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One extremely annoying trait of the brain, Gabe was beginning to realize, was that when certain situations became rapidly intolerable, and just waking up to everyday was enough to send you into the deep depths of despair, never to arise again until lunchtime, it created a nice, pleasant world in contrast for you, only available when you were asleep. When you were asleep, dream-you spent several hours trying to convince real-you that the troubles and perils of the waking world were actually a dream, just a dream, and when you awakened, things would be as they were again, if not even better.

Gabe, being a man who loved tricks and never missed a chance to play a bit of his own, admired this bit of mischief; he couldn’t help it. It both frustrated and fascinated him, that he would have such a lovely dream about having such a horrible dream, only to suddenly wake up and realize Bert had torn down another golden pillar in his room, or that Bert had been terrorizing Matthew again, or that Bert had set fire to old wooden shed again (this time there wasn’t much more than the blackened remains, and Gabe had to wonder, each and every time, why anyone would want to keep setting fire to it. That was Bert, in his own mysterious way.) Sometimes he would wake up and Bert would be sitting at the foot of his bed, draped in the shadows, and the small series of heart attacks Gabe experienced was enough to send him back into sleep again.

When he woke this morning, there were two small shadows sitting at the foot his bed, and Gabe was ready for this challenge, he felt. His face had steadily become worse: the wrinkles had become more pronounced, the skin insisted on sagging in the most uncomfortable of ways, and small liver spots had even taken their place of residence on his cheeks and the backs of his hands. The skin, Gabe figured, had been one thing, but liver spots were the ultimate sign that this was real, this was all real, and that someone (Bert) needed to be punished heavily for this. Gabe was talking torture, he was talking blood, he was talking hanging by thumbs and whipped until the toes could touch the floor again. This was no longer Not Okay; now, this was Just Not Fucking Right.

“Tell me why,” he said, upon waking, “Why I shouldn’t kill him and you on the spot.”

Bert took threats like a small, portly child would take an extra serving of cake. He smiled in a way that suggested that he and his guest had probably spent the better parts of the night watching Gabe sleep and preparing for his post-slumber arrival, and was now ready for his scene. “Jepha’s decided to help you with Bobert!”

Gabe turned to Jepha, who waggled his fingers silently and smirked. Jepha was a small man with a thick short crop of black hair, and no inch of skin was free from tattoos or piercings. It gave him the effect of seeming like some weird, oddly detailed map that could only fit on a person, and despite all other available reasons for Gabe not to like him, Gabe chose this one with a speed that was even surprising to him. There was always, of course, the fact that he was obviously in cahoots with, and most likely even worked for, Bert, and Gabe no longer considered himself a fool when it came to matters of mischief.

“Really,” he started slowly, stretching before reaching for his glass of water, “and just what can he do that’s so damn helpful?”

“I can track him.” Jepha announced this with a tone that was clearly used to people being impressed with this, and now expected the same sort of reaction from Gabe. “Wherever he is in the Untitled, where he’s going.” He paused, then added, “I’m an oracle, that’s why.”

At this Gabe had to be a bit impressed, since that happened to be the next question in his arsenal of skepticism. He tried to swallow this small act of consent quickly, but Jepha smiled at him and somehow, Gabe knew he’d failed. “Fine, you can track him, how fucking wonderful. How is that exactly going to help me now, when my Cobra Clan has most likely already apprehended and caught him, and are now making the perilous trek back to my palace?”

“Well,” Jepha drawled, putting on a show of thought, “They haven’t caught him, for one.”

Water froze in Gabe’s throat, mid-swallow. His fingers tightened so rapidly on the glass that it snapped, shards and water sprinkling the sheets and his lap. “What.”

Bert cackled and clapped his hands, then rolled on his back and kicked his feet. Jepha smiled an appreciative smile at him, then turned to Gabe, “They haven’t caught him. Your man is traveling with someone—someones, actually. One of them shot your lady friend in the shoulder. They haven’t caught him.”

“You’re lying,” said Gabe very, very quietly. Jepha’s newest smile—and Gabe almost felt as if the fucker had spent time practicing these things in front of a mirror, they were so fucking precise—told him that he could call him on it; it was okay, everyone else always did.

Gabe mustered what little strength he had left and yelled, “Victoria!”

He brought his hands to his temples to nurse them, ignoring the suck and snap! There was a pause, then Bert began to cackle again, this time with ‘Oh my God’s and a disgusting marriage proposal to Jepha that mostly promised Bert tackling all sorts of crazy sexual positions if Jepha wanted him to.

Victoria was standing in the center of his room again, as always, but now there was a large, white patch over the curve of her right shoulder, and extended down to her back, wrapping around her frame closely. She gripped this shoulder with one hand, massaging it tenderly as she shot him her morning glare, then intensified it for the couple on Gabe’s bed. “Sir?”

“What the hell happened to you?” demanded Gabe, “Do you have Bob?”

“Was shot, sir.” Victoria avoided his eyes and his latter question, choosing instead to elaborate with, “He had people, friends with him. One of them got hold of the old crossbow—“

“We have a crossbow?” Gabe inquired, momentarily distracted. He flapped a hand, it wasn’t important. “Did you catch Bob?”

Victoria made a face, “We did not, sir.”

Bert beamed at her, swiveled his head, and died at the expression Gabe’s face was currently making, whatever it was. Gabe was briefly and inwardly surprised that his face could cause this much amusement, but he was sure it was just enough of his face as it was the rage on it. He didn't move for several long moments, squeezing and unsqueezing his fist full of glass as he thought. Then he stood, dropping shards with each step he took towards her, the wounds instantly healing themselves.

“I didn’t think,” he began, sizing her up now that she was closer, “that I was giving you such a hard order. I really didn’t think so—in fact, I was almost sure that this was the easiest task I have ever given you mindless sacks of shit,” Victoria flinched openly, “and that surely you all could’ve handled with what little brain cells I believed you to have. But I guess I was wrong, wasn’t I?” He grabbed Victoria’s chin, tilting her gaze into his, “I was wrong, right?”

“No,” and it was the first time he’d ever seen her this terrified of him, “No, sir. You were not wrong.”

“Oh, but I was,” Gabe smiled, dangerously, “Because you haven’t found him, have you? You haven’t captured him, have you? Nor have you brought him to me, or that he’s here, in my palace, under my control. You have done nothing, short of waste my fucking time and my fucking magic, and neither of those, Victoria, are things I am interested in wasting. You do know this, yes?”

He manipulated Victoria’s face so that she nodded, eyes still wide as saucers in their sockets. “So, please explain,” Gabe prompted, “why you and your sacks continue to disappoint and fail me in even the smallest of matters such as this. Did I ask for the world? Treasures from foreign lands? Did I ask you for anything that difficult?”

“No,” pleaded Victoria, “but—“

“I don’t want to hear your excuses,” warned Gabe, “Not any excuses. Not from you. What I want is progress, Victoria, and I want it from all of you. What I want is my needs met, my demands fulfilled. What I want—what I want—“ and here his brain faltered and finally, finding its courage and puffing its chest, decided to drop the shit, all of it, “What I want is Bob dead. I want him dead.”

Victoria remained perfectly still. “Dead, sir?”

“Dead,” Gabe repeated, and just hearing it aloud again convinced him that it was absolutely true; this was what he wanted and had wanted for a long time now. This is what he wanted when Bert had sat in that fucking chair and told him everything he’d never wanted to know about him, this was the end to his irritation and his hatred and his disgust of him. “I want him dead. Maybe retrieving him was too much for you and yours; so make him disappear. Do it any way you can and as fast as you can, but Victoria,” he warned, pulling her even closer, “Make sure that you do it.”

“Yes,” Victoria obeyed, voice barely above a whisper. “Yes, sir.”

Gabe released her chin, and she disappeared immediately, without a departing glare. The room was eerily silent in her wake, then Bert, from his spot on the bed, whistled low in awe and admiration, “Didn’t think you had the balls, Gabey baby.”

What occurred after this was sudden and unexpected: Gabe stormed over to him, plunged his hands deep into the lapels of Bert’s shirt and hauled him from his bed, leaving Bert’s toes to dangle awkwardly above the ground. This brought Bert directly face to face with Gabe, whose sneer was so deep it created wrinkles of its own. Bert’s smile was enough to blind anyone close enough, but Gabe didn’t blink and most importantly, he wasn’t smiling. For someone who spent a rather large amount of time smiling, he had instantly adjusted to the joys of frowning, glaring, and sending broadcasts of hate with just his face and eyes, and was slowly becoming good at it. If Bert’s position didn’t prevent regular breathing, he would’ve congratulated him on this as well.

“I’ve had enough of this shit,” Gabe growled, “and I’ve had enough of you. So guess what you’re going to do for me, Bert?”

“No point,” Bert gasped teasingly, feet treading the air, “Going to tell me.”

Gabe shook him roughly, causing his head to snap and roll wildly, “You know that pretty little outside world you don’t like, Bert? That one with all of the mortals? The one I can no longer step foot into because of you?”

All amusement drained from Bert’s face. Gabe chuckled menacingly, “That’s right. Mischief has to be continued, Bert, and I’m in no condition for it, as I’m sure you’ve taken special note of. I won’t have enough energy to keep up with even the smallest of pranks, much less the pure mischief, and that simply will not do.”

Bert’s face and voice had gone flat, and a glare was beginning to shape itself around his eyebrows. “So what,” he gasped, “do you want…me to do about it?”

Gabe smirked, “We both know the answer to that, Bert. You have to take my place—there’s no one else as evenly matched to me as you, we both know it. The world needs what I do--it needs Mischief, and Bert--" he smiled tauntingly "You're the one who's going to provide it."

"But only for a small while,” he added, thoughtfully, “while I deal with things here. I don’t need you fucking up my reputation as well.”

“Go to hell,” Bert gasped, “Not going…hate it there.”

“Not my problem,” Gabe snapped, and dropped him. Bert landed on his ass with a painful grunt, his glare never wavering, “There’s no fucking way, man. I don’t have to do this, and you know you can't make me."

Gabe was still smiling, "You're right, Bert. You're absolutely right--I can't. What I can do," here he crouched low, bringing himself closer again, "and what we know I can do, and will do if you don't, is destroy that miserable strand of existence you call a life. I can make it a living hell, I can make you regret the day you ever presented that soul sucker to me, and I can make sure a friend or two of yours," he made his voice even lower, eyes swiveling to Jepha, "share in your happiness."

Bert blinked at him and said nothing. Gabe tilted his head to one side innocently, and delivered the kill: "Do we have a deal, Bert?"

For one horrible moment, Gabe imagined the knit in Bert's brow and the sharp set in his shoulders to be defiance, and a surge of unease came and went in his chest. Then Bert nodded slowly, shoulders slumping in as he stood. Gabe met him with a final stare, and to his credit, didn't flinch when Bert reached out and clapped his hand on one shoulder, his tell-tale smirk sliding into place. "I hope you know what you're doing, babe."

Gabe waved one hand, ignoring the sounds of his doors unlocking. "Get the fuck out of my room."

Bert shrugged, dropped the hand, and stepped around him. His walk was light and carefree, and by the time he'd made it past the golden doors his smile had neatly split his face in half. If Gabe had been attentive in the slightest, he would've noticed Bert's pause, the wink and wave to Jepha, and the small hum building in his throat, carrying him down the hall.

It didn't take much to make Bert happy, and he was very proud of his fact. Huge, engulfing fires, burning flesh, pleas of the weak, demolished cities: any number of these were enough to turn his frown upside down and any other directions he wanted to take them, but he considered himself a naturally bright little star. He was happy in his work, and he was happy in his rage, and he was happy in his traitorous little heart and his deceiving little mind, and he put both to use as he sauntered out of Gabe's house and down his path and out of his gates.

This wasn't difficult to do either, as Gabe had fucked up. Gabe had forgotten an important rule, Gabe had forgotten the best kind of important rule, and now, Bert thought, stuffing his hands into his pockets and taking his first few steps into the town, Gabe was going to pay for it. There was just things you didn't do in the Untitled, lines you didn't cross, car crashes you walked by quickly without stopping to survey the damage.

Most importantly: you never, ever sent a Destroyer to do a Mischief's work.

Bert pushed his hands as deep as they would go, and began to whistle.

*

Victoria reappeared several minutes later in the center of a wooden platform, far away from Gabe's palace. She was still clutching her shoulder, and she was still terrified, but it'd lessened to the point where she was able to announce, "He's pissed," and not collectively lose her shit all over again. The boys reacted in the same tones as she thought they would, dropping whatever they were doing to throw her one big expression that couldn't spell anything other than Oh, shit.

"Yeah," she muttered weakly, and massaged her shoulder. The motherfucker had not stopped throbbing since she'd gotten shot in it, and was starting to develop a pattern in its annoyance. Now, whenever she was even below the acceptable measures of satisfied, it pulsed and pulled and twitched, causing her to lose sleep or concentration or any other valuable state of mind. It was practically vibrating itself off of its socket at this point, and her hand was doing shit to calm it. She dropped it, sighing furiously, "He wants us to kill Bob."

"You're joking," Nate accused, and the irony was so overwhelming that Victoria gave him an exceptionally crazed smile before she could stop herself. Nate's skin cleared itself of all color, "Victoria, no. He wouldn't, okay. He's not that--"

"Nate," said Alex, "don't you fucking dare finish that sentence."

Nate stopped, considered his next words, and looked even more stricken as he glanced around the platform. "Oh god, he is, isn't he?"

The platform became reproachfully silent. They'd taken shelter in the trees of the Endless Path since their run in with Bob, and were doing quite nicely, save the small moments of mortal danger whenever the platform moved. To any normal traveler, the trees appeared to be trees, boring and big and old, but they'd managed to set up a small little hide-in within, complete with a kitchen and spare rooms and furniture. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't the palace either.

Ryland stood, "Why in the hell would he want us to kill Bob?"

"Have you seen him lately?" Victoria squeezed her shoulder once more, then gave up the fight with an angry sigh. "Bob's sucking him dry. I didn't even recognize him this time--he's gotten worse.”

“How bad is worse?” Nate poked, tentatively resuming his word search with a shaky hand. Victoria frowned at him, but really couldn’t blame him for wanting an air of comfort, considering everything that’d already transpired. She sort of felt as it’d take more than a word search to smooth this one over, though; this kind of thing called for a nice coma in a back-ridden hospital somewhere, where they could sleep this off in peace, “Liver spots.”

Ryland whistled, “Shit, that is bad. If Bob keeps draining him like this, he’ll be dead soon.”

They all stopped to consider that.

Victoria shook thoughts of dancing on graves and popping wine bottles from her head, “We’ll have to find him before then. He’s probably already reached the town by now; they weren’t that far from it when we last arrived.”

“And what if we do find him?” piped up Alex, worriedly, “Are we really supposed to—“ he paused briefly to slash across his throat. “I mean, it’s Bob. He wasn’t the most popular student but it’s not like we all hated him…”

He watched each of their faces carefully, then added grumpily, “Well, it’s not like I hated him.”

“Nobody hated Bob,” Victoria stated firmly, “But this isn’t something we can argue about. He wants him dead, and unless anyone here can figure out someway of avoiding that, Bob’s going to have to face the price.” Something stirred in her as she said this, something thick and full of guilt, and it made her wary and confused. Bob hadn’t been her favorite, it was true, but he had been another teammate, another person who understood life as it was beneath Gabe, and all the odds and ends that came with it. It was the same sort of guilt she’d probably feel at having to execute one of the guys, and thinking about that made her feel even worse, so she inhaled deeply to erase the thought of it all together. She couldn’t get all squeamish now, not in front of her team--they’d seen her do worse with a smile. Bob would just have to take what was coming to him.

But God, she really did not want to be the one to deliver it. “Sleep early tonight, all of you. We wake at dawn.”

It was actually dawn-ish when they awoke, but it was close enough. Breakfast was small and light and they each climbed down the tree carefully, the last of them breaking down the platform until it was nothing but branches and bark again. Clearing the Endless Path was easy enough; people naturally seemed to scatter as they approached, or took one look at the emblem and froze in their tracks, too frightened to move. By the time afternoon had rolled around, the steady trickle of travelers and farmers had lessened to a few spare bodies here and there; by mid-afternoon, it was completely void again.

They reached the outskirts of town in a matter of hours, stopping short of iron-clad gates. Ryland reached out with one hand and, without looking, selected the collar of one of the guards and lifted him cleanly off his feet. It was an impressive move: the guard didn’t seem as if he was easy to lift or had ever been in his life time, and in some alternate universe, he might have been able to break Ryland in half.

“We’re looking for someone,” Ryland murmured, “A man. Might’ve approached the city last night.”
The guard swallowed, “Plenty of people approach the city, sir—I couldn’t possibly—“

Ryland tightened his hold imperceptibly, “Tall, blond. May have had two other travelers with him? We want to know if he asked for any establishment here.”

The guard thought, then brightened, then blinked, “…he showed me the Mark.”

Ryland smiled, “That’s the one. Where did he go?”

“He asked for our mage,” the guard reported, “He serves as our shopkeeper as well. He’s in the City Square.”

Ryland dropped him on his feet, and pushed past him into the gates. City life had already begun, and the streets were crowded with people selling and buying and sweeping and singing, and promptly acting as if Victoria and her crew did not exist at all by stepping out of the way or turning an eye before any contact could be made. It never failed to amaze Victoria how afraid these people were of them, and she was never sure if this made her feel superior or ridiculous.
“City Square,” she ordered, and led them to the small shack that, despite it being midday and its block being rather busy, had ignored the frivolities and was still sporting its Closed sign. Victoria scanned the frame, looking for a bell of some kind, then banged twice on the door. She was almost surprised; no one came to inspect from the windows, or peek through the mail slot. All she could hear was the soft sound of voices before the sharp clack-click of locks sliding open. The door cracked open a bit, someone inhaled.

Victoria put on her best welcoming face. “Hi, we’re here for—“

“Oh, hell—“ the inhaler said, and tried to very hurriedly slam the door in their face. Victoria, anticipating this, jammed her foot into the available space between the door and threshold, “Well, that’s not very nice. What if we were paying customers?”

“Fuck you, I know you’re not—“ the door opened a little wider and tried to bang it closed again, “I know you’re not—“

Victoria pressed a flat hand against the wooden door and slowly, very deliberately, pushed it open. A tiny man stared back at her from the other side with a terrified expression, and another, tinier man entered the room obliviously, calling out to him. Sensing the man’s discomfort, he looked up, stopped, and rolled his eyes. “Jesus Christ, how fucking fast are you people?”

“Extremely,” answered Victoria cheerfully, “Is Bob here?”

The man gave her a sour look, “Lady, you know damn sure he is. What’s it going to take for you to leave him alone?”

“Two things,” Victoria scanned the room, “and I’m sure you can’t sell either to me.”

The man shrugged, “Fair enough. Bob!”

Everyone paused for the heavy footsteps making their way down the stairs. Bob stopped as soon as he spotted them, one foot away from completing the journey. The man nodded as if he didn’t mind the stare down and instructed Bob to, “Get these people out of my store. Try not to ruin all of my furniture.”

Bob didn’t respond, his eyes on Victoria, “What does he want this time?”

“Well,” Victoria began, and allowed her face some guilt, “This part’s a little trickier.”

“Make it simple,” Bob told her, and a table shifted and rose, its four legs inches above the ground. Victoria glanced at it briefly, then returned her stare, “He wants us to kill you.”

There was a pause.

“Oh hell,” expulsed the man. “Pete, close the door.”

Bob looked momentarily taken aback. “Oh.” Then, “Are you going to?”

“I haven’t decided yet.” Might as well tell him the truth, they at least owed him that. “We were actually going to try the whole ‘return to the palace with us’ deal again. You know, Plan B.”

She considered Bob’s face, “Plan C, then?”

The table shot at them as if on a ricochet, and Victoria met it with a shield of her own, flinching at the crack of wood on pure magic. The table exploded into a shower of splinters and nails, as so did the chairs and footstool. The shield expanded steadily in Victoria’s hand, then flattened itself into a disc. It flew at Bob with a speed that made it nearly invisible; Bob instinctively ducked and caught it with a hand, rebounding it towards her. Victoria snapped her fingers and it jerked to a stop, “Come on, Bob. You know better than that.”

Bob prepared to retort, but the sound was lost in the echo of footsteps on the stairs. One of the two travelers was coming down, their shadows preceding them in the shallow light. He was small with dishelmed hair and half awake; Victoria immediately recognized him as the one who’d shot her in the shoulder. The man halted upon seeing her, eyes wide and panicked. “Bob, what—“

Bob waved one hand and the entrance glowed and flashed purple with a shield of his own, separating the mouth of the stairs from the room. The man stumbled back in surprise, his eyes still on Victoria, “Bob!”

“Get Frank,” Bob demanded calmly, “Get Frank and get out.”

Victoria waved at him. He didn’t wave back.

The floor became warm beneath her feet, and the room began to vibrate steadily, trinkets and antiques rattling on their shelves. Slowly, each took their positions in air, and Victoria crouched low and flanked herself as they attacked. The porcelain was no stronger than the wood of the tables, and crumbled on instant contact, showering the room with a thick dust. Victoria made a small hole in her barricade and caught Bob square in the chest with a burst of magic, bringing him to his knees. His shield flickered and rippled, and the man pushed his way up the stairs slowly, preparing to run.

Victoria hummed to herself and shot Bob again, and the shield bounced like glass, prompting the man to turn and run, taking the stairs two at a time. Victoria dropped her shield as she stood, and with one jerk of her head, ripped the shelves from the walls.

“Oh god,” said the man, in a much tighter voice. He was behind her now, generating a bright blue shield that was currently encasing the boys behind it, and was doing quite well. It was clearly taking much of his energy to sustain it, and watching his body tremble and twitch under the strain raised an urge in Victoria to attack him, just to see the shield fall. She repressed it as best as she could—she was here for Bob, after all.

“Do you know,” he asked her, nearly panting, “How long it took to get those things installed?”

Bob, from his comfortable little kneeling position on the floor, panted an uneasy laugh, “Alex’s going to be so pissed.”

“Screw Alex,” the man groaned, exerting even more pressure on his shield, “I’m pissed.”

Victoria slammed a shelf into the back of his knees and the man collapsed, the screen following in succession. There was a sickly crack as the man’s head made contact with the ground, and the taller man in the corner let out an angry wail, attempting to run to him, “You fucking bitch!”

Victoria menaced him with a shelf, “Stay where you are.”

The glare he gave her could have set several buildings on fire, but he didn’t move and he didn’t speak, his body trembling with barely suppressed rage. Victoria turned to Bob, grinning, “Did you see what just happened here?”

Bob remained paralyzed on the floor, legs and arms locked. The paralysis was probably starting to spread rapidly now, leaving him with his breath and face, but nothing else. He glared at her and nodded slowly, accepting his position with the calm Victoria expected of him.

She grinned harder, “Better question: do you know how this could’ve been avoided?”

“Fuck you,” he spat at her, and she laughed. It felt good to laugh, just like it felt good to watch Bob struggle in his grasp and know that there was nothing he could do, no other way for him to fight, and that this was utterly and completely done. She’d caught him—they’d caught him. The other travelers didn’t matter, nothing else mattered other than bringing Bob home and being free of this fucking hunt. It was so close that Victoria couldn’t taste it; she could wrap the meal up and bring it home with her.

“Don’t worry,” she reassured him, “I’ll leave you your words. They’re all you have left, really.”

“You’re not going to kill me?”

“No, I’ll leave that up to him,” she shrugged, “Wouldn’t want to take away his last source of happiness.”

They were interrupted by footsteps yet again: the traveler had returned with a friend, and both were approaching the foot of the stairs as if it was their one true enemy and not Victoria. The second man was a bit shorter than the first, and obviously more forward than the other; he pushed into room, taking in the sight of Bob with clenched fists.

“It’s exactly what you think,” Victoria trilled, “And I suggest you take a lesson from this. You can fight, or you can—“

The man looked up at her and shook his head. “I’ll go quietly.”

Victoria flashed Bob another brilliant grin, “I like this one.”

Ryland was the first to step forward, and took the man’s wrists in one grip, binding them with expert ease. True to his word, the man neither fought nor struggled, and only spoke once when his partner tried to resist. “Stop it, Gee.”

His partner glared, but submitted. Victoria nodded at Bob, “On your feet.”

Bob grunted as his feet took their first few steps, boots heavy on the floorboard. Victoria sympathized—having your limbs perform work against their will was not the easiest experience. It was actually the most painful experience, Victoria having taken the pleasure of practicing this a few or a hundred times with Gabe. Bob was making a sport of it, though; keeping his face clear and his noises muted, and was eventually brought to his feet. Ryland and Nate flanked the travelers, and stared pointedly for orders.

There was nothing in the room, save the sounds of Bob panting.

“It’s been a good run, hasn’t it?” she asked him, and the face he gave her was effortlessly blank, “Just walk, Victoria.”

So Victoria did. They all did: right out of the tiny store in town square, and right out of the tiny little town, one step in front of the other.

Somewhere along the way, Victoria’s shoulder fell quiet.

*

It had been a week since Gerard and Frank had disappeared inside of his closet.

This was, Ray had to admit, the weirdest sentence he’d ever thought in a while. What made it worse was that he could not stop repeating it, or sounding it out phonetically (in•my•clos•et); he’d even, against his better judgment, had turned it into a little song. It was a terribly off-beat song, and a sad excuse for a Top 40 Hit, but it was a song, even if it did absolutely nothing to help matters much.

There was no appropriate way to behave once someone had disappeared in your closet, Ray had quickly discovered. The world had already taken this quirky situation and presented you with two options once it’d happened. You could: pretend as if someone had not disappeared inside your closet (Ray had done this to best of his abilities, surprisingly enough. When there was work and a business to run and customers to take care of, you almost forgot that two people had entered an alternate reality using your closet full of Thundercats merchandise as a transporter. For the first three days, Ray was content with being barely aware of this fact, and ordering more merchandise for the upcoming Mother’s Day sale.)

Or, and this was a more likely bet, you could sit around and wait for the aforementioned to reappear in your closet. This was a lot more difficult for it sounded, because you rapidly developed an air of skepticism about this sort of thing, which then developed itself into a grudging fear: could they find their way back? Would they bring back all of their limbs? Would they decide to kill him for the physical and constant mental torture they probably experienced? Could he afford his own funeral?

These were the questions that—for lack of a better word—Haunted him. It was just a small detail in the punchline that was his life that neither of these could be answered unless Gerard and Frank reappeared, and that hope was beginning to die right along his enthusiasm for anything that did not include him standing outside his closet doors and pacing. When he could no longer keep up the sham of the attentive businessman, Ray took a huge line of slack, wrapped it up, and presented it to himself in the form of closing down shop.

Temporarily of course, because his inner optimist wouldn’t let him hang his permanent Closed sign, but it was dead. It was almost a relief in the sense that he hadn’t had a hiatus this huge in a while (and his body thanked him for the long sleeping hours) but it was also completely nerve-wracking. Every small noise was a click, every shift in his mind were footsteps; at one point Ray had imagined voices, and shuffled so swiftly out of the room that he’d ended up slamming his foot into the table. He learned to set up camp near his doors after that.

The morning after that brought day seven, and the first form of life that wasn’t his shoes.
Ray honestly had figured he was still sleeping at first. There were many good reasons for this, really: he had been sleeping at the time, still nursing the ache and throb in his toes and was exhausted. He had imagined that the aspirin from last night was still running through his system, prompting him to create all sorts of magical things with his eyes and ears and nose. As stupid as both those conclusions were, there was no other explanation for the man standing in the center of his room, hands on his hips and a frown on his face.

Because he was a good multitasker, Ray was able to bring himself into a studying position as he studied. His eyes cleared, giving him one detail at a time: the man was pityingly short and justified in his filth, with hair that looked as if it refused washing on the daily, and a face that could scare small children if it wanted to. He was trying, maybe on Ray’s behalf, to put on air of docility and quite possibly friendliness, and was wandering throughout Ray’s room, picking things up and hmm-ing at them before setting them down again. He didn’t acknowledge Ray as he sat up, nor as he stood, and not even when Ray was behind him, reaching around him to set a snow globe upon his drawerset again.

Ray waited for him to say something, anything. He knew the man knew he was in the room, who fucking knew how long he’d been there and how many observations he’d been able to make of Ray before he’d woken up. But the man just pushed himself around Ray and skipped, literally skipped, into the living area.

Okay, Ray thought. He was going to have to play along.

“Um,” he started uncertainly, following the man into the living area. “Can I help you?”

The man peered at Ray’s television set, then shuffled the papers around his desk, picking a few up and pretending to read them before setting them down again. He poked at a few books in Ray’s bookcase, became bored, and wandered into Ray’s kitchen where he began to fiddle with Ray’s toaster. All of this occurred in a span of minutes, meaning that the man had a small attention span, or Ray was very boring.

The man pressed down on the toaster’s level, frowning when it reared back immediately with no sign of bread. He peered into the available holes, then upturned the toaster and shook it, watching the floor for his prize.

Ray remained behind the counter, “Are you lost? Hurt? Do you…do you need help?”

The man ignored him, and shook the toaster even harder.

“You came from my closet,” Ray said, and didn’t care how ridiculous it sounded. “You came from the…the other side. The Untitled. Do you…is there something you need to tell me? Are you sending a message? I sent some people there a few days ago—“

The man dropped the toaster, pointed one finger, and shot a red burst of energy at the appliance. It exploded, plastic parts flying to each end of the room, and the man turned, looked Ray straight in the eye and asked him, “Don’t you ever shut up?”

Ray blinked, his heart skipped a beat. “That was my toaster.”

The man shrugged, “You won’t miss it. It looked broken.”

The words niggled at the back of Ray’s brain for a second, and then he just couldn’t help himself, “It wasn’t, actually. You’re supposed to put bread into the holes and then—“

He wasn’t going to explain the idea of a toaster to a stranger who’d showed up in his apartment from an alternate universe. There were already enough strange things with this picture, and far be it from him to add onto it. He was in no mood, and besides: what kind of Senser would he be then, adding onto the madness?

“Look,” he said, waving a hand, “Do you need to tell me something? Did someone send you? Did Frank send you?”

The man’s frown wasn’t a frown, strangely. He’d begun to smile during Ray’s questions, and even now, it was hiding around the corners of his lips and cheeks, ready to return once his face was prepared for it again. He did look properly confused, which is what Ray guessed he was going for, and shook his head. “Who the hell is Frank?”

“Never—nevermind.” Ray felt foolish in a second, “Why are you here?”

The man spoke cautiously, “I’m looking for Earth.”

“You’ve found it.”

“Really?” The man gazed around Ray’s tiny apartment, “Kind of small. Cramped. Smelly.”

“No,” Ray blushed, “No—this is my apartment. It’s where I live. But it’s on Earth—you’re on Earth, I promise.”

The man appraised him with a look that wasn’t sure of his credibility, but was lazy enough to take whatever that was handed to him. “Earrrrth,” he muttered, trying it out. “Great. I’m here.”

He clapped his hands together, attentive to Ray again. “Okay, so. How do I destroy it?”

“What?” Ray jerked, hoping he’d misheard. The man didn’t seem bothered by his outburst, “How would one go about destroying this kind of thing? Is there an off switch somewhere? A spell? I’m no good with spells, though,” he confessed, sort of shyly, “Although I got a friend who’s down with that sort of shit.”

He’d stunned Ray into silence, though he couldn’t see this. “Well?”

Ray slowly began to round the counter, making his steps light. “You can’t destroy it,” he told him gently, “A lot of people live here.”

“A lot of people live lots of places,” the man agreed apathetically, “What, this one win a contest or something?”

“No,” Ray shook his head, “No, but. Just. A lot—“ he was repeating himself, he knew it, “A lot of people live here. Six billion, on last count. And okay, maybe some people sort of deserve it, but you can’t just blow the place up.”

“Okay,” the man blinked, “So do I melt it?”

“No!”

“Look,” the man’s face had taken on a half-frown, half-smile, half-warning mixture, “this is the last fucking place in all the universes I want to be, okay? But I was sent here, and I figure if I gotta be here, I might as well destroy it while I am here.”

“But why would you want to do that?” Ray was facing him now, blocking the kitchen’s entrance. He wasn’t exactly sure why he needed to, but instincts were instincts. The man looked liable to tear through him if he absolutely had to—even if he didn’t have to, really. He also looked as if he’d enjoy it. “This place hasn’t done anything to you. And it’s not completely bad. We have our moments, but—“

The man waved him off, “Save it, an endless walk kind of makes up your mind for you. This place gotta go, man.”

“Well, I’m afraid,” and here, Ray really was, “I’m afraid I can’t let you do that.”

The man was all smiles again, “You can’t, huh.”

Suddenly, Ray was flying backwards, heels over head; suddenly, his back had met his counter and his head had almost met his sink, but maybe the man believed in saving grace, or maybe he just wanted to keep Ray alive for more taunting. Either way, Ray was not dead, although the raging pain his back and hips were enough to guarantee that he should be. Things felt broken, things were throbbing, and there was blood in mouth. His tongue felt as if he’d bitten through it.

There was more pain, and his muscles cramped as he arched into it, drawing his head back to whimper something that sounded like a plea. The pain disappeared shortly after, and the man crouched over him, hands still glowing, “You never met a Destroyer before, have you?”

Ray panted, the breaths coming ragged and weak. He couldn’t speak. He wasn’t even sure how he was still breathing; the pain had been so much, too much and he was certain another shot like that would be enough to kill him.

The man grinned, “Congratulations, then—you’ve just met the head honcho.” He stuck out a hand for shaking.

“Hi,” he recited formally, a confident intern at an interview. “My name is Bert, and I will be Destroying you today.”

*

There was no easy way to take comfort in walking to your death, Frank knew this, but fuck it if he didn’t take comfort in it anyway.

It was a horrible feeling, trust him, and watching Gerard march in angry silence, hands bound in front of his chest, head bowed and lips tight, did wonders for Frank’s guilt factor. But he couldn’t help it, and truth be told, really wasn’t trying to help it. It was just that it was over, everything was finally over, and everything could finally be over. Sure, walking and breathing and thinking hurt more than anything in his entire life ever had, and he was petrified in the typical ‘oh god I might not even live through this’ sort of way, but he was getting what he’d wanted with every fiber in his being since he’d stepped into this place: the palace. It was completely fucked up that it just happened to be the one place on Untitled that Bob had been so hell-bent on avoiding, but there wasn’t much he could do about it now. The Cobra Clan wasn’t going anywhere, wasn’t taking their eyes off of anything, and wasn’t giving any form of mercy.

They’d only stopped once to sleep or, in the Clan’s case, stand over them as they slept. It was very unnerving, as each was skilled in the art of scaring the shit out of you whenever you woke up to turn over, or just plain woke up to realize where you were. Frank, in result, slept unfitfully, and woke up half-awake and half-giddy from being half-awake, and had experienced a temporary rush of excitement as Victoria hauled them down into the new day. Breakfast was even smaller than their self-rationed portions, and they all ate in military silence. The Clan, being ruthless, didn’t believe in breaks or stops, and marched them through the town and past the Endless Path. It only took them a matter of hours to reach the edge of the sea.

On the highest hill, through the mist; Frank could see it. It was blurry, and it was small, but it was there. Frank wanted to smile, he wanted to lift his head back and scream one wordless sound of pure delight. Victoria smiled, maybe sensing this, “It’s even prettier up close.”

“I’m sure,” Frank didn’t even try to spare the sarcasm, “But how are we getting there?”

To her left, Crossbow was already generating a small platform with his hands; purple energy solidified itself and became flat, then lowered itself to a stepping range. “Hop on,” Crossbow said, and sounded completely dead doing so.

Like any other person with half a brain or more, Frank knew not to look down. Heights were not his thing, and neither were falling from long distances or drowning. He trained his eyes on the sky, on Gerard or on Bob or the back of Crossbow’s head—anything but the transparent strip of energy making its way across the rolling waters and the rough wind. While this helped somewhat with the vertigo, it did nothing for his nausea, so halfway through he took a seat and closed his eyes, and focused on what he was to say and do once they got there.

Escaping never crossed his mind once; he wasn’t that fucking stupid. He had no doubts about Victoria ripping him in half or tying him up even further if he did, and he’d be damned if he left Gerard. There was no place to go either, besides the sea, and it wasn’t as if he wanted to. But now that he was so close, now that he was going to get what he wanted, he at least wanted to control some aspect of it, wanted to have the upper hand. That’s how shit was done in the movies, and here, it was all Frank had to go on.

The hill began to cast a shadow moments later, so there was nothing else to stare at but the rapidly looming palace on the very edge of it. It could’ve been an everyday palace—huge, expensive, probably filled with shit it had no business being filled with—but it managed to intimidate on its own, despite its owner. It was a palace you clearly did not want to fuck with, and shouldn’t enter unless you had a reason to, and normally, you really had no reason to. Frank swallowed his awe and apprehension and stood, “So this is where he lives.”

“And this is where you’ll die,” Victoria answered, and then grimaced. “God, that sounded so lame.”

Frank had to ask, “Is he really going to kill us?”

“No,” she said after some time, thoughtfully. “Probably just Bob.”

“And you can’t do anything about it?” Frank pressed, “I know you hate him. Bob hates him.”

“Bob hates him,” she agreed, “But Bob also doesn’t know how to hide shit well. Bob never covered his feelings. Bob has to pay.”

“Bob,” said Bob, “is standing right here. So please, respect Bob, and kindly shut the fuck up.”
Frank could only make a guilty face at him. He mouthed, you have to do something.

Bob made a face, what the hell should I do?

Not die? Bob rolled his eyes, and fell silent. The platform stopped shortly, throwing them all forward. Crossbow didn’t apologize, or seem the least bit apologetic. “First stop, Lord Mischief’s palace,” he recited dourly, “Disobedient slaves, doomed travelers, and guaranteed destruction.”

“When I die,” Bob told him suddenly, “keep your jokes away from my funeral.”

Ryland grinned, “Stop trying to butter me up, Bryar, and get off. You’re here.”

He remained on the platform as Victoria and the two others escorted them off. Gerard moved slowly, barely attentive to what and where and who anymore. The shorter of the men shoved him, “Come on, move.”

Frank rounded on him, “Don’t fucking touch him.”

The man smirked, and raised his hand to repeat the action, when Victoria shoved him. “Knock it off, Nate. You’re such a fucking prick.” Nate’s eyes narrowed, but he dropped his hand. His eyes never left Victoria as they walked.

Frank could see the gates before they advanced on them, and the gates obviously could see them too; they swung back with twin creaks as Victoria neared them. Unperturbed, the Clan led them past the huge courtyard, past the golden cobra statues and running fountain (Frank stared and felt no shame of it), and to the hugest pair of golden doors Frank had ever seen. Next to them was the tiniest doorbell Frank had ever seen, which Victoria pressed with one, long finger. There was no bell, only silence.

The door opened a crack, paused, and then finished opening. The tannest man Frank had ever seen clucked his tongue at them, “Finally. He was growing anxious.”

Victoria put on her best ‘who cares’ face. “When is he not anxious about something, Matt? We did what he wanted, we got Bryar.”

Matt glanced at Bryar, almost doubting his existence, “So you did. And these two are?”

“Bonuses,” Nate supplied amusingly, “In case Bryar’s not enough fun for him.”

Victoria shot him a glare that promised painful things, irreversible things, irreplaceable things. Nate met her face with a glare of his own, and thinned his lips in a way that promised not to speak, for now. Matt, having obviously witnessed their stare downs before and being completely unimpressed, sighed and stepped aside, gesturing into a huge foyer. “Fine, fine—come in. I shall see what he’s up to. I have no idea,” he added, disdainfully, “why you felt the need to use the front door, however. You know how long it takes me to get down here.”

“Thought I’d make your day.” Victoria pushed past, carefully knocking shoulders with him. Matthew threw her a wicked glare as he massaged the abused shoulder, then stared at the remaining, “Well? Are you just going to stand outside?”

Nate took this as his cue for one more shove, this one enough to send Frank stumbling, “You heard the man, inside.” He grinned teasingly at Frank’s glare and walked coolly, hands shoved inside his pockets. Matt, still completely unimpressed, rolled his eyes and gave one of the doors a sharp push, slamming it closed. The other followed suit and they were all alone in the foyer, the Clan and them.

Frank busied himself with looking around. There wasn’t much actual exploring he could do, being tied up, but his eyes told him everything he needed to know about the Lord: he was either painfully rich or very creative, he liked cobras, and he liked colors that would otherwise have nothing to do with each other, if it weren’t for their amazing headache powers when mixed together. Above him, Frank could hear other levels alive with life, stairwells shifting and sliding, footsteps and shouts and the sounds of the working class.

He had always imagined, secretly, in the back of his mind, that being a Lord was a lonely sort of job, the kind you definitely didn’t do for the money. This was obviously not the case with this Mischief guy, whose palace sounded as if he’d employed half the fucking town, if not the entire universe already.

Matt returned with an even sourer look, if that was possible. “This way. He was, as you can imagine, quite ecstatic to hear of your arrival.”

“Does ecstatic translate into him letting me go?” Bob asked, his legs shooting themselves into life. He winced a little, his face and neck growing pink with the unwanted exertion. Matt grinned at the question, “I am not sure. It might translate into you dying less painfully."

“Just what I always wanted,” Bob depanned, “Come on, Matt. You can’t let him do this.”

“What made you think I wouldn’t?” Matt actually seemed surprised of Bob’s sudden faith in him, “You’ve caused nothing but trouble for him, honestly. Destroying you will give him back his power and his life.”

“And what does that mean for you?” Bob wondered aloud, an edge of desperation creeping into his voice. It was the first since their journey began that Frank had ever heard anything other than annoyingly cheerful or cold resentment, and the change put him off more than the palace or the servants or the hugeness of it all. Bob sounded scared, and it was the last thing Frank expected him to be. “Another lifetime serving him, following every ridiculous order—“

“Keeping myself free from the streets,” Matt filled in for him, “having food and a warm bed, and being happy in my work.” He caught eyes with Bob and bit his lip awkwardly, “There is nothing you can do this about this, you know. I’m sorry.”

Bob said nothing, and stared straight ahead. The endless foyer turned into an endless hall, something fit for throwing elaborate parties that usually ended with everyone passed out or on their way to being passed out. The sun created its own natural light, filling the room with orange and red and yellow, pinging itself off the glass and crystals. The room felt vaguely empty, as if an even more elaborate table had once been set here for guests and had been removed in a hurry for their arrival. Matt led them to the center and, once satisfied with their position, reached out and touched the very tip of Bob’s nose.

Bob exhaled forcefully, and his knees gave out with a painful lurch. He sunk to the floor with another not-noise, bringing his wheezes down to tiny pants. Matt shrugged, blinked, shrugged again and began to make his way to the exit, “Don’t try to escape, by the way. He has charms on each of the doors, if you somehow make it past Alex and Nate,” and then he was gone.

Nate was watching Bob curiously, “Are you going to make it past Alex and Nate?”

Bob glared up at him, “Look at me, you dumbshit. Does it look like I can make it past Alex and Nate?”

“Nope,” chirped Nate, and was perfectly happy with his answer. “Besides, a fight is just about the last fucking thing I want from you.”

“Because I could kick your ass, and you know it?”

Nate frowned, “Don’t push it, Bryar. He’s not here yet. There’s plenty of time to smear the floor with you.”

“That,” came a voice just made for disagreeing, and was now doing its job effortlessly and painlessly, “is unfortunate thinking, Nathan.”

Nate barely had time to scream; the flash was so fast. In a matter of seconds, he’d gone from standing next to Frank to being splayed on his back on the floor, his face slack with panic and his eyes wide from shock. Frank followed the next blast, whipping his head towards Victoria and another older, smaller man. The man was stooped and bent over, one hand clasping at a cane, one finger pointed forward. A bright blast of purple light surrounded Nate again, intensifying with each growing second. Nate squirmed, and he groaned, but he didn’t scream.

“Do you know why this is unfortunate thinking, Nathan?” the man prodded, and shot him again. Nate’s spine curved and his head arched back and his mouth opened in a scream that was never heard. The man shot him again, “Do you, Nathan?”

“Sir,” Victoria pleaded, almost inaudibly. The older man blinked and paused, finding himself. “Yes. Well.”

He turned to Bob and smiled. It was not a smile that was happy to see Bob. It was not a smile that was happy about anything at all. It was a smile that could only be a smile if something was terribly wrong or if someone was in terrible pain. He kept this smile for a while, unaware of the silence in doing so, then said, “Bob.”

His voice sounded off, the words so unused to being this withered. Everything about him looked so unused to being withered, as if he’d only been this old for several hours and was still fitting in the odds and ends, adjusting himself to it.

As soon as Frank thought it, it made sense. He peered closer, and then it made even more sense.

“Oh god,” he said, before he could stop himself, “You’re him. You’re the Lord.”

The Lord glanced over at him, momentarily annoyed at being interrupted. “Lovely, you’ve brought witnesses. A bit in vain, I hope you know this.”

“I’m not,” Frank started, snatching his words before they could flee, “I’m not a witness. I’m not an anything. I’m—I’m here because you’re ruining my life.”

“I believe,” monotoned the Lord, “that blaming others for your problems gets you absolutely nowhere. It’s also good for halting your mental development or some shit.”

Frank spluttered, “But it’s your fault! You’re the one who set Bob up, you’re the one who fueled his power. You fucked up my life, my job—everything. It’s your fucking fault.”

“Technicalities,” the Lord shrugged, “This really is not the time for this. I have to destroy him, you see,” he nodded at Bob, “and you’re sort of getting in the way, here.”

“I don’t care,” Frank squared his shoulders, “I just want you to make it right. Now. Just—just fix everything that you fucked, and make it right.”

The Lord considered him for a long moment, then sighed again. “Victoria, if you don’t mind.”

The blast knocked Frank clear off his feet. There was no way to absorb the blow with his hands tied, so the majority of Frank’s back caught the marble with all thumps and no snaps.

“Frank!” Gerard called, and Frank groaned dazedly; he’d almost forgotten Gerard was in the room. It wasn’t as if Gerard had never seen him flat on his back anyway, but now, after everything they’d put themselves through, it was more than enough. Everything—the Untitled, the Lord, the Clan, the journey, the hurt and misery and the ache in Gerard’s voice—everything was too fucking much. Everything.

It was enough to push him to his knees, despite the pain, “That how you solve all your problems? Blasting them?”

The Lord made an ‘eh’ face, making his unattractive face even more unattractive, “Worked so far. Shall I have Victoria perform an encore for you?”

Frank raised his chin in natural defiance, “You can try.”

Victoria geared herself up again, hands intensifying with the purple glow. The blast would’ve made its target perfectly, if it hadn’t been for Bob’s surprise shield.

“Your fight is with me,” he told the Lord calmly, “Unless you’re afraid of me defeating you.”

The Lord frowned, “I’m not afraid of anything, Bob, you know that. But it is unfortunate that I am currently out of commission, as you can see.”

“I can,” Bob faltered, “What the hell happened to you?”

“You,” and the Lord smiled, “You happened, Bob. Do you have any idea what you do to me? No?”
Bob granted him a waiting expression. The Lord readjusted his grip on the cane, hobbling closer to him with eyes that were too young for the face, “You kill my power. You kill my body. You’ve harvested what Bert has assured me is a rather large amount of what I have and what I can do. You’ve been doing this for quite some time now.”

As if it pained him to admit it, “If you continue to live, I die.”

Bob considered this, “Well, that sucks.”

The Lord nodded solemnly, “It does. Never become old, Bob, it’s not worth it. It’s nowhere near worth it. But,” he continued, sauntering to the nearest window, “at least you can console yourself with knowing that your death will be something of an altruistic one.”

“Not really,” assured Bob mildly, “I’m pretty sure I have no plans to die today.”

“Is that your clever way of indicating that you are going to fight?”

“Pretty much,” and the shield went horizontal, slamming itself into Victoria’s midsection. Victoria grunted, body curving forward, limbs splayed out over the edges of the shield as she crashed and slid. She had anticipated it, it seemed, and was calling for “Alex!” before she’d even hit the ground. Alex lashed out quickly, shaping a long twine of chain in his hands and looping it once, shattering Bob’s shield like glass. Frank found his opportunity and ran, hands cupped low in front of him. He tackled Gerard before the shards could reach them, bringing them both to the ground.
Gerard was blank, completely terrified. Frank, on the other hand, was smiling. “You know, I didn’t think that would work.”

“Shit, Frank—“ Gerard whispered, “the others. They’ll come.”

Frank grabbed a shard of glass, grateful for its tangibility, “I know. Just hold on, I’m going to—“

The binds collapsed into smoke before he’d even set into cutting. A shadow encased them; it was Crossbow, irritated and itching for contact. He hauled Frank up by the collar, turning once to question the Lord. The Lord waved a hand, eyes locked on Bob and Alex, “Whatever you want, I don’t care.”

Crossbow smirked, and Frank reared his head back for the punch. Anticipating it gave his teeth an advantage and kept them in his jaw, his neck suffering with the rattles and shocks that skipped up and down his spine. Crossbow showed a glowing hand to Gerard, as he advanced, “You don’t have any arrows now. Want to take that chance?”

Gerard tackled him, wrapping his arms tight around Crossbow’s midsection and forcing him to the ground. Crossbow squawked, limbs flailing, and grunted with the impact; Frank fisted his grip in his shirt and delivered the final blow that sent Crossbow’s eyes on a journey through the back of his head. Frank tensed until he felt the body go limp under him, then stood, flexing his fingers. It’d been a hell of time since he’d punched someone, and it hurt.

Gerard whooped crazily, “That’d actually felt good.”

Victoria’s hand snaked around his neck, burying her knee in his stomach before he could protest. “Don’t move,” she called to Frank.

“Don’t think I won’t kill you,” he responded, “Let him go! Now!”

Something snapped viciously to his right. Bob was stumbling, blood dripping from his nose and forehead. His gaze was still tight, eyes still focused, but his body was trembling from too many blows, while Alex neared him, swinging the chain nonchalantly.

The Lord was hobbling again, but this hobble was somehow swanky and relaxed, and exhumed an air of victory. “I hope that made you feel better,” he simpered, fitting the golden cobra head of his staff into the crook of Bob’s chin. Bob recoiled with a snarl, his steps dizzyingly shaky.

“What,” mumbled Bob hazily, “What happens if this doesn’t work? If you kill me. What if you die right along with me?”

The Lord stared at him, then drew the staff back and struck him with the cobra head. Bob’s head snapped to the side, gurgles rising in his throat as blood steeped from between his lips. He spat once, twice, and wiped his mouth, “Do you even know if he’s telling you the truth?”
For a moment, the Lord’s face broke, “Don’t insult me, Bob—don’t you fucking dare. You think I can’t tell when the life’s being sucked out of me? You think I can’t feel it now?”

He rose into a scream, voice dipping and flying madly, “I could die, you fucking idiot. I could die, and you’re asking me to reconsider, you’re asking me to think. No,” he exhaled shakily, “No. Not for this. Not when this is all I have.”

“The only unfortunate thing about this is your involvement, I’m afraid; although this is really just unfortunate for you.” The Lord smiled with no attempt of guilt, “There is nothing I can do, nothing you can do. This has to happen. It can’t be stopped.”

Frank searched his brain frantically, bursting out with, “You could turn your power off. Give it to someone else.”

“Yes,” said the Lord drily, “I haven’t considered that at all. There is no one else, and it’s not like there’s anything left to give. It’s all gone, everything. Why do you think I look like this?” He waited patiently for any further futile rebuttals on Bob’s behalf, then beckoned for Victoria. “Join with Alex, you’ll need the firepower.”

Victoria took her stance next to him, and Alex moved to her side, their hands outstretched. Bob watched them, blood dripping from his chin as he spoke. “Please.”

Alex hesitated, sparing a glance at Victoria. She shook her head slowly, eyes bright with apology. Her hands glowed until they were blinding, forcing Frank to close his eyes and turn away. He braced himself as the whine grew—

There was nothing.

Frank could hear footsteps.

Not footsteps, no. Clicks. They were clicks, the dangerous high-heel clicks, echoing and impending. Frank couldn’t move, didn’t breathe, and focused on them; they were coming closer, loud in his ears until they turned a final corner into the room and were suddenly all Frank could hear.

He uncovered his eye sand blinked around him. Something wasn’t right, something else shrieked in the very depths of his skull; something was horribly, horribly wrong here. He stood and listened and stood and listened and traced the pulse from Victoria’s hands to Bob’s face, and wondered why he was still able to see Bob’s face.

He wondered why no one was moving.

He wondered why he was moving.

He wondered, out of developed habit, if he was dead.

The clicks surged and fell, a woman moved past him. She didn’t stop or grant him a courtesy glance, and was obviously accustomed to ignoring people that she deemed beneath her. She was very beautiful, flawless in all the right places, with hair that could hold any style and a face that was both deeply pissed and expectantly amused.

“What…” but she kept moving, her heels click-clacking on the marble, her pattern dress (clocks, thousands and thousands of clocks) swishing around her pale legs as she stopped directly in front of the Lord and smacked him across the face.

The Lord came into the world roaring. It was a good scream, as far as those went: painful and jagged, frustration and rage buried in the deepest parts of it. Somewhere in between, words twisted and formed and pushed their way out, pleading not now, not now.

“Yes, now,” the woman snapped, “Who do you think you are, giving me orders? Who the hell do you think you are, Gabe?”

“This isn’t—“ gasped the Lord, “This isn’t—“

“The time?” finished the woman, gleefully sarcastic. “When is it ever the time, Gabe? When is it ever going to be the time? One would think you have plenty of that in store, considering all things.”

“Oh god,” the Lord panted, hysterical in his desperation, “Oh Christ—“

“Christ won’t help you now,” the woman boasted, “And I would consider it a personal insult if you chose this moment to find your religion. You’ve never had it when we were dating, I don’t see why you should suddenly find it.”

“Dating?” was the only word Frank could make out. The woman turned to him, declaring with a hint of pride, “Dated. Of course, I use the past tense in the fact that we are no longer together,” she threw the Lord a sidelong glare, “but I’m sure he already knows this. He should know this, seeing as he has missed two of our latest plans.”

“But,” she pressed, examining the Lord with some interest, “I’m sure you have a valuable explanation?”

No one moved. The Lord took a few shuddering breaths, but the woman barreled on, “Of course you don’t, who I am fooling? You never do. You never have. It’s always the same with you, really--getting lost in your revolting little games.” She gazed at Nate’s unconscious form before her, hands crossed, and poked him with one perfect heel. Nate groaned, body unfreezing in painful sects.

The woman was unsympathetic, “Honestly, Gabe. I will never understand why I put up with you.” She stopped and connected eyes with Frank, “Who are you?”

Frank realized, with some fear, that there were no pupils for him to stare into. Her eyes were entirely blank. “Who are you?”

She beamed, “Time.”

Frank gaped. Her beam toned itself down considerably, “Time, you know? ‘As old as…?’ ‘You’re running out of…’?”

If there was anything Frank had learned here, it was not to disagree. “…but you dated him.”

She made a displeased face, “Yes, well. We all have pasts we aren’t very enthusiastic about.”

“But you dated him,” Frank reiterated slowly, “You dated him. And you’re Time. Isn’t there some rule against that? Mischief and Time, I mean.”

“Are you suggesting,” Time began innocently, “that there was something—“

“No! Not suggesting,” Frank held up his hands in the universal ‘I surrender’ gesture, “Not suggesting anything. Nothing at all, just. Did you—did you do all this?” His eyes fell on the frozen bodies, the paused expressions.

Time shrugged, “Had to. Didn’t need any deaths on my hands. I really wasn’t expecting you to take it that far,” she appraised the Lord awfully, “but I should’ve known, shouldn’t I? Ever the narcissist asshole.”

“Um,” Frank cut in worriedly, “can you—can you unfreeze my boyfriend?”

“Sure!” Time smiled, “Which one is he?”

Frank gestured at Gerard, whose cowering crouch would be hilarious in any other situation other than this one. Time snorted anyway, and clicked over to him. Gerard’s transition was smoother, allowing him to collapse onto the floor with a sound no louder than a thump. Frank hurried to him, cradling the small of his back until Gerard was shivering upright, eyes rolling in his head. “Gnarrrgh,” he grumbled, flickering from Time to Frank and back again.

“There,” said Time, pleased. “Anyone else you want unfrozen?”

Frank looked around the room. “Not really.”

“Good, good.” Time made her way in a circle slowly, studying the halted bodies with a face that was meant for a museum. She hemmed and hawed at Victoria, picked a piece of lint from Alex and stepped carefully over Crossbow after she’d gotten in a good laugh at him. She stayed far away from the Lord, rolling her eyes disgustedly as he sank to his knees. “So,” she returned leisurely, “are you going to tell me your name?”

“I thought you’d already know something like that,” Frank tried, grinning apologetically when she glared at him. “My name is Frank.”

“Frank,” she mouthed it a few times, “And what are you doing here, Frank?”

“It’s a long story.”

“I’m not going anywhere. We’ve got…” she chuckled, “Well, we’ve got me, actually.”

Frank rubbed small circles attentively into Gerard’s back and tried to sum up the past few days in the easiest way possible. Death, destruction, and walking were few of the words to come to mind, and aside from death, Frank didn’t feel as if any of these words conveyed anything close to what’d he gone through. Time hummed a little song to herself, then carefully placed herself on the floor, arranging her dress around her Indian-style posture. “Let me start then,” she offered helpfully. “You’re here because…?”

Frank tilted his head, “Him. The Lord.”

“Gabe,” she corrected, “No one really calls him that besides the servant, Matthew.”

“Gabe,” he conceded, “Do you know what he does?”

“I dated him,” Time drew herself in and up, “Of course I know what he does. He’s Mischief. Ruining lives, creating pranks, causing amusing disaster—it’s what he’s always done.”
“Not with me, no.” Frank glowered, “He made my life a living hell. I wanted to do something about it.”

“So you came here,” she clarified, suspiciously, “Are you insane? What the hell do you think he could’ve done?”

Frank threw up his hands, “I don’t know, all right? I don’t fucking know! I just thought he’d turn it off, you know—cancel it or something.”

“Is everyone on your side of the world this stupid?”

“No! It’s—“ he sagged noticeably when Time started to laugh, “You’re making fun of me.”

Time giggled, covering her mouth with a delicate hand, “I’m not, I swear I’m not. It’s just—it’s funny. You agreed to enter a universe you’d never seen or heard of before, travel through strange and distant lands, nearly get yourself killed but instead end up getting being captured and brought here, to speak to him about your life complaints? Doesn’t that seem a little mad to you?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Frank truthfully. “What would’ve you done?”

Time reflected, then quirked her lips. “Something along those lines, probably.”

Frank spluttered, “So how can you--?”

“Easy, tiger, easy,” Time grinned, “I’m not judging you. It’s all admirable, every last inch of it. It’s also insane and monumentally stupid, but it’s admirable.”

“And judging by…everything,” Frank sighed, “pretty much in vain, right? He’s not changing shit, Bob’s going to be killed, and because things usually work like this, there’s no way we’re getting home, yeah?”

“You’re very pessimistic, you know that?” Time rose to her feet and dusted a few lines of imaginary dust from her dress. “You’re talking to me. Time. It’s not as if I’ve never had to move things around a little, shoved some things under the proverbial rug. Oh yes,” she narrated, raising a finger at Frank’s surprise, “It has happened. How else can you explain the Black Plague? Communism? Bush?”

Gerard pushed weakly at Frank’s hand and twisted around, “I knew there was something fishy there.”

“Oh God, please—let’s not talk about that,” she huffed, “I am in no mood to discuss how huge of a fuckup that was. It was, and that’s all I’ll say about it, okay?”

A glimmer of hope pulled a heart string, then grabbed a fistful and yanked. Frank rose to meet her slowly, “What are you saying?”

Time Looked at him. “I think you’ve just lied to me,” she murmured, “I think you’re all really this dense. I am going to help you, Frank. I think, in this case, we both know what it’s like to be fucked with, and well. I’m nothing if not a thoughtful woman.”

“Can you get us home?”

“Again, with the doubting of my powers,” Time slapped a hand over her eyes dramatically and flapped the other, “Yes, Frank. Yes, I can get you home. I can’t guarantee any reversals of Gabe’s power, unfortunately—I’m afraid I’m not sure how that works, exactly. But I can get you home, and what’s more, I am going to get you home.

“But first--first we have some business to attend to,” she proposed, turning away. “If you could follow me, please.”

“But—“

“It won’t take very long,” Time threw over her shoulder as she walked, “We simply have to stop your friend Ray from being killed.”

When neither Frank nor Gerard moved, she stopped, glancing back at them. “Well? Are you coming?”
Time did not use magic closets, which Frank had sort of expected. With a gesture that was most likely meant to prove the extent of her powers to him, Time had them standing in the middle of Ray’s apartment, watching someone even tinier than Frank attempt to send him into a pain-filled coma. The man was dirty and apparently deaf, and was in the midst of explaining just what he was going to do once he was done with Ray, in detail.

Gerard charged forward, but Frank held him back, nodding wordlessly at Time. Time sidled up behind the man and tapped one shoulder, “You haven’t changed a bit, Bert.”

Bert didn’t jump and he didn’t turn. At the most, his head made the familiar tilting motion of someone rolling their eyes. “Oh hell,” he muttered, “It’s you.”

“It’s me,” Time agreed, “Are you quite done here, or…?”

“Not quite, actually.”

“Really?” Time asked, and her voice had taken on a different quality. It played at curious but really wasn’t, as it already knew the answer, and knew that Bert knew it knew the answer. “Are you sure, Bert? You don’t want to come home or anything?”

Bert paused, surveying her for a long moment. Then, “God, fine. I’m going, I’m going. Jesus Christ, I can’t have any fun around here anymore.” He turned, jamming his hands in his pockets, and made for Ray’s room, muttering the entire way.

Time trilled after him, “I’ll see you in a moment, darling!”

There was the sound of a door slamming, followed by a muffled curse. Time smiled, “He’ll work it off, the anger. It may take a village or two, but never the matter—is your friend okay?”

Gerard pushed around her, kneeling before Ray, “Oh, God—Ray. Are you okay?”

Ray looked as if he was barely breathing; sweat and blood had gathered around his face and neck, making Gerard’s attempts to fan stray locks of hair away rather difficult. His breath was slow and uneven, and his cough sounded equally as harsh, “Great. Not dead.”

Frank had to laugh, a deep rush of air pulling at the weight in his shoulders. Time clapped her hands delightedly, “Perfect! A nice ending to all of this, I think.”

Ray coughed again, shaking off Gerard’s fingers as he attempted to right himself, “You’re Time.”
Time beamed at him, “At least someone has heard of me. You are…?”

Ray groaned as something popped, and slowly laid down again, “Not going anywhere. Answer me something before I pass out.”

“Anything,” said Time, still beaming.

Something resembling a smile worked its way onto Ray’s face, “What took you so long?”

Time’s smile instantly died, and Frank was too busy laughing from shock, from relief, from the look on Gerard’s face and the ache in his lungs, to notice when Ray went still.

“Haul him up,” Time ordered immediately, heading for Ray’s room, “Quickly, quickly. I’m sure he wouldn’t appreciate bleeding to death on his own floor.”

Gerard called after her, alarmed, “Wait, where are we taking him?”

“To the Untitled, of course,” she replied, voice echoing, and they could hear the muffled whine of a closet door being slid open, “We’re not done here, boys. Not even close.”

*

And if this was a movie, Frank concluded internally, it’d be the kind of movie you’d have no problem watching until you got home, and your brain picked out every detail it could, every showing wire, every stumbled line. It was a bad movie and had too many fight scenes, and it ran too close together, and you were pretty fucking sure the writers were idiots, but hey—you just wanted to see that happy ending. Every movie deserved one.

Time was the weirdest happy ending Frank had ever seen. The trek back to Gabe’s palace had been just as effortless as anything else, and Ray had been put to bed immediately. It hadn’t even taken much to convince Matthew to take care of him, although Frank suspected the “words” Time had shared with him involved vivid descriptions of his organs and where they would end up after. Now every time Time entered Ray’s room Matthew coughed and covered this up immediately with a light, guilty cough.

Frank, who’d been camping out in Ray’s room since bringing him there, could never hide his smile upon catching this. By the fourth occurrence, he’d found Gerard giggling, and now traded semi-identical crazed grins with him whenever it happened. If nothing else, it took their minds off Ray’s progress and the slowness of it. It was obvious Bert had done a huge amount of damage. It’d taken days before Ray could fully speak, and even then a rasp clung to every vowel, wrapped itself around every syllable. Additional help from Matthew had him sitting up, but his chest moved erratically, and every cough brought alarm.

Amazingly, Ray blamed them for nothing, not even when Frank pushed him to. “Not your fault. Didn’t send him here.”

Frank spluttered, “He wouldn’t have had any reason to be in your fucking room if it—“
“Stop,” Ray shook his head, “Being an idiot.”

Frank opened his mouth to retort, but Gerard’s voice, rough and pebbly with sleep, said, "I agree with Ray."

Frank and Ray blinked at him. “You do?”

“I do,” Gerard sat up right in his chair, “This isn’t anyone’s fault, Frank. You wanted to do something, and you went for it. Do you realize that being here, being in this world—you’ve done more than you ever had than in any crappy job?”

“I punched a few guys,” depanned Frank, “and somehow kept myself alive. I’m a regular fucking Superman.”

Ray chuckled, then coughed, “Idiot.”

“The hugest,” Gerard agreed, moving closer to Frank. He looked tired, and circles swelled beneath his eyes, but his voice was strong as he spoke. “Frank. We fought a Lord. A magical Lord. Who was trying to kill us. We traveled through an unknown land, ate shit that should’ve killed us but didn’t. This place everything about it. It changed something.”

Frank paused for a moment. “…Do you want to stay?”

The color fled from Gerard’s face, making him a comical ghost parody, “No. No fucking way. I’m just—I’m just saying that it changed you. Look at you.”

Frank glanced down at himself. Other than the torn and bloody clothing, knotted and muddy shoes and pale skin, he didn’t look any different. His brain still organized itself the same, was still the jumbled mess of curses and half-finished thoughts. He figured the only thing that’d changed was the frequency in which his knuckles hurt.

“I’m not—“ he started, “I don’t know. I don’t feel any different.”

“Well, you are,” stated Gerard determinedly, “You really are, Frank. And I’m totally fucking proud of you.”

Frank couldn’t help it—he smiled. “This is a total movie moment.”

Gerard grinned back, “Thanks for ruining it.”

Frank took his kiss as it came, and it didn’t matter that everything still hurt, that the guilt still settled, uncomfortable and pressing, in the worst of places—Frank really fucking loved this guy. Frank loved him, and it was fucking true.

“Amazing,” came a dry, dry voice, “They do get cuter.”

Frank broke away in time to find Time smothering a laugh in one hand as Bob limped into the room, one crutch propped stiffly beneath an arm. Everything about him was suddenly a mess: his hair had been cut short and stitches made tracks across his face and neck, but he was smiling, and Frank could instantly tell it was still him, nothing had changed.

Gerard laughed, crossing the room in what seemed like four broad steps before enveloping him in a hug, “I can’t believe you’re still alive.”

“Nice to see you too,” Bob smirked, “Kind of feels weird, doesn’t it?”

“Well, you certainly shaved a few life points off your meter there,” admitted Time, almost sheepishly, “But it’s nothing that couldn’t be handled. Just be sure to stay away from any adventures for a while, I don’t know if I make encores.”

Bob nodded, then shrugged, then grimaced, “Not going to happen, trust me. This is the kind of shit you pull once.” He nodded at Frank, “Why are you so much prettier than me?”

“I didn’t take as much shit,” Frank glanced at his knuckles and flexed, “Sure as hell didn’t take a cobra to the face.”

“Lucky fucking you.”

There was a moment’s pause, then Frank stepped forward, extending his hand, “Thank you. For, uh—pretty much everything. You saved our asses.”

“Same to you,” Bob took his fingers gently, “It kind of sucked, sitting in that bed all the time, you know? All I really thought about is what I’d be doing right now if this hadn’t happened.”

Frank nodded; he could relate. It was something he’d pondered since returning to the Untitled, and the answers were never satisfying. “Doesn’t matter anymore, does it? What are you going to do now?”

Bob shrugged, then grimaced again, “I don’t know. Pete—he’s a fucking madman when it comes to recruiting. Always for help around the shop.” He grinned, “I figure it’s a surefire way I don’t end up getting my ass killed on the job, so.”

Frank chuckled, “I don’t know, man. There’s always Patrick.” Bob made a quick face and he laughed, and fuck if it didn’t feel good that very second, that laugh and just about everything else. “Take your chances.”

He stepped forward for one last hug, then socked Bob in the arm when he pretended to groan. Time rolled her eyes, “How sweet you two are. However, you three—“ she indicated quickly which three with a tilt of her chin, “need to return to your world before any more trouble arises, and I need to finish cleaning up this mess. Any last words?”

Frank glanced at Gerard, and both shook their heads. Ray coughed.

The thought of home, his and Gerard’s apartment, the paint-splattered canvases and roaches—everything seemed overwhelming, like he wasn’t ready almost, like he didn’t deserve it. He’d been here too long, he knew; they both had.

He didn’t give a fuck.

“Nothing,” he told Time, and meant it. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”



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