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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15. In Which...Holy Shit, What the Fuck was That?! Part 2

“If you say so.” Karkat eyed him warily but, after a brief hesitation, let go of John’s hand and resumed chattering about his opposition to their upcoming biology assignment to dissect a frog.

“While I previously held zero fucks for frogs on account of never having to encounter one in my entire existence, I can say with certainty that, after that lab video detailing exactly what we’ll be doing to the unfortunate little croakbeasts that end up on our dissecting table, I am not a fan. I expect you to...”

John could feel himself zoning out while he sucked down a glass of Coke, watching Karkat’s lips rather than listening to the words coming from them.

The pounding in his chest that had started when he had touched Karkat’s hand hadn’t died down, and had only intensified when Karkat had returned the gesture. It hadn’t stopped when he’d let go, either, and John could only assume that he was probably still blushing. As Karkat waved a half-eaten slice of pizza around and spoke avidly about frogs or whatever, he was painfully reminded about just how much he cared for his friend.

He loved him. From the nubby horns that barely managed to poke past choppy, black hair to the little quirks of grey lips that appeared more and more regularly as they grew closer, John loved him. He loved every cranky, weird, passionate, perfect thing about his best friend. There were times when his feelings made him want to lock himself in his room all day and be morose over the things he wouldn’t let himself have, but there were also times like this, when they made him want to fly and shout and arrange the clouds into declarations of his love. Karkat’s romantic side would absolutely love that, he’d wager, even if he would protest and say that it was nothing short of mortifyingly embarrassing for both of them. But that wasn’t a new revelation; he’d known he loved Karkat for a long time, now.

On the other hand, even though he had all of these very apparent feelings for the troll sitting next to him, John couldn’t help but compare them to what he had felt when another troll had similarly sat next to him last night, filling him with equal parts nervous energy and warmth. Though the two were as different from each other as night and day, they both filled him with the same sorts of feelings, and it was confusing the hell out of his poor heart. When Hemogoblin had sat with him outside that warehouse and reached out to carefully hold his hand, John had wanted to give in to the comfort and kiss him so badly. He knew it wouldn’t have been the right time for it, but the urge had been there, regardless. It was the exact same thing he was feeling right now.

Complicating matters was that, compared with how long John had known Karkat before he had been able to put a label on what he was feeling, the thing he felt for Hemogoblin had happened in a ridiculously short amount of time. There was just something special about the other hero. It wasn’t just that the troll knew what it meant to have to hide behind a mask in order to protect those he cared about; it was that, somehow, he and the troll already had a trust that was deep, enough so that they could confide in each other over topics that only the two of them understood: the loneliness, the isolation, the realities of being a hero. Last night had been deeply personal and private, yet it had happened so naturally that John would have thought that Heir and Hemogoblin had been partners for months or years, rather than just a day. They connected. He didn’t know what to do with that connection, but it was still undeniably there.

And oh lord was he attractive.

“John. JOHN. I swear to god, Egbert, have you been listening to a single word that has come out of my mouth, or is sucking on ice really so fascinating that you deemed it more worthy of your attention than me?”

John snapped upright immediately, an intense surge of guilt jolting through his body for thinking about another troll when Karkat was right in front of him. Karkat was giving him the look that told him he was in trouble and had less than thirty seconds to explain himself before it was open call for all kinds of curses and threats that would probably get them banned from the restaurant.

“Sorry!” he said with a laugh, letting his straw fall into his now empty glass. “I kind of zoned out, there. My arm was hurting a bit.” He felt a little depraved for using his injury to get out of hot water like that, but he thought that it was probably worth it when cautious fingers worried gently over his shoulder.

 

///

Flying while keeping an arm tucked firmly against one side of his body felt a bit strange, but it really wasn’t much of a bother. Regardless of having to keep the limb as immobile as possible, it felt really nice not having the actual sling limiting his range of motion after wearing it all day with Karkat. John had more or less gotten used to having to fight the urge to move it by the time he landed at the designated meeting spot atop the Roosevelt Hotel in downtown Seattle.

The roof was illuminated red by the neon sign sporting the hotel’s name which stretched the length of the building, creating copious amounts of shadow from which to stake out their target. As he landed on top of the giant red ‘R,’ John scanned his immediate surroundings, noting that he was only a few blocks from Pike Place, where Karkat had dragged him after lunch for coffee and tourist-spotting. Turning to the left, he noted the skyscraper overlooking the roof, and wondered idly if anyone would by chance look out their window tonight and spot them.

The wind alerted him to his partner’s presence well before he saw the figure peel himself away from the shadows of the wall surrounding the roof’s staircase. The troll must have had his eyes closed up until that point, because as John looked at him emerging from the darkness, the intensity of his glowing orbs almost took his breath away. They were the same colour as the neon sign below him, he noted.

“Heir. You’re right on time,” Hemogoblin spoke as John floated down to him, the troll strolling forward until a mere foot separated them. If he had been anyone else—with the single exception of Karkat—John would have felt the breaching of his personal space to be much too close. In this case, it almost wasn’t close enough. Not when they had huddled hip to hip and shared bittersweet comfort through entwined fingers and lingering glances a single day ago. The fingers of his right hand twitched as he recalled that sensation.

“We had a date. Couldn’t keep you waiting, could I?” His voice came out quiet and low, his tone much closer to his normal speaking voice than he’d meant for it to be. He cleared his throat, doing his best to categorize the smirk that Hemogoblin gave him even as the troll tilted his head slightly at the human’s tone.

“A gentleman, through and through.” Hemogoblin looked away, tilting his head further to glance at the nearly-full moon’s position in the night sky.

 

 

 

He was a sight to behold, with the pale light playing off grey skin backlit by the glow of the Roosevelt’s iconic red sign. When Hemogoblin fixed his attention back on John, he was caught openly staring, though neither of them seemed to mind very much. As he watched, the playfulness inherent in the troll’s smirk faded and was replaced with something more serious.

“Nice night for taking down a major criminal organization.”

John straightened and nodded in reply, physically feeling the shift in the atmosphere between them. They didn’t have time to make eyes at each other; they had a job to do.

“Yeah. Have you been here long?”

Hemogoblin turned and motioned behind him for John to follow. With his partner a step behind, they walked to the edge of the hotel’s roof and lined up side-by-side, where they peered across Pine Street towards Pacific Place. Hemogoblin pointed to an unassuming four story building, nestled between two prominent brand name outlets. John peered at it, squinting slightly to take in everything that he could. There were no signs suggesting a purpose for the building, only dark smudges around where a previous sign had been removed. The storefront windows were covered, but in a way that suggested the space was under renovation.

“I was watching it for about half an hour before you got here. As far as I can tell, the security isn’t very tight. There are a couple of guys on patrol that keep circling the block—they make a circuit every six minutes or so—but no surveillance equipment that I’ve been able to spot. There are two guys on the roof dressed like roofers, but I’ll bet you anything they’re part of the Crew. I mean, really, who does roofing at this time of night? Dumbasses. It’s pointless because of the new curfew, anyway; none of them should be out, regardless of any supposed work to be done.” Once they were pointed out, John watched the two shadows shuffling around the roof, all-in-all doing a poor job at impersonating people who were actually trying to get work done. He could swear one of them was wearing a fancy black hat, but it was hard to make out from here.

“How’re you feeling?” John took his focus off the safehouse and glanced sidelong at Hemogoblin. His tone didn’t immediately register as overly concerned, but the question had come out a bit more rushed than John had been accustomed to the troll talking. A tongue swiped over dark lips, red eyes flickering to John’s face. “I saw the news this afternoon. You didn’t tell me you were already injured before the thing at the Waterfront even went down.”

“I was so banged up already that it didn’t really seem relevant when exactly I was injured. But I’ll be fine as long as I don’t have to do any heavy lifting.” He flexed his arms as if to prove to his partner that it really wasn’t all that bad, despite the fact that he was sporting a fairly serious handicap. He knew he would instinctively guard the injury and favour his right side in a fight, which could be taken advantage of were he to go up against a skilled opponent. “If we get into a close quarters fight, I may need you to watch my left for me, however.”

“Not a problem. I rather like your left; it’s very easy on the eyes.”

John couldn’t stop a sharp laugh from slipping past his lips, because come on, that was like thirteen-year-old pick-up line levels of cheesy. He belatedly covered his mouth, at least able to stifle some very un-heroic giggles from following the initial bark of laughter. Hemogoblin grinned widely as he took in the results of his comment, looking rather pleased with himself as John struggled to regain his composure.

The relaxed atmosphere the quip had caused managed to survive a handful of seconds longer before they wordlessly agreed to turn from each other, their attention fixing back on the building. John slipped a pair of cheap plastic binoculars he’d brought for the occasion from one of the pouches on his belt and started giving the building a once-over in case Hemogoblin had missed any possible surveillance equipment in his earlier observations. He did his best to ignore the not very well hidden looks of curiosity that the troll kept shooting him once he noticed that John had slipped off his ever-present goggles to use the binoculars. At this point, John probably could have been convinced to let his partner see what his face looked like, but this was not the night for unnecessary drama.

A comfortable silence settled between them as they observed their mark. The roofers predictably continued their poor attempt at impersonating late-night construction workers, so John took to scanning the streets to confirm Hemogoblin’s estimate on the ground patrol. Sure enough, two figures—one in the standard black suit that was now expected when dealing with the Midnight Crew, and one with the foresight to dress down to appear less conspicuous—walked down Pine Street and looped the corner of 6th Avenue every six minutes or so. The ruse might have worked had they not been in violation of the city’s newly instated curfew, as Hemogoblin had mentioned. After the pair had disappeared around the corner for the fifth time, John slid his goggles back up and nudged his partner with his right shoulder.

Hemogoblin turned his body slightly to face John’s, though his head remained focused on the building so that he was only looking at John out of the corner of his eye. It seems he needn’t have nudged him, however, because the troll’s words proved he had been watching the same thing.

“That’s five times. Safe to bet they’ll keep that pace. Want to make a move?”

John nodded, watching as the troll lifted himself into a crouch onto the lip of the roof’s edge before turning towards the fire escape.

“Wait a sec.” John stood and Hemogoblin hesitated, turning to look back at him with a curious tilt of his head. John said nothing as he neared until they were within arm’s reach of each other. He expected the troll to at least flinch a little when he reached out and coiled his right arm around Hemogoblin’s waist, but his partner immediately leaned into it as if he had been expecting the touch. The unexpected acceptance of the contact left John slightly red-faced, but he collected himself quickly and tried not to put any thought into how the troll’s hip felt against his hand. “Let’s do this the quick way.”

 

 

 

With that, John kicked off into the air lightly, the wind catching them both and levitating them several yards above the roof. He didn’t feel the need to remind Hemogoblin that it was totally unnecessary for them to be touching in order for him to transport them both, especially not with the way that the troll had curled his arm around John’s upper back for support. At his unsaid command, they started gently floating up and up, slowly coming to be positioned above their target building.

There was still some danger of being spotted since the lack of cloud cover and the abundance of moonlight did little to mask their presence in the sky, but John was comforted by the almost unnatural amounts of heat radiating off of Hemogoblin’s body, in direct contrast to the chill permeating the air. When they were directly over the roof, he halted their progress. “Hold on tight. I’m going to aim for the cover in the back.”

Hemogoblin nodded and curled into John’s grasp even tighter, turning so that their bodies were facing. He almost started regretting having given the troll the impression that they needed to be touching, because he was suddenly finding it incredibly hard to concentrate with the troll’s body pressed up against his. Sensing his slight discomfort, the wind wrapped them up in a warm breeze, ruffling both of their hoods.

With a sigh, John cut the wind supporting them to almost nothing and they rocketed downwards, Hemogoblin’s grip tightening on him even harder. Their descent started slowing as they neared the roof of the four story building, so that by the time they touched down into shadows, they landed with nary a whisper, the concentrated wind around their feet dissipating into nothing more than a gentle breeze. They observed the two would-be roofers standing less than fifteen yards away, thankfully completely unaware of their presence. John only remembered to let go of Hemogoblin when he felt lean muscles of wire and whipcord tense under his fingertips, anticipating a fight.

There was a light tap on his shoulder before lips lifted to his ear. Steady breaths caressed his skin and drew a shiver throughout John’s body. A whisper followed, low and sultry, and offering up far too few words. “You take the right.”

Forcing himself to focus, John surged forward with Hemogoblin sticking close to his side. Following his partner’s instructions, John ignored his left and broke for the gangster to his right. He rushed forward and struck with his elbow high, making contact with the back of his target’s head. The blow rendered the man unconscious in an instant. As John reached out to steady and lower the now boneless body, he turned his head just in time to witness the elegant curve of Hemogoblin’s body as he twisted, lashing out with a brutal snap-kick to the temple of his “roofer,” who had just turned to investigate what the noise she just heard was. Needless to say, the woman dropped without so much as a groan spilling past her lips.

The heroes dragged the fallen into the shadowed area where they had waited, out of the view of anyone who might happen to look down from the hotels across the street. They now had less than five minutes before the patrol made their loop and noticed their comrades were no longer at their posts. Just in case either of the two sentries regained consciousness before they were through, John went about zip-tying their hands and ankles together. As he was doing this, Hemogoblin withdrew a small roll of duct tape from one of his two side pouches—a red that matched his costume’s crimson, John noted with amusement—and slapped a piece over the mouth of each of them.

Hemogoblin hesitated before the door at the corner of the building, hand resting over the handle. Beyond would be a set of stairs, and beyond that...they didn’t know. Something or someone was being guarded here, even if the surveillance was a little lacking for anything of great importance. The fact that it was patrolled at all indicated that something was here, however. A shudder ran through John’s body as he considered, not for the first time, that this could be a trap and that the Midnight Crew was one step ahead of him again.

“Wait,” he murmured, putting a hand on top of Hemogoblin’s before he could turn the handle. “Let me.”

Hemogoblin said nothing as he stepped back and John took his place. He knew that they only had a handful of minutes to work with, but if there was one thing that his father had drilled into his head time and time again, it was that you always took the time to be cautious. Rushing in was a great way to get your ass blown up.

As John pressed his body against the door, he closed his eyes and stilled, seeking out his connection with the wind. He found it as easily as he always did, pulsing and ready for his command, hidden just under the surface of his mind. With a long exhale, John condensed the wind and pressed it gently against the door, letting its probing tendrils find and penetrate its edges. As it spread out beyond the door and flooded the stairwell, he gave it a single command: Search.

A few seconds later on the other side of the door, John opened his eyes and inhaled again, his body relaxing. When he turned back to look at Hemogoblin, the troll was staring back with an eyebrow raised. With a slight stirring of embarrassment, John realized that he hadn’t explained what exactly it was he was doing, and how weird that had probably looked. “It’s all clear. No booby traps.”

“Ah. Heir…” he trailed off, the face that was seconds ago smiling in bemusement settling into something with more determination. “I know I said I’d watch your side for you, but I think it may be better for us to split up. We don’t know what’s waiting for us inside. If we approach this from two different angles, whoever’s inside will be split between us. If you take the stairs and work your way down, I’ll enter from the first floor and work my way up. Then we meet in the middle.”

John only hesitated for a second before he nodded, understanding that now that he had a partner, he could employ different tactics in situations like this.

Hemogoblin offered him an exaggerated wink and a toothy grin, before he murmured, “See you in a few,” and then he was off, sticking close to the shadows as he ran to the fire escape and bounded over the roof’s edge without hesitation.

John stared after where the troll vanished for a moment before he set his own face into a look of determination, readjusted his goggles, and wrenched the door open, throwing himself down the stairs in a single leap.

The fourth floor appeared to be, for all intents and purposes, mostly deserted. The stairwell opened up into a long, dark hallway, with numerous doors on either side of the hall leading to various rooms. At the end of the hall, the floor seemed to branch to both the right and to the left, delineating paths around the floor’s offices.

As John made his way down the hall, he turned his body so that he was leading with his right and did his best to boost his senses as much as possible. There was light ahead around the first bend in the hallway, the air carrying quiet chatter to his good ear. As he listened, he was able to make out two distinct voices, though what they were discussing was anyone’s guess. When he was close enough to peek, John placed his shoulder against the wall and slowly stuck his neck out until he could just barely see into the next hallway.

The glance around the corner lasted less than a second, but it was enough to see his opponents. There were three of them, not two, all of them leaning up casually against the wall next to an office about six yards from his position. The two humans and one troll were uniformly tall and well-built, with the kind of dull look to them that just screamed “thug.” In the brief moment he’d had to take in the scene, John’s trained eyes had spotted the telltale bulges of pistol holsters amongst two of them behind their black jackets, with the human on the left’s holstered on his waist in plain sight. Considering he had surprise on his side, this would be a piece of cake.

 

 

 

Gathering the wind up around him, John sank low before he broke from cover and dashed around the corner, covering the distance between himself and the thugs in an instant. The only warning the thugs received came from the soft patters of his shoes against the wood floor, but by then, it was already too late. With a push from his left leg and a boost from the wind, John propelled himself forward so that when he threw a vicious jab with his right arm at the throat of the just-turning troll, he went down, hard, gasping for air. In almost perfect synchronization with his strike, John shifted his center of gravity low and swept back with a high kick that caught the nearest human in the chin, knocking his head back sharply against the wall. The remaining thug had just enough time to start pulling out his gun when John pivoted and grabbed him by the shoulder, pulling him down just as he brought his own knee up, catching him in the chin.

It was over in less than five seconds.

After checking to make sure he hadn’t collapsed the troll’s windpipe, John bound their hands and feet with zipties like he had the two sentries on the roof. Adrenaline singing through his veins, he took a moment to center and calm himself, once again boosting his senses to their maximum. He didn’t sense anyone else on this floor, but underneath him, he could just vaguely make out...was that music?

As he made his way down the next stairwell to the third floor, the muffled sounds of music became louder and louder, until the notes started picking up some definition. When he cracked open the door to the third floor, the music suddenly surrounded him, the jaunty tune of Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon” – one of his father’s favourites – almost jarring in the way that the crooner’s hopeful tones contrasted with the grave seriousness of the situation. It actually caused him to pause for a few moments as he listened, caught off guard.

Still, there was no time to waste, so John darted out into the hallway once he made sure there was nobody in his direct path. He could tell that the music was coming from a room midway down the hall since that was the only room which had light pouring out of the glass pane in its door, but he didn’t want to investigate before clearing the rest of the area, just in case whatever or whoever was in that room required his full attention. With any luck, Hemogoblin would be making his way up soon, and they could investigate together. As he stalked down the hallway, checking each room as he passed, John kept the wind coiled tight around himself, ready to lash out at anyone who got in his path.

It turned out that his caution was unnecessary, however, because the entire floor seemed to be deserted. The only signs of life were coming from the room with the music, which, now that he was nearing its door, also seemed to contain the sounds of someone humming. Someone male, if the pitch was anything to go by.

Once he was close enough to peek through the door’s small glass window, it was with a little bit of surprise that he found that there was only one occupant in the room. The short, squat man appeared to be of either Asian or Polynesian descent, with his dark hair and tanned skin, and somewhat ovaline eyes. He was dressed in the usual Midnight Crew garb of a tailored black suit, but instead of the fedora, he seemed to be sporting some kind of headgear whose sole function appeared to be to provide magnification for whatever it was he was focusing on, like the kind someone might wear were they working on very delicate electronics or jewelry. All in all, he looked fairly unassuming for a Midnight Crew member, but John wasn’t going to put any stock in that.

The man was seated at a workbench and appeared to be soldering something, though what, exactly, John couldn’t say. Most of his view of the room was obscured because of the angle with which he was forced to look through the window.

With no signs of Hemogoblin and only one opponent, John figured that he might as well go for it, and slowly started to inch the door open so as to hopefully catch the man unawares. If he was able to get the man alone, it would be possible for them to interrogate him, and see if they could find out the safe house’s actual purpose.

The door had been opened about three feet when John’s hand abruptly stilled as if he’d been electrified. Now that he was able to actually see into the room properly, his keen mind processed as quickly as possible what it was he was actually looking at, and the realization stole his breath away: explosives. The room was full, floor to ceiling, with explosives. Against one wall stood a stack of clear plastic oil drums, each full of some kind of liquid – volatile, if the stickers plastered to the sides were telling the truth. The other wall was lined by workbenches, upon which rested all kinds of devices in various states of disassembly. There were wires and circuit boards, gallon jugs filled with ball bearings and nails, and even a rack of...were those fucking claymore mines?

John’s surprise must have been audible, because the man suddenly looked up from his work and to the door, where he went stock-still and stared at the oddly-dressed teenager in front of him. John noted with detachment how atypical to the Midnight Crew image the man was, with a face that was full and round, and very obvious laugh lines crinkling the corners of his eyes. The fact that he had his mouth hanging wide open didn’t lend well to the image, either.

The silence between them stretched on for a few awkward seconds, during which the record player behind them ran its course and the dulcet tones of Sinatra faded to be replaced by static. The man hadn’t made any hostile gestures yet and appeared in no hurry to do so, so John raised a hand slowly in greeting, the Midnight Crew member’s gaze following the appendage. “Uh. Hello?”

The silence broken, the man’s eyes suddenly widened and he jumped from his stool, sending it crashing to the ground as he stumbled back. As he did so, the man pulled something from his coat pocket, something with a long handle a single red button at the end of it. “Stay back!”

John gave the door a gentle push and let it softly swing the rest of the way open, and it was only then that he got a good eyeful of the gangster’s entire person. Including the vest of explosives strapped to his chest, with a coiled wire leading up to what he could now identify as a detonator in the man’s hand. Well, crap.

With his hands slowly raising to show that he was unarmed, John took an even slower step into the room, doing his best to exude calm and non threatening. “Stay back, or I press this button and take you and this entire block out with me! They said I could blow up anything if I needed to if you showed up here, including myself! In fact, Slick strongly suggested I do that.” His expression softened from the fierce glare it had just been to a slight frown. “Or was it Droog?”

John had no idea if he’d be able to survive a blast from this close, wind barrier or no, but he suspected not. And he wasn’t the only one to be worried about, either, as thoughts of Hemogoblin working his way up from the lower levels flitted through his mind.

“I’m sorry,” John tried, keeping his hands up in a completely passive gesture. “I don’t think you need to resort to that. See?” He carefully drew Casey from his back, laying her down to his right side as he took a cautious step forward and away from the weapon. “No hammer.”

“I’m not an idiot. I know you can shoot me with...with the wind. Boxcars told me,” he muttered, taking the opportunity to drop the optical headgear onto a table, the detonator never leaving his hand. That got John’s attention. If this man communicated with Boxcars directly, chances were that he was actually a somebody in the organization. Assuming he wasn’t about to be turned into ash, they might be able to get significant intel from this guy. It was worth the try, in any case. Now he just had to try and get the man to calm down, and not violently explode them both.

“But I’m inside. I can’t use the wind indoors.” That was an absolute lie, of course, because even swaying his hand back and forth gently would produce a soft breeze that could be manipulated into a typhoon, but the man hopefully didn’t know that. As if to reinforce his thoughts, the wind tightened itself around him even further, layering itself in invisible armour around his body, not that it would do much good if that trigger was pressed.

The diminutive gangster cocked his head, considering the words for a time, before nodding slowly to himself. John cautiously took a small step forward, but came up short as the Crew member held up his hand and wiggled the detonator threateningly, his thumb hovering just over the red button. “Don’t!”

John was just contemplating what his next move would be when, out of his peripheral vision, he caught subtle movements coming from the opposite side of the room. There was another door there, he realized, likely leading to another room emptying into the hallway he’d already checked, and it was being opened slowly and carefully, inch by inch. There was only one person that John could think of that would be entering the room like that, and his suspicions were confirmed when, moments later, a blood-red horn peeked its way through the open crack of the door, followed by a hood and a familiar face.

John cleared his throat, hoping to keep the thug’s attention affixed on himself as he shifted his body a bit so that both of them were in his direct line of vision. “Don’t worry, buddy, I’m not going to do anything. I promise. What’s your name?”

A look of stony concentration was on Hemogoblin’s face as he crept fully inside the room now, inching his way towards the short man with the kind of grace that John had only seen from professional ballet dancers, the troll seemingly in charge of every single one of his muscles. He did his best to silently erect a wind barrier against the troll’s body, as well, just in case whatever he was planning didn’t work out like he hoped. Again, he wasn’t sure that it would matter, but some protection was better than no protection.

The small man looked back at John with some slight apprehension, though his body relaxed noticeably. “It’s Clubs Deuce. Everyone just calls me Deuce. Well, Slick calls me ‘Shithead’ a lot, but that’s just because he likes to play around.”

Hemogoblin was almost in position, now, and John couldn’t help the way that his body tensed in anticipation, ready to throw out every ounce of power he had if things went south. “Uh huh. I’m Heir, Deuce. It’s nice to meet you. Do you really want to blow up? That would kind of suck, wouldn’t it?”

Deuce didn’t get a chance to respond, because at that moment, Hemogoblin entered within striking range, the troll’s entire body tensed like that of a feline predator as he crouched low. Just when John thought he was going to pounce, however, his partner blinked his expressive eyes a few times, and then his stance relaxed completely. He stood up straight and huffed, the noise causing Deuce to jump. “Oh, you have got to be shitting me.”

John had no time to question his partner’s actions because as soon as Deuce heard him speak, his thumb slammed down onto the detonator. John’s instinctive reaction was to throw himself backward towards the door in an effort to put as much space between himself and the explodey thing, the flaring pain of his collarbone as he smacked into the floor ignored as he opened up the floodgates of his power and sent everything he had to reinforce the barriers he’d placed around himself and Hemogoblin.

But nothing happened. Hemogoblin remained standing where he was, looking decidedly unimpressed with everything.

Deuce, opening his squeezed eyes to discover that he was not currently dead, looked down at the detonator in confusion, bringing it up to his face before he started pressing the button repeatedly, still to no effect.

When nothing happened after a few seconds, John cautiously got up from his prone position, the luminous glow fading from his eyes as he cut the power to the barriers. Hemogoblin let out another sigh before he cocked his hips and pointed at the man’s back.

“It helps if you arm it first, moron.” Then he fired off a stationary snap kick at the man’s head with no further warning, rotating in place so that he finished in the same position he had kicked from.

There was a tense moment as Deuce slumped forward where John worried that the impact with the ground might jar the explosives he was wearing, but Hemogoblin had apparently had the same concern, because he caught the man with one hand under his left armpit and hoisted him up as he started unzipping his vest.

While he was doing that, John steadied himself, not prepared for the sudden weariness that struck his body, a side effect of having drawn on so much of his power so quickly without preparation. When he was a little more confident in himself, he picked Casey back up and secured her carefully, feeling altogether unsure of how he should take the bizarre situation that had just occurred.

On one hand, that had been the single most tense moment of his life, comparable to the other night when he’d faced a Midnight Crew firing squad head on with only the wind to protect him. On the other hand…what the fuck was that?

When he turned to examine Hemogoblin’s work, he found the troll holding the vest up at eye height so that John could inspect it. There was a look somewhere between exasperated and amused on his partner’s face as he rotated the vest to show him what he had seen when he had approached the now unconscious human. What he saw made John literally facepalm.

Right in the middle of the vest was a carefully labeled “ON/OFF” switch, clearly toggled towards the “OFF” position.

That was literally the dumbest thing John had ever seen in his life. This was stupid.

 

 

 

“Are you shitting me?” John asked, dropping his hand slowly.

The half-grin on his partner’s face stretched now into something bordering on mirthful, as he no longer hid his amusement. “Right?”

John shook his head slowly, in complete disbelief of the situation. “No, seriously, is this a joke? This is the dumbest thing I have ever encountered, like, ever. Who puts a goddamn activation switch on the middle of their back? There’s no possible way he could have reached that without taking it off first. Are we sure this guy is Midnight Crew?”

Hemogoblin snorted, walking over to one of the workbenches and unceremoniously draping the vest over it. “Well, he’s wearing the suit, so, I guess?” With that said, the troll leaned over and pressed his hand to a map of the city taped to the wall, looking over some of the handwritten notations sprawled there, a smile still on his face.

John shook his head in bewilderment, turning to look again at the unconscious thug. “So dumb. Anyway, have any trouble downstairs?”

Without turning to face him, Hemogoblin made a noncommittal hum. “Not really. Took out eight guys between here and the first floor, but they were all pushovers. You?”

“There were only three upstairs. I doubt they were expecting someone to enter from the roof. What about the patrol? You spot them?”

The troll nodded, shifting to look at John after apparently not finding anything of importance in the map. “They came by once but didn’t notice anything amiss. We should have about five minutes before they make it back around.”

John sighed, pulling out a stool from behind one of the benches before unceremoniously binding Deuce to it. “In that case, we better get started. You want lookout or interrogator? Something tells me we’re not exactly going to have to twist any fingers to get this guy talking. He doesn’t seem like the sharpest tool in the shed, if you catch my drift.”

Hemogoblin laughed softly, already walking towards the door. “I had the interrogation last time, so I’ll take lookout. I’ll let you know when the patrol makes their next pass around, and we can decide what to do with them then. Just holler if you need me back here.” And with that, he was gone.

Deuce didn’t look like he’d be waking up anytime soon without assistance, so John reached into one of his pouches and withdrew a packet of smelling salts. After breaking the seal, he thrust the packet under the mobster’s nose, which had the desired effect of causing him to jump awake with a small shout, the stool his arms were tied to rattling.

He took a few moments to look at the appendages in confusion, before looking up at John with wide, confused eyes. “Ow. What hit me? Did I trip? And why did you tie me up?”

 

 

 

John stared. Something told him this interrogation would be a lot easier than the one Hemogoblin had conducted. “Um. Well, my partner hit you, no, you didn’t trip, and seriously? You tried to kill us. Of course we tied you up.”

Deuce scrunched his nose and made to move his right arm, apparently forgetting that it was currently immobile. “Okay, I guess that makes sense. But I’m not trying to blow either of us up right now, so I think you may be overreacting.” As John watched, the man’s expressive face shifted from a look of consternation to a look of open awe, making him raise a questioning eyebrow. “Ooh, you said partner? So there really are two of you? Boxcars said there were two, but I wasn’t sure if he was just pulling my leg. That’s really awesome! I really love heroes!”

John was starting to get the impression that Deuce might not realize that he was the bad guy.

“I mean, I used to really love them when I was a kid. I even had Writ Keeper and Adored Sovereign sign a comic for me, once! But that was forever ago. I still keep track of heroes, you know, just as a bit of fun between jobs.”

“Right,” John muttered, wondering what exactly someone like this was doing working for an organization like the Midnight Crew. Working fairly high up, too, if the clubs pin attached to his lapel was any indication. The only other time he’d seen that had been on Boxcars.

“So you’re Heir, right? And the other one is...Hemoglobin?” There was something innocent in the way that Deuce cocked his head in curiosity, and John was struck again by the incongruity of someone like this being in the Midnight Crew.

“Hemogoblin,” he corrected distractedly.

“Oh! I get it, I think. Boxcars said Hemoglobin, so I’ll have to tell him he was wrong. He’ll sound stupid if he keeps saying the wrong name, especially around Slick. Slick is always telling me he hates stupid people.”

John doubted the man heard that phrase by coincidence. “What exactly do you do for the Midnight Crew?” While he had his suspicions, Deuce’s apparent lack of intelligence was making him doubt himself.

“Oh, I make the bombs!” There was a gleam in his eye as Deuce launched into an energetic explanation of his job description, the smile on his face only growing as he shared his enthusiasm. The more he spoke, the more John’s stomach seemed to sink. “All of them. I’m the best at it, you see. Droog has tried to have me replaced, but he can’t since there’s no one who can make ‘em like I do. BOOM!” The sudden exclamation was paired with fingers splaying against the stool’s seat, doing their best to convey an explosion. “They don’t let me take many breaks since there are so many bombs to make, but I love seeing them explode. Like the one at the police station this morning! That was great. I didn’t get to detonate that one – Slick did that – but I placed the explosives since I know where to put them to make the whole place go up. You should’ve seen it, like, KERBLAM, then all that fire! It’s too bad that we lost some suits, but there are always more.”

 

 

 

John took a moment to ground himself and to try and separate what he was feeling inside from the stoic persona he needed to be projecting if he wanted to continue getting information. Sitting in front of him was the man who had recently made his life a living hell, who had in the course of just a few nights caused more death and property destruction than John had seen in the past five years of heroing combined – innocently smiling like he had done nothing wrong. Because to him, he apparently hadn’t thought he’d done anything wrong. The loss of life was completely inconsequential to this man. John’s tongue felt sticky and heavy inside his suddenly dry mouth.

“Who is it that you work for? You mentioned a Droog? And Slick?”

“Well, Boxcars, Slick, and Droog all boss me around, but only Slick and Droog are my actual bosses. They’re kind of mean sometimes, but really, they’re great! They let me choose my own hat, though I couldn’t have the same one as either of them. It’s hanging on the wall over there, if you want to see it.” John really didn’t. “I have a few different ones, since it’s fun, but they don’t know about that. You won’t tell, will you?”

The words flowed from his mouth easily, though they felt like ash as they left his tongue. The man in front of him disgusted him on a basic level, but he was their best lead and he seemed receptive to friendly conversation. “Of course not. They certainly won’t hear it from me. If I wanted to find Slick and Droog, where would I look?”

“Oh, they mostly stay at The Grey Ladies down on 1st Avenue South, just past...Edgar...Drive? Sorry, I can’t remember. It has a flashy white, neon sign, so it’s pretty hard to miss. I don’t think you’re old enough to go in there, though. It’s a... gentlemen's club, you know, with dancers.” It was almost amusing to see the way that Deuce curled his fingers into air commas around the stool at the word “dancers,” but John was far past the point of finding amusement in his antics any longer.

He fished out his phone, intent on calling the police in and advising them to bring as many bomb disposal units as they could possibly muster. He’d already started dialing when the door to the room burst open and Hemogoblin strolled in, a female troll with bound wrists slung across his back in a fireman’s carry. He dumped her onto the floor next to Deuce’s stool without ceremony.

John’s finger hesitated to hit the send button, rather thrown off by the abrupt entry of his partner. “Uh. Hey?”

Hemogoblin offered him a confident smirk. “Sorry to interrupt. I got bored waiting for the patrol up here so I decided to just go downstairs and wait near the entrance. Took ‘em down as soon as they set foot in the building.”

“Okay...so, what’s with her?”

The troll rolled his shoulders, pushing his chest forward in a stretch. “I figured you might like someone to corroborate whatever you get out of this guy, and she was the lightest.”

John nodded, bringing his right hand up to scratch at his head beneath his hood. “That makes sense. I’m pretty sure Deuce here has been speaking the truth, though. He’s not exactly the crafty type.”

Hemogoblin snorted, his gaze resting on the mobster. Deuce, not showing even the smallest amount of situational awareness, offered him a cheery grin. “Hi, Hemoglobin! You hit hard.”

The troll shook his head, his smile slightly diminished. “I can see how you’d get that impression. Did you learn anything helpful, at least?”

John frowned, reaching out and lightly touching his partner’s shoulder. Once he had the troll’s attention, he pointed with his chin and indicated they take a few steps away to talk in private.

“Turns out he’s the Crew’s chief demolitions expert, if what he says is to be believed. I find it a bit hard to swallow since he’s so...dumb, but he claimed responsibility for every bombing the Crew has done yet. I think he’s legit.”

Hemogoblin’s gaze once again shifted to the bound man, who was staring with curiosity at the female troll by his side. “That guy? Takes all kind, I guess. So, do we have a lead on where to hit next?”

John shifted, suddenly somewhat embarrassed though he wasn’t sure why. “Uh, yeah. He says his bosses hang out at a strip club on 1st South. The Grey Ladies. Heard of it?”

“A strip club. Super. No, I’ve never heard of it. I don’t typically go down that far south, so no surprise there.”

John had just opened his mouth to reply when whatever he was going to say was cut off by Deuce.

“Oh, hi, Selora! Sleep well? Haha.”

John turned, his eyes widening as he caught sight of the female troll who was now sitting bolt upright, looking at Deuce in confusion. Their eyes met and the troll’s grew wide before they narrowed, her body tensing in alertness.

His mind went into analytical mode in a flash as he took in all of the pertinent facts. One, she was awake and fully alert. Two, she was rather sharp, if the way she had seemingly taken in her situation in an instant was an indication. Lastly, and most importantly, she’d only had her wrists bound. Her legs were still free.

Both he and the gangster seemed to realize it at the same time, because in the time it took John to pull together enough of a wind to incapacitate her, she was already springing up off of her feet and lunging towards one of the nearby workbenches. The workbenches that she was significantly closer to than either of the heroes.

The first thing that entered his head was that there were all kinds of explosives on those benches, and that things were about to get bad.

When the troll instead grabbed a gun off a bench and leveled it in his direction with unsteady hands, John was confused. Did she honestly think a tiny gun like that could hurt him? Both he and Hemogoblin had faced down an entire firing squad not twenty-four hours ago, and she should’ve been well aware of that.

And then he got a good look at the gun. It wasn’t anything he had ever seen before, which momentarily threw him for a loop. He’d had extensive training on weapon recognition before he’d ever hit puberty, and he had no idea what he was looking at now. Though what she was holding retained the general shape of a pistol, instead of a single, large tube for a barrel, it had what looked like six tiny holes at the end. The body of the gun looked strange, almost fragile, and there was what looked to be a glass vial attached to the top. John narrowed his eyes as he examined the vial in the troll’s shaking hands. It looked to contain a mostly clear liquid, almost like water, but floating among the water was something strange. Something dark red, and stringy.

When Deuce saw what she had in her hands, his entire demeanor changed to one of panic. “Selora, don’t! Droog says that’s still experimental! It’s not ready yet!”

It was Deuce’s cry which made it click in John’s mind. That wasn’t a pistol. It was an injection gun.

A look of grim determination settled on the troll’s face and then the gun was no longer being pointed at the heroes. After half a second of hesitation, the mobster turned the gun in her still bound hands and shoved the barrel against the exposed skin of her neck, and depressed the trigger. The contents of the vial disappeared with a soft hiss, and John was left gaping at her.

He was still gaping when, after a handful of seconds, nothing had happened. It was Hemogoblin who stepped up and took charge, seizing the moment while John hesitated. “Okay, lady. Put that thing down and step away from the table, and this won’t have to get ugly,” he said, one hand held up cautiously as he took a step forward.

While the troll did let the pneumatic gun slip from her fingers to clatter against the floor, it was Deuce who made the next move, as he let out a loud, high-pitched whine and started side-hopping his stool as far away from the troll as he could get.

That typically wasn’t a good sign.

As John watched, the troll let out a gurgle and sank to her knees, before she fell to the ground completely and began to convulse in apparent pain.

He was transfixed by the surreal horror of what followed. What had been smooth grey skin rippled and then her muscles practically exploded, tearing through the fabric of her suit and reducing it to tatters as they bulged and shifted unnaturally. Her restraints were torn through almost instantly, the plastic of the ties snapping like twigs caught in a hurricane. Cobalt blue veins stood out visibly against strained skin as they twitched beneath the surface, desperately trying to cope with a now frantic pulse. When she jerked her head up to look into John’s face, her eyes were wild and unfocused, capillaries bursting until her sclera were bleeding into the same blue of her irises, her pupils blowing out before narrowing into thin slits. All the while, the troll cried in pain, her screams becoming more and more primal the longer her body stretched and shifted and changed into something that seemed to be ripped straight from a nightmare, her form now resembling that of some feral beast more than it did that of a troll. Whereas before she had been a somewhat petite thing, probably weighing not more than a buck twenty-five, she now almost matched John height for height, and didn’t look like she weighed a biscuit under three hundred.

 

 

 

 

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