" White asks, sitting up in her chair. "It's almost like he disappeared in the middle of the night."

Forge bites her lip. "No, I haven't." To be honest, the last time she saw Army, he was a frazzled mess, muttering about the S4 and something octopus related. "He.. seemed to be off when I saw him. He kept talking about finding the S4 in some octopus thing?"

"Octo Canyon?" Blue asks. "He wrote that in his manual a couple months ago."

"What were you doing snooping in his manual?"

"It was open," Blue says defensively. "Anyway, have either of you heard of it?"

"Nope," White replies, shoulders lifting slightly. "Sounds dangerous."

"Let me go check if he’s in his room or anything, just in case,” Forge says and she leaves the meeting room quickly. Her leader’s door is shut tight and she knocks briskly, but after no response, she tries the handle. It slides open easily and Forge enters Army's room.

It's immaculate, as usual, and her gaze is immediately drawn to the manual sitting on the desk, set apart from the cleanliness of the room. It's just lying there and she instinctively scoops it up before going back to the meeting room. Both of her teammates are half-asleep but when she noisely closes the door behind her, they startle awake.

"Wha-- " White blearily looks around and sees Forge holding Army's manual. "He's not there?"

"No, but his manual was."

"That's weird." Blue frowns. "He never goes anywhere without his manual."

Forge nods absently, sitting down in her seat while prying open the book. Army's neat handwriting is recognizable already, and she sees all the notes he's made over the years, hand drawn maps, and sketches of weapons. But as she flips further in, it starts to change from stiff outlines of lifeless objects to something that looks more like octopus tentacles with eyes. The label beneath is reads: Octarian. Spawns from cutting off tentacles. Highly dangerous but easily splattable.

She flips the manual around so Blue and White can see. "Take a look at this."

White gingerly takes the manual from her and flips through it, eyes widening with every page turned. "Oh my cod," she whispers when she's done. "Army's an Agent?"

"A what?" Blue takes the manual and Forge leans around him to see. The words are unimportant but Forge sees the scribble beneath a manhole. Met the Captain here as well as Three, Two, and One. They informed me that I am an Agent of the Squidbeak Splatoon now. Purpose unknown. Must research that later.

"What does that even mean?" Forge reaches around Blue and he lets her have the manual back. "An Agent? The Squidbeak Splatoon?"

"There's only one way to find out, right?" White gestures to the drawing of the manhole. "I've seen that next to Ammo Knights. We can go check it out."

"Seems awfully sketchy," Blue comments, but he's already rising from his seat. "Let's go."

--

Ten minutes later, they meet in front of Ammo Knights with their weapons, ink tanks, and of course, their manuals. Forge is barely aware of her hearts thudding away as she squints into the manhole. It's awfully dark, but at least it doesn't smell. "Are you sure this is right?"

Blue flashes the manual's drawing at her. Sure enough, the one sketched out by Army's precise hand is now in front of them, sized in real life. "I guess this is it, then."

Steeling herself, she squid-forms and enters through the grating, sliding through what seems like an endless tunnel before surfacing in an unfamiliar area, surprisingly peaceful and quiet except for the chirping of birds.

Blue and White come out of the hole, startling her and she stumbles off the platform and onto the ground below. There's a strange structure in front of her, like a small gazebo, a weapons vault nearby. She ignores the vault and heads to the gazebo, inspecting it closely. "Did Army's manual have this?"

"Uhhh," Blue fumbles with the manual and opens it, turning pages quickly. "Yeah. Right here." He jogs over to her and hands it to Forge, who takes it and holds it up to the gazebo. Sure enough, Army's sketch is accurate to the last corner and she admires his attention to detail. There are no notes on this, however, and she tosses it back to Blue, who's now unpacking his Splatterscope. Her cousin catches it easily and gives her a look. 

"What if I didn't catch that?"

"Oh you would've," she says simply and he frowns at her.

White has already taken out her Dualie Squelchers and is hopping around the gazebo, studying it. "Dang, this is pretty!" She reaches out to touch it and Forge quickly throws out an arm.

"We don't know who this belongs to."
"If Army came here many times and didn't die from touching a gazebo, I think it's fine." White moves around Forge's arm and puts her hand on the wood. There's a long pause before she grins. "See? Nothing."

Forge releases a relieved breath. "Okay, fine. No more touching anything, though."

"Aye aye captain!" White salutes her eagerly, but the gesture merely causes Forge's stomach to churn. Army is out there somewhere. He could be in trouble for all they know anyway. 

"Don't do that, White," Blue says quietly, as if reading Forge's thoughts, and White lowers her arm.

"What? It's not like--"

Blue must've given her a meaningful look because she trails off before turning to Forge. "Sorry, Forge."

"It's fine," Forge says. She unzips her weapon bag and takes out her Rapid Blaster. Her ink tank is already filled -- it had somehow gained ink when they came to Octo Canyon, and while that's already suspicious enough, she turns to glance at Blue and White. "Are your ink tanks full?"

Blue glances over his shoulder and nods, brows creasing slightly. "Yeah. That's strange."

They sit there in the new mystery of the refilling ink tanks, but Forge snaps them out of it quickly. "We need to find Army. Let's move."

They head from the main area in a group, White taking the initiative to ink the area for them ahead in case of any enemies. Army had stressed the importance of watching out for Octarians, but he never said where exactly they'd be, which is something Forge wishes he recorded.

There are large kettles sitting in random areas across the terrain, and Forge walks up to one to stare at it. "Looks like a gateway to a different section of Octo Canyon," Blue reads aloud from behind her, and she jumps in surprise.

"Blue, don't do that," she admonishes and Blue shrugs sheepishly. 

"Well, now we know what they are," he says. "So.. are we going in?"

"How many of these are there?" White asks instead and Blue flips through a few pages before stopping to read aloud again.

"Says here that there are five sections of Octo Canyon, 27 kettles in total. There are also 5 bosses, one for each section."

"Great." Forge looks up to the sky before spinning to face her teammates. "So we have to go through all of it."

"Hang on--" Blue is still looking through the manual, turning to the last few pages. "This is dated about a week before today."

The day Army vanished.

"What does it say?" Forge resists the urge to wrench the manual from Blue's grip and instead moves to read over his shoulder. His Splatterscope digs into her chest and she gently moves it aside to see.

"Looks like 'Got called to Octo Canyon today. The other Agents need to investigate something underground. Most likely mode of transportation: that kettle with DJ Octavio, the one with Callie.' That's the last entry." Blue looks up at her, eyes filled with apprehension. "Do you think he'll be there?"

"It's worth a shot," Forge agrees. To be honest, it's a lot faster to go to a specific location than wandering aimlessly in an area she nor her teammates are familiar with. Army's abandoned manual only helps them so much.

"Guys, I found a super jump point!" White's standing on a pool of orange ink, looking excited. "We can use it to jump to wherever Army said to!"

"Where did he say to go?" Blue opens the manual again and scans the page of sections. 

"Cephalon HQ," Forge reads. "Looks a bit dangerous with all the water."

"We have no choice," Blue says, and she can suddenly see the determination in his eyes. A glance to White shows that the other girl is on the edge of super jumping herself. They all want their leader back, no matter the cost. If they have to face danger every step of the way, then so be it.

"You're right," she says, and heads to the super jump point. "You ready?"

Blue walks over to stand next to her, lips pressed in a thin line. "Ready when you are."

They all squid-form and super jump, one at a time. Forge is the last to go, throwing a last glance over her shoulder at the sunny scene behind her, before she and her teammates are thrown into darkness.

Chapter Text

"Aloha!" Octoglasses slams her palm into her leader's door. "We're going to the beach! You comin'?"

"How long have you been screamin', OG?" Straw enters the hallway, grinning, Scuba at her heels. 

"Longer than you know." Octoglasses throws a hand across her forehead dramatically before kicking halfheartedly at the base of the door. "He's been in there for forever and his door is locked."

Scuba edges closer to the door and shouts, "Yo! 'Loha! We're leavin' now! If you don't wanna join, that's your fault, man!" He turns back to the girls, shrugging after there's no response. "Well, I guess we'll have to leave him behind."

"He's been so sulky after that party a few weeks ago," Straw comments as they leave. "I've been seeing less and less of him."

"Before long, he'll become a shut-in like Mask," Octoglasses giggles, and Scuba snorts.

"If that ever happens, we gotta snap him out of it."

"Yeah, definitely."

Straw hums as they enter the car: she claims the driver's seat, Scuba going shotgun and Octoglasses stretching out across the back. Usually, Aloha's the one to take the driver's seat and for some reason, the thought sends a strange shiver through Scuba. His leader isn't dying or anything so why was he so apprehensive on leaving him behind? They didn't need to check his room to make sure he was there or anything. He shakes his head to clear his mind as Straw speaks. "We goin' beach or ocean? I stole one of Emperor's mini yachts that was jus' lyin' around so we can take that out for a spin."

"I get seasick," Scuba reminds her. "Remember that one Grizzco shift?"

Straw just laughs and playfully jabs him in the arm. "Oh suck it up, Scuba. You'll be fine."

"Jus' don't vomit on me and we're good," Octoglasses adds with a shudder. "The Grizzco boat ride is permanently etched into my memory."

Scuba just rolls his eyes good-naturedly. It's a bit ironic that he gets seasick, considering his entire team is out on the ocean more than land. "You take it to the docks, Straw?"

"Yeah, gimme a sec." Straw punches in a few numbers on the GPS before starting the engine. "This thing is old as shell."

"Get a new one then," Octoglasses tells her. "It seems fine to me."

"That's 'cause you aren't drivin' it." Straw frowns and slams on the accelerator, the car barely moving an inch. "C'mon, what's going on?"

"It's almost like the car doesn't want us to go," Scuba says jokingly. It's an offhand comment, of course, but it just settles the nausea even further. This is Aloha's car, after all. 

Snap outta it, Scuba. Why do you have to be so dark?

Straw just huffs in response, shifting gears again before trying the accelerator once more. The car shoots forward, throwing them all back in their seats. "Wow, guess it works now." She pushes the rearview mirror into place and elbows the radio until it turns on. "Let's see if I can remember where I left it."

"How would you lose a yacht anyway?" Octoglasses asks.

"Knowing Straw, it's possible to lose an entire house."

"Oh shut up, I was drunk that time."

"And the time before that?"

"...You got me there."

Scuba just laughs before seeing something large and white out of the corner of his eye. "Wait, is that it?"

"Lemme see." Straw squints out his window and Scuba gently pushes her back as a reminder to keep her eyes on the road. "Yeah, that's it! Thanks Scubes."

She pulls the car into the lot, none too gently, and they hop out. Straw rummages through her bag for her keys which Scuba suspects she stole from Emperor as well. 

"How the heck did you get that stuff?"

She winks at him. "Oh, let's just say N-Pacer is pretty gorgeous but pretty easy to fluster."

"Oh my cod, you're worse than Aloha."

"You're just jealous 'cause you don't know how to flirt."

"We don't talk 'bout that."

Octoglasses snorts as Straw finally figures out how to open the door. "You good there, girl?"

"Yeah, yeah, piece of cake." She flips a tentacle over her shoulder with a grin. "Let's go check it out."

The yacht is normal enough. Emperor apparently hadn't used this one in a while since a lot of the inside is dusty. They dump their stuff -- ink tanks, weapons, and various bags -- downstairs and head to the deck.

"You still remember how to drive these things, OG?" Straw tosses her girlfriend the keys, Octoglasses barely catching it. 

"Nah, but I can try." She heads to the controls and Scuba braces himself as the deck vibrates beneath him. Straw glances at him, smirking.

"Don't hurl just yet, man."
"Well, if I do, it'll be on you."

Straw makes a face and discreetly moves away from him. Scuba just grins and turns to face the water as the engine starts up. He already feels slightly sick as they move away from the docks, but he doesn't know if it's added on to his previous nausea or just from being seasick already.

He watches the car get smaller and smaller before it disappears, focusing intently on the horizon to get the rocking of the waves from his mind. Octoglasses, apparently handing the controls to Straw, appears next to him. "Hangin' in there?"

"Yeah." He risks glancing at her and the boat deck tilts so he has to look away again. "Been better though."

"We all have."

"You wonder what's goin' on with 'Loha?"

She sighs and shifts beside him, crossing her arms over the railing. "No. He's been actin' weird lately. And I haven't seen him for the past week, if I'm bein' honest. You see him around?"

"No. It's strange, but y'know Aloha is Aloha, so I can't question him."

"You're datin' him aren't you?"

"Yeah." The boat lurches all of a sudden, Straw shouting a hurried apology and Scuba retches over the side, acid stinging his throat. Octoglasses waits patiently until he's done.

"So why can't you ask him?"

"He blew me off last time. He was readin' a book too. Aloha never reads books."

Octoglasses makes an incredulous noise. "If you weren't the one to say it, I wouldn't have believed it."

"You only believe it from me?"

"Yeah, duh. Aloha is, like, a major exaggerator."

"Can't argue there." His stomach churns again as they hit a rough patch and Octoglasses pushes away from the railing.

"You gonna drive?"

"And vomit over all the controls? I'll pass."

Octoglasses just snickers and vanishes, leaving Scuba to his own thoughts, not that his thoughts were consisting of anything other than trying to not throw up. 

Something moves under the water and he blinks, turning his head to face it, seasickness forgotten. He doesn't remember there being any huge sea animals in the ocean lately. He stares for such a long time and nothing happens. But it moves again, rising upwards, the water moving with it so it essentially forms a large wave, dwarfing the yacht by so much that all he could see was a wall of water.

"Straw? OG?"

There's a clatter and the girls run up to him, staring in horror at the gigantic wave. "What the shell is that?"

"I don't know but we have our weapons, right?" 

Straw presses his H3 Nozzlenose into his hand, the strap of the ink tank along with it. "Yeah. Here."

"Okay, how do we--"

That's as far as he gets before the wave comes crashing down around them, filling the yacht with seawater and violently jerking it back and forth. Scuba loses his grip on his weapon somewhere as he struggles to break through the nonexistent surface. There's so much water that he can't tell which side up he is and he inhales a lungful of seawater, choking on it as more water fills his lungs.

He can't breathe, he can't breathe, he can't--

The wave swallows the yacht whole, overturning it twice before it bobs right side up again, drifting innocently, the deck hauntingly empty.

Chapter Text

Full Moon can't remember the last time she's come outside. It's been a while, to be honest, because Mask has been up to his weird habits and hasn't left his room in days. And with no leader, Cyan Team is dead weight, because no practice means no turf and no turf means no sunlight.

So she's almost blinded by the sun when she steps outside for the first time in what seems like forever. Her teammates seem disoriented too -- well, Jersey does at least. Des just looks like he did something naughty and isn't hiding it too well, which Full Moon has come to know as his default expression. 

"Augh, I forgot how bright it is," Jersey yelps, covering her eyes. Full Moon doesn't bother to point out that she's wearing a visor so she should have the most eye protection out of all of them.

"It's almost as bright as that fluorescent bulb in the basement that blew out last week, fufufu~~" Full Moon snickers.

"That was your fault," Des says. "I would've been able to fix it if you didn't--"

"Messing with the electrical circuiting wasn't my idea," Full Moon says quickly. "It was Jersey's."

"It wasn't!" Jersey crosses her arms like a petulant child as both Des and Full Moon laugh.

"Okay, we came here to do what again?" Des changes the topic, eyes shifting across the street before flicking back to his teammates. "Not to just get sunlight I hope. My skin's already absorbed enough light for today." He rubs at his arms as if to make a point but Full Moon knows her entire team wears long sleeves. Maybe because their skin is too sensitive to the sun, which is what she always jokes, but really it's because they're too pale compared to the other Inklings. They have their turfing moments, yes, but most of the stages they prefer are indoors and they always stay inside if they can. Playing video games and turfing. The two things they share in common. That, and an unhealthy love for sub weapons.

"I don't know," Full Moon says finally. They had a reason for coming out here, she knows that, but why? "Mask told us to go outside."

"Mask's been cooped up in his room streaming Brinecraft for a week straight," Jersey reminds her.

"Then--"

"Can we go back inside?" Des asks, looking bored. "I need to speedrun Rollertale again."

"No, not until we figure out why we're even out here in the first place," Full Moon says, and Des rolls his eyes and sits crosslegged on the pavement, closing his eyes.

"Okayyyy, tell me when you're done figuring it out."

Full Moon just sighs and glances up and down the street. Why are they out here? None of them like sunlight, and usually when they go outside, they always drag Mask along to make sure he doesn't die surrounded by empty soda cans and chip bags. 

"When was the last time you saw Mask?" The question is random, especially coming from Jersey, and Full Moon spins to face her, confused.

"Wha?"

"Mask, you dummy. When was the last time you saw him?"

"I don't remember. Sometime between the live streams and Smash Bros."

Jersey snorts at that but her expression turns serious after a moment. That's Full Moon's cue to pay attention because whenever Jersey looks serious, it means something's wrong. "Okay, but seriously. I don't think I've seen him all week, to be honest."

"He's probably just being a hermit again," Des speaks up without opening his eyes. Full Moon glances down at him; the headphones-wearing Inkling is curled up like an oversized cat on the sidewalk. Jersey aims a fake kick in his direction and Des makes a sound that sounds like a yowl and shoots to his feet. "Hey! It was a suggestion, Jersey."

"Not a good one, apparently." Jersey almost sounds upset as she turns back to Full Moon. "I don't know, but I've got a weird feeling about Mask. He usually comes out to tell us to be quiet sometimes, but he hasn't done that all week."

Full Moon frowns. Now that she thinks of it, there has been a lack of Mask lately that's been throwing her off. His room has been unusually silent too, and it's only now that she thinks Jersey is onto something. 

"Maybe he's been in a coma all week," she says absently, and Jersey sighs heavily.

"What's the probability of that?"

"I don't know math, Jersey. I just know how to hack the mainframe of Super Smash Bros to increase, fufufu~~"

"Next time you do that, I'm taking away your gaming privileges," Des says.

"I'm second-in-command, you dolt. I have power over you, not the other way around."

Jersey groans. "Guys, I'm not kidding."

"So you're saying he's not here? Where could he be then?"

"He could be like in Rollertale for all we know," Jersey says after a moment. "Lost underground or something, whatever."

"That's oddly specific."

"Well, what else am I supposed to say? We're not allowed in Mask's room, and he probably isn't in there anyway. Knowing him, he--"

"--probably went somewhere and died in an alleyway, yeah." Des yawns. "Should we go look for him? We don't need him freaking out anyone."

Jersey's already walking away from them, sighing. "That's what I've been trying to say."

"You didn't do a good job of it." Full Moon jogs up to her. Her stamina is running rather low lately because none of them have been playing DDR as of late, but it's still enough to catch up to the other. "Where are we going first?"

"Maybe--" Jersey suddenly vanishes, and Full Moon freezes in her tracks. One moment Jersey is there, and the next, she isn't.

Des catches up to her as she's staring at the spot where her girlfriend used to be. "What's up?"

"Jersey's gone," Full Moon says, unable to keep the awe from her voice. "It's like a video game glitch."

"That... doesn't sound good." Des looks left, right, then left again. "Where was she standing?"

"Right there." Full Moon points to the spot Jersey used to be but her legs won't allow her to walk over. 

"Oh, really?" Des moves towards the spot, crouching slightly to inspect the ground. "It's not like--"

He vanishes.

"Des!" Full Moon races forward, as if it would bring her teammate back, but the ground suddenly opens up beneath her, and she's falling through a wall of pitch black, wind buffeting her body. Her stomach rises to her throat as she tumbles, turns, and faces what she assumes is the ground. Light appears beneath her and she has a brief moment of this is exactly what happened in Rollertale before the concrete rushes up to meet her and everything goes black.

Chapter Text

Stealth really doesn't know what they were expecting to find. Rider trapped in a basement maybe, some enemies to fight perhaps, but definitely not Orange team. 

He had managed to rewire the device's receivers to figure out where the signal was coming from, and Octo Canyon seemed to be the place. But the strange thing is that the signal didn't come from anywhere the eye could see. It's underground.

They had traveled through Octo Canyon, the device's steady beeps telling them if they were getting closer. The farther they strayed from Inkopolis Square, the more nervous Stealth became and he could tell by Bamboo and Blazer's uncharacteristic silence -- well, more Blazer than Bamboo -- that they were on edge too.

But here they are, in Cephalon HQ, and Orange Team is only a few feet away from them, inspecting the pit beneath one of the floating kettles. Stealth wants to disappear; he had no idea Orange Team would be here, and while a part of him wants to call to them to ask if they knew anything about Rider, another is screaming at him to turn around and leave before they see him and his team.

Bamboo, thankfully, stops the internal conflict by shouting across the vast space between the spawn point and the kettle. "Forge!"

Forge jerks upright, spinning to face them, Rapid Blaster out and ready. Her teammates turn as well, and it's almost unsettling to see them on attack mode so suddenly before they relax. "Bamboo? What are you doing here?"

"I could ask you the same question." Bamboo easily hops on one of the various moving disks as it closes the gap between the two teams. Stealth and Blazer are forced to follow as to not get left behind, and as they get closer, Stealth can see the relief painting Forge's face. 

"We're looking for Army. He's been missing for days and he left his manual behind. Army never leaves his manual behind."

"What a coincidence!" Blazer pipes up. "We're looking for Rider! He's been gone for a while too so we thought we should check this place out."

Stealth notices how Blazer doesn't mention how Rider is part of the Squidbeak Splatoon. He also catches the side glance of Forge to her teammates and the barely perceptible nod of Blue.

They're hiding something. Maybe Army was part of the Squidbeak Splatoon as well. Rider's various notes held something on other Agents who joined right after him, and Agent Four's description sounded a lot like Army, if Stealth had anything to say about it.

"Rider is part of this organization as Agent Three," Stealth says, even as he sees the warning looks from his teammates. They're at a loss on how to get Rider back; the device was just something to do so they felt like they were doing something. He knows for a fact that they won't be able to find Rider on their own and if Orange Team can help, it would be more efficient than waiting around. "I don't know if you've heard of it? It's called the Squidbeak Splatoon."

Recognition flashes in Forge's eyes. "Yes, actually. Army is Agent Four, as his manual claims. Maybe their disappearances are correlated."

"Are you okay with teaming up to find them then?" Stealth ignores Bamboo opening her mouth to protest and instead focuses on Forge. "I mean, don't feel forced to do it of course, we could always look on our own--"

Forge cuts him off, looking rather grateful and amused at the same time. "That'd be wonderful, thank you. Army's manual specified this spot, and it was the last entry before he disappeared. We don't want to enter the kettle without knowing where we're headed, so if you have any leads..." she trails off, looking expectantly at him.

Stealth can feel beads of sweat rolling down the back of his neck. He never understood why he gets like this while talking to people, but he surreptitiously wipes his neck while he responds, holding up the device in his free hand. "Yeah, we do, actually. Rider sent a distress signal and it was linked to this thing. I think it's coming from underground."

"Let me see that," White says suddenly, approaching him, and Stealth hands her the box while Forge offers him a slight smile.

"White's our tech person, so forgive her for drooling a bit over that device."

"Forge!" White whines and Forge shushes her with a slight giggle.

Blazer's hand lands heavily on Stealth's shoulder and the masked Inkling jumps slightly, turning to face her. "Jeez, Blaze, you nearly gave me a heart attack!"

"Sorry, Stealthy," she says, "but can we talk alone for a bit?"

She leads him a few feet away to the other side of the kettle; it's a bit cramped with all three Inklings, but they somehow all find space to put their feet. "What is it?"

Bamboo folds her arms, leaning in to whisper, "Do you think it's a good idea to tell them Rider's Agent Three?"

"Why not? Army's Agent Four and we have a common goal. It'll be easier to work with them instead of stumbling around on our own."

"We can find Rider ourselves," Blazer insists. "Rider needs us, Stealthy, we can't waste time on this!"

"Got it!" White says suddenly and Yellow Green Team break from their mock huddle. The orange Inkling is holding the device reverently, the light on the side flashing again, beeping loudly. "We'll have to enter the kettle and figure it out from there."

"How do you know?" Bamboo asks.

"Look." White kneels besides the kettle and places the device on it. It starts to beep louder and frantically, until she takes it away. "It means we have to go inside."

"Seems a bit suspicious," Forge frowns, voicing the very thought all of them are thinking. "But I think it's worth a shot."

"I'll go first," White says and without another pause, she turns into squid-form and slips into the kettle, the kettle releasing steam after she vanishes. The rest of Orange Team follow without hesitation and Yellow Green Team is left staring at the kettle.

"Do we follow them?" Blazer asks Stealth. 

He's a bit touched that she asked him, but he also doesn't know what to do. He trusts Orange Team; they're reliable and responsible and again, his team is at a loss without them. "I guess we do."

He steels himself before turning into squid-form, falling through the grating. 

--

He spawns on a strange platform, Orange Team already on the stage a gap away and he quickly super jumps to them as his own teammates spawn behind him.

"Anything new?" The area is covered in magenta ink and he has to ink himself a quick path to get to Orange Team, careful not to splat them. 

"Getting huge signals here," White answers. She's wincing from the shrill beeps coming from the device and as she slowly brings the device down to the ground, it increases in frequency so that Stealth has to flinch away to protect his ears. "And it seems like we have to go down."

"Down?" Blazer and Bamboo have arrived, looking skeptical. "How do we do that?"

Blue is on the edge of platform, looking downward at the abyss below. "We jump, apparently."

"We could die," Bamboo points out and Blue shrugs.

"It's the least we can do to find our leader. If we die, then we die trying."

"That's some dedication there," Blazer says. "Not that we wouldn't die for Rider either--"

"So we jump." Forge moves to stand besides Blue. "And we hope for the best."

"Ohhh boy." Stealth sighs, walking over to them. "You sure about this? It-it looks like a long way down."

"Probably is," White says. The beeping is more intense now that they're standing on the edge. "But this thing says we go down. Down means to jump off this platform."

Blazer appears at Stealth's side then, looking apprehensive. "Now's the time we say a prayer and hope to stay alive? It'll be a miracle if we don't end up as calamari."

"Worth a shot," Blue says, and before anyone can say anything else, he leaps off the side, Splatterscope tucked tightly against his chest. Blazer gasps as the rest of Orange Team nosedives off the stage as well, shrinking to orange specks within the matter of seconds.

Stealth takes a shaky breath before closing his eyes and falling forward, his fingers clenching his Jet Squelcher so tightly, he's sure his knuckles are turning white. His hearts and stomach force itself into his throat and he keeps his eyes shut as he falls, silently hugging himself like it's all a bad dream and he can just wake up if he just tries--

He lands on something sticky, the substance burning his skin and he tentatively opens his eyes. He's lying on a mass of magenta ink, though this patch seems more gradient towards a strange turquoise color than anything. He lays there for a while, disoriented, before he tries to sit up.

He immediately regrets it as his stomach twists and he vomits bile before wiping his mouth and managing to stand as Blazer and Bamboo fall into the pool of ink themselves.

When they finally shake themselves out of the aftermath of falling more than twenty stories onto enemy ink, Stealth helps them out so they can recover from ink damage. It has somehow seeping in through his jacket and he quickly brushes it off. The goop sticks to his fingers and gets all over his hands but he somehow manages to get it off.

His hand goes for his weapon, but it's nowhere to be found. His ink tank is missing too, and a brief glance at the girls show that they have lost their weapons and ink tanks too. "You guys okay?"

"Yeah." Blazer's patting herself down for any injuries, seemingly unconcerned about her lack of weapon. "You?"

"I'm fine. I think." Stealth lets out a breath as he turns in a full circle. "Did you see Orange Team?"

"No." Bamboo rubs her shoulder, wincing slightly. She must've fallen on it, Stealth realizes, and he sympathizes with her as pain suddenly runs through his arm. "Should we go look for them?"

"Yellow Green Team! Over here." Forge is waving at them from over a railing.

Stealth hurries over to her, relief flooding his body. If any of them died from the fall, he doesn't know what he would do. "D-did you find something?"

"White did, actually." There's pride in Forge's voice as she gestures to her teammate.

White looks up at them, grinning widely. It's a huge difference from Orange Team's usual seriousness and Stealth is almost taken aback. Then again, this is White, the one person who didn't seem like a complete stickler. "I think the device is down there." She points down a flight of stairs to a crushed pile of plastic and metal. "I lost the original device, but I'm pretty sure that's what sent the distress signal."

"Did you lose your weapons and ink tank too?" Blazer asks and Forge nods.

"It's strange that all of us don't have weapons or ink now, but it'll have to do."

Blue is farther down the stairs, back pressed against the wall. The area in front of him resembles some kind of creepy abandoned train station. "It's out in the open. Someone could be using it as bait."

The ground suddenly rumbles and a huge wave of water crashes in front of them, washing away the plastic. Stealth throws up his arms to protect himself from the splash and when he lowers it, the device is gone. Three vaguely familiar Inklings have taken their place, all of whom have pink tentacles.

"What the--"

"OG? Straw? Scuba?" Forge asks, looking confused. "How did you get here?"

The three members of Pink Team don't respond; they're too busy hacking up seawater to get any words out anyway. Stealth notices that they're all missing weapon and ink tanks, though it might be possible they didn't have it when they got caught up in that wave.

A loud clatter interrupts them and something cyan plummets past them, crashing into the concrete, followed by two more cyan blurs.

"Oh my cod, is this really happening right now?" Bamboo seems incredulous as she edges closer to the bottom of the stairs. "Three S4 teams in one place? This can't be a coincidence."

"Three?" Blazer counts aloud, pointing to each team, all of them recovering from either their fall or the shock of two team suddenly crashing through the ceiling. "Oh, right. Purple Team isn't here."

"Don't jinx it--" Forge starts to tell her as a door swings open on the far end of the platform and lo and behold, Aviator walks in, followed by Paisley and Stitch, all of them looking a bit distracted. They're missing their weapons and ink tanks too, and Stealth is starting to get a bad feeling about that small detail.

But still. The more pressing matter is how the shell they all somehow ended up in the same place.

Straw solves that issue by figuring out how to stand up again and while her clothes are still soaking wet, she doesn't waste time in shouting for all teams to hear. "Where the fuck are we? What are you guys doing here?"

 

Chapter Text

Skull had gone missing for the past week and while that in itself isn't unique, even Aviator doesn't know where he disappeared off too, which is a rarity. Paisley and Stitch had the brilliant idea to go look for their leader and they ended up in this weird metro station, surrounded by the other S4 teams, and from Stealth's nervous presence, Yellow Green Team as well.

It's such a coincidence they all ended up here, but Aviator is more concerned than surprised.

Pink Team is currently drenched, the salty smell of ocean water wafting off of them as he gets closer. Cyan Team looks like they all have concussions, which would probably be the right description judging from the hole above them. Orange and Yellow Green team look sane, at least, and Aviator gingerly makes his way over as Straw takes that moment to scream a very blunt, very obvious question.

"Language."

"Oh, shut it Avi," she returns. "Not like you don't swear yourself."

"Okay, but that was a good question," Blazer says. "How are you all here too?"

"Where is 'here'?" Jersey asks.

The station is suddenly filled with voices, all of them talking over each other, trying to explain themselves and Aviator can feel pressure building up behind his eyes in exasperation. They're too much to handle, he can tell that much already.

"Hey! Shut it!" He catches their attention then -- no matter how resentful or chaotic they are, they're listening now so he'll take that at least. "We're in some kind of metro station--"

"How do you know?" Full Moon asks but he waves her off.

"--and we're missing all of our leaders. I assume that's the case?”

The silence now is a bit more charged and as he glances around at everyone, they avoid his gaze, confirming his suspicions. 

“Yeah, so what? How’s that supposed to prove anythin’?” Straw crosses her arms, giving up on her attempts to wring out her shirt. 

Aviator frowns; he doesn’t know how this adds up but he has a feeling that it’s what led them all here. Thankfully, Forge speaks up then, manual in her hands. 

“We found Army’s manual and it details his trips into Octo Canyon—“

“Octo Canyon? Isn’t that place infested with Octarians?” Scuba interrupts and Forge gives him a strange look. 

“..Yes, but how did you—“

“It doesn’t matter right now,” Aviator says. They don’t have time to wait around. He’s sure Skull is somewhere, as is all their other leaders, and they need to find them. “Forge, what does his manual say?”

Forge glances up at him, startled and flustered. “Oh. R-right.” She flips through the pages before finding what she’s looking for. “Army describes his trips in Octo Canyon as a member of the Squidbeak Splatoon, a group of agents tasked with defending Inkopolis. As far as my team has decided this, Agent Three is Rider, Agent Four is Army, Agent Five is Aloha, Agent Six is Mask, and Agent Seven is Skull. They all went missing about a week ago while investigating a kettle in Octo Canyon. I assume they ended up here because Stealth—“ she gestured to the yellow green Inkling who shrinks slightly with the sudden attention. “—and his team have received a distress signal from here that they assumed Rider sent.”

“So it’s all based on guessing,” Paisley speaks from behind Aviator. “That’s not much to go off of.”

“It’s all we got,” Aviator tells her. “If we have any way of finding our leaders, we’re gonna have to—“

He’s interrupted by a strange creaking noise and he spins around to find a lone telephone illuminated at the other end of the platform. 

Full Moon voices all of their thoughts. “What’s that?”

The telephone vibrates and swings back and forth on its stand before speaking in a series of chirps and beeps. 

The others crowd around it before Aviator can remind them not to get too close. From the shrill noises, he can hear something about the promised land and some weird slang he hasn’t heard of before. 

“Look, Mister Telephone,” Octoglasses raps its face, looking slightly put off. “Do you have any idea where to find our leaders? Rider was here apparently. Have you seen him?”

“He’s always frowning, kinda tall, yellow green ink, and a really heavy but shiny roller,” Blazer supplies helpfully and the telephone swivels slightly to face her. 

“No I haven’t, homeskillet. But I’m sure if you [SLANG-NOT-FOUND] on over to the metro, you’ll find a lot more [SLANG-NOT-FOUND] than you’re lookin’ for.”

As if on cue, the metro pulls into the station, doors sliding open. “You’ll find your CQ card and CQ-80 in your back pocket. Don’t [SLANG-NOT-FOUND] how they got there.”

Aviator instinctively reaches into his pocket and finds the two items the telephone had described. It’s not that all creepy or suspicious, he muses as he follows the others into the metro car. His gut is telling him that this is a bad idea but this is the only option to get Skull back. 

The doors slide shut behind them. 

Forge never knew she’d end up talking to a shiny sea cucumber — named CQ Cumber, how funny — but here she is, kneeling on the ground and listening to him jabber on about the uses of the CQ-80 and the CQ Card. She writes everything that she can in her own manual, passing Army’s manual to Blue. 

She wouldn’t normally be worried about the tests, because with her own team, they’d be able to pass easily. But with this group of 15 Inklings?

She looks over her companions. She trusts her own team of course, and maybe Yellow Green Team, and maybe Purple Team if she absolutely had to, but Pink and Cyan Team are comprised of Inklings that she wouldn’t want to  be caught on a team with them in a million years. They’re decent in personality, she’s sure of it, but their antics are too much for her right now. 

Aviator has edged closer to her during the length of CQ’s long speech and finally mutters, “We’re going to have to split up.”

“I’m sorry?” She turns to face him, fingers automatically clenching over the edges of her manual. 

Aviator isn’t looking at her; he’s staring at the other Inklings like they’ll suddenly trash the metro when his back is turned. Not that Forge expects that anyway, because Pink Team is capable of large messes very quickly. “We’re going to have to split up. It’s more efficient and I swear I can’t stand being around all of them for the entirety of 80 tests.”

She cracks a smile at that. “You have groups in mind?”

“I was thinking second-in-commands on one team and we split based on ranking. Stealth mentioned that his team wants to work alone so..” he looks over at her and Forge automatically looks towards the other Inklings like taking your eyes off them will doom the metro. 

“So?”

“So it’d be us two, Scuba, and Moon. You good with dealing like that?”

“I’m fine with that,” Forge replies honestly. Scuba and Full Moon are maybe the least chaotic of their teams, considering they must be second-in-command for a reason. She’s more worried about the rest of the teams, left to their own devices, and when she tells him that, Aviator shrugs. 

“Your team will be in charge, so hopefully they’ll be fine. My team isn’t much of a trouble—“

“Who’s a trouble?” Des asks, suddenly appearing on Aviator’s shoulder and Aviator gives Forge a slight exasperated see what I mean look, to which she responds with a slight smile. 

“You are, you idiot.” Aviator gently shoves the cyan Inkling off of him. “I swear to cod, you’re just like a cat.”

Des just grins at him and gestures down the metro. “We’re gonna head down to see the other train cars.”

“Go with your group.” Aviator responds. “Get Blue, Paisley, and OG.”

“Okay, mom,” Des says mockingly before bouncing away to find the other three. Aviator rolls his eyes at Des’ back, but Forge can see the fondness in his eyes. 

“Okay that’s one group. We can ask CQ if he’d let us go after the uhhh... things he said we had to collect.”

“The Thangs?” Forge checks her manual to see if it’s written down correctly. The corner of Aviator’s mouth twitches. 

“Seems original enough.”

“This is from a sea cucumber named ‘CQ Cumber’.”

“Got me there.”

“Yo!” Scuba’s in front of them now, Full Moon standing behind him. “We gonna get a move on?”

“Not yet,” CQ answers suddenly, and Forge whirls to see him climbing along the top rail of the metro car. “You haven’t been properly equipped. Your teammates—“ he waves a thin tentacle along the now-empty car. “—are all dressed and properly given their packs.”

“Packs?”

The ceiling shudders and four bags swing down; from here, Forge can see they all contain suits and some weird backpack that looks like a sleeping bag. Scuba grabs one off the hook, Full Moon and Aviator following him. Forge hesitates before pulling hers down too. 

“So we change into these?”

“Correct. You will not be able to proceed without them.” CQ responds before inching away into the shadows of the ceiling. 

Full Moon tugs the suit off the hanger. “Fufufu~~ it’s interesting how they managed to get our sizes.”

“More like weird. And creepy.” Scuba somehow is already dressed; Forge is pretty darn sure that Pink Team is the type to strip slowly to show off but this surprises her — it also surprises her that she’s actually agreeing with Scuba as well. 

Aviator grimaces. “Well we just have to deal with it.” He tugs on the suit coat, fastening the buttons. With the suits on, the four of them look more put together physically than they probably are mentally and Forge doesn't know if it's better that way.

She notices the metro is slowing, and she braces herself as the doors open. The backpack straps are digging into her shoulders and though it's not heavy, she wants to take it off and get rid of it, though she doesn't know why.

She doesn't know a lot of things, she realizes, and it scares her.

Full Moon seems to notice that she's worried and flashes her a small smile, her teeth bright white in the dim metro lights. "We'll be fine, fufufu~~"

Forge nods briefly and attempts to smile back but she can't push away the growing pit in her stomach as the metro pulls up to station and they're pushed outside into the unknown.

Chapter Text

C01. Radical Rails Station. Forge wonders who made up these names and why they didn't even start at the A line. She probably won't find the answer to either.

They all have CQ-80s to control their station choices but apparently someone made a decision without them knowing. She and the rest of her groupmates are shoved onto the platform before the metro pulls away, likely going to drop off the next group at the other station. Cod, they're so screwed.

"Jet Squelcher, Splattershot, and a Slosher," Aviator says and she spins around to see him standing on some weird platform, a cylinder of plastic encasing his body. "Looks like we're being assigned weapons now." He selects the Splattershot himself and Forge steps in his place.

She hesitates before taking the Jet Squelcher. She's not too keen on a slosher weapon and though the Splattershot's ink coverage is similar to what she's used to, she can't handle the drastic change in distance. She steps off the platform after choosing a weapon and looks over to the other two members of the group, who are content just staring outside of the borders in awe. Full Moon has her phone up and recording, while Scuba is just staring slack-jawed at the darkness around them. The faint lights against the black sky is beautiful, Forge can admit it, but they don't have time to gawk. "We need to move."

Scuba starts, glancing over. "Nice ink color," he says, moving past her to the platform. 

Forge blinks and checks her tentacles. They're a bright purple, and when she looks over at Aviator, his tentacles are the same color. When Scuba steps out of the weapon chamber holding a Jet Squelcher, his tentacles have shifted hues as well. Full Moon swings her phone around one last time before thankfully pocketing it and taking the Slosher. 

Aviator is inspecting the gate that leads to the test. "We'll have to use our CQ card for this."

"Ooh, like credits for a video game!" Full Moon squeezes past him and swipes her card before Forge can stop her and the patch of floor beneath the two of them launches them through the gate and into spawn. Forge and Scuba are left staring at them through the clear plastic, words floating across their view: Bust all the targets before the time runs out. And on cue, a timer appears on a screen above them. 

"Shit." Scuba grabs Forge by the arm and pulls her to the gate, swiping his card so they land alongside Aviator and Full Moon.

"We only have one minute, probably less than that by now," Forge says breathlessly and watches both Aviator and Full Moon's expression shift from confusion to horror.

Not another word is spoken between them as they race down to the grind rail, Forge reaching the entrance first. She hops on, almost getting splatted by a spinning platform of enemy ink. She manages to leap out of the way in time and lands on the second ride rail. Aviator leaps on behind her and bursts the box that was on top before she looks away and concentrates on her target. The boxes are everywhere, but frustratingly spaced out enough so it's not easy for her to splat them all in one go. Her range isn't long enough to cover that far but she manages to hit five in a row before moving to the next rail.

They have forty more seconds to go and she's pleased to see they're making progress. Full Moon has fallen off the rails and is now just bouncing on the pads below them, not really taking part in the mission. Forge resists the urge to tell her off because the time limit was obviously made in mind of a single person, not four.

"Last one!" Aviator shouts and points upwards to the red box sitting innocently in the center. Scuba is already whaling on it with his Jet Squelcher from the topmost rail. Forge flips to the next rail and joins him, the box popping in the next few seconds and all four them superjump back to the gates. Strange eraser-like cakes float down from above and Forge unconsciously reaches out to catch one. 

She stares at it, confused. "What's this?"

Aviator is turning his over in his hands, and though she can't see his eyes through his shades, his eyebrows are furrowed slightly, usual smirk faded. "I have no clue. Does Army's manual have anything on this?"

"No, the entries stopped in Octo Canyon," she replies. "And Blue has the manual right now, so I wouldn't know."

"How do you think they're faring?" Scuba asks, wiping off green sludge from his jacket. He has unbuttoned the coat to make it easier to move in and loosened the tie and Forge wonders if it's to show off or for actual practicality.

"Hopefully as good as we are," Aviator says. The metro pulls up behind him, the doors sliding open. 

"If all of the stations are goin' to be as easy as this one, we'll have them cleared in no time," Scuba comments as they reboard the metro. The car they're in is devoid of any of their teammates -- Forge assumes they're all still completing tests. CQ Cumber is nowhere to be found.

Full Moon, meanwhile, has pulled up her map on her CQ-80 and is scrolling through the stations so quickly, her cursor is a blur. "Woah, there's so many stations." Scuba leans over her shoulder, staring as well, eyes darting from number to number, making Forge dizzy just watching him.

Aviator rubs his temples and Forge feels emphatic towards him. The mindless scrolling is getting on her nerves too; how does Full Moon even read that fast anyway? "Slow down for a sec. We're at C01. What's the next one?"

"C02." The number is said with a matter-of-fact tone and Aviator rolls his eyes. 

"Yeah, no really. What's the name?"

"Shrinky Ink," Scuba supplies. "Dunno what that means."

The metro is slowing now and Forge turns to face the door. "I guess we'll find out."

--

They find out quickly that this one is much harder with four people instead of one. With the limited ink, they can't afford to lose any ink. This was proven by Scuba who was the first to use ink their first round and diminished their ink tanks by more than halfway before any of them figured out what was going on.

"We only got half a tank of half a tank of ink left," Full Moon says unhelpfully and Forge sighs audibly.

"Then conserve it. And be careful."

They don't ink the first platform, instead jumping on it while it turns and running up the side. The first enemy they encounter, Full Moon insists on splatting it and it uses up another fraction of their ink. Forge can feel the exasperation radiating off everyone else in waves, though they all put up a good show until they get to the weird scrubbing device that Forge remembers from Army's manual as a Squee-G.

She supposes she forgot to warn them.

Aviator shoots a line of ink up the side, reducing their ink to red level, but the Squee-G immediately starts to clean up and Forge hums, tilting her head to the other three, who understand immediately.

Full Moon uses up the last bit of ink before tossing her weapon into the abyss. Forge briefly wonders what will happen now that they're out of ink, but the packs on their backs fill up with turquoise ink, splatting all four of them, CQ's voice echoing in their ears.

Test failed.

They all respawn at the beginning of the mission again and Full Moon groans, flopping forward.

"Will this ever end?"

"We only died once. This was bound to happen," Aviator chides her and the previously cyan Inkling rolls onto her back to scowl at him.

"You used up the ink for the wall--"

"Well, whatever that scrubbing thing was, I'm sure none of you knew what it was going to do!"

Forge coughs into her fist. "Well, actually, I did--"

Aviator raises an eyebrow. "Really now? And you didn't tell us?"

"Yo, okay, this is a collective effort," Scuba tries to intervene, but all of them are pushed beyond their limits. It's only the second test they're done, but Forge feels exhausted and annoyed.

“You used that ink at the beginning.” Even as she says it, she feels exasperated at herself for trying to pick a fight. Scuba’s expression goes from attempted calm to defensive. 

“Okay, listen, I didn’t know what we were doin’—“

“Seems to happen a lot,” Aviator mutters and Scuba stares at him. 

“Are you kiddin’?”

“Scuba, the instructions were right above us. Didn’t you see them?”

“I did,” Full Moon offers from her spot on the ground. “I also recorded the whole thing.” She holds up her phone. “I need views.”

“You’re joking.” Aviator looks so done and Forge can tell the rest of them feel the exact same way. They put up with each other for longer than usual and thankfully, since the S4 became a thing, they didn’t have to see each other much but one test was one too many. 

“I’m not, see?” Full Moon turns the phone around to face them and Forge looks away. She doesn’t want to watch that. 

“How the shell do you get service down here?” Scuba asks incredulously. 

“Is that really what we’re focusing on now?” Aviator asks. “Our leaders are missing, okay? We need to find them. They could be dead for all we know, and we’re here talking about streaming videos?”

Forge has never seen Aviator lose his cool. Sure, there was annoyance at times, but never full blown like this. Then again, she’s never seen any of them argue before with anyone at all. Were they just that bad at working together?

Full Moon watches him for a second before grinning. “Wow, Avi, didn’t know you could get angry like that.”

Aviator grits his teeth. “Do you want to find Mask? Or are you too busy sitting on your phone like a dumbass just waiting for us to fail so you can post it to your channel?”

Forge bites her lip, watching Full Moon switch emotions faster than she’s seen anyone go from mocking to the brink of tears. “You don’t mean that,” Forge says quickly. This is going way too far. 

“You’d be surprised.”

“Hey, you made these groups in the first place. Why didn’t you get your team together and go? I think we’d all work better with our own teams,” Scuba butts in and Forge wants to smack him. He’s not helping; none of them are. 

“I thought you’d be able to handle it,” Aviator retorts. “But apparently not.” He sighs. “Let’s just get this fucking test over and done so we can go back into our teams.”

“Fine.”

Scuba turns to face the map and starts forward. He climbs over the first platform easily, leaving the others behind. When they catch up to him without using ink, he’s at the Squee-G wall. Full Moon paints the side without saying a word — Forge notices her phone isn’t present either — and they swim up. 

They finish the level in awkward but tense silence. 

The metro is waiting for them when they’re done and Forge enters the train car, painfully aware of the sniffling noises coming from Full Moon, the uncharacteristic silence from Scuba, and the deepening frown from Aviator. She moves as far away from the other three as possible and waits for her other team members to arrive. 

Chapter Text

Stealth and his team have finished three tests so far and they reboard the metro with the intent to finish another only to bump into Aviator in the train car. "Hey Stealth." The purple Inkling looks a bit frazzled, which is new, and Stealth is immediately on high alert. "You're just going to stay with your team, yeah?"

"Yes?" It comes out more like a question but Aviator takes it anyway. 

"Okay, cool. Any issues so far?"

"No?"

"That's-- that's good." Aviator turns away, and starts towards his own train car but Stealth calls out to him before he can exit the current car. 

"Wait!" 

Aviator stiffens slightly but turns and faces Stealth with that familiar grin. "Yeah?"

"I--is everything okay?"

Something flashes through the other's posture for a second; Stealth blinks once and it's gone. "We're switching back to our teams."

"Oh. Really?" Stealth honestly thought that the S4 teams would be able to work together but it seems like their cooperation was as much as the S4's initial teamwork. "I mean-- that's good, right?"

Aviator hesitates before shrugging, mouth turning slightly downwards. "I guess it is, since we're more used to our own teammates than each other, right?"

"That seems like the logical assumption, yeah." Stealth can feel the awkwardness filling the metro car and he swallows hard. "Anyway. Good luck to you and your team."

"Thanks. You too." The doors slide open and closed and Aviator is gone.
"What was that about?" Blazer asks and Stealth spins around to find her lounging on one of the car seats, arm hooked loosely around the railings. He almost forgot she was there and he has to take a minute to quell his racing hearts.

"I don't know," he answers when he's finally able to speak. "I think something happened with the current matchups so they have to change back."

"Wonder what happened," Bamboo muses aloud. "It'd be interesting to see the petty stuff they come up with, like how the S4 used to function, remember that?"

"Maybe relationship drama?" Blazer looks curious now and Stealth wishes Aviator never came in the train car to begin with. Blazer is too involved with matchmaking and trying to get people together for her own good, and the fact that she ships multiple people with those who they aren't even dating is something that slightly concerns Stealth.

"Probably not," he says quickly, but both Bamboo and Blazer look interested now.

Blazer stands and makes her way to the door. "You think I can catch them before they leave?"

"I'm not sure if you should do that," Stealth warns her, moving to block her path, but she darts through the doors and enters the next car. Bamboo and Stealth follow her after exchanging a quick glance.

They're met with a scene that is so unusually quiet that Stealth has to resist the urge to make sure the occupants are even alive. Pink Team apparently has taken temporary residence of this car and are so uncharacteristically still and silent that even Blazer seems taken aback. Octoglasses is lying on her back, stretched across an entire row of seats, playing with a neon bracelet around her wrist. Her suit jacket is tied around her waist and she's wearing a crop top instead, the only thing that's really suiting her at the moment. Straw has her eyes closed, leaning against one of the poles, though Stealth can see by the way she slightly shifts towards them that she isn't sleeping. Scuba is sitting cross-legged on one of the seats, and he glances up when Yellow Green Team enters but doesn't speak.

Blazer seems to reconsider asking them, and simply moves on to the next car.

The next one contains Cyan Team, all of them on their phones. Stealth follows Blazer and Bamboo through the car, the girls seemingly not stopping. As he passes Full Moon, though, he can see tear tracks on her cheeks, as well as notice the close proximity the others are sitting to her, as if to protect her. 

It leaves a sinking feeling in his gut. What even happened between the others?

The next car is Purple Team, all of them wearing some sort of a frown. Stitch is hunched in the corner of the car, hat tilted over her eyes, Paisley huddled on the far end like she wants to disappear, and Aviator just sitting alone on the opposite end of the car, arms crossed over his chest. Stealth half-expects Blazer to stop here, but she forges on into the next car.

Orange Team, as always, seems the most collected. They're all sitting normally on the chairs, flipping through their manuals. Upon closer inspection, however, he can see the tension in all of their postures, one that's more strained than their usual straight-backed pose.

Forge looks over at Stealth as they enter. "Oh, hello."

"Hi Forge!" Blazer says cheerily and Forge offers the other girl a slight smile and turns to Stealth before Blazer can ask a single question. 

"Have you received these strange... cake-like erasers?" She holds one up and Stealth nods. He's gotten one at each station they've completed. 

"Yeah, why? Aren't those mem cakes?" CQ Cumber had mentioned they were good for getting back lost memories, though none of them had lost anything more than their weapons and ink tanks. And their sanity, as it looked like from the rest of the S4 teams.

"Yes, but I think they are actual memories," she says. "I was studying one to put down in my manual and it... changed. It's not my memory, but I think this one--" she gestures to the object in her hands: it looks like one of the bumpers on a stage, Stealth realizes. "--has one of the S4's memories in this."

"Oh my cod, really?" Bamboo leans over to examine it. "How did you enter the memory?"

Forge shrugs. "I honestly do not know. I think I was holding it like this--" she mimes holding it between her thumb and forefinger. "But I believe we all have to be touching it. Blue and White already experienced the memory separately after holding it."

"Well, let's do that," Blazer says eagerly, and Forge nods, lifting her hand that's holding the mem cake. 

They all reach out and put a finger on it as Forge tilts it upwards, and the metro car fades to white.

--

They end up behind a bumper in Piranha Pit, the place already inked with bright pink and green.

As Stealth watches, an Inkling he doesn't know rushes past him, chased by Straw and her roller. The screech followed by an explosion of pink ink makes Stealth wince. He's barely aware of his teammates and Forge next to him as Aloha comes into view, drenched in green ink from what Stealth assumed from a bomb launcher -- he had seen someone pop their Special. He expects Aloha to see them or ask them why they're here, but all the Pink Team leader does is throw up a Splash Wall and lean against the bumper, panting. 

Apparently, they don't exist in memories. It does wonders to Stealth's anxiety on that realization.

Aloha's tentacles are up in the standard hairstyle and judging by the lack of cunning glint in his eyes, Stealth can assume that this battle took place before his team made it to S+. As he watches, the green ink slowly vanishes from Aloha's body and the pink Inkling pops his Killer Wail, aiming it through the barrier and at the tower, the objective that Stealth only just now noticed. The opposing team has possession, but the Special knocks them off.  Scuba is quick to take the tower, sending it back in the other direction while throwing a thumbs up to Aloha, who is finally leaving the safety of the barrier.

The memory ends.

--

Blazer looks stunned. "That was--"

"Weird," Bamboo finishes and Blazer nods. Forge tilts her head slightly.

"I think if you received different cakes, you might get different memories."

The metro is slowing; Stealth can see Purple Team exiting the metro from through the window and looks back at Forge who is holding up another cake. 

"I think we have time for another."

This one is shaped like a chum from Grizzco, Stealth realizes with a jolt, but Blazer and Bamboo are already reaching for the mem cake in anticipation. He manages to make contact with it as it tilts upwards and they're sent into another memory. 

--

It's Salmon Run, and the sight of Salmonid Smokeyard is enough to make Stealth's stomach churn. A shift is already under way, and he watches as Mask surfaces from his ink to put an egg into the basket. He's carrying the Bamboozler, a weapon that Stealth never even though he'd see the S+ member use before.

Blazer also seems stunned and leans over to whisper, "Dang, Mask can use Bamboozler?"

They watch as the previously cyan Inkling turns a 180 and snipes out a stream of chum swarming his teammate. 

"I guess that's a yes."

Forge, meanwhile, is walking circles around the egg basket, watching bemusedly as Inklings frantically swim through her body to dump in more eggs. "Looks like it's their first time," she comments. "There are not that many eggs in the basket, yet their quota is filled."

"Are mem cakes supposed to give us their memories?" Stealth asks. "What does this mean?" He sees Mask farther down throwing a bomb in Maws' mouth, and makes a mental note to try this at Grizzco next chance he gets.

"I assume it means they have gotten through the stations we were assigned," Forge replies. "Or at least Mask has gotten through that specific station."

"But mem cakes are supposed to return memories that were lost," Bamboo says. "Does this mean that the S4 lost their memories?"

"They could be lost somewhere," Forge says, eyes suddenly distant. "It could be why they disappeared. No memory, no sense of direction, just endless underwater mazes."

Mask swims up again to dump in an egg right before the basket closes. 

“Next wave,” Forge muses. 

The memory ends. 

The metro is pulling into another station, and Forge stands then, her teammates following her lead. 

“I think that’s our stop.”

“Wait!” Blazer says urgently and Forge turns to face her. Stealth knows where this is going. 

“What happened with the other teams? Why aren’t you working with each other anymore?”

Forge’s lips thin. “We don’t work well together. That’s the only reason.”

“So you’re just gonna give up? What if something big comes up that we have to work together for?”

“What are the chances of that happening?” Forge asks. “And if we needed to work together for a short amount of time, our teamwork will suffice. It’s just the aspect of doing ten tests with each other that isn’t sitting too well.”

“Full Moon was crying,” Bamboo points out. “What’s up with that?”

“Some things are better left unsaid,” is all the orange Inkling says before she leaves the metro car with her team. 

Blazer’s shoulders slump. “Worth a shot.”

Agent Six honestly didn't understand why they all had to meet here. Agent Four had already cleared this area in Cephalon HQ, but Agents One and Two were pretty adamant on checking it out again.

"We think there's something down there," Two said. "We won't know for sure until we look into it."

“Wouldn’t it just be an empty stage?” Agent Five asked, looking bored. He’s leaning on a roller, and Six knew he refused to use rollers if he had anything to say about it so that meant it must be Agent Three’s. Agent Seven gave him a look and the latter shut up. 

“We don’t know that,” One explained patiently. “We just need a few people to go down there and check it out. Maybe just one Agent if that’s okay.”

“I can do it,”  Four offered and Two nodded. 

“Alright. We’ll give you five minutes to patrol it and if there’s an issue, let us know.”

Four nodded and jumped into the kettle, the pot making the familiar hissing noise as he disappeared inside. 

They waited. And waited. And waited. Two checked her watch. One spun in circles. Five almost fell asleep. Seven inspected his charger.

It’d been twenty minutes and Four still hadn’t resurfaced or said anything. 

“Is he okay?” One asked. “It’s been.. forever now.”

“I’ll go check,” Five stood, eager to do something for once, and entered the kettle. 

They waited for ten more minutes. No response. 

“Something’s down there,” Two decided right as her cell phone rang. “Give me a second to take this call and One and I will meet you there, okay?”

Six stood reluctantly. He had a very bad feeling about this whole situation, but he couldn't disobey the other Agents. He exchanged a glance with Seven, who looked close to spacing out. “You reaaady?”

Seven just shrugged. “We’ll see.”

They entered the kettle together and spawned at the end of the stage. That’s the first clue that something was very wrong here. 

“We should’ve spawned over there,” Seven pointed to the platform separate from the stage, “but we’re here instead.”

“This doesn’t look riiiight,” Six agreed. From Four’s records, the stage looked almost exactly the same as before, but there were masses of turquoise ink spread across some parts. Judging how they were already fading, the marks were there for a while. Six touched a puddle with a finger and winced as it burned his hand. “Isn’t the Octarian color magentaaa?”

"It should be." Seven crossed the area to stand next to Six. "This turquoise color--"

That was as far as he got before the ink in front of them exploded in a mass of Octolings.

Chapter Text

Their station order is messed up, partially due to the teams being put back together, or because none of them care anymore on which stations they complete. As long as it gets them out of this hellhole, hopefully with their leaders in tow.

And if Scuba is being completely honest, organization isn't his thing. It's too conforming, too restrictive, and rarely lets him have freedom to do anything. He works better with complete chaos than tight order, but the lack of station order or leadership is getting on his nerves. It's already bad enough that they have to deal with the loss of the S4 and Rider, but with no direct commands, Scuba feels like he's missing something.

Or maybe it's because he couldn't work with the previous team before and now it's just grating on him.

They've completed five stations with their respective groups and Yellow Green Team already found the first Thang, a strange "foundation" as C.Q. called it, something that looked awfully familiar, but Scuba couldn't place where it was from.

Pink Team wasn't assigned to any specific station, but judging from the ones they already cleared, Octoglasses had the idea to take the one after Radical Rails on the Line C.

"What does 8 Ball station mean?" 

Scuba studies the description on the CQ-80. "Nothin' good, I'm sure."

"What about that one?" Straw asks, pointing to the one right after it. "We can move pretty well, dontcha think?"

And even after all that's happened, Scuba can't help but smile slightly. "Shell yeah, we can."

He clicks the station and the train starts to slow down. Straw cheers. "Here we go then!"

"Yeah." His smile slips as he turns to face the opening doors. "Here we go."

--

Well, they can dodge pretty well. Scuba almost has to give kudos to Straw for guessing the objective correctly. 

"What happens if we get hit?" Octoglasses asks aloud.

"Probably get blown up," Scuba replies. The plastic casing that usually handed out weapons gave them absolutely nothing to work with, which was both slightly disturbing and unsurprising.

"Blown up?" The masked Inkling spins around to see his teammates staring at him in horror. 

"Yeah, blown up. Didn't you guys get that in other stations?"

"No, because we always managed to scrape by," Octoglasses replies, and Straw nods her head. "But that's the punishment?" Her eyes hold concern now, and Scuba feels his stomach twist. "Did you get blown up?"

"Whole team thing did," he replies, turning away so he doesn't have to see their shocked faces. "Wasn't that big of a deal though. We respawned anyway."

The girls are silent as they head into the casing themselves, receiving their nonexistent weapons and joining him on the turnstile. Scuba can only guess they're imagining being blown up and wondering what it felt like. Nothing good, he wants to say before they ask. It felt like something burning into his back, raw pain wrenching through his body as turquoise good slid into his eyes, nose, mouth. It was over quickly, but the momentary shock of it never went away. He only didn't concentrate on it because of the argument the other three had, and he never wants to think about it again.

Keep dodging until time runs out! 

The words appear above them in large letters, and they all superjump to the objective, landing on the plastic platform. The first enemies are easy. The Octarians aren't fast, and their giant bouncing globs miss Pink Team by a long shot. 

But as the enemies increase, and with no way to get rid of the enemies, the three of them find the stage to be more difficult than they thought. Straw has to drop to the floor to avoid a sniper's shot aimed at her face, wriggling away in squid form as the second one nearly strikes her tentacles. "Scubes! We need music! Disco Ball Dance!"

Shit. She's right. They've never been able to dodge well without a beat to go by, but Disco Ball Dance is reserved for battles when Aloha's at their side to call out the number. The common, but sudden realization that his boyfriend isn't here is enough to make him stop dead in his tracks. 

Right. Aloha's gone. What use would dancing be?

Someone shouts for him, but he can't process it until Octoglasses knocks him over, both avoiding a well-aimed shot from the sniper in the process. 

"Scuba! Snap outta it! We need music! You have your phone?"

The question of why can't you use your own phone comes to mind, but Scuba can't exactly ask that now. "Yeah." He fumbles in his suit pocket, yanking the device from it. There's still no signal, but their music never needed data to play.

He hands it to Octoglasses as another glob of enemy ink forces them apart. She turns the volume to max, before selecting the song. The bass kicks in almost immediately, vibrating the entire platform, but Scuba can feel his body responding intuitively to the music, backflipping over another charger shot as the melody starts up.

And suddenly they're back in Inkopolis, the sun shining on Mahi Mahi Resort, the four of them twisting and moving perfectly to the music, splotches of pink ink scattering into the water as the enemy desperately tries to land a hit on them. They aren't stuck underground, aren't stuck underwater, aren't stuck with the people they don't get along with, aren't--

The station timer dings, and all three of them are pulled back into the station, mem cakes dropping into their hands. This one is shaped remotely like a Scrapper, and Scuba puts it into his pocket with the other two. Octoglasses tosses back his phone, which he catches without looking at her.

"Hey, Scuba? You good?" Straw's at his side now, and he glances over. 

"I'm fine," he lies, and she nods slowly, not convinced, but willing to drop it for now. 

"We'll find him," she says firmly as they head back into the train. "I swear on it."

--

The second Thang looks... concerning, if Aviator had to be completely honest. It has sharp blades positioned around the center, pointing outwards almost threateningly.

"That looks like it could just slide our fingers off if we carry it," Stitch observes, frowning. "How are we going to get it back onto the train?"

Aviator tilts his head to look at the base of the Thang. "We can try to lift it from the bottom. It doesn't seem to rotate that much."

Paisley, meanwhile, is studying the Thang from much farther away. "What do we need this for anyway? What Promised Land requires up to be sliced up into--"

She stops so suddenly, Aviator has to turn to her to make sure she didn't plummet off the platform or anything. "What?"

"Sorry." She shakes her head. "I was thinking too much."

"No, really." The sudden unstable tone concerns him more than he would like it to. "If you've got something that'll interrupt your sleep at night, it's best you keep us all awake too."

"I was just--" she stops again, takes a deep breath, and continues. "The Promised Land isn't specified to be Inkopolis. It could be, like, paradise, or heaven. This Thang could cut our bodies into little slivers of nothing. And with the Thang that Yellow Green Team already found, it looks like it could be--" She hesitates, struggling to get the words out, but it already clicked for both Stitch and Aviator. The two already-found Thangs are nothing to go by, but it's like a puzzle they're trying to solve that one of the possibilities for the final picture is already in their mind's eye.

"It could be--" she tries again, voice cracking bhalfway through, and Aviator finishes her sentence for her.

"A blender. It could be a blender."

--

"I can't believe Four actually just killed it with the Rainmaker," Five rambled on, eyes aglow as the other Agents ignored him. "Like, seriously, the grind rails are already a pain in the ass but--"

"We get it, Alo-- Five," Three interrupted finally. "Four is amazing."

"Yeah in that aspect," Five grinned. "He's a bore in all others."

"I am not," the muffled protest of Four cut through the conversation. His face was buried in his arms, on the verge of falling asleep. Five flicked his earphones and Four shuffled away, a disapproving look on his face. 

"Could it kiiill you to taaalk about sooomething else?" Six complained. "We were aaaall at that baaattle."

"I don't see you coming up with anythin'," Five retorted, as he crossed his arms petulantly. "We've been waitin' forever for One and Two to come back."

"They had to secure the area, remember?" Seven asked, violet eyes flicking to Five. "DJ Octavio isn't dangerous, but it's necessary to--"

"To take precautions, yeah, you sound like Four," Five grumbled. "Plus, that stage was givin' me weird vibes. No one else found it creepy that we went deeper than we usually did on levels?"

"I never noticed," Three replied, and that was the end of the conversation.

And no one ever thought of what Five said again, not until they found themselves into something akin to a train station, vice grips on their limbs, an outdated telephones inches from their faces.

Chapter Text

 

"You're kidding me, right?" Scuba's voice is loud enough to be heard from Cyan Team's train car, and Full Moon prepares herself for whatever the shell is going on. She can hear Aviator's response, but can't make out what the other says, but Scuba sounds pretty distressed as far as she can tell.

"So we're just gathering this shit to blend ourselves together? How do you even know if the thing is a blender?"

Footsteps and the car doors burst open, Scuba storming past Full Moon, Aviator following close behind. "Scuba, c'mon, it's not that hard to believe, okay?"

The doors open and close again and Yellow-Green Team scurry in, followed by Pink Team, who apparently want to see the impending argument more than staying separated.

"It's kinda hard to believe, yeah, 'cause we're in the middle of fuckin' nowhere and this could be our only way out of here! We're halfway through so--"

"So we can't," Aviator cuts in. "We'll die, Scuba. If we get all four Thangs and it turns out to be a gigantic blender that they promote to be a vessel to the surface, than wow, amazing, guess I was wrong until they turn the damned thing on and shred us to bits."

Scuba shakes his head, desperation there. Full Moon understands both sides, as much as she doesn't want to admit it. Aviator and his team figured something out: it was a blender they were forced to create and it was highly plausible considering the second Thang is a giant fan made of extra sharp blades, but Scuba sees this only as a way to possibly find the S4. For the Thangs to create a blender meant that they were all doomed to fail and they'd die before finding their leaders. "They could be back at the surface, the Promised Land, whatever the shell they call it! Or somewhere in this metro, I don't fucking know, but it can't be a blender it--" He stops, pupils dilating slightly and he seems to shrink in on himself. "It can't, okay? We die, and it's game over. We can't find them. We can't bring them back. They could be back home for all we know and this was all just an elaborate trick--"

Pink Team is known for being emotional, but Full Moon hasn't seen this before. Instead of the chill aura that Pink Team was supposed to emit, Scuba is turning into a rambling mess before their very eyes. Full Moon almost doesn't even notice that Orange Team has entered the train car as well.

Aviator just stands there, biting his lip, waiting for the pink Inkling to finish. Scuba doesn't stop talking, though his voice quiets as he mumbles to himself, eyes searching the other's sunglasses for a retort he could latch onto. Because Full Moon knows he needs the reassurance for something, they all do. With the Thangs being a blender, the slight beacon of hope they didn't even know they had was now gone, and they had nothing to do but stall and search every single on of the eighty stations in the metro. A bleak future, if Full Moon had to think of it positively.

"We all want them back." Aviator says finally. "And I get it, Scuba, because the fifteen of us? All of us were close to them at some point. We want them back. We want them to be okay."

Scuba watches him silently, before shrugging, mood switching so quickly, Full Moon almost misses it. "Yeah, okay, but what about the fuckin' blender? We gonna find the Thangs or not?" His eyes show he'sstill not bought into the blender idea, but Full Moon can't blame him. She can't remember the last time she's talked to Mask, much less even seen him. A wave of homesickness washes over her, intense enough for her almost to miss the next conversation.

"Avoid them," Forge speaks up, and every gaze turns to her. "We don't have to find them yet. Prolong it as much as we can and maybe try to find a way to destroy the blender. If the telephone was telling the truth and we can use it to get to the surface, I'd say we can use it."

"And if the S4 and Rider aren't back in Inkopolis by then?" Blazer asks. "What next?"

"I don't know," Forge says slowly. "But that's why we should check most of the stations before finding the last Thang. They could be stuck there. Speaking of which, are there any stations anyone couldn't complete or had a hard time finishing?"

"Eight Ball," Jersey says immediately and the rest of Cyan Team nods their heads frantically. "It sucks. So much. I hate it."

"And you finished?" Forge questions, and Jersey shrugs, reaching inside her jacket pocket to reveal the mem cake she earned from the station. It's in the shape of a Splat Roller.

"Yeah, but check this! It basically lets you inside the S4's memories! Doesn't that mean something?"

"Oh," Forge says, and Full Moon suspects she knew a while ago, but forgot to tell anyone. "Yes. It reveals their memories in the mem cake, which I assume to mean their memories are taken. I think these are their physical forms."

"Physical forms of the S4?" Jersey asks, squinting at the mem cake, and Forge shakes her head, smiling slightly. 

"No, physical forms of their memories."

"Oh my cod." Straw's voice interrupts.

They turn to see her staring at her own mem cake, eyes wide. She looks up and glances first to Forge, making eye contact with everyone in the room. "I think this one can tell us some stuff. Found it on that stupid Rail level." She holds it up so everyone can see and Full Moon can see that it resembles a scroll, a bright green question mark on it.

"Damn, Straw, what's on it?" Octoglasses asks, and Straw turns to her friend. 

"The telephone, that's what. Here." She holds it out and everyone reaches for it. Fifteen Inklings is a tight squeeze for such a tiny cake, but they somehow make it work and the world fades into white.

--

There's a telephone there, but Stealth barely sees it as the vision flickers, turning bright turquoise. A body falls to the ground in front of him and he leaps backwards, terrified. He knows that person. Despite the strange clothing and glittering headphones, he'd know Aloha anywhere. Horror overwhelms him and he looks for Pink Team, who are staring at Aloha with mounting horror on their faces. The vision twists and turns sickeningly and Stealth sees Army, Skull and Mask behind him, the trio sitting there blankly, Octolings in blue and green tentacles holding their wrists as turquoise goo is sliding off their faces, landing in puddles on the floor.

Aloha, still on the floor, has the goo on the side of his face too. None of the S4 are moving, and Stealth looks for Rider, though he can't find him.

He catches Forge's gaze, who looks like she's about to vomit. She in turn, waves to Straw, who lets go of the meme cake and fifteen pairs of shocked eyes follow its descent to the car floor. It bounces once and lies there innocently, like nothing ever happened.

Forge retches, turning away from the others, and Stitch looks close to tears. Aviator stares at Straw.

"What the fuck was that?"

No one reprimands him for language, and Straw looks away. "I-- don't know. I only saw the telephone before I dropped it. I didn't know--"

"It's fine," White says softly, eyes large. "None of knew. But now we know."

"But what do we do with this information?"

"I don't know but--"

The metro shakes so suddenly, everyone in the train car is thrown off their feet as a jarring clang rings through the place. The ground rumbles and creaks ominously as something thumps onto the roof overheard.

 

"What the shell was that?" Scuba demands, but no one seems to have the answer.

"The train has been compromised," C.Q. Cumber announces, squelching up the side wall as the train shakes again, nearly tilting over. "It is no longer safe."

"Yeah, Mr. Cucumber, we got that!" White says, frustration edging her voice. "What's going on?"

The conductor merely turns to looks at her as the car rumbles, the metal beneath their feet cracking. "I don't know. But we are sure to find out soon."

The roof suddenly caves in, artificial sunlight filtering through the hole as a figure drops into the car, nearly landing on top of Full Moon, who dives away with a shriek. 

Stealth can feel his breath stop in his chest, hearts freezing mid-pump. It can't be.

The figure turns, turquoise goop dripping off the side of their face and sizzling on the metro car floor. Their tattered black cape reads the number "3" on it in stylized print, the flickering headphones and bright yellow safety vest catching in the dim light. 

Blazer is the first to speak, eyes wide with horror.

"Rider?"

There's no response from the other, though Rider does turn to look at Blazer, nothing else happens. No one says anything. The Inklings, previously jammed into one car, are now pressed up against the walls, the train dutifully hurtling on to the next station, the rumble of the engine and slowly disintegrating metal around them the only sound in the stillness. Stealth can see the confusion in everyone's eyes, the terror. Rider went missing as Agent Three, along with the S4. So if he was here now, then--

The car doors slide open and everyone's gaze pins onto the newcomers: Paisley and Stitch. Paisley is in the lead, and she glances first to Blazer, then to Rider, and everything happens at once.

Rider raises his roller -- it's faster than Stealth remembers -- and Blazer screams, ducking to shield herself. Paisley launches herself forward, tackling the Dynamo main, both hitting the floor as the train car breaks apart around them. Shouts finally rent the air; Stealth can see Bamboo forcing herself through their friends to get to him, hand reaching out to grab his wrist.

"We have to get out of here!"

"Where? There's nowhere else to go! And we c-can't leave Rider--"
"That's not Rider." Bamboo stares at him, green on green, eyes brimming with tears. "I don't know who the fuck that is, but it isn't Rider. Rider would never turn on Blazer like that."

"We're in the middle of nowhere, Bam! We can't just jump--"

"Jump!" Straw cries as Rider wrenches himself free from Paisley's grip, raising his arms to the sky. Three Inkstrike indicators flash on the remaining S4 teams, and Stealth feels his stomach drop. How the shell did Rider get a special so quickly? And three of them?

A distant yell brings him back to the present as everyone seems to decide that jumping is better than getting creamed by an Inkstrike, and Stealth is dragged along by Bamboo to the edge, flinging himself off right as all three Inkstrikes penetrate the rails, breaking the train into shattered bits of metal. Something stings Stealth's cheek as he falls, but he has no time to worry about that. Bamboo's grip disappears from his wrist, and he gropes blindly for her, hearts rising into his throat as he falls. He has no time to scream, no time for anything as the ground comes rushing up to meet him.

--

Hands grappled at Four's wrists, tying them behind his back as someone threw him harshly into the ground, the concrete scraping his cheek. A voice was heard, speaking in a foreign language, and Four struggled to sit up. His weapon was gone, his ink tank missing. And the other Agents were nowhere to be seen.

"Unhand me!" he managed to say, but a click of a gun silenced him as cold metal placed itself on his left temple. A voice spoke, the foreign sound turning into broken Inklish, raspy and slurred.

"Stop. Or shoot."

Four froze almost immediately, hearts pounding in his ears. Where were the others--?

A thump and Five's familiar yelp echoed in his ears. His blood almost stopped pumping out of fear. No. They couldn't have gotten Five as well--

Two more thumps and Seven's grunt of pain and Six's breathy wheeze were audible. At least Three hadn't been caught yet, as far as he knew, but there was no telling for now. An Octoling came into view, smile on their face.

"Look at what the cat dragged in." This one could speak more fluently, at least, but Four wished she would stop already. "You ready to meet your savior?"

"Hope to cod it's not cod," Five managed, and Four wanted to slap him. How the shell could he joke at that time?

A cackle interrupted his thoughts as the Octoling roared in laughter in front of him. "This one's funny," she coughed. "All the better to become part of a greater purpose than yourself. Trust me; you'll do well."

They're dragged for hours, Four's legs tiring from the constant kicks the Octolings delivered to his knees, Five surprisingly staying silent as the four of them were led to the center of the place, a single telephone standing alone.

"Tartar," the Octoling in front started, and the rest was gibberish to Four's ears. Any other day, he'd pull out his manual to take notes on this language, but his hands were tied by ropes and nerves tied by fear.

The telephone responded in kind and the Octoling turned to face the four Inklings, reverting to Inklish. "This one is funny. Do him first."

The telephone gargled and an Octoling forced Five nearer to it, the Agent struggling but to no avail. Two seconds and a turquoise glowing mass of ink shot from the telephone's speaker and landed onto Five's face, the Inkling letting out a strangled scream. He collapsed, and Seven, evidently taking that as permission to break the no-real-names-while-Agents code, yelled through his bandanna: "Aloha!"

An Octoling kicked him in the back of the head and the telephone focused on him this time, a second glob of goo swirling through the air to land on Seven's face. A third hit Five stright on, and Four just had time to see the leering smile from the Octoling before him before a fourth turquoise mass zoomed towards his face. 

Burning pain, and then nothing.

A voice began to speak to him, his mouth moving to the words, eyes refocused in a tinted blue glow, everything blue, the rest of the S4 in front of him.

Hello, Agent Four. I am Tartar. Welcome to the purpose beyond your wildest dreams: Sanitation.

Chapter Text

Forge wakes with a groan, rolling over onto her back as pain races through her body. The surface she landed on is springy, slightly sticky, and she looks down to see that she's landed on an ink sponge. 

What the heck just happened?

There was Rider, that much she knew, except Rider wasn't like himself. He somehow summoned three Inkstrikes--

Wait.

Three Inkstrikes. They weren't unlike the move he relied on in his early turfing days, forcing his team to be the "Inkstrike Reserve" while he turfed on his own. There couldn't be a coincidence, but what else would it be? How would he even get the three Specials at one time? Where would he even get it from?

“Forge?” A familiar voice jolts her from the invading questions in her mind, and she glances upward, eyes straining in the dim light. Scuba is hovering above her, face upside down, mask slightly dented and blue blood staining his left ear, but otherwise intact.

“Scuba?” She waves him back and sits up, head spinning as she tries to take in her surroundings at the same time. The place is weirdly empty, covered in graffitied metal that she assumed came from the metro. Scuba was the only other living thing nearby. Everywhere else was desolate as far as her fuzzy vision could see. Then again, she’s pretty much blind at this point so she couldn’t see a thing.

“I woke up, like, ten minutes before you did.” The Pink Team co-captain wipes a trail of blood snaking down his neck and points into the distance. “I walked that way for a bit and came back. There’s no one else here.”

“You think they’re dead?” The spongy surface is doing nothing to help Forge get upright; Scuba notices her struggle after several minutes and offers a hand to her. She takes it gratefully and her arm is almost pulled off completely from the force he exerts. “Ow.”

“Sorry. And no-- I mean, I don’t know if they’re dead. Their gear isn’t here, not even ink tanks, so we either fell far from the rest of ‘em or we’re all scattered.”

“The metro isn’t supposed to break, is it?” Forge asks instead, and Scuba glances at her, the filtered light reflecting strangely across his mask. “CQ Cumber didn’t seem to talk much, but he would’ve informed us if it were unsafe.”

“Dunno, man.” Scuba stretches, wincing. “But we’re right near one of those station entrance thingies. Maybe if we find a way up there, we can--”

A score of tenta missile indicators appear around his feet and Forge gasps. “Look out!”

The Pink Team member just barely manages to dodge as tenta missiles hit the ground beneath him, shrinking the sponges. “Fuck, do you have a weapon?” The space is barely enough to stand on now, and they retreat backwards, trying to find the person with tenta missiles.

“No.” Forge glances around. They’re above the ground now, she realizes, on an ink sponge that is now dangerously small. There’s an ink sponge right above them but that one is dry and without a weapon, they can’t proceed.

“We’ve got more area down there,” Scuba points to the platform beneath them right as tenta missile indicators appear once more around their feet.

They managed to hop down to the lower level, rolling to brace their impact as the splotches of turquoise ink spread around them. It shrinks one of the ink sponges there on the ground and Forge can see there's a grating underneath.

"Scuba!" She calls as the tenta missiles appear once more, gesturing wildly to the grating. The two of them waste no time sliding through the grating and they see a can sitting there on the edge of the platform, suspended over a colorful abyss.

"Could be a weapon," Scuba says and he reaches for it as the can morphs into Glooga Dualies. “Damn, was right.”

Forge raises her eyebrows at him but allows him to take the weapon and activate the ink rail nearby. "If we move to the goal, we'll be transported back to the station," she muses. "We don't seem to be attached to any communication like before that can allow us to super-jump back.

"Can you test that theory?" Scuba asks, tossing her one of the dualies; she catches it despite her surprise.

"What do you mean?"

"Call upon the almighty CQ Cumber who likes to blow us up if we step the wrong way," he clarifies, without actually clarifying anything at all. She smiles and shakes her head.

"There's nothing for him to blow us up for. If we die, we end up back at spawn--"

"What if we die three times?" Scuba asks suddenly, eyes brightening. "We can get back to the station that way."

"We need this weapon," Forge tells him, and he sighs.

"Worth a shot. Let's just get this over with."

They spend the rest of the level passing the dualies between one another. The station, after they re-enter, is pitch black. There's no metro train there, but what is there are two figures sitting at the end of the platform.

"Hello?" Forge says tentatively, grip tightening on her dualies.

"Greetings," a voice responds, and a figure unfolds itself, moving towards them. Forge tenses, but the figure reveals himself to be an Octoling. Though, unlike the turquoise ink the other Octarians, this one had magenta ink, a single tentacle coiling along the front of his face. "Who are you?"

"I think the better question is who are you?" Forge replies warily, and the Octarian bows his head slightly.

"I do not really know. I am test subject 10,008, also known as Agent Eight, or Hachi--"

"Another Agent?" Scuba butts in, frowning. "We never knew about you."

"That's because this chap here has been recently dubbed a new Agent of the Squidbeak Splatoon," a raspy, but otherwise enthusiastic voice pipes up, an old Inkling stepping into the lighter part of the station. "The name's Cap'n Cuttlefish. And who might you two squiddos be?"

Forge hesitates. She's seen this guy from the sketches in Army's manual and his name had been mentioned numerous times. Still, she should be careful. "I'm Forge. And this is Scuba. We're the co-captains to the teams of Agents Four and Five, I believe."

"Ah, pleasure to meet both of you!" Cap'n Cuttlefish tilts his hat at them. "You are the second group to find us."

"There are others? Where are they?" Forge glances around, as if it would help them materialize from thin air, and the Captain chuckles.

"They wanted to go on ahead on the metro tracks to see if there were anyone else out there. Though it seems like you've found us much sooner. They should be back in a jiffy."

"How many of them?" Scuba asks suddenly. 

Cuttlefish scratches his beard thoughtfully. "Hrrm, I actually have no clue--"

"Three," Hachi cuts in the conversation. "There were three. One purple, one cyan, one green." He taps his tentacle. "Like this. But different color."

"What were they wearing?" Forge asks, hope spiking. It's none of her teammates, or even close to the fifteen they originally were, but it's good enough. "Do you remember?"

"The purple one seemed like the leader," Cuttlefish offers. "But then again they didn't seem to be part of the same team... He was wearin' sunglasses, so that must've made him look more put-together than, say, the other two."

Hachi hums. "The green one had looked a bit nervous, but I could not see his eyes to know for sure. The cyan one is a girl, I think, with some screen recording her? She had glasses."

So Full Moon, Aviator, and Stealth were out there somewhere. That was reassuring.

"And no one else came by?"

"No."

"How many of you were there?" Cuttlefish asks. "We've been stuck here forever. The metro never came to pick us up after Hachi here finished the test, and that trio came in a little over five minutes ago."

"Fifteen," Scuba says, and Forge blinks, surprised he had counted. "Fifteen of us."

The Captain looks amazed. "Holy carp, that's a lotta squiddos out there. Hopefully they're on the metro."

"It got blown up," Scuba mutters, and both Hachi and Cuttlefish's expressions turn into one of horrified fascination. "A friend came and destroyed the whole thing. They could be dead for all we know--"

"A friend of yours?" Cuttlefish interrupts.

"We think he got brainwashed," Forge supplies and Cuttlefish shakes his head, sighing.

"Happens every time."

Forge is just about to ask what 'every time' means, and how the Captain came to this conclusion, when footsteps intrude her thoughts.

"Oh my cod, Forge!" Full Moon's voice is heard, echoing in the empty station, and Forge spins around to see Full Moon racing towards her, Aviator and Stealth at her heels. All three are balancing precariously on the metro rails, and Forge holds her breath, hoping to cod they won't slip, but the trio manage to make it to solid ground, Full Moon tackling her in a hug. "Thank cod you're here."

Aviator has taken to speaking directly to Cuttlefish after offering Scuba a greeting gesture. "The rails are blown completely off about a station down. There's no one at the next station anyway."

"Thank you, sir," Cuttlefish salutes him with a smile and Aviator nods once and moves away to face Forge.

"The others are probably at stations surrounding the explosion," he explains, "Or below the tracks altogether."

Forge swallows hard. "How long's the drop?"

Aviator shrugs. "The flashlight only goes so far."

"I can try reconfiguring the launch pad at the b-beginning of this level," Stealth offers, and everyone turns to look at him. "It could take us to different stations, but I w-won't know which ones specifically."

"Best to try it," the Captain says eventually. "A new adventure is waiting!"

Scuba grimaces as they turn to leave the station, Full Moon's CQ card sending all seven of them through the gates. "Yeah," he says, just loud enough for only the five Inklings at the front to hear. "An adventure."

--

He can't see, he can't hear, why can't he move his arm, why can't he feel anything, what happened to the others, why is he alone why is he alone why is he--

Sunlight. Darkness. A hiss of escaping air and sunlight again. His chest feels tight, eyes burning him, breath caught in his throat. His eyes move, on their own accord. His hand lifts slightly without him willing it to, and he's running now, legs pounding against the concrete floor, fear rising inside him.

He's a prisoner in his own body.

His tentacles light up. A Special. But which one? he knows without anyone telling him. His sight is tinged in turquoise, a sickly bluish-green that swirls about him. and unknown voice -- Tartar -- echos in his mind. No. No.

He can't.

An Inkstrike emerges, pressed onto his back as he jumps, breaking through the roof of a traincar, landing in the midst of a bunch of stunned Inklings. He see Blazer, who looks so terrified of him, he wants to scream. 

[Not one, One isn't enough. Three. Like your previous method, is it not?]

The Triple Inkstrike. He vaguely remembers being proud of it, the only move he's come up on his own. A team move. He hated teams. But, no that's Stealth over there, watching him with fear in his eyes. And that's Bamboo over there with anger in her gaze. He raises the dynamo, to get rid of the teams he hated, that he didn't hate, that he loved, but no he hated them he wanted those measly scraps to seafood to die-- But someone slams into him and they rolls across the ground, pain stabbing his back as he shoves the other off without actually wanting to, body moving without his control.

Three. One. Two. Three. Inkstrikes. Here. Now. Explosion. Screams. He jumps, superjumps, aims away, back to the central station, his mind melding into a mass of goo, body contorting on someone else's will, and he knows, he knows, he knows, t͚h̝̻ḭ̰̞͚̲s̴̰̟͈͈ͅ ͓b̨̠̗͓o͕̣̺̰͇̱̱͞d̥̤͓ͅy̰̠͇̦ ̻͉͔i̴̠͖̻̝̠s̕n͙̭͔̬̰̖͉͜'͙̜͔͖t̸͇ h̵̦̜̜i̶s̻̫̮͔͘ͅ a̙̪͓̖̰̟n̼͎̬̞̺̤y̜͘m̗͇͕͇͓̝̤o̫̘̱r̪̹͓̩e̢̞͓͖͚̼̭̮