Real Men Wear Tights

High school can be tough for everyone. This is especially true when you're hiding a secret that can never be told.

http://archiveofourown.org/works/469179/chapters/811056

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17. In Which Players Fold Part 1

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About half an hour later or so found John tightening his right arm around Hemogoblin’s waist as the two flew low over the city, their feet passing mere inches over the rooftops below as the teen surrendered himself to the wind’s embrace. His partner didn’t seem terribly thrilled over the near-misses or at the breakneck speeds they were traveling if the regular tensing of his muscles under his hand was any indication, but the troll had yet to say anything. When John looked closer, however, he noticed a grin tugging at the corner of the other hero’s lips, his luminescent eyes shining with a not-so-hidden aura of amusement.

Smiling beneath his mask, John threw on just a little kick of speed, a sudden updraft twirling the pair around in a soft and controlled arc, a result of the wind having sensed his merriment and responded accordingly. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Hemogoblin’s grin grow just a little wider even as the troll’s muscles tensed yet again, and John felt a trill of happiness sing through his body, and he was appreciative. Ever mindful of its charge’s emotions, the wind seemed to be keeping an eye out for the pair, doing its best to ease their tension. With a night of potential violence ahead of him, that was exactly what John felt he needed at the moment.

They were maintaining a low altitude in order to better navigate the streets, not that keeping a close eye on the roads below was really all that necessary. According to Deuce’s testimony cross-referenced with a quick internet search on John’s phone, the path to their final destination was as simple as following the curve of the Alaska Way Viaduct south before taking a left at Atlantic Street to 1st Avenue. Even if they were flying higher, they would only need to find Safeco Field to know that they were very close, since the club appeared to be only a block from the huge landmark. Even when you knew where you were going, however, it never hurt to travel safely. High velocities and loop-de-loops excluded.

After skirting down the quiet coastline, sticking close to the bends of the road below for what would be a bit over a mile on the ground, the heroes were rapidly approaching the supposed hideout of the Midnight Crew’s higher-ups. As they drew nearer, John could feel the somewhat absentminded joy that the wind had tried to impart seeping from his body and leaving behind something hardening in his stomach, as if someone had opened up a drain around his navel.

With the night still young and the city still very much awake, anything could happen. It had been a surprise to find that it had only passed ten when they had left the safehouse in the hands of the responding police, hazmat crews, and a rather large cadre of bomb disposal units. Seeing so many people out and about in one place while they still had so much work to do was a cold reminder of the very apt cliché that evil never slept.

“It almost seems too easy.” The warm breath of his companion blew against his ear, words a dull murmur over the rushing wind. He tilted his head closer to better catch his partner’s words. When the troll spoke next, John did his best to suppress a shiver that had absolutely nothing to do with the cool wind; he could feel the ghosting of lips nearly pressing on his skin. “My instincts are saying that Deuce didn’t lie about his bosses’ whereabouts or at least where he believes they are, but I don’t understand why the Midnight Crew would just leave someone like him so minimally guarded when they know we’re out here looking for them.”

John nodded softly, understanding Hemogoblin’s concerns after having already considered what the supposed misstep could mean. There was the possibility that it all could have been intentional and that finding Deuce was just a plan to draw the heroes to a certain location. Or the safehouse itself might have been a trap that Deuce had been meant to trigger all along, taking out the heroes and a whole lot of evidence with one press of a button. This location they were heading to could be the actual trap and they’d be walking into a well-fortified slaughter. Or it could all have been a simple oversight, and no one had thought that any member of the Crew would break loyalty and offer information in the face of fear. There were an endless number of scenarios to run through, too many to let any one possibility guide or hinder their actions completely.

Still, he felt it important to offer some kind of response. “Deuce didn’t show any remorse for his actions or guilt over causing all of those deaths. You heard him when he talked about the police station; he was only slightly bothered by the loss of his fellow members, and only fleetingly. I don’t think we can just take anything he said at face value, regardless of how simpleminded he seemed on the surface. I think whatever we find, we need to be careful.”

Hemogoblin sighed in a puff of heat that tickled the nape of John’s neck even through his mask before twisting his torso slightly to draw marginally closer, the warmth of his body a reassuring reminder that John wasn’t having to go into this alone. “I guess it can’t just be an ordinary strip club where we catch these assholes stuffing dollar bills into barely-there g-strings, can it?” Hemogoblin joked, shooting him a wry grin.

John laughed softly, though his accompanying smirk didn’t quite reach his eyes. While he didn’t doubt that they’d soon be encountering a plethora of both strippers and Crew members if their intel was correct, he very much doubted that the Midnight Crew would be visiting the club as mere patrons. That would sure be something, though. They could luck out, take everyone by surprise, and have the whole thing taken care of before midnight. Then they’d be free to patrol the rest of the night away in relative peace, and he could do something nice like invite Hemogoblin to watch the sunrise with him.

He was snapped out of his inner musings as he felt the hand gently gripping his left hip tighten ever so slightly. When he looked over, he saw that Hemogoblin had shifted positions a little bit—he wasn’t actually sure how the troll could manage three-dimensional movement unless the wind was reading his partner’s intentions as it did his own?—so that he was turned more towards John, his eyes now moving up and down his body with an appraising look. He was starting to feel a little self-conscious when Hemogoblin finally asked, “How’re you holding up? Shoulder still giving you trouble?”

He fought the urge to give the appendage a roll, still somewhat leery about placing any unnecessary strain on his collarbone. “I’ll manage, but my body is not going to appreciate all this abuse come tomorrow. Might have to sleep through Sunday. You?”

“Mm, nothing serious.” Hemogoblin rolled his one shoulder not impeded by John’s frame, as if working out a kink. “I’d say I’m ready for round two, but who knows what that will be like?”

John made a noise of agreement as he felt a bit of anxiety return at that notion, the intrusive prospect of the unknown splitting his thoughts like a boulder splitting a stream. There really wasn’t much they could do to prepare for the situation until they drew closer and were able to scout things out, but that seemed to be a reoccurring theme for the night. Just like with Deuce’s hideout, they’d be playing this one by ear. Needless to say, playing things by ear went against every ingrained rule of engagement that his father had relentlessly drilled into his head. But then having the time and opportunity to plan seemed to be an extremely limited luxury when it came to dealing with the Midnight Crew. And with the night’s revelation of some kind of super serum being in their possession, well, that just added to the sense of urgency to see this whole thing through. He needed the Midnight Crew out of his city, and he needed it done as soon as possible, before they could spread their poison any further.

The unwelcomed thoughts of unknown numbers of thugs hopped up on Red Miles were perhaps giving John the most anxiety about this venture, more than anything else yet. The notion of being pitted against a dozen enemies just as big and as angry as the one they’d already faced was enough to turn the hard lump in his stomach cold.

His somewhat morose thoughts were interrupted by Hemogoblin yet again, this time accompanied by the shifting of the troll’s hand to the small of his back, as he’d apparently realized that the wind had him even if he wasn’t physically holding on; John was glad that he still wanted the contact, regardless. When he looked around and noticed where they were, he was slightly startled to realize he’d zoned almost completely out for a large portion of the trip, which was dangerous to do when he’d already given himself over to the wind’s guidance; his silent, breezy partner seemed to have a sense of humor to rival any warm-blooded Egbert, and had on more than one occasion led him into dead ends or tree branches when he’d seen fit enough to let himself become subservient to its whims. It didn’t seem he’d had anything to worry about on this occasion, however.

“That our place?” Hemogoblin nodded slightly towards a rapidly approaching neon glow coming up directly in front of them, the obnoxious red and white drowning out all other ambient colors in the sky from the buildings around them.

With a slight exertion of will, John slowed them down, his eyes—aided by the wind—picking out the perfect landing site. There was a half-completed five story flat less than a block away from the garish neon sign, its bared girders reaching up well above their heads and offering the allure of a well-concealed spot with which to do some snooping. John set them down behind one such girder near the edge of the building’s roof, Hemogoblin disentangling himself from his side to get a better look.

As he joined the troll at the roof’s edge and gazed out, it became apparent that there was absolutely no doubting that they had found the right place, even without taking in the vertical sign with bold letters flashing the club’s name as clear as day. To the right of the sign hung the illuminated outline of an unnaturally proportioned female troll, back arched as she posed off of a neon-yellow pole. The sizable building was painted dark with crimson trim on its borders, providing an ideal backdrop for the gaudy stars interspersed between bright calls of “HUMANS,” “TROLLS,” and “WORLD CLASS DANCERS.” From his vantage point, John could just make out a large, black-clad bouncer standing sentinel by the door, side-eyeing anyone who approached the building, be they patrons or otherwise. If nothing else, The Grey Ladies fit in with any of the other of Seattle’s strip clubs which John had seen.

 

 

 

“It seems pretty normal from here, but that’s to be expected, I guess,” John murmured, the fingers of his left hand curling around the steel girder he was using to mask his body from sight. “They seem to be good about having their safehouses look unassuming, at least.” After a few moments’ hesitation, he nodded his head, having come to an internal decision. “Let’s loop around back and take a look from there. That parking garage will make a good vantage spot, and I want to get a feel for the rest of the perimeter.”

Hemogoblin made a noise of agreement, and then he stepped back from the edge to give John an expectant look. After a moment of trying to decipher the troll’s intentions, it clicked, and John joined Hemogoblin by standing to his left. His partner’s hand immediately slid around his side and rested gently against the small of his back, like before, so John wrapped his good arm around Hemogoblin’s waist in what he guessed was now going to be their customary flight position. And then they were off.

With his partner once more tucked against his side, John wordlessly gathered the wind to his side, letting it build up for several long, drawn-out moments, before he compressed and shoved it down, the sudden gust bursting forth into existence and propelling them straight up, their speed masking their travel from any curious onlookers who might have noticed a dark blur launching from a half-constructed building. At some point during the transition from standing to human rockets, Hemogoblin’s hand had gone from gently pressing against John’s lower back to full-on gripping his hip tightly, almost painfully. As soon as they reached a height which would most likely keep them free from notice, John brought them to a slow halt, his free hand coming up to grip the troll’s opposite shoulder softly, his body rotating to face the other’s. It didn’t escape his keen observation that if they were to get any closer, they’d be hugging.

“Sorry about that, Hemogoblin. I forgot to warn you,” he laughed nervously, the wind carrying his words to the troll’s ears easily, the usual roar of the air at this height being completely absent at his request. Hemogoblin’s face was scrunched tight in alarm, his grip on John’s hip still not having lost any of its strength even though they’d stopped.

Whoops. John was definitely going to have to remember to warn him before ever doing that, again. “We’re going to have to go just as fast in our descent if we want to remain undetected, though. You ready?”

Hemogoblin closed his eyes and inhaled deeply and slowly. When he opened them again a few moments later, John’s breath stuttered and hitched in his throat at the intensity shining in the glowing orbs as they peered into and beyond the lenses of his goggles with determination. After he nodded resolutely, eyes never leaving his once, it was John’s turn to collect himself for a few moments, if for a very different reason.

After doing his best to clear his mind of impure thoughts about the troll in his arms, John refocused on the task at hand, doing his best to dredge up the image of the parking garage he’d seen moments before. Then he released his will out among the winds currently swirling around them, as well as one command: Fast.

As they rocketed downwards at a slight angle, the hand on his hip loosened slightly, at least to the point where John was no longer worried about any marks being left on his skin. That was pretty far from his mind, however, as when he looked back up from the ground rapidly approaching below them, he discovered that Hemogoblin had yet to let his gaze waver from his, which was once again making it very difficult to focus.

Luckily for them both, the wind was paying attention where its wielder was not, as only a few short seconds later, their speed started dropping and their descent came to a stop, leaving them hovering a foot above the concrete floor of the parking garage. The roof level was almost completely abandoned, thankfully, probably owing to how late in the evening it was and the fact that there were no events happening in the nearby stadium. Hemogoblin was quick to extricate himself from John’s near-embrace as he hopped down the rest of the way to the garage floor.

“Please don’t do that again without telling me what you’re planning first, okay? If I wasn’t in control of my body, you might have given me a heart attack just then.” The grin the troll offered him was a bit shaky, but his tone carried an undertone of self-depreciative humor.

John nodded, his right hand coming up to distractedly rub the back of his neck through his hood. “Again, sorry about that. I guess I wasn’t thinking too much about it since I normally don’t have a passenger, and because you seemed to enjoy the ride earlier.”

Hemogoblin shifted his weight from his left leg to his right as his grin morphed into one that was a bit warmer. “Yeah, well, I’m used to dodging rooftop objects at high speeds. Having gravity shove all my organs into my feet, not so much.”

John let loose a laugh before he could stop himself, prompting his partner’s grin to widen even further before he abruptly turned around and started walking in the direction of the roof’s edge nearest The Grey Ladies, a little bit of swing in his hips. Or maybe that was just John’s imagination.

Sighing softly, John flicked his wrist and sent the wind blowing through each level of the car park, searching for anything lurking in its recesses which meant them harm. When it returned moments later, it did as a swirling mass, curving once around his body before settling around him. There were no delayed strands or tendrils tugging in any direction, which meant that there was nothing deemed a threat within several levels of them.

His self-appointed task complete, John walked to the edge of the roof to stand next to his partner and looked out into the night at the back of the strip club directly across the street.

The rear of the building seemed to mirror the front. There were bright, neon signs set against a dark backdrop with a lone bouncer—who looked like he could have been the twin of the one stationed in front—standing guard. The only real differences between the back and the front were a small, tightly packed parking lot full of inconspicuous vehicles, two shut bay doors, and a dumpster. While the establishment wasn’t exactly bustling with foot traffic, more people seemed to be entering from this side of the building, though neither the number nor the people themselves were significant enough be of much note. Unless the Midnight Crew had suddenly gotten smarter about not wearing fancy suits all day every day, there were a lot of average-seeming men and women patroning the business.

After what must have been twenty or so minutes of silent surveillance, there had only been a single black suit in the entire bunch, and its wearer had been amongst a group of seemingly normal business men donned in similar suits of browns and blues. Nothing broke the illusion that what they were looking at was a normal strip club.

“So, do we go in and check it out?” the soft voice of his partner whispered near his right ear.

John straightened up. “I think we have to, yeah. There’s nothing more we can really learn from watching the outside, I think. I don’t really see any rooftop entry points and I’m not exactly thrilled about our chances of sneaking around inside a heavily occupied building while trying to remain undetected, so we’re going to have to be pretty obvious about our approach. Unless you’re hiding a disguise underneath your…”

He let the question die on his lips as he looked over at the troll, feeling stupid for even thinking of asking the question. He was painfully reminded every time he looked at him that the other hero’s suit was fitted to the contours of his body, tailored to follow each and every curve and dip of muscle. With the way the fabric hugged every inch of his frame like a glove, the folds of any hidden clothes would have stuck out like a sore thumb, especially considering all of the “inspections” he’d given the troll’s ensemble since they’d met. He caught his stare lingering just a bit too long at the slender, uninterrupted arc of his hipbone and snapped his attention back upwards. Hemogoblin caught his eyes and grey lips twitched in amusement.

“Really? You think I could actually fit anything under this thing?” he questioned in a sly tone, gesturing at himself for good measure to encourage another glance.

John didn’t let himself fall for the trap. “No, I suppose not. I’m guessing it’s also a ‘no’ on an instant costume change ability or a magical transformation sequence?”

The troll just smirked and tilted his head slightly, a gesture which was most likely Hemogoblin-ese for ‘Heir is kind of an idiot’.

“Anyways, I don’t think we have many choices here. It’s busting in full-hero from the get-go, stake it out for multiple days and lose a possible advantage, or ‘borrow’ some clothes from passing civilians, sneak in despite being minors, and most likely compromise our real identities.”

Not that he would mind seeing his partner outside of work in a more casual setting. He’d had plenty of fantasies of them meeting on the street or hanging out sans costumes, including a mental depiction for what he imagined the rest of Hemogoblin’s face hidden under his half mask looked like, with his hood down and real horns sticking out from his black hair. Only those neon eyes would break the illusion of him being an average, run-of-the-mill teenager.

John shoved those thoughts down. There was a time and a place for contemplating secret identities and their revealing, and this wasn’t the time or the place. He was positive it was going to happen someday, but it wasn’t going to be as they were trying to sneak into a strip club.

“Option one, then,” Hemogoblin agreed after a minute’s consideration. “It makes the most sense, since we don’t know how long we’ll have before they become aware of what went down at the safehouse, if they don’t already know. When we get inside, I can handle any of the minor minions we run into so you can rest your shoulder until we get to the big boss. Or bosses, if Deuce was actually telling the truth.” Neither of them wanted to dwell on what they were about to walk into if that wasn’t the case, it seemed. “So, are we strolling in, or flying?”

“A bit of both. Ready?” At the troll’s nod, John wrapped an arm around Hemogoblin’s midsection and lifted them both up off the ground.

Rather than rushing headlong at the club and its only visible guard, John flew them over the side of the parking garage to the ground level, where they touched down on a small patch of dewy grass, hidden away in the long shadow of the building. There they waited patiently in the shadows for two small groups of pedestrians to pass them by.

Once the sidewalk on both ends of the street was more or less deserted, the heroes shot across the street and tucked in behind the row of cars in the club’s parking lot. From there, it would be just a handful of easy steps to the door and up to the bored-looking bouncer.

They waited for the bouncer to be distracted by two trolls entering the establishment before they stood up and started walking, confident that the bouncer would assume that they had just come from a car.

With each step forward, the deep pulse of music spilling out from the building became clearer. A bassline's tempo pounded slow and deep, producing a rhythm which practically oozed sex appeal. The sudden screech of a guitar riff made John wince in discomfort, picturing how bad it would be for his damaged left ear once they actually made it past the threshold.

The bouncer watched them as they approached, seeming like he was only giving them half his attention. The man was large, bald, and basically reminded John of a less friendly Mr. Clean. He made no move to stop them as they drew closer, nor did he give any indication that he was preparing to bolt inside shouting about two superheroes about to launch a raid. Neither did he show signs that he was about to press a detonator and blow everything sky high, which was a nice, welcomed change. His expression was professionally neutral as his eyes scanned over them once, but that was all the reaction they got. That was, until they were within striking distance.

“Hold up, you two.” An arm stretched out across the door as the man took them in with a more scrutinizing gaze. Hemogoblin tensed slightly, his muscles shifting subtly into a relaxed stance for what John was pretty sure was meant to facilitate the kicking of someone in the face. As a precaution, he formed an invisible and concentrated blast of wind in his palm that would successfully put this guy out of commission for the remainder of the evening should his partner’s kick fail.

So they were both appropriately surprised when the man in front of them sighed, dropped his arm to his side, and raised a thick eyebrow. “Fellas, I appreciate the enthusiasm, you know I do, but costume night is Thursdays only. You know that. Go on in and get yourselves changed, yeah?”

Just like that, he stepped aside to grant them entrance.

 

 

 

John wasn’t sure who was more shocked—himself, or Hemogoblin. He looked towards the bouncer to see if this was really happening, but the man had already dismissed them from his notice and had gone back to diligently scanning the parking lot for imaginary car thieves and muggers. When he looked back to Hemogoblin, he was greeted with his partner’s mouth hanging slightly open, his jaw moving from side to side like he was trying to work something out. John had seen that same behavior on his best friend’s face before the troll exploded, and if Hemogoblin were anything like Karkat, that was the last thing that they needed now that they’d already made it past the bouncer without having to harm what could potentially be an innocent civilian. Grabbing the other hero gently by his shoulder, John did his best to guide him further into the building, hopefully reaching out of earshot of the bouncer outside. It turned out that that was a smart move.

“Okay, did that moron seriously just mistake us for strippers? Seriously? How old did he think we were? What kind of goddamn shady-ass establishment are they running, here?” the troll hissed, his cursing momentarily throwing John for a loop. “I mean, I get that the first hiring criteria for bouncer isn’t probably a high IQ, but you’d think they’d at least hire someone who can spot a sixteen year old. Fuck.”

He was sixteen, too? John filed that tidbit away and then cleared his throat softly, giving his partner’s shoulder a gentle squeeze to help reassure and calm him down. He was thankful that the narrow, dimly-lit corridor they were in seemed to be deserted, otherwise that little outburst would have been hard to explain.

“Maybe he just saw the outfits and didn’t really take that close a look at us. He didn’t even notice your eyes. Which, I suppose, does make him a pretty shitty bouncer. He didn’t even ask for any I.D. But that was like the best case scenario for us sneaking in here, so, mission success?” he tried to keep his tone light to prevent raising the troll’s ire again, which seemed to work.

Hemogoblin closed his eyes and took a long, deep breath, and when he opened his eyes again, he seemed to have refocused on the task at hand. “Yeah. You’re right. That’s exactly what we wanted. Doesn’t really say much for the Midnight Crew if it’s that easy to infiltrate their main base of operations, though, does it?” he smiled, his face looking much calmer than it had a few moments ago, as if he’d taken all of his frustration and buried it under the guise of a hero.

John dropped his hand from the troll’s shoulder and stared at him for a few moments longer, still trying to process the abrupt shift in emotions, before he responded. “Yeah, actually. I’m starting to wonder if this wasn’t some type of trap or prank. If that bouncer was Midnight Crew, somebody neglected to tell him about us.”

Hemogoblin “hmm”ed in the back of his throat and stretched his arms out in front of him. “If this really is a Midnight Crew hideout, it wouldn’t surprise me if the strip club is at least legit. All the better to create a more believable cover-up if you’re actually providing a service. But to not have the staff in on it? That’s both risky and dumb.”

John followed his partner’s example and stretched out his arms, though he was careful with the left one. There was no telling what they were about to encounter when they walked into the main area at the end of the hallway, and it never hurt to be limber. Bad guys didn’t give you time to stretch first. “Maybe. It could just be that they’ve got such a heavy presence in here that they don’t bother telling the hired help what’s really going on.”

The troll brought his hands together and cracked his knuckles. “There’s only one way to really know for sure. You ready to do this, partner?”

“You bet. Plans?”

Hemogoblin offered him a grin that was almost feral in its wolfishness. “I’m all of a sudden in the mood to kick some ass. Want to just play it by ear, see what happens when we make an appearance?”

That wasn’t how John usually operated, but this was a special circumstance. They were about to enter territory which either could or could not be enemy-controlled, which was most likely filled with a large number of innocent civilians (and strippers). They were also wearing superhero costumes on what they had been informed was most definitely not costume night. Taken altogether, there were too many variables to account for. Having a set plan might actually backfire on them in such a situation. “Sounds good to me. Let’s do it.”

Nodding to each other, they set off. Ahead of them, the hallway branched off into two directions. The right-hand side ended with a thick-looking door with a “No Entry” sign, so more than likely that was the backstage area. The left just had a pair of black curtains stretched across a door frame, with rich fuchsia and purple lights spilling out from between the two panels of fabric.

They strode forwards, pushing past the black fabric and entering the main room of the Grey Ladies. The first thing to assault John’s senses as he pushed the heavy curtain aside was the blaring of the music. It was still the same song he’d heard earlier, the rhythm fast and hard, giving the dancers on stage something to work to. The room itself was somewhat dark, with most of the illumination coming from the stage, the pink and purple lighting showcasing the dancers’ performances. The rest of the establishment was lit with dim orange bulbs, their pale glow turned so low that they probably only functioned to ensure that nobody tripped over the myriad of plush chairs and cocktail tables scattered about. The rest of the club’s interior seemed...pretty swanky, actually. The shiny steel rigging for the lights and the dark red and black hues featured throughout helped to create a kind of industrial aesthetic that did the club credit. If it weren’t for the prominently-featured poles and the dancers shaking their asses on stage, the place could almost be mistaken for a reputable dance club.

There was a slight haze of smoke floating about the room, but it wasn’t very thick and didn’t give off the characteristic smell of tobacco, so John assumed it was probably the remnants of some kind of smoke machine. The main stage was separated into two distinct platforms, each with its own pole and a dozen or so chairs surrounding them. Most of the chairs seemed to be occupied, allowing the more enthusiastic patrons to get as close as possible to the action, close enough to allow their money to part from their hands and into G-strings, in any case. There was a second stage located in the middle of the room, though it only contained a single pole. The rest of the floor was taken up by small clusters of chairs surrounding tiny cocktail tables, allowing viewers to see either stage depending on how they wanted to position their chairs. Most of them filled with men and women—both trolls and humans—of various ages. The wall opposite the stages was taken up by a small bar and by the front entrance, which was much more open than the curtained back entrance they’d come from. The stairway leading up to the second floor was also located there. The rest of the walls on both the left and right contained wide booths clearly meant for more private shows, except for several wide, floor-to-ceiling length mirrors to the left of the main stage. John wasn’t sure of their function, but theorized it might have something to do with the strippers who performed on that stage.

The second floor drew the bulk of John’s attention after he’d finished surveying the ground level, as the higher vantage point almost always afforded an attacker the advantage and thus was a prime place for an ambush. But as his eyes scanned over the various men and women leaning over the plexiglass-framed rails or reclining in the lounge areas there, he saw nobody suspicious. No dark suits with dark hats, no matter which way he looked. The darkness and smokiness of the room wasn’t exactly helping in that endeavor, but he wasn’t getting any insistent warnings from the wind, either. At the center of the floor next to the top of the stairs was a DJ booth, with an animated troll inside.

Honestly, he had half-expected there to be some obvious indicator that this was a Midnight Crew base, like the tacky use of playing card suits all over the place, but there wasn’t much of anything to indicate a heavy gangster presence. If anything, the pink and purple hues given off from the stage lighting made the place feel warm and exciting. There was something niggling at him, however. Based on the exterior layout of the building that he’d gleaned from their earlier reconnaissance, this club was too small. That is, this strip club portion was too small for the building it was in. Even taking into account things like offices and dressing rooms, he estimated that maybe only half of the building space was being used as what it advertised. And that was setting off warning bells.

He scanned the club once over again, this time taking more care to look at the actual people. For obvious teenaged reasons, however, his gaze was eventually drawn to the large twin stage upon which several dancers were performing. A nearly nude male troll had wrapped himself impossibly around the slender pole to the left, his toned body catching in small waves at each beat of the music as strong limbs twisted his form in provocative angles. In contrast to his movements, his expression was soft, plump lips shining with gloss parted to show dazzling white teeth, the soft curls of his bangs falling into bright, blue eyes while his short, angular horns flashed captivatingly with each bob of his head. The crowd around him seemed quite eager to part with their money as there were quite a few bills tucked into the strings of his thong, and John didn’t blame them a single bit.

On the right pole was a human woman wearing nothing except a pair of black stilettos and a few strategically placed strips of fabric that really didn’t hide anything from the imagination. Her hips were swaying exaggeratedly as she moved towards the edge of the stage, her fire-red hair (which John’s keen eyes told him was a wig) being tossed playfully in the air behind her. Olive skin gave way to a predatory grin as she fixed her painted lips into a pout and made an encouraging gesture at a male troll sitting directly in front of her, a fist full of singles in his hand.

John’s cheeks flared brightly as he averted his gaze from the main stage and past the one in the center of the room—this one featuring a rather energetic female troll currently removing what looked like a dangerously non-regulation police uniform (apparently that sort of costume was allowed on days beside Thursday?)—and to the bar set against the opposite wall, his eyes staring fixedly at the bottles lining the wall and the decidedly not naked people. It didn’t help things much that there were topless males and females of both species walking around serving drinks and doing...other things. He was really glad his mask hid his cheeks.

“Okay. So,” John started, clearing his suddenly very dry throat. It didn’t help that he was having to talk much louder than he was used to in order to be heard over the music, which, combined with having to maintain his fake “hero voice,” was putting quite a lot of strain on his vocal chords. It was mostly that he was just embarrassed, however. He hadn’t really wanted his first encounter with a real life naked person to be at a strip club. He’d wanted, well...a glance over at his partner set his cheeks on fire again as he desperately tried to steer his mind away from places it shouldn’t be going at the moment. When Hemogoblin stopped his own survey of the room to set his attention on him, he hoped he wasn’t blushing as hard as he felt he was because it felt like his cheeks were hot enough to be seen even through his mask. His next words were unintentionally soft to the point where Hemogoblin had to lean in close to hear him. “Something seems off to me, but I can’t see any immediately obvious evidence. Now what?”

“Now we look for bad guys?” the troll replied, though he didn’t sound sure. On the outside, at least, Hemogoblin appeared completely unfazed by this whole ordeal, with absolutely no color dotting his grey cheeks even though he’d undoubtedly been looking at the same things John had. But then again, he had complete control over what his blood did, so if he didn’t want to blush, he wasn’t going to. Lucky bastard.

“You'd think they'd have spotted us the second we walked through the door.” Oddly enough, they hadn’t received many looks from anyone as they stood in the entryway, except for one or two curious, lingering stares from a few of the people seated in the plush chairs nearest them. That didn’t necessarily mean that they hadn’t been spotted, of course, just that nobody had decided to raise a fuss over them yet.

Hemogoblin let out a huff of irritation, his hands moving to rest on his hips. “What do you want me to do about it? Get up on stage and do a striptease to lure them out of hiding?”

John’s brain stuttered to an absolute halt as his imagination very readily presented him with an approximation of what that might look like. Hemogoblin was probably way more flexible than the troll currently wrapping himself around that pole, it helpfully supplied, and was probably even more toned. And when those long, slender fingers caught the zipper at his neck and started slowly dragging downwards to expose his collarbones, his tongue flicking out to wet his bottom lip—

“Is that an actual option?” John breathed. And then immediately he felt like shoving his fist in his mouth. He definitely hadn’t meant to say that out loud.

A small, sly grin formed on the troll’s face, which very quickly morphed into something sultry and decidedly pleased with himself, the very epitome of the cat who caught the canary. John’s eyes zeroed in on his partner’s lips as his next words seemed to come out in slow motion, his tone something decidedly more husky. “Ask me again when we're in private, Heir.”

And that was the exact instant that his brain said ‘Fuck it’ and went on strike, leaving the teenager with his mouth hanging wide open. At least, he was pretty sure his mouth was hanging open. He couldn’t actually be sure at the moment, and he’d forgotten how to close it. If the Midnight Crew were to spring an attack on them at that very moment, John would’ve been a goner, for sure. The only thing going through his head was the image of his partner’s lips forming those words, and holy shit, that was smooth as hell.

While John’s entire reality was short-circuiting from that magnificently successful flirt, he had apparently missed a club patron entering right behind them. That wasn’t exactly high on his list of priorities at the moment, if it weren’t for the fact that as soon as the man spotted them blocking his way further into the club, he chose to reach out and grab a handful of Hemogoblin’s ass, and then squeezed greedily, the entirety of the troll’s body going ramrod stiff in an instant, as if he’d been electrified.

“Hey, baby, you new here? Haven’t seen you around,” he leered, a smarmy grin on his face as he leaned in much too far into the troll’s personal space.

Still trying to recover from his partner’s earlier quip, John was slow to react, and had only just managed to narrow his eyes in challenge and gather the wind for a vicious strike when Hemogoblin acted.

In one moment, the troll had flicked his glance down to where the man had attached his hand to his person, and then in the next, the man’s arm was being wrenched too far behind his body as he was being shoved forcefully into the wall next to the entryway. John barely had time to open his mouth to say something before Hemogoblin leaned his weight forward and then there was a sickening crack and a pained moan, signaling that the man’s arm was now either dislocated or broken. His partner didn’t let up, however, and the creep soon found his face becoming intimately acquainted with the floor. He didn’t move after that, obviously out like a light.

 

 

 

It was both stunning and intimidating to see Hemogoblin move with such an unprecedented speed, and it left John in awe. He’d known that the other hero was fast, but not that fast. But then, he’d never seen the troll in this kind of state before. Everything about his body language pointed to him being absolutely pissed. With his shoulders trembling, his hands being balled into tight fists by his sides, and his eyes threatening murder, the only word John could think of that appropriately described the troll’s visage was apoplectic. He wasn’t even bothering to suppress the red staining his cheeks.

So. Touching the butt without permission was a definite no-no. Duly noted.

The people nearest the duo were only just now registering the act of violence that had occurred in front of them, a pair of humans nearly stumbling out of their chairs as they pushed them back and stood to their feet, eager to get away from Hemogoblin lest he lash out again. A nearby human waitress dropped her tray of empty beer bottles and shouted, causing even more heads to turn in their direction. With an inward sigh at the way that things had developed, John absentmindedly sent a tendril of wind to the DJ booth, cutting the music in an instant as the wind felt its way across the main console and then pushed all of the sliders on the DJ’s mixer to zero.

The silence that resulted was almost deafening as, all at once, a great many dozens of eyes turned to find the source of the disruption, eventually landing on the pair of outlandishly-dressed teens. Even the dancers up on stage had halted their shows when they noticed that all of their customers’ heads were craning to look back behind them at this newest bit of entertainment. The only movement in the entire club that John was able to see were the forms of what looked to be several bouncers pushing and shoving their way through the sea of patrons, intent on investigating whatever had caused the interruption in services.

Trying to make light of the situation, John leaned over and, in a perfect stage whisper, told his partner, “Oh well. There goes the infiltration option, I guess.”

Hemogoblin made no indication of having even heard him as he shrugged one shoulder, his muscles still tense with contained anger.

John shifted a little nervously as he took in his partner’s nonplussed reaction. Having had more than an ample amount of practice in reading pissed-off-troll body language, he could spot an impending explosion when he saw one.

Not that he really blamed him. He would’ve punched that guy’s face into the floor had Hemogoblin not beaten him to it.

John took a moment to clear his throat and prepare it for his best “fear not, citizens” voice, before he loudly called out, “Alright, people, this is official hero business. If you don’t want to get in the middle of this, clear out now. We’re here for the Midnight Crew.”

That announcement was met with more staring, including from the three bouncers who had just stopped a few yards short of the duo, somewhat confused looks on their faces as if to say that nobody had ever prepped them on official protocol having to deal with superheroes.

The crowd wasn’t moving quickly enough for Hemogoblin, apparently.

“YOU HEARD HIM, FUCKERS. MOVE!” the troll shouted. Very, very loudly.

Hemogoblin punctuated the exclamation by flicking his arm against his side, puncturing his wrist on one of the spikes fixed to his hip. John knew what he was doing the moment he saw that arm go down, but it was still fascinating to watch the resulting spray of blood coalesce in midair before shooting back to the troll’s now raised arm, forming a very large, very sharp-looking blade.

John was suitably impressed. Everyone else lost their shit.

There was a tumultuous cacophony as chairs and stools were pushed back as people jumped to their feet, suddenly very afraid of the now visibly armed troll shouting at them to move from across the room. The stampede of feet against floor was loud as people scattered towards the one remaining exit.

Several mixed emotions reared their head as John started to see solitary figures dressed in black standing their ground amongst the rushing throngs, people flowing around them as if they were stones in a river. On one hand, the sight of black hats immediately raised his anxiety level, as here was proof that their night was about to get a lot more interesting. On the other hand, he was finding it hard to put into exact words how relieved he was feeling that they hadn’t just raided a perfectly innocent strip club devoid of Midnight Crew presence. That would have been embarrassing.

An eerily-pleased grin stretched Hemogoblin’s face as he surveyed the gathered Crew members and let his sickle liquefy, pulling it back inside his body. The gasps from the nearby bouncers were a bit jarring, as John has stopped paying attention to them the moment he spotted his first Crew member and had assumed they’d left with the rest of the civilians. The looks on their faces, however, assured him that they weren’t going to be a threat. He had other concerns on his mind, anyway.

Turning to look at his partner from the corner of his eye, John frowned slightly. He recognized what his partner was doing; by refusing to use his powers, he was sending a statement that these Crew members simply didn’t warrant that kind of effort. And while John pretty much agreed with that sentiment, he didn’t approve of the troll’s cockiness. That was the sort of thing that could get you hurt in their particular line of work. Or maybe his confidence came from the fact that he could probably heal from anything these guys could dish out? Regardless, they needed to finish this quickly. This was clearly a Midnight Crew hangout, and that meant there could be more lurking in other parts of the building or on their way to provide backup.

With the last of the civilians having fled, everything was still as the two groups sized the other up. Actually, it was more like everyone was still. The wind gathered, unseen, both conjured from John’s very will and summoned forth from the doorway behind them to curl its tendrils around the room, ready to spring to his aid at a moment’s call.

The silence between the groups was broken as the besuited troll to the furthest right let out a noisy sigh, hands going to his coat lapels and yanking them straight in what seemed to be a well-rehearsed habit. Owing to the fact that none of the others made a move, John surmised that this was probably the highest-ranking member of this particular group, even though his lapels were conspicuously absent of the characteristic card-themed pin that they’d come to recognize as denoting one of the core members.

He was certainly ugly enough to be a head bad guy, what with the oversized canines poking out from his upper lip and the cruel-looking scar that stretched from the left side of his face near the hairline, down across his cheek, and to his jaw. The look was topped off by an arrogant sneer.

When he spoke, the troll’s voice sounded as if he’d been gargling a mouthful of gravel. John was a little envious, as that was exactly the right pitch he struggled to reach for “Heir’s voice,” and yet the troll was pulling it off naturally. Unfair.

“Dunno how you jerks found this place, but it was a mistake comin’ here. ‘m afraid I’m gonna have to ask you two to leave,” he growled out.

That caused John’s eyebrows to shoot up into his hairline. “I’m sorry, you what?”

The thug turned to the group of bouncers, then, though he kept his eyes riveted on the heroes. “What the hell do we pay you mooks for? Escort these gentlemen from the premises.”

When the bouncers shifted their gazes from the scarred troll to the heroes and then back again, their faces still registering confusion, the mafioso growled out a “Now!” that caused all three bouncers to jump in place, before two of them rushed forward.

The first one to reach the pair caught a vicious palm strike to the face courtesy of Hemogoblin that sent him dropping to the ground like a sack of lead, blood spurting from his nose.

John lazily dodged a slow haymaker from the second bouncer by taking a step back, before he capitalized on the provided opening and stepped into the man’s guard, a quick jab to the temple sending him to the floor to join his colleague. Before he’d even hit the ground, John was coiling his body in preparation for dodging another attack, as he was closest to the third bouncer and had expected the troll to have made his move as soon as his compatriot had engaged.

Only when John looked up, he spotted the third bouncer standing exactly where he’d last seen him, his hands now up placatingly.

“Um, yeah, hi,” the troll stammered, spreading his palms as if to show he was unarmed. “This isn’t a movie, you guys are clearly the real deal, and these assholes pay me thirteen bucks an hour. Sooooo, yeah. I’m just gonna. Fuck right off. Bye.” And with that, he was carefully edging his way around the two superheroes, giving their immediate perimeter a wide berth as he walked towards the exit, hands still raised.

John could only stare in abject disbelief as, for the first time in his entire life, he actually encountered proof of a non-stupid minion. He was pretty sure this needed to be written about and scientific papers needed to be established, because holy crap, that was definitely a first. He was released from his stupefaction by the angry muttering of “Oh for fuck’s sake” from the lead Crew member, who, John saw, was reaching into his suit jacket for something. As were the rest of the Crew members.

He reacted instantly, re-establishing his will on his prepared wind and sending it barreling at every single one of the thugs in an instant. The wind reached them just in time, as six guns, three knives, and a pair of brass knuckles were yanked from startled grasps and thrown across the room to land in the balconies above them, well beyond the reach of any of the thugs trapped with them on the ground floor.

That was all the prompting Hemogoblin needed to begin, as he was moving before most of the weapons had ceased their tumble through the air, three long strides and a vault over a railing taking him directly into the midst of the four members to the right, including the supposed leader.

The same supposed leader who moments later went down in a spray of mustard blood as Hemogoblin grabbed ahold of his curved horns and drove the man’s face down into his rising knee, the grip on his horns not abating as he threw him into the railing he’d just vaulted over, the troll’s already abused face meeting with the polished brass poles and producing a clang that made John wince. That was definitely not going to be doing any favors for that guy’s looks.

 

 

 
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