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Like One Sundered Star

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ARC I - INTRODUCTION

 

Karkat Vantas wakes up in the middle of the night to the dulcet skrees of the enormous albino crab looming over the side of his recooperacoon, clacking its meaty claws over its head. "Oh my fucking fuck," he groans, resisting, with great effort, the urge to attempt to drown himself in sopor. Not only is it physiologically impossible for a troll to drown in sopor, the attempt probably wouldn't even faze Crabdad. "What do you want?" Maybe he'll get lucky and Crabdad will shut up if Karkat tosses him a slice of grubloaf. Just, please, don't start screeching about -

With a petulant skree, Crabdad flings an empty black plastic tray to the ground, the demand clear as it skitters from side to side on skinny legs.

You've got to be fucking kidding.

Stupid. Fatass.  Lusus.

Karkat is aware that lusii become redundant as a troll ages and becomes self-sufficient. Eventually, it reaches the point that the troll takes care of lusus rather than the other way around. From that point on, it's only a matter of waiting until it's time for them to be assigned to a new grub, or eventually released for retirement.

Karkat just hasn't quite been able to accept how fucking annoying it is when your lusus gets it into its head that you're in charge of feeding it when it gets weird cravings at one in the morning. This always, always, without fail, happens on the rare occasions when Karkat wants to sleep through the night. It's like he's fucking cursed to never get a good night's sleep. He's so used to operating on three hours of sleep by now that it's almost pathetic.

Another screech pierces the air, and Karkat grabs the nearest comic from the desk by the 'coon and flings it at Crabdad. "Shut up! You're gonna get us fucking evicted, you incompetent festering nookstain!" he hisses, hoisting himself out of the sopor and yanking off his sopor-drenched black shirt. He throws on the same hoodie he's worn all week and the first pair of pants that aren't similarly covered in sopor. Appeased by Karkat's movement, Crabdad clicks his claws but shuts the fuck up, thank god. The last thing they need right now is to get kicked out over Crabdad's constant fucking noise the goddamn week before school starts.

Toeing on a raggedy pair of Flashstep sneakers, Karkat grabs his wallet off the desk and removes a twenty - no fucking way is he wandering around this part of town at night with his wallet on him. "Keep quiet, and I swear to god I will bring you back iced roe," he promises.

Crabdad gives a slightly quieter skree in reply, and, wearily, Karkat skrees back, feeling like a fucking wiggler. Content, Crabdad huddles down on the floor in the kitchen block and doesn't even look up as Karkat walks out. He does not slam the door, but only because knowing their piece of shit hivelord she would probably choose tonight of all nights to get pissed about it. Hunching his shoulders, Karkat shoves his glasses up his nose and stomps down the stairs.

The closest store that stocks lusii rations is the shitty 24-hour convenience store five blocks away, on a slightly less shitty street that hosts a McDonalds, a bank, and a cheapass pharmacy. The street is relatively quiet for once, one of the street lights buzzing in flickering death throes even as Karkat shuffles underneath it. A bum is scrawling through a dumpster by the side of the shitty McDonalds, eyeing Karkat sideways with dull human eyes. Karkat turns the corner before the man can decide whether he's an easy mark or not. Crossing the street, he ducks into the convenience store, squinting his eyes against the harsh fluorescent lighting. The troll girl behind the counter snaps her bubblegum as she drums her claws on the counter, her luminescent eyes a dirty green as they flash under the lightning.

Automatically, Karkat goes tense, pinning his stare on the ground and nervously readjusting his glasses as he stalks to the back freezer. His own eyes ache and itch, as though just the thought of another troll's eyes was enough to trigger a reaction. He fights the urge to prod at them, to scurry to the bathroom and check to make sure they're still rusty red, and forces himself to open the freezer without accidentally ripping it off its hinges. Stacking three trays of iced roe in the crook of one arm, Karkat shoulders the door closed and shuffles back to the front, dumping the trays in front of the olive-blood.

Thankfully, the troll girl has just as few fucks to give as Karkat at the moment, tapping in the item codes with a stabbing claw and nearly tearing the currency when she takes it from his palm. When the roe and the change have both been stuffed in a tattered grocery bag, Karkat thanks her "very fucking much" and barges right out, relaxing only when he's out of the range of the fluorescent glow. Shoving his hands in his hoodie pouch, he slumps over and keeps to the lit part of the sidewalk as he starts back toward the corner.

Which is, of course, when the police cars veer around the corner, sirens going full fucking blast.

Karkat stares, jaw dropped and one eye twitching, just as the doors of the bank behind him burst open with a huge crash and a flurry of shouts. Before him, the police cars shudder to a stop in a rough circle, trolls and humans popping out with various strife specibi in hand and claw.

The next second, a gunshot cracks the air and Karkat realizes those fucking fucks behind him are shooting at the cops

And he's standing in the middle of it.

Instinct kicks in, and Karkat flings himself to the ground just as yet another gun goes off overhead. His ears ringing, he crawls around the side of a car parked by the curb, rolling so that he has the very solid vehicle between him and the crazy shooting bank robbers.

"Hold fire! Civilian!" one of the human policemen shouts, and the few police wielding firearms jerk to a halt. A troll with a pistolkind fires off once before someone yanks him back behind the armored car doors. The shot doesn't come anywhere near Karkat, but he still flinches, frozen in place. The robbers on the other side of the car are still firing, the repeated blasts of sound hammering into his auricular sponge clots. Every few seconds another bullet pockmarks the front of the police car doors, which means that if Karkat tries to run he's most likely fucked in every conceivable way.

Oh my god, he thinks. This is it. This is how the universe decides to flip one last middle claw at Karkat Vantas: by having him accidentally get shot by a bunch of TAINTCHAFFING SPAZ MAGGOTS WITHOUT A SINGLE FUCKING THINKPAN BETWEEN THEM, revealing the secret swilling through his veins like a cosmic 'fuck you.' Hell, if they see what he is on the inside, the cops might just finish him off themselves. The troll cops, anyway. He had thought he'd at least make it through high school before a highblood decided to punch a hole in his chest cavity, but apparently even asking for that was too much.

The only warning Karkat gets is a sudden roar coming at him from the right; then someone is kneeling beside him, a pair of arms shooting out around his back and under his crumpled up knees. "Hold on!"

Karkat doesn't even have time to ask "What the actual fuck?" before there's a blast of air and the wind tunnel makes his eyes water as they rocket up into the sky. He somehow swallows down a reflexive scream, but his arms latch around the other person's neck desperately, tight enough to choke out a grown troll. The bag full of iced roe cubes is squashed between his side and the person's chest, and he wants to cry hysterically over the fact that he almost died over lusus food. That was a thing that actually happened.

It's not until the wind dies down a little and the little veil of rust clears from his eyes that Karkat realizes what the hell just happened, as the person cradling him in their arms floats down gently and touches down on the roof of a nearby building. The gunshots below sound like little pops of noise that barely register over the fact that the fucking Heir of Breath just flew Karkat out of harm's way. The arm under Karkat's knees drops away and a firm hand steadies him as he stumbles onto the roof, dazed by the realization.

"Are you okay? Hey, sir, are you okay? Were you hurt?"

Karkat shakes his head before the questions reach his thinkpan, too busy staring at the Heir's masked face as he tries to process what just happened. "I - I, no, yeah, I'm fine," he says at last.

"Just hang tight here for a few minutes, okay? I'll give you a ride down after I help take care of that mess down there." A small grin presses through Heir's blue mask, the outline barely visible beneath the obscuring layer of cloth.

The last thing Karkat has time to notice is that Heir's eyes are really, really bright blue through the slight tint of his goggles, the same unreal ice blue you see on all the photoshopped posters in the local comic book stores. Then Heir is in the air once more, the breezes streaming around him in a nearly visible curl, and the hero shoots back down the side of the building, right back into the firefight. Karkat walks over to the edge and peers over, the plastic handles of the grocery bag knotted in shaky hands.

It's not even a fight. Heir lands right in front of the robbers with a burst of wind, slamming all five criminals up against the wall and holding them there with a hand outstretched. A single gesture, and the pistols the robbers hold are knocked out of their hands, revolving in a circle in midair before the Heir sets them gently on the ground well behind the police line. The police respond after a brief pause, advancing on the robbers with specibi still at the ready. Heir lets the criminals drop and takes off, easily floating over the cops' heads, his hood blown back to reveal a thatch of messy black hair.

Karkat's brain must be completely pansmashed, because he's slow to realize Heir is flying back up to the rooftop. Like he'd just promised he would. Fuck.

"Sorry about that. You should never have gotten caught in the middle of that," Heir says before he even reaches Karkat's level, yanking his hood back up almost as an afterthought. "If you want, I have time to drop you off somewhere else. This was the first real emergency I've had all night."

Karkat's mouth feels drier than a desiccated sheaf of molt-skin. "I just live in that building over there," he croaks out, pointing in the general direction of his apartment. "If that's, uh, okay." He wants to slap himself upside the forehead. So fucking suave, Vantas. Way to sound like a stammering fuckwit in front of the Heir of Breath.

Heir just tilts his head to the side and smiles again. "You got it!" he says, chipper. There's another whirl of wind and Karkat is once again in the air, Heir's arms supporting him as they arrow over a block of buildings. Seattle is a blur through the wind enveloping them, the glow of the city lights hazy and yet dazzling. They touch down without a jolt in front of the apartment's front entry. "Stay safe, okay sir?" Heir says earnestly, bright blue eyes meeting Karkat's.

"Yeah," Karkat manages, wondering where the fuck his usual eloquence had fucked off to. Usually he could go on for ages, but right now he can't even muster up a full sentence. Heir has him completely at a loss. "Thanks - thank you."

"No problem! Goodbye, sir!" And with that Heir takes off, the greyish blue of his suit vanishing against the cloudy night sky.

Karkat realizes he's been standing around aimlessly for a good five minutes, staring at the space in the sky where the Heir had flown off, and shakes himself. He goes inside and back up to his apartment block, mind still absorbed in running through the night's events on a loop. He doesn't realize his mistake until he's already absent-mindedly told Crabdad about everything that happened, and the lusus begins skreeing in genuine alarm, flailing around the respite block with such frothing agitation it starts toppling lamps and breaking plates, utterly beyond pacification until Karkat shoves an entire tray of iced roe down its gullet.

By the next morning, there is no more roe to bribe the lusus with, and Crabdad is tossing Karkat's belongings around into packing boxes, ignoring all of Karkat's attempts to hang his hero hoodies back in the closet and apologize to the hivelord for the lusus's intense screeching.

By the end of that day, Crabdad has pissed off the hivelord enough that Karkat no longer has any choice but to go along with their relocation because they've been fucking evicted.

Motherfucker.

That's how six days before school begins, Karkat Vantas finds himself loading a small moving van and driving out to Maple Valley, Washington, a suburb probably voted 'more sleep-inducing than nitrous oxide.'

But it's too late. The idea has already worked its way into Karkat's thinkpan. It consumes him as he tapes up the box of utensils, as he empties his recooperacoon and dumps the sopor into the disposal unit, as he piles all of his earthly belongings into one van. It's with him as he takes one last look in the ablutions room mirror, tracing the edges of his eyes with a single nubby claw.

It's going to take a while. He's nowhere near in fighting shape, and he's been suppressing certain parts of himself for so long, he can barely remember how it all works. This is going to involve months of training, if not longer.

But now that he knows he can have it, he wants it. It's about time he stopped hiding, whiling his life away in the grip of suffocating fear.

In his mind's eye, he can already see the shape of a mask creasing across the brow of his nose.

It looks good. It looks right.

---

Rose doesn’t sleep anymore. One’s intimate connection with the Horrorterrors of the Furthest Rings does not tend to itself, you know.

There is a moment of disconnection before she settles back into her body, and she is slow to readjust to the feeling of being confined in a single container. She sits in the center of the observatory, legs folded neatly beneath her and back arched in a perfectly straight line, a faint light seeping out from behind closed eyelids. When she opens them at last, lips parted in a dry gasp, the glow vanishes, leaving only lilac eyes with pupils blown out like dark stars. Her perfect posture slumps the moment she returns to herself, and she lets it happen, feeling like a puppet whose strings have been cut.

That simile is inaccurate. No, it is more that she has felt what it is to have porcelain in place of bone, piano wire instead of muscle, dank clammy water rather than blood. How can she hope to support herself with mere meat and bone after that?

Sweat sticks her reddish-blonde hair to her wide forehead as she tremblingly tucks stray strands behind her ears. She rises on shaking legs, her head hollow and fumbling without the absolute will of the Void chanting into her mind. There is a vast goldenrod sun painted in wide, haphazard splashes of paint across the inner curve of the observatory ceiling, the curling tendrils of sun rays embossed with orange and gold. Her childhood self had thought it a heartening venture, a pleasant image to open her eyes to and a way to ease her mental state after hours in the colddamp.

Her childhood self had been a fool.

Early morning rain patters on the roof and the uncovered balcony as Rose makes her way back into the house proper. There is a moment, when the wind picks up and her hair and skirt toss wildly, where her balance falters and she is uncertain whether her foot will fall on the balcony or through air, and she is giddy with the jolt of adrenaline that shoots through her veins. Then her foot slams hard onto the balcony, and she staggers against the side of the house, head still dizzy with the near fall.

She regains herself with more focus this time, her regular analytical mind expanding outward from the protected corner in which she hid herself from the corrosive presence of her Tentacled Patrons. By the time she strides down the stairwell and into the restroom, leaving a trail of damp footprints in the lush ivory carpet, she feels fully herself at last, no longer worn thin by the dark. She refreshes herself in the restroom, stripping off clothes that drip with sweat and rainwater, and turns the water as hot as it will go, a hint of raw desperation in the tremble of her hand as she turns the knob. She tucks the wild emotion away, smoothing it into the logical pattern of her thoughts before it can consume her.

If she had not learned to control herself this way, she would have gone fully mad years ago. As it is, she can feel the dark cracks in her mind, the scraped raw edges where her thoughts and emotions trail away. Dampness oozes up through the cracks, but she can ignore it. For now.

She finally peels herself out of the shower, the hot water having done nothing to warm the ice in the marrow of her bones and the creases of her brain. Drying herself carefully with a fluffed towel, she begins pulling on the uniform she had laid out the evening before her nightly trance.  First is the light, woven Kevlar body suit, specially ordered and tailored to her body. Then the lower layer – dark orange pants tucked into supple boots, and a pale yellow top with long, tight sleeves. She straps on the arm guards for her needles and another vest of Kevlar, this one painstakingly dyed orange in a fit of fashion-savvy a few months ago.

She slides a yellow headband into her hair, tucks her orange hood in and pulls on a short sleeved, billowy, creamy golden tunic, with an orange sun covering her entire slim chest. It flares just right from her hips, tight around her waist as she does up a utility belt loaded with her backup knives and needles. She pulls on the standard gloves that heroes all gravitate towards, high quality and soft against her palms, tiny orange suns sewn across the backs.

The next part is the hardest, the most pointless and yet most central part of the ritual. She smooths out her complexion with powder, highlights her cheekbones and erases the deep purple shadows that underscore her eyes. She forgoes mascara – it would only look  unnatural on her nearly translucent eyelashes – but liberally applies layers of gold and white eye shadow. Finally, she lines her mouth dark, and fills in her thin lips with lipstick so dark a purple it verges on black, purple like bruises and the dark between the stars, her one concession to the horrors that lurk within her mind.

Finally, she fits her mask onto her face. It is a slim strip of gold cloth, a single layer between her face and the eyes of the world. Her façade feels as inadequate as ever. Most heroes work in the dead of night, she knows, and they can get away with flimsy disguises when the dark does most of the obscuring for them.

She has more pressing obligations when the sun falls. So instead, she fights crime in the day, from earliest morn to the latest in the evening she can manage before the coiling darkness calls her home. Horrors know, there is enough crime in a city as large as New York that she has plenty to occupy her even at high noon.

Rose Lalonde takes one last look in the mirror, taking in the elaborate embroidery worked into the hem of her coat, the sky-blue bright of her boots, the edge of her armguards peering out just beneath her sleeves.

(One day, she will walk the streets of New York dripping with darkness and wrapped in sleek shadow. But for now, she is the Seer of Light. She is the heroine of this story. She must be. She has no other choice.)

Unable to meet her own eyes in the mirror, Rose wrenches away and walks out, picking up her twin needles with slim fingers and sliding them into the arm holsters. She strides out of the house without hesitation, stepping over the shattered wizard statues and overturned furniture that she has not had the energy to clean up since the day she’d first toppled them.

It’s not as though her mother is around to passive-aggressively pander to the mess, anymore. Rose has more important matters to occupy her time than thoughts of that final unfinished martini, still sitting abandoned on the table by the front door as Rose strides out of the house.

Picturing her usual destination in her mind's eye - visualization is key - she raises a needle and cloaks herself in light that burns at her tearing eyes. The thick forest that surrounds the country estate vanishes in a flare of white-hot light, and when she blinks away the film of tears she is on top of the Flatiron Building, the slowly growing roar of New York City rising up beneath her.

(For a brief moment all she sees below is so much meat. The humans of this city are of such startling insignificance, and the idea of saving them from themselves yet again draws a chuckle of mind-breaking laughter from the tangle in the back of her brain -)

Banishing all such irrelevant thoughts to the back of her mind, the Seer of Light swallows the bile rising up in the back of her throat, raises her needles, and tilts her head to the side as she surveys her domain. Other heroes have to hunt for crime, comb through back alleys and wait for cries of pain and gunshots to alert them.

Rose closes her eyes, and when she opens them again the sun illuminates all she needs to see, some of them current events, some potential crimes that she can just barely sense the makings of, glowing in her mind’s eye like little bursts of light. The colddamp, grimdarkness subsides, and she sighs with relief as the last of the night's taint is burned away.

A faint smirk curving her purple lips, she teleports to the scene of a robbery in media res.

And she begins her work.

---

Dave rolls over and punches his head into the pillow, his much-battered sunglasses creaking as the plastic bends under the pressure. He can really give no fucks at all. If he keeps his eyes shut and the sunglasses on, the sun pouring in through the gaping hole in the wall won’t mean a thing. It’s not like he has somewhere to be – Striders don’t do public school. He can stay in bed all day while other unfortunate souls have to wake up and go through the motions of caring. It would be deliciously goddamn ironic, and it is going to be a Thing. He is totally doing this. He is making this ha-

He doesn't hear Bro. He never does. One moment, Dave is wrapped up in all kinds of awesome sleep irony; the next he rolls out of bed, a katana stabbing into the pillow where his head used to lie. He snatches up the first sword he lands on and comes up in a fighting stance. Bro has already vanished again, and there is only a second's pause between the bright blue smuppet flying at Dave's face and a sharp blade slicing in from the side.

He dodges both, and hears the faint whine when Bro's katana finds nothing but air. Next there's a flurry of puppets and sword all coming at him at once, and Dave is too busy parrying and dodging and darting out of range to even think about striking a blow of his own.

Time to even the odds a little.

Oh fuck, that has to have been the corniest pun in the history of paradox space. You're welcome, world, hold your applause, your daily dose of ironically sick humor has just been served by Dave fucking Strider.

He barely manages to brace himself. Dave sucks in a breath and twitches his hand, shoving at a tiny part of his mind and telling it to stop -

Everything goes hazy red and sluggish as time grinds to a relative halt. Dave can only hold it for a breath, but it’s enough; he flashsteps out of range, and when time jolts back into motion, Bro’s lunging strike stabs the wall rather than Dave’s face.

This doesn’t faze Bro, of course. Not a second later the blade is free and slicing once more, the edge of the nigh-unbreakable blade glinting in the light from the hole in the wall. Every other breath Dave has to brace himself and reach inward to twist time to a standstill just to be able to keep up with his brother’s agile moves.

In a straight, sword-to-sword fight, Dave knows Bro would utterly wreck his shit. He’s just that good. It’s only since Dave figured out how to flashstep that he’s been able to hold his own, and even with the ability to stop time in his repertoire, he can’t get off the defensive.

None of the dumb shits they beat up on a daily basis are anywhere near Bro’s level, but that’s not the point. Dave has been trying to catch up to Bro his entire life, but some days it feels like the gap just keeps widening, like he’s gunning for warp one but can’t break light speed, and fuck, that thought is just nerdy enough that Bro’s next swing opens a thin slice along Dave’s cheek before Dave can parry it. Jaw clamping tight, Dave reapplies himself to the strife, stopping time and trying to hold it so he can get in past Bro’s guard.

All he manages to do is set off a firework in his brain. One sharp burst of pain later, and the world blanks out in a fuzzy veil of reddish darkness.

Dave wakes up on the carpet, an elegant sword stabbing into the floor mere inches from his sunglasses. His head is pounding like a bassline gone horribly wrong, which means he's overdone it again. Fuck. He accedes, avoiding Bro’s probing gaze as he puts a hand to the dip between his nose and his upper lip, smearing a tiny trickle of blood down his face with a finger and grimacing. Bro gives a sharp nod, and Dave pauses before nodding stoically back, waiting until Bro puts the sword away and vanishes before rubbing the blood off and standing. A few moments later Dave can hear the click of the shitty microwave turning on. Bro can’t stop time like Dave, but he’s fucking fast enough that there doesn’t seem to be a difference.

So much for sleeping in. If Bro is actually cooking something in the microwave, as opposed to fiddling with it as part of his latest foray into bizarre technological experimentation, then it means he wants them out and working today. Dave tosses his current shitty sword back onto the overturned bed and goes to the closet to obtain a slightly less shitty model.

As always, the only warning he gets is a split second blur of color before the trap is triggered; Dave flashsteps backward, and what seems like a hundred disgustingly colorful smuppets topple out of the closet, forming a sinisterly plush pile on the ground where Dave had been standing.

There is a pause as Dave is gripped by revulsion and the noise in the kitchen stops, waiting. Dave is sure the pile hadn’t been set to go off until Dave had pushed himself too far; this is, in an incredibly fucked up way, Bro’s concerned way of making sure Dave hasn’t actually had a time-stop induced aneurysm and broken his brain.

Dave grimaces and kicks the pile out of his way, pulling on a layer of Kevlar before yanking a pair of fancy crimson suit pants on. He keeps his sleep  shirt on instead of going all out and wearing the rest of his costume. Bro can go from predictably ironic to unpredictably ironic on the slightest inscrutable whim, and it wouldn’t be the first time Dave has assumed they are heading out, only for Bro to simply tilt his head to the side, take in Dave’s outfit with a smirk, and then stay at home all day to play FPS games while Dave stews.

But it’s all cool. That’s the thing about being ironic heroes; you have to do what feels right in the moment to achieve the maximum amount of irony. Dave is totally on board with that.

He hesitates, eyeing the thin metal collar lying on the floor by the torn up bed. With a raspy sigh, he leans down and picks it up, staring out the window for a few long minutes as he debates inwardly. After the third inspirationally ironic internal rap, he wraps the paper-thin layer of metal around his throat. Hell, even if they don't go out today, maybe Bro will feel like an actual rap session today instead of locking himself up in that creepy puppet shrine he calls a room.

(He doesn't bother testing the collar anymore; sure it's an amazing piece of technology and blah, blah, blah, but he's been using it for years now and the awe factor had worn off basically the day after he got it.)

He stops time to walk out into the kitchen just to prove he can, kicking open the pantry door and dodging a wave of spare parts as it falls out. If he's honest, the multiple traps spread out throughout the apartment on a daily basis are starting to get old. Heh. Maybe Bro is getting predictable in his old age. He's got to be hitting upper thirties by now, right? Practically ancient.

With that thought to bring a faint smile to his lips, Dave excavates a three-quarters empty box of Cheerio's left over from some bygone age of edible bounty. He scarfs down the handfuls of cereal before another trap can go off or Lil Cal can steal it from over his shoulder, which yes is in fact a thing that has actually happened. He still has nightmares about it.

He doesn't look up when he finishes the box, just tosses it back in the pantry empty. His stomach still complains a little, so he starts hunting for anything else not lost to the great summer mold infestation. In the end he has to settle for chugging a few glasses of water, both to settle the last of the emptiness in his stomach and in preparation for a day of work. Bro catches his eye from behind pointy shades and nods approval before scratching at the scruff of beard growth on his jaw and disappearing into his room.

Which means they are working today. Hell yes. Hell. Fucking. Yes.

Dave is back in his room in one fluid motion, the headache of overreaching himself vanishing in the sudden clarity sharpening his mind. He's not excited. Just. He appreciates the work. Being a hero is a pretty selective field of work, okay, not everyone can be blessed with the kind of raw talent Striders casually throw around on a daily basis.

Ripping off his sleep shirt, Dave finishes putting on his newest work outfit. He’s never seen Bro wear anything but his white polos, tanks, fingerless gloves, and jeans when they head out, which Dave guesses is decently tongue-in-cheek because it’s the exact same thing Bro wears almost every day anyway, regardless of whether they do hero work or not. But Dave personally thinks coming up with a new costume whenever the mood strikes him is pretty damn hilarious too.

(This is due in large part to the fact that he trolls the local hero fan sites, and there are entire blogs dedicated to helping people recreate and cosplay Flashstep's latest ensembles. Entire flame wars have erupted over whether he personally alters his more outlandish suit jackets himself or not.

The answer is yes, but it’s not like he actually likes sewing or anything. Irony is a demanding mistress, alright? She requires regular blood sacrifices and the occasional bout of indentured servitude at the altar of Her battered sewing machine. And Dave is a loyal disciple, what can he say.)

This week it’s all about the red and white. He covers up everything with Kevlar before tucking a white dress shirt into his pants, hooking on a pair of red suspenders so his pants don’t fall the fuck off while he’s running across rooftops all day long, and shrugging a too-long, bright crimson jacket over it all. He pulls the hood over his head. And fuck yes, the little miniature black gear on the lapel is hand sewn. Fuck the haters.

He belts two black, battered sword sheathes across his back, the straps crossing his chest in a black x, and stuffs the inner pockets of his jacket with some of the card-suit themed ninja stars he keeps mostly for shits and giggles. He skips over his favorite shoes to put on a sturdy pair of white sneakers. He’s learned the hard way that he can’t actually wear his favorite shit out in the field, or eventually it’ll be destroyed before its time by the sheer amount of wear and tear his clothes go through on a regular basis.

Selecting two only moderately shitty swords for the day, he goes out to the kitchen again and sees that Lil Cal is absent from his usual perch above the fridge. Dave grunts to himself, the metal collar humming along with him, and digs through the pantry one last time until he finds a carton of apple juice he stored for just such an occasion. He tosses it back as he heads to the stairwell and starts upward.

Aw yeah. Motherfuckin’ AJ. It’s like the goddamn elixir of life. Without it, how could he hope to maintain all this concentrated awesome? If he ever has to pick one thing to subsist on for the rest of his life, apple juice is where it’s at.

On the roof the sun is hot overhead. The air feels muggy and sticks Dave's shirt and Kevlar vest to his skin almost instantly. The onset of fall has done absolutely nothing for taking the edge off Houston's stubborn heat, but Dave's been putting up with Houston's bullshit all his life. The best fuck you to an uncaring sky god is to wear long-sleeved shirts and stew in your gloriously Pyrrhic victory.

Bro is standing by the AC unit, staring off across the Houston skyline with an impassive face. More impassive than usual, anyway. When Dave flashsteps to the edge of the roof and raises an eyebrow at him, Bro just raises an eyebrow right back. That's all the signal Dave needs, the usual Strider-speak for ‘get going, kid.’ Dave nods without a word and pulls off his sunglasses, leaving them in the little nook between the AC unit and the roof itself. He doesn’t see Bro take his off, though he does note that there are now two pairs of sunglasses sitting in the shade when he straightens up, now alone on the rooftop.

It's ironic as fuck that for Striders the best disguise is to leave their faces completely uncovered, and Dave is all for irony, but hell if he doesn't feel just as naked with his eyes exposed today as he did the very first time he and Bro went out to wreck people's shit.

Suck it up, Strider.

He orients himself by the sun and aims for downtown. He checks to make sure his swords are secure across his back and then takes a running leap at the roof next door. Soon he’s built up enough momentum that he can afford to fall into a rhythm, the steady beat of the bass in his head syncing up with each stride he takes.  

---

In the slow moments between dreaming and waking, John imagines he can feel the breath sliding in and out of his lungs, the cool brush of air sinking into alveoli, sighing down through his trachea, flushing into his blood. He’s intensely aware of every flutter of air stirred up by the turning fan overhead, the autumn air suffusing the room through the open window. Somewhere, at the edge of his awareness, he thinks he can feel the inhale and exhale of a second pair of lungs, just barely out of sync with his own, and that presence comforts him deep in his bones.

With a grating beep, the alarm clock goes off, and John flinches bodily in response, his mind jolted out of its sleepy, muddled imaginations. The hyperawareness of his own breathing dies back, and the sensation of a second pair of lungs fades out. All that remains is his usual sense of the wind curling in through the window, tousling his hair and skimming across his face like a familiar greeting.

He scrubs the base of his palms over his eyes before putting on his thick glasses. He turns off the alarm and then concedes to the eager nudging of the breeze: he flips his palm upward, and a small gust of wind sends his bed sheets flying off him. Wrapped instead in a blanket of breezes that rustles his pajamas and hair constantly, John stumbles to the bathroom to get ready for the day, sighing wistfully at the thought of crawling back into bed.

But of course, he can’t afford to miss the first day of school.

John’s dad is already downstairs in the basement by the time John arrives, just beginning to flow through the familiar patterns of a t’ai chi sequence. Stifling one last yawn with his hand, John smiles at Samuel Egbert, and receives a faint smile and a slight nod in return as he falls into line with his dad, falling into the correct first stance and synchronizing his movements with the ex-Marine’s. He enjoys the steady, soothing way his lungs rise and fall, paying strict, practiced attention to his every twist and sweeping reach and correcting minute flaws in his technique. Morning katas have been a part of John’s routine pretty much since he could walk on his own, and he never feels fully awake until they’ve finished their father-son morning run-through.

After a half an hour, by mutual agreement they both stop, though they haven’t finished the last sequence. The school year always calls for changes and readjustments in John’s tightly scheduled workout routines, particularly once swim season starts up. Schoolwork has never been a problem for John, but there’s just no way around the eight-hour daily commitment that has to be accounted for come August.

“Do you have everything you need?” his dad probes after they towel off and return upstairs, pouring homemade batter into the waffle iron and setting bacon to sizzle on the already heated frying pan. “Nothing last minute?”

John nods from where he is rinsing strawberries in the sink and slicing them up into thin slivers, occasionally popping a whole berry into his mouth. “I should be okay. How do my contacts look?”

Samuel wipes off his hands with a hand towel and takes John by the chin, angling his son’s face from side to side. John lets him, tilting his head obediently despite the fact that he could resist the manhandling if he wanted to. “They’ll do,” Samuel says at last, patting John on the cheek before turning back to the waffle iron. “Just make sure you keep your glasses on as well.”

“Yes sir.” When the waffles are ready John covers them with the sliced strawberries and a dash of syrup, taking the plate to the table to eat while his dad makes another round and prepares a bowl of granola garnished with sliced banana and cinnamon. By the time Samuel places his own plate, a rasher of bacon, and the bowl of oatmeal on the table, John has already ploughed throw his waffles, the usual ravenous hunger slightly assuaged. He starts in on the oatmeal, savoring each hot mouthful.

Maybe it’s John’s powers, his duties, or just the growing pangs of a regular teenage boy – whichever is the case, John has always needed twice the amount of sustenance per meal that his dad has. When he’d been younger, his dad had been incredulous at the sheer amount John could put away; now, he just makes sure that everything John eats is healthy and filling without worrying about John’s total intake. With the kind of regular, strenuous activity John engages in every night, there’s certainly no worry about him getting flabby.

John finishes his meal and waits for Samuel to finish as well, his legs bouncing with restless energy in no way worked off by the t’ai chi workout, then takes all the plates to the sink to wash while his dad dries. He runs upstairs to change out of his workout clothes and into something more appropriate for the first day of school, finally deciding on a Superman shirt, dark jeans, and a white zip-up hoodie. Adjusting his tinted contact lenses and glasses one last time in the mirror, John practices a smile on his reflection, pushes the corners up with his fingers when he judges it a little too hesitant, and swings his backpack over his shoulder.

“I’m off!” he calls as he leaps down the stairs two at a time, landing easily in a tiny burst of wind. He’s trying to burn off as much of the excessive energy as he can before he gets to school and has to sit relatively still for an interminable length of time. That had been an issue last year. “See yah later, Dad!”

Samuel Egbert intercepts him at the door, brandishing two slices of toast even as John puts his hand on the doorknob. “Have a good day at school, kiddo,” his dad says as John stuffs the first piece of toast into his mouth.

There is a moment of tension, and John’s stomach turns uncomfortably. His dad is well aware that last year had been…rough, having had to deal with John’s emotional ups and downs throughout the school year until the sudden relief of an overdue summer. Sure, they have plans for how to deal with any kind of similar trouble this year, but John can still feel the space between them that hadn’t been there before, the void where a relatively stoic but supportive father just hadn’t quite been equipped to handle a stupidly hurting sixteen year old on his own.

Then his dad finishes. “I am very proud of you, son.”

John smiles back with real feeling, so hard his cheeks hurt, as the familiar praise warms him and eases the last of the jitters from his system. They run through the usual last few Dad-required questions (“Do you have your lunch?” “You put it in my bag yourself!” “Try not to stand out too much.” “I know, Dad.”) and then with a final pat of the head from his dad John’s out the door and down the street. He suppresses the urge to fly; the cool dawn air is crisp and enticing, the breeze light and welcoming, but he knows better.

He feels wistful all the same, and maybe a little depressed, but he puts that out of his mind. He always feels a little blue when school starts, because it means less time for flying and his duties, but school is just as fulfilling in its own way! He just has to adjust, that’s all.

A house three doors down still has the moving boxes piled up in a messy heap by the end of the driveway for the garbage truck, and, not for the first time, John tries to peer in through the windows to get a glimpse of his new neighbor. It’s no good – the blinds have been drawn shut for the past two days now. He knows for sure it’s a troll – he’s seen the spindly, ghostly pale crab lusus skreeing and trundling huge stacks of cardboard boxes inside from the moving van, but he has yet to get a glimpse of the troll itself. He’s intensely curious, and wonders if his dad will wait and take John with him when he goes to deliver a traditional welcome-to-the-neighborhood baked confection so he can meet them. It has to be a kid or an adolescent, or someone just barely out of adolescence; a fully matured troll wouldn’t still have an accompanying lusus.

Such thoughts occupy his mind as he walks to school, fifteen minutes away. He’s early, but the parking lot is already a mess of confused new students in their cars and parents walking their ninth-graders in. The first day of school is always a nightmare, but this year in particular a lot of school zoning has changed, shuffling enough people around to make it even more hectic than usual. John examines the schedule emailed to him back in July, locates his new locker and the first classroom he needs in his mental map of the school, and takes a deep breath before summoning another smile and diving through the crowd.

He weaves between the thronging crowd expertly, reaching his locker without incident. He sees a few familiar faces in the crowd, and three members of the swim team actually wave at him from a distance, but he’s painfully aware of how many more personal, exuberant reunions are taking place around him as old friends and groups shout at each other across the halls and embrace each other. He takes the rising stab of wistfulness, all too similar to the pang he’d felt about not flying this morning, and quashes it, waving at one last fellow swimmer before ducking into the AP Biology classroom, happy to be away from the claustrophobic, crowded hallway.

Three other students have already made it to the classroom, though there’s no sign of the teacher. Two of them John knows; one is a relatively well-known member of the football team that he is familiar with by reputation, while the other is a slim female troll whom Rose used to complain about back in middle school.

The third is totally unfamiliar, and even as John goes to sit at the desk just behind the unknown troll, he is struck by two significant details. One, the troll is wearing an oversized Batman hoodie, black and grey with the occasional flash of bright yellow. And two, this guy’s horns are tiny. Like whoa, some of the troll kids at school have pretty dramatic racks, but this guy is the exact opposite, his candy-corn horns rounded and almost obscured completely in bed of glossy grey-black hair.

And John can hardly help it if his first thought is ‘shit, he’s adorable.’ He finds himself staring at the back of the troll’s head instead of reviewing his textbook even after he opens the book, unduly intrigued by the smooth bumps of the troll’s horns barely rising above his head.

The urge to talk seizes John, and he’s halfway leaning forward before he even registers the old tightening of nervous anticipation in his chest. “Hello, Bruce,” he says before he can abort mission, and then immediately wants to slam his head against the desk with humiliation. Way to be a complete nerd, Egbert. If the Superman shirt hadn’t been enough of a hint, he’s just outed himself completely as completely lacking in any kind of social graces.

Almost sick with fascination, John waits as the troll’s entire body stiffens, and the kid slowly turns to eye John with an intent, rusty-red eye flashing from behind thin-rimmed glasses, and wow that is one hell of a scowl. It’s too late now; John plasters a wide smile across his face, torn between trying not to seem to eager and ducking his head and hiding his face in shame for the rest of the day.

The troll is silent for a long time, his mouth in a firm scowl as he raises a delicate eyebrow. “What do you want, Clark?” he says at last, with so much annoyance laden in his tone that John almost didn’t register the deadpan emphasis on ‘Clark.’

And then John feels his smile widen stupidly, uncontrollably, as he kicks his legs forward in a burst of irrepressible excitement. He’d actually talked back. It’s such a stupid thing to get excited about, pathetic really, but he can’t stop feeling it like a little firework going off in his chest. “Eheheheh. I’m John. What’s your name?”

The troll frowns, and his scowl deepens, any trace of that deadpan humor John thought he’d seen completely shut down. “None of your goddamn business,” he says, his voice just barely tinged with a growl, and spins around to face the front of the classroom.

That Batman hoodie seems more and more fitting with every passing moment.

Before John can press his luck, the teacher begins to speak, calling out attendance. This suits John just fine; unwilling to let his determination flag, he waits impatiently as the teacher runs through the list, almost missing his own name being called in his preoccupation, and is finally rewarded when she calls out the name “Karkat Vantas,” and the troll before him raises a hand in response.

Success.

“Nice to meet yah, Karkat,” John says, leaning forward a little to nudge the troll with a finger. The troll looked over his shoulder once more, and oh yes, that had to be the most downright unimpressed, 120% done-with-you face ever worn by trollkind. John can’t help it; he barely contains the burst of laughter that attempts to spew out of his mouth, swallowing the body-shaking giggles down after a single choked-off snort. Karkat just looks at him like he’s a complete and utter imbecile, but that frown is just so expressive, so completely done with John’s shenanigans, that it just sets off another bubble of laughter that has the teacher eyeing both of them. Karkat whirls in his seat when the teacher gives a significant cough, and John smiles at her apologetically before settling down, almost humming as he watches the back of Karkat’s head.

John should be discouraged by this, especially when the troll ignores him through the rest of class. But for some reason, he can’t feel his excitement dying at all, listening to the teacher give her first-day lecture without really paying attention as he looks over Karkat’s horns, trying to figure out why they seemed so damn familiar -

And then, finally, John places where he’s seen those nubby horns, angular features, and rusty eyes before, and has to swallow down an exclamation of recognition.

He looks different, in the bright light of day, not trapped in the middle of a shootout between bank robbers and the police with nowhere to run. But, yeah, this is the troll Heir had flown home not a week ago. John had been distracted at the time, first by the need to get the troll to safety and to stop the shooting before someone was seriously injured, and then by the nagging tug of the wind informing him of a break in across town he needed to take care of, but he remembered the nubby little horns and the utter, shell-shocked sincerity in the way the troll had thanked him.

Holy shit. Someone John’s saved is in the same class as him. He doesn’t think this has ever happened before, ever. His stomach is doing something really bizarre that he can only describe as a mix of excited flailing and panicked twisting. Because on one hand, oh my god, maybe he can be friends with someone he saved as Heir, and then on the other hand, oh my god, someone who has seen Heir up close and personal is sitting barely a foot away from John’s face, with only the assurance of a mask, a pair of goggles, and tinted contact lenses keeping John’s secret identity from being all over the Seattle Times. It’s like a birthday present and a nightmare all wrapped into one.

John’s dad would probably be a lot more worried. But after that initial moment of panic, John is right back to the bubbling burn of excitement. He doesn’t even know what’s causing this; he just knows that he is determined to be friends with Karkat Vantas, even if it’s the last thing he does. Him and Karkat, best friends – it is going to be a Thing.

When class ends, Karkat is one of the first on his feet, packing up his things in one smooth motion before heading for the door without looking back. Despite the abrasive attitude Karkat blasts, John still can’t shake the desire to talk to the him again, so he heads after the troll, weaving between slower students with practiced ease as he trails Karkat through the crowded hallway.

The troll comes to a stop by a locker not far from John’s own and begins to fiddle with the combination lock, giving John time to catch up. Then he pauses, realizing he doesn’t actually know how to initiate a ‘let us engage in glorious brohood my friend’ invitation without the medium of a pesterchum window between him and the potential bro. Which, uh. Awkward.

While he waffles and feels his momentum slipping away in the face of his awkward inexperience, Karkat looks up from his lock, which he’s still having trouble with, and grants John yet another annoyed glance. “This is getting really creepy, really fucking fast, Clark,” he drawls, yanking on the stubborn combination lock and bestowing upon it an even more fantastic death glare than the one he’d given John. “Either spit it out or shut your flapping mastication trap and leave so I can get on with my life. Newsflash, asshat, I have better things to do than be on the receiving end of your panaddled attempts at awkward social interaction, so if you would be kind enough to fuck right off and let me annihilate this shitty lock in peace, I would be the happiest little wriggler in this entire blasted cave!” Karkat finishes this with a vehement, but ultimately futile, tug on the lock, letting his head fall forward with enough force to probably dent the locker itself.

The answer is on John’s lips before he really processes the fact that he knows the answer, can feel exactly what he wants to say next with perfect clarity. “S’okay, man. You know, since my name isn’t Clark. It’s John.”

Karkat goes completely still, and then, almost in slow motion, knocks his head against the locker again with a groan of bone-deep existential despair. John snickers. “God damn it,” Karkat says seemingly to the empty air. He angles his head to glare up at John. “What. Do. You. Want.”

John barely suppresses another burst of giggles. It's an entirely novel sensation - he's never been so thoroughly entertained by the sight of someone else being so very, very annoyed. "Uh. Nothing, just - you're new here, right?" Oh my god he's awful at this.

"This is either the worst attempt at flirting ever, or you are the single most painfully awkward person on the planet," Karkat says, turning his attention back to the locker. This time, it clicks open and he almost snarls in triumph. It's just as adorable as the angry faces.

"Whoa! Uh, no, not flirting, uh!" John says coherently, flailing as he scrambles to shake his head in negation. "I guess I'm just not really good at this, huh?" He tries to keep up the smile even as he feels something low in his stomach begin to tighten and sink, a kind of wistful regret that he recognizes all too well. He should have known better than to try this, he muses, shoulders sagging as Karkat's unamused glower remains intact. He's never made a friend in his life, aside from Rose, and Rose had done most of the groundwork there.

"...You're absolutely fucking awful." A hint of a smile tugs at Karkat's straight frown, and for a moment John thinks he's imagining the faint amusement in the troll's voice. "I can only assume that means this is intended to be some kind of inane human friendship initiation ritual. Well, you have my attention for the next thirty seconds. Proceed."

"Really?! Oh, uh," John says, thrown off by the sudden release of the tension in his stomach. Somehow he hasn't messed this up yet, and realizing that brings the smile back up to full intensity on his face. "Ahaha, I was just wondering what your next class is. I have Intermediate Alternian."

Karkat rolls his eyes, sorting through his textbooks and slamming the locker shut again. "Film," he says succinctly, tucking a textbook away in his bag. "The class your fumbling, pathetic human gesture of friendship is keeping me from is Film, and I intend to leave in the next ten seconds so I can go revel in what may be the single enjoyable class offered by this pedestrian little high school. Continue."

"Oh." John deflates again. "Sorry, then, um, I didn't mean to keep bothering you."

Karkat arches an eyebrow, waiting as the last ten seconds tick by, and then huffs out a long-suffering sigh. "The solution here is to ask me about the rest of my schedule," he says, folding his arms across his chest.

"Can I see your schedule, Karkat?" John asks automatically, seizing on the opportunity. Karkat whips the yellow paper schedule as though he'd been just waiting for his cue. Then he frowns again as John reads over it, as though he hadn't meant to give away that much enthusiasm.

John's good mood is rapidly returning. Okay, maybe John sucks at making friends, like that's anything new, but he's starting to get that he can't take all of Karkat's glowering expressions seriously. Whatever the reason for it, the troll's actions don't match his expressions, and it's possible John isn't annoying him as much as he thinks. Right now Karkat looks both angry and curious, as though he's incapable of showing any emotions with mixing in a balancing dose of annoyance to offset any genuine expression.

John can work with that.

And judging by the number of shared classes they have, John is going to have more than enough time to figure this whole friendship thing out. "I'll see you in physics, then, Karkat," he says, grinning at the troll as he hands the schedule back. He almost bounces back on his heels when Karkat rolls his eyes and squashes the smile threatening to edge out his perpetual frown. "See you later!" John calls as Karkat starts walking in the opposite direction.

The troll raises a hand without turning around, a kind of half-wave that transitions into rude gesture before Karkat vanishes around the corner, an irate smile still half-visible on his face.

John hurries off to his own class, still in a daze, and barely arrives before the bell rings. He doesn't mind though. If everything goes well, he may just have made his first friend since Rose moved out of town. It's not as though friends are out of bounds; he's just always been very aware that with the kind of life he leads, anyone he befriends could be at risk, so he's tried to keep it to a minimum.

But last year had only made it clear where trying to go at it solo would land him. Shrugging off a wave of unsettling memories, John takes out the Alternian textbook and focuses on the teacher, even as she begins to review the chapter he's already read.

Maybe school won't be so lonely this year.

---

Jade wakes up with a jerk, snorting and sending the pen clattering across the work desk. There's a thin trickle of drool running down her chin, the source of a mostly-dry puddle on the top layer of papers spread across the desk. For a brief moment, she can't breathe, a last ripple of fear shaking her before the half-remembered nightmare is forcibly shoved out of mind. She rubs at her chin with the back of her hand, grimacing at the leftover drool from her nap, and then turns her head to smile at her masterpiece. "It's almost time to go, Bec!" she says, reaching down unerringly behind her chair to scratch behind the ears of the enormous wolf sitting guard beside her. "Come on, boy, lets finish packing!"

Humming, Jade strips off her oil-splattered work apron as she dashes out of the garage, into the middle of a clearing. A large stretch of the jungle has been cleared for nearly three miles - maybe overkill, but Grandpa always said there was no kill like overkill!

She soon approaches a steep cliff face, takes a running leap, and begins scrabbling upward, not willing to waste time going the long way around by the actual path. She knows this cliff well by now, her grime-rimmed fingers expertly finding the cracks and crevasses she needs to pull herself upward. When she reaches the top, she whistles. In a crackle of electric green light, the white wolf appears beside her, still sitting at attention. When she ruffles his fur, Bec's bleach pale tongue lolls, and he gets to his feet at last. Together they run the rest of the way to the spindly towers and round orbs of the Harley residence. The thick, sweet scent of lush tropical plants fills the air.

Jade has already used the transportalizer and Bec's help to move most of her belongings to the garage over the course of the past few weeks, ever since she had found her Grandpa's last plans in his study and followed his instructions for this next big step in her training regimen. All she has left to pack are the essentials she's needed to keep out to live from day to day.

Now she bursts in through the ground level door and onto the battered transport pad, reappearing on her floor in a flurry of tangled brown hair. The suitcase is mostly packed; she shoves her second to last rifle into its case, tosses her favorite bath towels and toothbrush on top, and does a once over of the mostly stripped room, checking in the drawers. She leaves the doors of her empty wardrobe hanging open when she whips around with a laugh to duck under the bed. She finds one last dusty squiddle, a limited edition Fancy Princess Berryboo, underneath, and throws it in the suitcase before slamming it shut.

"Goodbye room!" she says cheerfully, waving at the walls, bare of posters. She hefts the massive suitcase in a single hand, unbothered by the fact that it weighs approximately two hundred pounds. Then it's back to the transport pad with her suitcase in hand, and down to the kitchen floor. There she takes the time to irradiate a steak for Bec, and slices enough tomatoes and meat and lettuce for twenty sandwiches, topping each off with a flourishing slather of yellow mustard before storing them in an icebox. She has a long trip to make after all, and she can sometimes eat three sandwiches a meal!

Everything is ready. Almost. Twisting her hand sideways, Jade mimes opening a drawer and tosses the suitcase and ice box into her sylladex pocket. Bec noses at the rip in space/time and wrinkles his pale muzzle in distaste. Bec never likes when Jade uses space for selfish things, but the sylladex dimension is really really useful and convenient! Grandpa had shown her how to open one up, one of the last things he'd trained her in before dying and leaving her to the care of the practice strife robots.

And Bec of course!

Smiling a little sadly now, Jade transportalizes to the living room. A familiar figure stands outlined by a permanent electric fire, framed by a pair of tall clocks. "Goodbye, Grandpa! I'm off on an adventure!" Jade hesitates, and then steps over a pile of her grandpa's hoarded junk and takes the last rifle in the house down from its rack, cradling it reverently. It is a prototype sniper rifle, one with no official make or model, a custom job Grandpa had designed himself. Jade has always used one of the hundreds of riflekind stocked around the house and island for practice. Grandpa always said she needed to wait for the right moment to take up his arms.

Well, she decides, the moment is now. Slinging the rifle across her back on a well-worn strap, Jade nods decisively and flips open the faces of both tall clocks. Beneath the one on the right is a bright red button; behind the left, a blue button. She plants a kiss on the taxidermied cheek of her grandfather's face, and pressed both buttons down at the same time.

Overhead, a familiar gruff voice chortles over the speakers. "Self-destruct engaged, my dear girl! Let's give it the count of ten-nine-"

Jade sets the transportalizer to the coordinates of the pad in the garage she'd just come from and activates it. Safely away from the house, she turns and walks over to the rickety plane waiting in the center of the garage. It is more than fifty years old, and looks as though a stiff wind could rip the wings from its sides. A blue wolf's head has been painted on one side, a large atomic symbol on the other. Bec appears in the pilot compartment as Jade tosses the last of her tools and rifles from the garage into the hold.

She changes her outfit, even as a low rumble rocks the garage - the sound of the residence imploding, leaving no trace of the Harley home and sanctuary for the outside world to find. Tying her hair back up in a long green scarf, Jade pulls a pair of old-fashioned aviator goggles over her face as she slams the hold shut and clambers up into the pilot seat. "Ready Bec?" she asks. Bec presses his nose to a fuel gauge, then huffs and lies down, at ease.

Cackling, Jade cranks the engine. The fuel is a little old, but no less potent for it; the nuclear engine warms up with a purring thrum, and the gauges and GPS screen light up bright green, a personal touch. Metal shields slide over the ancient wings, augmenting them, and an airtight cover closes over the pilot's compartment. Pressing a few more keys, Jade's lunchtop, sitting on the panel beside her, connects to the onboard Bluetooth. The display plays a hologram across the reinforced glass screen, outlining distance to destination, altitude, latitude, longitude, and assorted other necessities.

Jade revs the engine one more time. Just for fun.

She types a last message to her penpal on her lunchtop before shutting down everything but the program needed to help fly the plane. Then she lets the plane roll forward, picking up speed, and cues the engine one last time.

Fueled by the power of science and great justice, the plane containing the heroine who will be called Sharpshooter takes off, loud whoops escaping the airtight dome as Jade punches the air.

Success.

Behind her, the entire island shudders, and explodes, the volcano triggered by the secondary self-destruct sequence. That's okay - most of the important stuff can be replaced, and the really unique stuff is safe and sound in the hold. Fragments of half-molten rock patter against the back end of the plane, but they're already almost out of range.

Jade reaches cruising altitude, pulls out a sandwich from her sylladex, and crunches down on a juicy tomato and parrot sandwich. Delicious, delicious science. And to think, her career as a super heroine hasn't even begun yet! She can't wait to reach the mainland. Grandpa is gonna be so proud of her!

On the floor of the airplane, Bec gives a start and growls, staring with blank white eyes at something in the shadows at the back of the plane.

But in the next moment the unnatural shadow is gone, vanished back down the vent opening it had emerged from, and the green sparks playing along Bec's teeth die down. If the wolf could think in English, it would have admitted to itself that the thing now hiding in the hold never proved itself a threat to Bec's mistress even once during all those years on the island, and thus can be permitted to remain alive.

For now.

Jade, oblivious, stretches out and lets the autopilot do its thing.

The sunrise from the pilot's compartment is the most beautiful thing she's ever seen. Then the autopilot steers the plane away from the east, and they begin to coast toward her first destination.

Down in the hold, a black figure, barely distinct from the lightless shadows of the hold itself, conceals itself in the depths of an old cupboard, muttering to itself with irritated clicks and grimaces every time the plane jolts a little. It has grudgingly enjoyed its time on the island these past few years, against its will, but now - it's time.

Spades Slick has an old score to settle on the mainland, and nothing will stand in his way.