Moar fluffies! Yissssssss. And the wrap-up of TWO plotlines that have been going for half to nearly-the-ENTIRE fic! Man oh man. I'm actually resolving things in this fic. It's actually happening. Dannnnnng. I've waited SO LONG.

Relevant today! Man, turns out it's gonna be tricky not spoiling the contents of the chapter while listing out what's relevant.

-Kai's battle with the Crusher just now in Chapter 125. Also all the recent developments with Cole's leg and Lloyd's haircut, and the plans to go to Skylor's island to retrieve some Technicians/heal Cole's leg.

-Various aspects of the "Technician tunnel" arc from Chapters 33 to 52. Remember that whole fiasco?

-The culmination of . . . a subplot . . . introduced in the tunnel arc, and mentioned again in chapters 81 and 100.

-Glancing references to Lloyd's conversation with Cole in Chapter 121, and how for a while he'd thought he'd killed Mack.

-Kai's wrist injury from when Lloyd went dark in Chapter 78.

-Wu's healing tea that was introduced wayyyyy back in Chapter 32 and has popped up intermittently since then.

-Kai's confusion at Lloyd's sudden improvement from Chapter 123.

-A certain someone introduced in Chapters 25 and 26, and glancingly mentioned again in Chapters 50 and 111 . . .

-Catching up on Silica in hiding and the other remaining Technicians' situation, which has been popping up in chapters like 100, 106, and 122.

-Also the Technicians' katamari of code fragments is still a thing, now the updated format that doesn't need a centralized computer farm. And the ninja are still collecting their own katamari to fight back since Chapter 107, with help from Dr. Borg.

SpiritDragon: Thanks for the review! Aww, glad the fic could cheer you up. :) And that you're still enjoying it!
Sounds good! It'll be helpful for me too, even. Half the time even I don't know where I'm getting all this from. XD
Oh, Dork Squad? Oof. Sorry about that. ^_^'' It's at least partially better already, though! And all uphill from here. :)
Haha, no, I've always been ShinyShiny9. Even back when I was a guest reviewer! You weren't in Australia at the time, were you? ;P

Foreverfictional: Holy cow, that's amazing! You do realize that's almost like reading The Hobbit and all three Lord of the Rings books in a week and a half? Thank you so much for giving this fic your time. ^_^
Heh, I would never have guessed the death-fakeouts would end up being someone's favorite, but I'm glad to hear they're yours!

Oct 29

2:34 PM

Status conditions: Cole; penetrating trauma to lower limb. Lloyd; remnants of gunshot wound and major bite wound. Kai; various bruises, fractures, and lacerations.

Lloyd pulled himself together quickly enough and made it down to the Serpentine kingdom to visit Kai. Jay, Nya, and Zane had already visited him over the last few days, and poor Cole couldn't have walked that far, so Lloyd went on his own.

The others had told him where he could find Kai, in a little hut often used for recuperating Serpentine. Lloyd smiled to himself as he walked. From what he gathered, the snakes were all super impressed that Kai had managed to take down some critter called "The Crusher," and now he was kind of a bigshot around here. That had to be doing wonders for his ego. Admittedly, Lloyd was a little unclear on why Kai had disappeared to fight a snake monster—Jay had mostly hemmed, hawed, and stammered unhelpfully—but he hoped he could fish the details out of Kai while he was visiting.

He knocked on the door of the hut, then poked his head in.

"Hey Kai!"

"Lloyd?" Kai's head shot up, then immediately he looked savage. "Shhhh! Don't you dare wake her!"

Lloyd tensed. Reflexively he swept his gaze around the hut, wondering what kind of monstrous beast Kai had slumbering in here. Or wait, dear lor, did he mean Skylor? Some Serpentine chick?!

But nobody else seemed to be in the hut at all. There was just Kai, pretty heavily bandaged up and settled on a Serpentine beanbag-bed. Before Lloyd could ask, Kai made a strangled noise of awe and forgot to keep his own voice down.

"Eff ess em, Lloyd, your hair!"

"Heh." Lloyd grinned despite himself. "Like it?"

"Fizzims unpreceded. What the heck. Get in here."

Lloyd cast about suspiciously.

"Uh, first, who's the 'her' I'm not supposed to wake?"

"Her." Kai pointed. Lloyd looked, but all he saw was a strange soft-looking cylindrical plush thing on a table. It was kind of like a dog bed, actually, only nicer. It had little jewels circling the outside and everything.

Bewildered, Lloyd tiptoed over and peeked into the bed. Inside was a tiny scaly form, barely the size of a football, curled up on herself with her eyes shut. Her scales were almost entirely white, except for some cyan splashing her hands and feet and wisping from her forehead down her back. One of her tiny back feet twitched, then flicked up to scratch her ear through her sleep.

Lloyd stared for a moment.


"Meet Selina," whispered Kai. "Esteemed princess of the Serpentine."


"Shush." Kai packed a hurricane of force into the whisper. "I just spent a literal hour getting her to sleep, if you wake her then so help me—"

"What," repeated Lloyd, by now utterly dismayed at his own confusion.

"I'll explain in a minute, first get over here and let me see your freakin' hair." Kai held out his arms as if to drag Lloyd over. "Good grief, Lloyd! What possessed you?"

"Kai, you vanished without telling anyone, to fight some kind of deadly snake monster, for reasons Jay won't tell us, and now you have a baby Serpentine princess in your room. And you think the important thing is for me to explain my haircut?"

"Yep." Kai made "gimme" motions with his hands. "You gotta have priorities."

Lloyd groaned, but went over to join Kai with a fond smile. Kai didn't wait for an invitation before hauling Lloyd over by the shoulders and digging his fingers into Lloyd's greatly-reduced mop of curls, as if he suspected it might be a skullcap with a wig.

"Lloyd, buddy, pal. Why?"

"It was time," said Lloyd simply. He tried to swat Kai away, without much success.

"But . . . no warning? Geez!" Kai looked honestly wounded. "I didn't get to see you fluffy one last time! I didn't get to be there for the event! You just turn up one day and you're a different person!"

"Oh, good grief." Lloyd finally pried himself free and flopped back onto the beanbag bed, covering his eyes. "This is ridiculous. Why is everyone making such a big deal about a haircut?!"

Which he knew was pretty rich, coming from him. But Kai didn't know, and right now he didn't need to.

"Argh." Kai scruffed a hand through his own hair, laughing ruefully. "Sorry kiddo. I know. Gimme a break here, you just—you look a lot younger all of a sudden." He cleared his throat discreetly. "Feels like I'm seeing you from like a year ago."

Lloyd's eyes softened.

"Hey," he said, sitting up again. "I didn't get to—uh, how are your ribs?"

"Not that bad," said Kai, holding out his arms again. Lloyd was still careful hugging him hello, but he could tell Kai lowkey needed it.

"Okay," he said, pulling back. "Now you. What is . . . all this? Why is the princess of the Serpentine in your room?!"

"Well, Skales and Selma had to take Junior to meet the principal," said Kai. "Sounds like he's getting the ol' new-baby jealousy and acting out at school. But, you know, they didn't want to bring a little baby to that."

"So you're . . . " Lloyd squinted, unable to wrap his head around it.

"Babysitting, yep!" said Kai.


"Well, you don't have to sound so surprised." Kai folded his arms self-righteously. "She loves me!"

As if on cue, there was a scuffling from the plush bed, and soon there came a sharp high-pitched peeping. It sounded a little like the chirp of a dying smoke alarm, only much faster.

"Ahh man, there she goes again. We were too loud." Tucking in his tongue, Kai maneuvered to the edge of his own bed and lifted the baby snakelet out of hers. "Hey, shhhhhh! It's okay. I gotcha. Look who came to see you, huh?"

Lloyd watched, bemused, as Kai settled back on the bed and held Selina up to him. She seemed entirely uninterested in her guest, squirming erratically and bobbing her tiny snout with each peep, eyes plaintive.

"Okay, okay. You can get to know your other uncle later," said Kai, tucking Selina into one arm. "So fussy today! Did Junior teach you that?" He began to stroke one finger along the top of the baby's head. Her chirping slowed, then tapered off entirely. She relaxed and nestled into Kai's arm, then began gnawing on the crook of his elbow lazily.

"Now if I wasn't bandaged there, that would hurt. Teeny razor teeth," remarked Kai. He glanced up to Lloyd with a smirk. "See? I'm a natural."

"Okay, but . . . " Lloyd shook his head, still bewildered. "Out of an entire Serpentine kingdom, you?"

"I'm really getting insulted here," said Kai, but rolled his eyes and laughed. "It is pretty wild, isn't it? But the royal family and I have really been hitting it off while I was here. I mean, you know my charisma is irresistible." He laughed again at the face Lloyd made. "Besides, they probably figured I made the best bodyguard. Highly-trained ninja, and if I can take down—" He faltered, sobering momentarily, but then seemed to shake it off. "Well, I've made some pretty impressive takedowns. They probably figured nothing is getting past me."

"Hey, I'm not questioning your skills," said Lloyd good-naturedly, although he made a note to possibly ask about those 'takedowns' later. "I'm just, well, kinda surprised that . . . "

"They trust my motivation?" Kai looked up keenly, then nodded. "Yeah. I hear ya. Don't get me wrong, I know I'm charming, but even I'm blown away that the royal family trusts their baby to . . . you know. Me." His smile grew a little pained. "A human. And for good measure I'm one of the humans who literally made it their job to beat them up. And has shady connections with their criminal slobber trade. And . . . " He went silent, his eyes drifting down to his hands.

Lloyd shifted, feeling a chill go over him. In the time since he'd been hospitalized, he'd done the same mental math Kai had expected. Zane had been down. He'd been down. He awoke to find someone had killed Nash while he was out, and out of Jay, Nya, and Kai, only one acted haunted enough to be the one.

"Is that why you fought the Crusher?" he asked quietly. "Some kind of Serpentine punishment?"

"Yeah," said Kai, not looking up. Absently he began to stroke Selina's head again; she leaned into it, cooing. "I asked for it, actually. Kinda wanted to . . . balance it out, you know?"

Lloyd looked at him silently. He hadn't been there, so he registered the truth with much more detachment than Jay had. But the basic realization was the same: their first murderer.

He knew how it felt.

"Do you feel like it did balance it out?" he asked.

"Yeah, sorta . . . " Kai glanced up to him with a wordless question. How about you? Lloyd knew how that felt too; waiting for his family's horror, censure, rejection. He shifted to sit beside Kai, close enough to bump shoulders, and the fire ninja smiled gratefully and relaxed. They were quiet for a bit, Kai still stroking Selina's head intermittently.

"Honestly, though?" Lloyd broke the silence, his tone light to draw them out of this shadowy territory. "That wasn't actually my question in the first place. I was actually surprised because I thought you hated babies."

Kai looked startled, then started to laugh, then came up short with a grimace as his ribs protested. Selina lifted her head, puzzled, but then returned to chewing on Kai's bandage. She had a good layer of drool going on there.

"Human babies." Kai's voice was still bright with amusement. "Human babies are gross. They're these weird pudgy squishy little things with half their body parts missing and the other half too big, and weird little alien faces everyone thinks are cute." He stuck out his tongue. "No babies for me, thanks. But snake babies? I mean, you want to talk cute, would you just look at her?" He lifted Selina slightly, ignoring the strand of drool dripping from his elbow. "Basically a teeny scale model of a grown-up snake. All her scales. All her teeth. Just look at her." He traced her tiny forehead reverently. "She's adorable."

Lloyd snickered despite himself.

"I'm telling Skylor."

"What, that I don't want kids?" Kai grinned back. "Be my guest, shorty. She doesn't like babies either. We're totally gonna get married and adopt an orphan snakelet, and it's gonna be awesome."

"You?! Married?!" Lloyd sputtered.

"What, you think I couldn't get married?" Kai feigned offense. "Guy's gotta settle down someday, ya know."

"It's not so much that. I'm just worried you'd never be able to memorize the vows."

"Wait, you mean they don't let you read off a cheat sheet?" Kai looked alarmed. "Shoot."

They had a nice time catching up for a while. They never edged close to the topic of the past again, but they both understood subconsciously that they'd been through similar traumas, struggled through similar feelings, clawed their way out of similar dark valleys. They recognized in each other a skilled companion to keep either of them from sliding back in. Even if it was just someone to chat with as you skirted the brink.

Eventually the rest of the royal family returned, Junior included.

"Uncle Lloyd!" he squealed, hurling himself across the room.

"Juniorrrrrr!" Lloyd swept him up, laughing. "How's life?"

"Bad." Junior quickly made himself woeful. "All of'a teachers yell at me. Allllll the time."

"It sounds like you've been giving them good enough reason to," said Skales wearily from the door. He nodded to the ninja. "Good afternoon, Lloyd."

"Afternoon, your majesty." Lloyd turned back to Junior, chuckling. "Now, what's this I'm hearing about you being bad, huh?"

"Ahhhhh. I wanna be bad." Junior folded his arms. "It's fun."

"Now Junior. Didn't we have that talk about big brothers having to be a good example?" grinned Kai.

"For her?" Junior looked disgustedly to his baby sister, who was now babbling happily in Selma's arms. Kai and Lloyd looked at each other and tried not to laugh.

"Thank goodnessssss you're here, Lloyd," said Skales. "Junior, if you want to be bad, you should talk to him. He'sss had exssssperience."

"Oh!" said Lloyd, while Kai sputtered delightedly.

"You were bad?" Junior looked up at Lloyd with new respect.

"He was bad at it, more like," chortled Kai. Skales gave him a dry look.

"That's what you think."

"Oh, for the love of Pete." Lloyd folded his arms and tried desperately to look offended as the others laughed. "I came all the way down here just to get insulted like this? Really?"

"I know, right?" Junior also looked disgusted at all these grown-ups having a great time with a joke he wasn't in on. "This is dumb. Don't worry, I'm on your side."

Lloyd, through valiant effort, managed to thank Junior mostly-solemnly before cracking up himself. The tiny hut was filled with an unusual feeling, simultaneously familiar and completely strange. He knew the warmth of being with friends and joking over stupid stuff, but he'd never have expected it to be with a royal family of Serpentine. There was also a strange feeling that he thought might be entirely new, but eventually he realized he was just that out of practice. Last he checked, it was called being happy. It was nice.

"You lot, settle down," sighed Selma at last. "You're over-exciting the little one."

She had started giving Selina dinner alreadywhat looked like cubed-up ham. Lloyd noted that Kai had definitely not been kidding about the tiny razor teeth.

"Kai, thank you so much for looking after Selina," Selma continued. "We picked up dinner on the way home, we can leave you some if you like."

"Can I have dinner here too?" asked Junior hopefully.

"You're not tired?" Selma looked to Kai.

"Not at all, your majesty, he's more than welcome. Not every day Lloyd's here, either!"

"Yayyyyyyy!" Junior, his mood already much improved, snatched one of the boxes of Serpentine take-out his father was carrying.

"We'll be over to pick him up in an hour or two," said Skales. "Thank you again, and don't hesitate to phone us if he gets to be too much of a handful."

"I'm not a handful." Junior was already shoveling down stir-fried beetles.

"Yeah, you're a regular angel!" Kai chuckled. Junior made his best cherubic face.

The snake family left Kai another takeout box, unsuccessfully plied Lloyd with a third, and left, taking Selina with them. Junior kept snarfing down his own meal while Lloyd looked with fair trepidation at Kai's. The red ninja was unpacking containers of extremely raw meat on kebab sticks.

"Relaaaaax," said Kai, grinning. "I'll admit, the food down here took a little getting used to, but it's really not so bad. They let me skip the bugs and stick to the meat, at least."

"It's raw," said Lloyd.

"Yep, it is. You get used to it." Kai held out a kebab. "Want one?" He shrugged when Lloyd stared at him. "Fine, your loss." Taking the kebab for himself, he moved to bite into it. Half a second before actually completing the motion, he stopped, eyed Lloyd (who was watching with horrified anticipation), then snorted.

"Your face right now." Holding the kebab away again, he summoned a tongue of flame in his other hand and stuck the meat into it.

"I knew it," said Lloyd, smirking in spite of himself.

"Surrrrre you did."

They both laughed. Junior regarded them judgmentally from over the stir-fry dish he was licking clean.

"You're still doin' that weird stuff with burning food?"

They kept busy chatting with Junior while Kai ate. He brightened up considerably under their attention, although he still didn't have much good to say about school or his little sister. Lloyd tried to convince him that being bad was really not as rewarding as the word on the street would suggest.

"Hey, tell you guys what," said Kai at last. "Do you wanna go see the Crusher?"

"The big thing you fought?" Junior jumped to his feet. "Yeah! I wanna see, I wanna see! Daddy never has time to take me!"

"Aw, your dad'll take you soon," said Kai soothingly. "But I'm sure he won't mind if you get a quick preview."

"Aren't you supposed to be staying in bed?" said Lloyd uneasily.

"Ahhhh, it's not far. I'll make it." Kai heaved himself to the edge of the bed, then gingerly began the process of standing up. "With . . . a little help, maybe."

Lloyd stepped over to support him, while Junior bounced eagerly by the door.

"I never asked, come to think. What are your injuries?"

"Not much," said Kai. "That one bad leg got torn up again. This elbow had a tendon go too. Three broken ribs, and all the rest of these bandages are scratches."

"And the wrist," said Lloyd softly.

"Meh, big deal." Kai leaned on him heavily enough to suggest his injuries were not as light as he'd like to claim. "Few bumps don't get me down. I'm still the greatest."

"You know what, you actually might be in the top five or so," conceded Lloyd.

"Aw geez, come on, it's no fun if you agree with me." Kai grinned, although it was strained. As they limped out of the hut, Junior bouncing far ahead, Kai lowered his voice and added, "Hey. Thanks for letting Junior stay; hope you're not missing out on stuff you'd wanted to talk about. It's just, I think he could really use the extra attention. His folks try, for sure, but they've got royal duties and a new baby. They can't give him as much time as they'd like to."

"Hey, I love spending time with him. Don't forget I'm his favorite. And he does seem happier now," said Lloyd. After a moment he couldn't resist adding, "But you'd know all about needing attention, wouldn'cha?"

"Smart aleck," said Kai.

They limped along under Kai's direction, towards the wall of the underground cavern. Just as Lloyd was starting to get really concerned about Kai's ability to go any further, a piercing howl rang out just ahead, from behind a hillock that blocked their view. Lloyd shuddered inadvertently at the unnatural sound, then kicked himself when Kai gave him a smirk.

"Spooky, huh?"

"Whatever," said Lloyd airily, determined not to blow Kai's ego any further out of proportion. Junior, however, was already bounding to the top of the hillock squealing eagerly.

"Oh WOW!" he yelled when he crested the top.

"Don't get any closer, Junior!" Kai shouted after him.

It was a bit of a trial getting Kai up that last hill, and admittedly Lloyd's patience was really put to the test. He was getting curious.

Finally they lurched to the top, and Kai, despite breathing heavily and looking a little nauseous, still managed to gesture grandly.

"Say hello to my not-so-little friend."

Despite his best efforts Lloyd felt his eyebrows shoot upwards. The Crusher was . . . imposing, to say the least. The Serpentine now had it enclosed in a tall sturdy kennel of sorts, larger than a soccer field, over which the beast could barely raise its head. Standing at the top of the hill, though, Junior and the ninja had a good view. The Crusher was circling in its pen, tongue-sniffing the walls and making spine-rattling growly-squeal noises. Its tail lashed feverishly.

"It's SO COOL!" whooped Junior.

"Are you sure that's safe?" said Lloyd.

"Oh yeah, it's way tamer than it used to be," said Kai. "Turned out it was just really miserable 'cos being alive and having the ignition on at the same time really hurt. Poor critter. It's happier with the engine off."

Apparently it was feeding time. A Serpentine was lugging an entire dead Wallober towards the kennel. Scenting the fresh meat, the Crusher's head shot up, its whole body going tense and trembling. The Serpentine opened a small sliding door in the kennel wall and shoved the Wallober through, visibly nervous. Before the animal was even fully through the hatch, the Crusher had hurled itself at the small gate, crashing against the fence with a sound like a freight train overturning. Howling, it began to ravage its meal, while the Serpentine who'd brought it slammed the gate and scurried away from the trembling fence like one pursued by hellhounds.

"Ehhhhh . . . " Kai shrugged at Lloyd's dubious look. "I mean, it's not randomly vicious, but it is still really hungry. Kind of eating the kingdom out of house and home right now, honestly. It was trapped in a cave for years with no food except" He glanced to Junior. "Ehhh."

Lloyd turned his head away so Kai wouldn't see his face. Heaven forbid Kai know it, but he was impressed. He couldn't help it. The Crusher looked formidable, nearly undefeatable, and this was supposedly its tame state. Out in broad daylight. He couldn't imagine being shoved into a dark cave with this thing in full starving rage mode.

Kai's thoughts seemed to be trending along similar lines.

"I feel lucky," he said after a bit.

By the time they got back to the medical hut, Skales had already arrived to pick Junior up. Shleena the medicine-snake was there too. She skewered Kai with a look that made him flinch hard enough for Lloyd to feel.

"I know," he said meekly. Shleena's glare didn't waver.

"Iiii . . . think we'd bessst be on our way," said Skales, giving Kai a look of mixed sympathy and amusement. "Say goodbye, Junior."

"Should I maybe wait outside?" Lloyd whispered as he helped Kai into the hut.

"Please no," Kai whispered back. "Protect me."

Lloyd tried not to giggle.

Shleena did seem to be restraining herself since Lloyd was still around, but if that was restraining herself, boy. As she adjusted Kai's casts and put him through some rehabilitative exercises, she made enough biting comments that Lloyd couldn't tell if he should laugh or start being uncomfortable. Apparently it wasn't the first time Kai had disobeyed his bedrest orders. Big surprise.

Finally, when Kai's treatment was finished, Shleena made a last few snide remarks, promised unspeakable horrors if she caught Kai out of his room again, and swept away.

"Phewwwww." Kai flopped back on his bed, slinging an arm over his eyes. "I really am lucky to be alive . . . "

Lloyd finally gave up and sputtered into laughter.

"Ohhhh, ha ha. That's right. Enjoy my suffering." Kai didn't remove his arm, but the corners of his mouth twitched. "Seriously. Everyone's being really nice to me down here and everything, but I would almost be ready to drink some of Wu's freaky healing tea just to get away from Shleena faster." He finally lifted his arm to glare sidewise at Lloyd. "Almost. Don't get ideas."

"Loser." Lloyd flopped back next to him, still laughing.

"Ugh, seriously! Talk about insult to injury, you little sadist." Kai folded his arms and looked away, pretending to be wounded. "Besides, I thought you just said I was in the top five greatest."

"Top five greatest losers."

"Arrrrrgh." Kai smacked him in the face with a pillow. Lloyd cracked up again and grabbed it to avoid a repeat, and Kai let him, smirking fondly. He saw Lloyd's eyes abruptly grow sad as he sobered up, and gave a wistful smile of his own.

"I know, squirt. I'm gonna miss you too."

"Argh." Lloyd folded his arms over the pillow. "It feels so weird going off to have fun without you. Without all of us together." He studied the ceiling morosely for a moment. "I almost . . . I kinda want to stay. I could visit you every day. Keep you company."

"As if anyone could have fun without me." Kai grinned. "Besides. I'll get better in no time, and then I'll come over and join you guys. In the meantime, Cole is gonna need all the help he can get healing. And I think it'll be good for you to be around him too." His smile grew the tiniest bit rueful. "He seems to have done you a lot of good lately."

"Ahh." Lloyd looked away. "You guys have all done me a lot of good."

"Either way. I'm just glad you're doing better, greenbean."

"Ugh." Lloyd whapped the pillow at him half-heartedly. "Don't get mushy."

They were still chatting a few minutes later, and Lloyd was reluctantly gearing up to leave, when there was suddenly a quiet but vigorous knock on the door. Without waiting for an answer it opened, and a broad green hooded head poked through. Kai started upright with a gasp.


"Shhhh!" The young Venomari gestured frantically for silence. "We can't get caught!"

"What are you doing here?!" Kai lowered his voice to an urgent whisper. "'We'? We who?"

Jinty glanced uneasily to Lloyd, who was gaping at him in amazement, but then seemed to make up his mind. He drew back for a second, gestured to somebody still outside, then slipped into the medical hut. A second form slipped after him. Lloyd's heart seized; the second snake looked like a nightmare. He was bowed and deformed; his right arm was missing from the shoulder; the right side of his face and neck were crumpled and raw, a mixture of bare flesh and half-rotted skin. His right eye socket gaped, empty. He looked like a walking corpse left over from some gruesome nuclear accident.

Kai, however, had bolted nearly to his feet, a startled cry jumping from his lips.


The apparition grinned, mostly with the left side of his face. His voice was hoarse, but recognizable.

"Hey Red."

The next second Kai was hugging the injured snake for dear life, trying desperately to hide that he was on the verge of tears.

"What the heck? What is this? Pug! You were dead!"

"That's what we liked Nash to think." Jinty was perched on the edge of Kai's bed, also grinning. Lloyd watched from across the hut, still too gobsmacked to even know what to say. Somehow, he had never even realized that Jinty and Pug were Serpentine, not human slobber dealers.

"They took my arm off quick enough to get mossst of the venom." Pug nodded ruefully to his empty right shoulder. "I lived."

"But obviously if Nash knew, he was gonna finishhhh the job," chipped in Jinty, swinging his legs. "So we hid him real good and made a big deal out of him being dead."

"I can't believe this." Kai slung a spare arm around Jinty giddily. "Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh . . . "

Lloyd watched, head tilted. He was appalled with himself, but for just a second he thought he knew how Skales Junior must feel. He knew this was huge, he knew it was incredibly selfish to grudge Kai or the twins such an amazing reunion, but . . . argh. He'd gotten comfortable being the favorite little brother. This was an encroachment on his territory.

"You're not exssssspecting any guests soon, are you Red?" said Jinty. "Pug and I are on the run. If anyone else ssssees us, we might get shunted to the human court system, and we'd rather not go to juvie if we can help it."

"Oh man, you guys." Kai looked between the twins anxiously. "You can't spend the rest of your lives running."

"Don't plan to!" said Jinty cheerfully. "But for now we jussst wanna figure things out. We'll be okay. We're free."

"It's a lot better than hiding," rasped Pug. "Waiting for him to find me."

"Yeah," said Jinty. He gave Kai a sad smile. "That was why we sssstopped by to see you, Red. To let you know Pug was okay . . . And to ssssay thanks."

"Thanks," agreed Pug. Kai swallowed hard and drew Pug in again, squeezing him so hard his bandaged arm creaked. One more reason for him to be at peace; to look past his regrets. Jinty half-smiled, then glanced to Lloyd again.

"Your friend's a pretty cool guy," he said. "He never had any reason to look out for us. But he did."

"I know." Lloyd smiled back, feeling his tiny flicker of resentment snuffing out instantly. "He's kind of the greatest."

"Elina, you're my only friend," singsonged Silica wryly, dangling her head off the back of her swivel chair. Teake rolled her eyes a little, tired of the younger woman's sarcastic coping habits.

"Everything is awfullllll . . . " Silica sang to the damp earth ceiling. "Everything is cruel and messed-up and obscene . . . " She groaned, trying to drag herself back into some semblance of functionality. "Any word from, like . . . anyone?"

"Wayne, Dumas, and the others are still on the lam," said Teake. "Nothing to report. The forty-three crew members who escaped the first police wave are still free, as far as I can tell, but they're hiding too deep for me to know anything for sure."

"I'll dig through the police files, see if they've arrested anyone new," said Silica listlessly. "What about Cappie? Any word from him?"

"CapsLock has been entirely silent for five days. Ever since he left," said Teake. There was something just a little too clipped about her tone. Silica eyed her dubiously, but finally shrugged.

"Screw him. The traitor. Bet he's just walked out on the project anyway, now that we're literally operating out of a hole in the ground. Welp, once Katamari Two-point-oh is done, he's not getting the payout! Just you and me, sugar. My only friennnnnnnd . . . "

Teake muffled an irritated sigh.

"I would ask if Blue's said anything, but I know the answer to that one," said Silica. "Screw him too. Damn his scaly hide." She kicked upright, sighing at her computer. "Okay, time to check the police logs! After that, all I've gotta do is put out one more batch of katamari fragments, and figure out how to hack into Cyrus Borg's server farm to wreck the ninjas' katamari. Can't have them interfering."

"Do you think you can break the security measures of Ninjago's foremost technological genius?" said Teake.

"Hey," said Silica. "I'm just trying to do what the Overlord did."

"Is that a no?"

"Ohh, shut up Teake."