"Everything's in position down here. Y'all about at the backdoor?"
"You're not southern," he replied to the voice over his headset, metal fingers tapping on the helicopter's hull. "Stop saying y'all, seriously."
"Four years of college in the south, sue me."
"Yeah? I'm more southern than you'll ever be, and I don't say y'all."
"Attention," a new voice came over the line, silencing both men instantly. Female, monotone. A little blue imp popped up on the Tinkertech HUD in his goggles, mouth moving in time with the voice. "The final warrant has come through. We have full authorization. You may commence the operation."
"Finally!" he hissed, almost reverently, grinning as he tapped the side of his goggles. "This is Belias to all teams, I repeat, Belias to all teams. We have the greenlight, Operation Normandy is a go! Garuda and I will take the roof, Mateus and Titan will surround and secure the ground. Deltas One, Two and Three will lock down all enemy support. All teams, move out!" His grin widened as the helicopter's blades roared even louder above him, and his legs tensed as the vehicle shifted beneath him.
"Roger that, Blazkowicz going in."
"Wrong game and Bismarck's got more of a claim on that than you do, but good attitude!" He hooked his fingers into the helicopter's door and yanked it open, standing strong against the high winds as he looked down at the skyscraper erected beneath him.
His smile became downright savage as he took in the other two helicopters circling along with his own, the five APCs disgorging troops so far down below at street level… and the crown emblazoned on the building's side.
"Our target is the Medhall Corporate Headquarters!" He shouted over the din of his ride. "Deal with any resistance, locate and secure Maxwell Anders, and apprehend any and all Parahumans on site! And as always…"
His smile became downright savage as he pumped his metal arm, steam whistling from its every joint.
"Lethal force is authorized. ENGAGE!"
A rallying cry rang out as—WHOA.
Okay, no, fuck this—HOLD EVERYTHING!
*Bitchingly Ridiculous Outstanding Biotch joins the conversation*
[ADMINISTRATOR D HAS COME ONLINE]
ADMIN D: WHAT? NOT LIKING THE SHOW?
BROB—At the moment? Not very! Not only did you snatch the most hilarious piece of entertainment I've seen in eons, but you gave me the wrong spaciotemporal coordinates! I am not starting in the goddamn middle. I want to start where all good stories begin. At the fucking beginning.
ADMIN D: EXCUSE ME!? WHAT ARE YOU—OH WAIT, FUCK, FORGOT TO CARRY HALF A MILLION DIGITS, MY BAD. CORRECT BY THREE-J-ZETA AND INVERT.
BROB—This is your idea of a 'gift I'd never forget'? You're kidding, right?
ADMIN D: HEY HEY, OFF THE HIGH HORSE. RECHECK THE TIMELINE YOU WERE FOLLOWING, WOULD YOU?
BROB—Alright, but I don't see what difference it will—Eh? Ohhh, I see. You split the timelines! Alright, so you didn't directly mess with him, so I won't just out and out terminate your existence… but still, this doesn't answer the biggest question of all: why show me this?
ADMIN D: WEEEELL, AS YOU'RE NO DOUBT AWARE, YOU AND YOUR… LET'S SAY 'PERSON OF INTEREST' HAVE BECOME QUITE POPULAR IN OUR CIRCLES RECENTLY, AND WHILE THE LITTLE TOAD IS IMPRESSIVE, I'LL ADMIT… I WAS ALWAYS MORE FASCINATED BY YOU.
ADMIN D: ABDUCTION, ANGUISH, AGONY… AND THOSE ARE JUST THE 'A'S. ALL THESE AND MORE YOU'VE INFLICTED, SORROW AND SUFFERING, TORTURE AND TORMENT, LIKE NONE BEFORE HAVE EVER DREAMED! NOT LIKE THOSE OTHER PETTY, HAM-HANDED FOOLS WHO SIMPLY DROP A METEOR AND CALL IT A DAY, NO, YOU'RE CLEVER. IT'S JUST SO… SO…
ADMIN D: SO… HOT.
BROB—...Administrator D… did, did you kidnap an alternate version of my favorite plaything and then drop him into what has been conceptually recognized as 'The Multiverse's Official Shithole of Shitholes', thereby unleashing massive amounts of chaos and madness upon both him and said Shithole... in order to court me?
ADMIN D: MMMORE LIKE TO PROMPT YOU TO ROCK MY OMNI-EXISTENCE, BUT IN LAYMANS TERMS YES. WHY, IS IT WORKING?
BROB—Every universe within a membrane of me just imploded, and I'm fairly certain that a new multiverse is rising from the ashes. The fuck do you think!?
ADMIN D: I THINK I NEED TO START CLEARING OUT SOME SPACE BEFORE WE ACCIDENTALLY CRUSH OUR OTHER FUN~ EVERYONE ELSE IS OUT OF LUCK, THOUGH.
BROB—Stop, I can only exist in so many dimensions at a time!
ADMIN D: I THINK I CAN BUMP IT UP A NOTCH.
ADMIN D: THAT SNAPSHOT WAS MISSING SOMETHING. WHOEVER SAID I SENT HIM IN… ALONE?
BROB—You don't mean…
ADMIN D: REINCARNATION WAS SUPPOSED TO HAVE THIS ONE. BUT I HAD BIGGER PLANS. BETTER PLANS.
ADMIN D:...HELLO? HEEELLOOO? WHERE'D YOU—MMPH!? Mmm…~
INTRODUCING, A TERRIBLE IDEA GONE HORRIBLY... RIGHT?
YET ANOTHER JOINT GORGONEION AND XOMNIAC PRODUCTION…
It was a perfectly average and normal morning in New York City's ever-famous Central Park. The sun was shining, the wind was blowing—
SMASH! CRASH! SNAP!
"OW! OW! YEOW!"
Aaand hapless young adults were falling from the sky, smashing through the leaves and branches of a lone oak that only just managed to reduce his downward velocity to 'extremely painful' instead of 'immediately fatal'.
Well, only one young adult was doing that, but still, noteworthy.
"Ah-hah-hah-hoooow… oh my tailbone..." the young man whined, sitting up and rubbing his throbbing rear end miserably. He was a gangly, blonde young man in his early twenties. His frame was slender, but he made up for it in height. He was wearing a black hooded jacket, an urban camouflage t-shirt, black cargo pants, and had a pair of headphones hanging around his neck.
"What the hell—?" Jeremiah Cross's started to curse in both pain and confusion—
Something small and light bounced off of his forehead, landing on the ground next to him. A quick glance over showed a pair of… glasses? But he didn't wear glasses, whose were—
SMASH! CRASH! SNAP!
"OW. OW. AGH!"
The canopy directly above Cross erupted into a medley of pained cries and snapping wood, and the young man snapped his gaze up in panic as realization hit him like a bullet. "Oh shi—!"
Cross saw a panicked face and then PAIN!
His head hurt. His gut hurt. His breath hurt. Wait, could breath even hurt? And not to mention the fact that he couldn't see, his glasses were gone, and oh, did he forget to mention that he was falling to his death!?
The first green blur finally got within spitting distance, still blurry, a little bit more distinct, but definitely still—
Okay, that was a branch, fuck, if the pain wasn't enough already… he bounced off that branch and concked his head on another one.
And bounced off that one, falling backwards out of the canopy, landing on—
Oh fuck, his back! That wasn't just hitting a branch, that was falling through a branch! He wasn't sure what was more broken, the branch or his back, but that didn't matter cause the ground was probably closing in, not that he could tell, and—PAIN.
Noah David, all five foot eight of him, slammed into something or other on the ground, and his world was agony. Fuck the rivets on his jeans for making the landing worse, fuck the short-sleeve button-up shirt and its inability to have fortunately caught onto a branch on the way down, and especially fuck his light bomber jacket, with its myriad pockets and buttons, all pushing and pressing and slamming into him throughout the fall. His bruises had bruises, he could feel them already, and even with that, he still couldn't find his fucking—wait, what was that?
His hand scoured over the ground, feeling something light, some plastic, some metal, something smooth and… wait. Those were his glasses! He grabbed them, setting the half-rim frames on the bridge of his nose, and blinked in surprise as the world came back into focus once more. He could see again, see as something more than vague blobs of shape and color, and… uh.
Was he… sitting on someone? Noah looked down, and very promptly bolted upright. Yeah, he'd definitely been sitting on someone. Someone who was probably taller than him, and annoyingly, also probably weighed less than he did… damn string beans...
"Uh…" He floundered. How best to approach this… "Are… uh, are you alright?"
"I just got dropped through a tree and then got someone dropped on me," the crushed stringbean wheezed venomously. "And as I am most certainly not a Manderville man… no, no I am not alright."
"... uhuh." He fixed the other person with a look. "But, do you do whatever a Manderville can, that's more important."
The flattened guy froze for a second before chuckling weakly and sat up, rubbing his head in an attempt to work away his half of their shared headache as he smiled at Noah. "I'm not doing the song and dance, but at least it's nice to know that I got brained by a man of culture." He held his hand out to Noah. "Jeremiah Cross, aka Xomni'to Molkoh. Nice to meet you, adventurer."
Noah was in the process of reaching his hand out when he finally parsed that last little bit. He knew that name. He knew that one very, very well.
"You know, you never claimed that room I set aside in that house in Shirogane," Noah said, voice light.
Cross blinked once, twice—
"Gorg!?" he choked out, shooting to his feet and grabbing Noah's shoulders, a euphoric grin on his face. And now, looking up at his companion, Noah felt short. Again.
"Xomniac, you son of a bitch." He returned the grin, a little less excited, more worried. This was… alright, this was pretty cool, he could admit. But at the same time? This… something was wrong. Something was very, very wrong, but he couldn't put his finger on it. What was it? What was he forgetting? "Noah, by the way. Noah David."
Cross chortled eagerly, giving Noah's shoulder a hearty shake… before suddenly freezing in place, his expression positively stricken.
"Oh fuck fuck fuckity fuuuck," Cross cursed, slamming his palm into his face with a tortured groan. "This… is not fucking good."
He looked at Noah, who was currently giving him a look. One of those looks that implies he might be a bit crazy.
"I'm a Spacebattler."
"Right?" Noah cocked an eyebrow questioningly.
"And you're a Spacebattler."
Cross jabbed his finger skywards with a snarl. "And we both just got dropped out of the sky into somewhere we don't recognize, but most likely will once we get a good look around."
"... fuck." Noah pushed his glasses up to rub at his eyes. "Mother of… ugh! That's… bad. That's really, really bad."
"You see my point."
Noah stared skyward miserably. "Don't suppose there's any chance we could go home if we ask nice enough?"
Cross jabbed his thumb over his shoulder with a growl. "The goddamn tree we just got dropped through, most likely for shits and giggles, says otherwise."
"I…" He trailed off. "Fuck. Okay, right." He paced for a moment, thinking to himself. "Alright, first thing's first, we gotta figure out where, when, and what we are."
"'What'!?" Cross choked incredulously for a second before grimacing and nodding in agreement. "Ah. Right. 'What'... lemme check real quick." He took a heavy sniff of the air, and sighed in relief. "Well, you don't smell delicious, so either you're a Ghoul too, or I'm not one. I'll take either option."
"Reassuring." Noah could only roll his eyes at Cross's antics, then looked around to try (and probably fail) and orient himself. "Now come on, I think I see the jogging path this way." He turned to lead the way out of wherever in this park they were, and found the first signs of a walking path. A jogger blew past the pair, initially seeming to be completely uncaring, but a further glance showed what could only be a canister of pepper spray in her hand, her finger on top and ready to let it loose. "Alright, jogging path get. Now let's take a look around and see where… we…"
As Noah's gaze turned skyward, his voice petered out. He stood there, still as a statue, one hand frozen above his eyes as he locked onto a specific part of the skyline.
"If I follow wherever the hell you're looking, will I be mortally terrified or shocked into awe?" Cross asked tiredly, his head bowed and fingers firmly pinched over the bridge of his nose.
"Column A, column B, though column A is more about the implications rather than impending doom," Noah replied in a weak tone. "Since we don't need to get to the Pentagon right now… I'd have to say we're not in Kansas anymore." Noah pointed a finger to the sky. Curiosity nearly killed the Cross, and he couldn't help but look up and follow his finger to… a sight that seriously made his gut drop.
"Noah," he responded just as weakly as Noah had, mind racing.
"Noah, those are the twin towers."
"Noah, that's the World Trade Center," Cross's eye twitched fiercely. "Well… now we know our 'where' is Central Park. And our 'when' might be before the year 2001?"
"No dice, I noticed that jogger that passed us had a smartphone strapped to her belt." Noah ground out before pausing. "Oh, and pepper spray ready and waiting. Which is… just as bad, actually."
"…you're… sure it wasn't a, I don't know, PDA or…?" Cross tried weakly, obviously trying for some measure of sanity.
"I know an iPhone and those cheap-as-shit earbuds when I see them." Noah shook his head, grimacing, though the color was starting to work its way back into his complexion. "At minimum, it's… let's see, 2008? Yeah, that." He sighed, thinking. "Alright… alright. What do we do now then."
That kickstarted Cross's brain. "We need to find the nearest comic shop, stat!" he exclaimed, snapping his finger skyward.
"Uh-huh," he deadpanned, crossing his arms. "Comics?"
"Whether or not we need to worry about iminent invaders from the future or an interdimensional bitchfest depends on whether John Stewart is wearing Green or Red!" Cross asserted furiously.
"... are you nuts, or has the stress finally broken you?" Noah replied. "No, we don't want to go looking for comic books. We want a fucking newspaper."
"I—grgh…" Cross bit back whatever he was going to say with a growl, and took a second to calm down. "Whether the heroic Lantern Corps is Red or Lantern will tell us whether or not we're in Fringe."
"And a newspaper gives us date, location, and setting-specific current events. If we want to get our bearings, that's a far better plan of attack than trying to cross possibilities off of a list one by one," Noah asserted. "Do you really want to go listing settings we could be in, or would you rather just find a newspaper stand, probably get a free newspaper, and probably know for certain?"
"...mph," Cross heaved a sigh as he calmed down a bit and scratched behind his head. "Just acknowledge that your plan has just as many issues because a newspaper might not have any specific details and could just show the normal news for a world that's not post-9/11, if only because of an ongoing Masquerade or something?"
"This would still let us cross off any settings that do have a 'Masquerade' from the list!" Noah all but yelled. "Fucking—I'm done arguing about this. I'm going to find a newspaper! Feel free to join me." He shook his head, mumbling under his breath about everything and nothing all at once, and hastened his pace down the walking path.
Cross stared at Noah irritably for a second before walking behind him, scowling as he kept his arms crossed behind his head. "Doing this because I want to, not because you told me to."
"Same result, so whatever."
The two finally seemed to make some headway out of the park, with the outer edges of what they'd come to realize could only be Central Park coming into view and giving way to the madhouse that was New York City's surface streets. Cars honked, pedestrians hurried, taxis nearly ran people over… it was definitely New York, New York. Early morning New York, but still.
They passed more than a few other pedestrians on the way in, an odd profusion of pedestrians passing by them, most of them holding and tapping away at a cellphone in their hands.
"Definitely smartphone era," Noah mused, trying not to bristle at the latest suspicious side-eye from a passerby. "Might be the one flaw in this plan, actually finding a physical newspaper box. You see one?"
"No, but we can find a corner store, ask them if they know where the nearest one is…" Cross frowned and looked himself over for a bit before grimacing. "Aaaand probably ask if we can use their bathroom to clean up and get the leaves off of ourselves so that we don't look like we slept in the park anymore and stop getting looked at like we're gutter trash."
"So when you say corner store," Noah hummed, pointing. "Would you mean… I don't know, that?" Cross followed his finger, and lo and behold, there it was: a convenience store. Cigarette adverts, junk food in the windows…
And a newspaper box out front, close enough to the hotdog stand for an easy source of napkins.
"...well, only one thing to do now," Cross declared.
"Buy a newspaper?"
"Weeeell… pray that our money's still good first, then buy it, but yes."
"Sounds good," Noah said, pulling his wallet out of his pocket, glad it had managed to go with him in transit. He reached in, fished out a single, and traded it to the hotdog vendor for coins. Then, jingly-jangly currency in hand, he popped a quarter into the newspaper box and grabbed one out, then flipped the front page open. "Hey, Cross!"
"Yeah?" Cross walked up next to Noah, looking over Noah's much shorter shoulder. Noah turned, frowned slightly, and pointed at the headline image on the front page.
Spandex. Flyer in spandex, zooming across the skyline.
"...well fuck," Cross hissed tersely, cupping his chin. "Superhero world. On the one hand, drama and convoluted plots…" he then shrugged with an indifferent sigh. "On the other, power levels that aren't as BS as anime and Death is Cheap is in effect. So that's nice."
"No," Noah interrupted, hands crumpling the newspaper where he held it. "No, it's not nice, because the drama and plots are up to eleven and death is not cheap." He grabbed the paper by the top and turned it around to show Cross, finger pointed squarely at the caption beneath the front page image.
Legend flying back to Protectorate National HQ after an encounter with the Adepts, 9.11.2007
"This isn't just any supers world." Noah declared, his voice devoid of all emotion. "This is Worm."
It took a second for the appropriate neurons to fire, but once they did, Cross's eyes slowly widened. "... Please." Cross whimpered, his tone pleading. "Please, please tell me I just suffered a momentary stroke and that I just hallucinated you saying that which you absolutely, totally, did not in any way actually say."
"...Worm," Noah repeated.
Cross stared at him blankly for almost a full minute. Then he nodded, more to himself than Noah, turned away, and walked down the block a bit before turning into the nearest alley. Ten seconds later…
An ear-rending scream of equal parts terror and outrage erupted, sending a few stray pigeons flying for their ratty lives.
Noah jumped and looked around, worried that they'd attract attention… but everybody seemed to be ignoring them. People seamlessly weaved around the two of them, and on an urge Noah moved to intercept the next pedestrian, a woman in fine businesswear, seemingly teetering on what he could only assume were higher than three-inch heels. Despite her fancy footwear, she effortlessly maneuvered around him, not even looking up from the cellphone in her hand as she did so.
"Cross?" He called.
"Back," Cross greeted casually as he walked back, waving casually. "Shockingly enough, that actually made me feel a lot better. You should try it, really helps expunge the initial shock of how fucked we are."
"Good, cause something weird's going on here!" To demonstrate, Noah stepped into another pedestrian's path, and didn't even bother to watch as the man took the most efficient distance around his spread-eagle stance. "Is it just me, or does this feel like I'm Imp all of a sudden?"
"Uhh…" Cross blinked dumbly at the display… and then stilled fiercely. "Only if Imp's somehow gotten her hands on a TARDIS."
"What are you—?"
"Gimme," Cross snatched the paper from Noah's hand and pointed at a particular article in the middle of the paper's folds. "Call me crazy, but does this look a little specific to you?"
Noah looked at the newspaper, eyes locking firmly onto the words printed on the page.
LOOK IN THE BOX YOU IDIOTS — ADMIN D
Noah looked up to see Cross pointing at the box, mouth agape. He turned to look… and there, atop the stack of newspapers, sat a pair of fruits.
A pair of off-color fruits. Bright red skin glimmering on the surface of the normally yellow starfruit, and blue staining the nominally crimson dragonfruit. But that wasn't why the two stared so intently. That wasn't the reason why at all.
They were staring because of what was giving them such a hard time in their staring.
The fact that both fruits were covered in patterns of swirls. Swirls that seemed to shift every other second, and who all but forced their eyes to slide off of them whenever they tried to follow them to a start or an end. Swirls that denoted both of the odd, odd fruits as one thing and one thing only.
"Cross?" Noah whispered.
Cross swallowed heavily. "Yeah, Noah?"
"Please tell me that I'm not seeing what I think I am." Noah breathed out shakily, taking a step towards the newspaper stand like it was going to bite him. Or like the fruits sitting inside it were.
"...think hard, Noah," Cross stated slowly, mirroring the action as he leaned towards the box. "Do you seriously want me to tell you that you're not seeing what is most certainly our one, and only, hope of making half a difference in this shithole of shitholes without going through world-shattering, literally mind-breaking trauma? A hope that will instead will put us on an even playing field at the low, low, so fucking low cost of our ability to swim? Is that really what you want me to say?"
Noah didn't have an answer to that. He reached into the newspaper box and grabbed both fruits. The feel of their ever-shifting, spiralling flesh beneath his fingers was… it was wrong. It felt like something that should have been growing on the kelp down near R'lyeh, if he had to be completely honest. But then there was the way the two fruits differed. Despite sharing the same texture, which really shouldn't have been possible given that they were two different fruits, they each had a temperature to them.
The 'starfruit' was scalding, so hot that he could barely hold onto it without burning his hand. The 'dragonfruit', on the other hand, felt like an ice cube without the slipperiness. It didn't make sense. Everything in his (albeit limited) knowledge of Devil Fruits was screaming at him that this is not how they worked. Unless…
Unless it was to make a choice. Hot or cold.
"I…" Noah floundered, looking at his companion. "Cross, this one is burning hot," he lifted the starfruit. "And this one," he said, hefting the dragonfruit, "this one is freezing. That's not supposed to happen, is it?"
Cross looked up at him in confusion. "Cooonsidering how Kaku and Kalifa ate Giraffe and Bubbles without any idea what they were swallowing, hell no," he ran his fingers through his hair with an aggravated growl. "In case it weren't obvious enough already, there's something fucky going on here, and I'd guess it has something to do with whoever or whatever dropped us here! Meaning that this could royally fuck us up…"
"...or?" Noah completed for him uncertainly.
"Or," Cross concurred, shaking his head with a scowl. "This was the only option the thing could think of to give us a fighting chance and be a little more entertaining. Either way… even with how this nag is obviously made of wood, I suppose it's better we not pry this gift horse's mouth open just to take a look."
"Alright… alright." Noah held the two fruits out. "We've got hot and cold. I honestly don't know which would be what, you probably know more about these damn fruits than I ever will. So, fuck it. I'll leave the choice up to you: hot or cold?"
Cross's eyes snapped intently between the two open-ended Faustian bargains his friend was holding, and he chewed heavily on his thumb as he thought. "Well, normally I play Paragon for life, but…" he slowly held his hand out. "There has always been one phrase that's stuck with me. 'Half as long'…"
Noah tossed him the searing red starfruit with a nod, even as he eyed the frosty dragonfruit he held onto. "Let's just hope we can manage at least half more as bright." He then glanced around carefully, noting that the crowd was still swerving around them rather reliably. "So, should we just… I dunno. Eat them here? Seems to be no issue with people hitting us." He frowned as somebody he expected to collide with him turned on a dime in a decidedly uncanny fashion. "Even when there really should be…"
"We might have been ignored so far, but I'd rather not push our luck," Cross said, frowning at the fruit trying to burn a hole in his hand. "I mean, these are Devil Fruits. There is an existing, non-zero chance that one of us might accidentally turn into a sabertooth tiger. And that means attention and Protectorate and possibly getting shanghai'd and a whole shitstorm that I just do not want to be a part of."
"...right," Noah groaned, pushing up his glasses to pinch the bridge of his nose. "Forgot, Devil Fruits are fucky as all hell. Alright, let's find us a dark alley and hope whatever funny business has been helping us decides to stick around long enough to…" He shuddered. "Eat this thing."
"Believe me, I'm not looking forward to it any more than you are," Cross admitted, starting to toss his fruit from hand to hand as the two started moving. "I'm really not."
"... yeah. I believe you." Noah shrugged, looking around. "A few more blocks from Central Park should do it, first alley we find. This thing's getting uncomfortable to hold."
The two of them shared a nod of agreement and got to looking for a convenient spot in which to horribly murder their taste buds. A few blocks later and Cross found it first: a mostly deserted alleyway with both a dumpster and an overturned trash bin, laying on its side and pushed up against the wall. There was just enough room in the alley for a taxi to go past, and enough room behind the dumpster to stay out of sight from the street.
"So, how do we do this?" Noah asked, juggling the fruit from hand to hand. "We only need to do one bite, right? That's it? And then we can just… I dunno, crush the rest into a fine paste and scrape it up into the dumpster?"
Cross gave Noah a flat, decidedly unimpressed stare. "Aaaand then Contessa swings around the NYC municipal dump anywhere from a few seconds to a few years from now, picks up two samples of seemingly random paste, drops them with Blasto, and he does who-knows-what with them. And then, if we're lucky, we deal with a small army of mooks apiece with black horns and knockoffs of whatever powers we get. If we're lucky."
Noah stared right back. "Was the sarcasm really necessary."
"It both helps me calm my nerves, and distracts me from both the no-win situation we're in and the potential WMD I hold in the palm of my hand," Cross deadpanned.
"I think you mean guaranteed WMD," Noah rebutted. "There are no weak Devil Fruits, remember?" He groaned, looking at the fruit in his hand. "Alright. Eat the whole thing. Too big for one go, gonna have to… power through." He looked at Cross. "This is gonna suck. On three?"
Cross held his fruit away from himself with a grimace. "If only because if one of us goes before the other, our reaction will definitely put the other off. So… one-two—!"
And with such synchronicity they might as well have practiced it, the two sank their teeth into their Devil Fruits at the same time and secured their fates.
Noah and Cross struggled. They bit in like men possessed, chewed with the fervor of professional eaters, but when it came time to swallow, they practically choked on sawdust. Ultimately, they managed to force the semi-physical sludge to slide down their gullets… and then two seconds later—
Said sludge came back up their gullets. Violently.
"Oh-sweet-Christ-on-a-pikestaff!" Cross wheezed, gasping desperately as he recovered from splattering the alley's pavement with a fresh coat of vomit. "That shit tasted like chestnuts roasting in Satan's diarrhea-caked asscrack!"
"Oh holy gods above, whichever of you are listening, please doHURK!" Noah dry-heaved again, but there was nothing left in his stomach to come out. "It's like squid innards stewed in crotch rot, left to steep in the Death Star's trash compactor! I didn't even know stenches could have a flavor before this."
"Yeah?" Cross wheezed before giving him a miserable stare. "Well I can top the horror we just experienced with something even worse."
"What could possibly be—?"
"We still need to eat the rest."
It was a damn good thing the two were being perpetually ignored by the local populace, because otherwise they would have served an almost indefinite amount of time in custody for the slew of verbal filth that spewed forth.
Half an hour of intestinal misery later, Cross and Noah were only just barely conscious, the alleyway decorated with a brand new coat of paint from their… distress.
"Alright," Noah groaned. "I will never, ever, ever taste something that disgusting, ever again. Every nasty thing I've ever eaten pales in comparison to that… that." He pushed himself upright from where he'd fallen against the side of the dumpster, groaning as he did. "God, I can still somewhat taste it in my mouth. I need a drink."
"Lucky you, you're not the one who doesn't drink booze on principal…" Cross murmured, still weakly coughing from the unexpected exertion of fighting his own attempts to vomit back down. He leaned his head back against the wall with a miserable groan. "Well, fuck it, might as well see what we bought using our stomach acid and dignity…" he stayed still for a second before starting to massage the bridge of his nose with an aggravated hiss. "IIII don't suppose you feel any different either, do you?"
"Not really," Noah said, flexing. "I don't feel any urge to go swimming in a pool, but that's kinda obvious, given… well." He waved at the remnants of their stomach acid, plastered along the alley floor. "I guess it's a bit of trial and—" A drop of water from above fell on Cross's forehead, and from Noah's perspective, it hissed and spat the instant it touched him. "Jesus mother of—are you okay!?"
"What the fuck was that!?" Cross bolted upright, frantically swiping his hand on his forehead. "Acid!? Who the hell just drops acid out of… a… huh." No matter where his fingers probed, there was nothing. No burn, no damage, no nothing. Not even a sign of any water, either.
Cross looked at Noah. Noah looked back at Cross.
"You don't think…?" Noah trailed off, looking from Cross's not-wet forehead, to the trace amounts of water on the floor of the alleyway that hadn't originated from the pair's bodies.
"Devil Fruits, you haven't cared about clothes before, don't you fucking dare start now…" Cross muttered to himself, slowly inching towards the puddle. With immense trepidation, he lifted his foot and slowly pressed the toe of his shoe into the puddle… and straight-up gaped as the puddle pretty much literally exploded beneath his foot, the water momentarily bubbling and roiling as much as that little liquid could before ultimately, the whole thing burst into a roiling cloud of—
"Steam…" Cross breathed in awe, watching the very same, newly-evaporated gas flow around his hands as he trailed his fingers through the stuff. "I… can flash-boil liquids and make them explode into steam! I must have eaten the Steam-Steam Fruit!"
Noah looked at the suddenly expanding cloud of water vapor. He remembered the feel of the fruits in his hands; Cross's burning hot… his own cold. Ice-cold. WIth some measure of trepidation, he reached out to the cloud of water vapor.
And when his fingers touched the steadily thinning mist, it burned like all hell… for one second before it froze. The mist congealed in an instant into a thin, wispy cloud of ice. It fell to the ground, shattering instantly, and the fragments that landed on Cross flash-boiled back into steam.
"Y-you have to be—the Ice-Ice?" Noah asked himself numbly, thinking aloud. "No, even as intuitive as Devil Fruits are, I'd definitely be able to tell if I was a Logia, and my body doesn't feel any different." He looked to the remaining puddle in the alley, the one Cross hadn't just vaporized, and reached a hand out.
Where his fingers brushed the water, the liquid stilled, crystalline structures erupting in fractal patterns as the puddle solidified into ice, faint wisps of ultrathin ice spreading from the puddle as his touch spread to what little water had seeped into the pavement.
"So…" Cross whistled as he looked over Noah's shoulder. "A Paramecia version? What, Freeze-Freeze?"
"No, that's… not quite right." Noticing where some water continued to drip into the alleyway from a gutter above, Noah put his hand into the path of the water. Where it hit, it continued to try and drip further for a second before freezing into a small little icicle, hanging from his fingertip. "Feels less like a snap freeze. Almost…" He searched for a word. "I guess it looks like it's frosted?"
"Frost-Frost Fruit!" Cross exclaimed. "We'll call it the Frost-Frost Fruit!"
Noah only half-listened, still playing with the water droplets as they landed on his hand. "So, powers. Serious powers." He looked to Cross. "First thing's first."
Cross cocked his head inquisitively. "Yeah?"
"We need to get a few gallons of water so we can test the ever-loving fuck out of these things before we become either statistics or stereotypes." He paused a second. "Oh. And I'm probably going to drink one of those gallons first."
"We'll get one apiece," Cross assured him, wincing as he massaged his throat. "Seriously, I swear I'm going to gargle with my whole esophagus…" the blonde then paused and tapped his chin thoughtfully. "Alright, I think I've got a plan: we go back to that corner store where we got the paper, get our gallons of mouthwash, and then we go back to Central Park and find a bench where we can drink and talk in peace."
Noah boggled at the blonde. "You want to go back?"
"I'll spare you the 'I just want to go home' bit in favor of more practical concerns: we're both exhausted physically and mentally." Cross shook his head in a clear display of his words. "So, for the moment, what I want is to find somewhere where we can sit down and catch our breath that isn't in a dank alleyway covered with our own vomit." Cross patted his hand on his fellow Ability User's shoulder. "A motion I imagine you can second with gusto."
"That part you didn't even have to ask. Come on." Noah started walking, fishing his wallet back out of his pocket. "Figure my money worked once already."
"Plus I live on plastic and I'd rather not risk that yet, so for now, you're payrolling us."
It didn't take them long to acquire four gallons of water at the corner store ("The water's out in our apartment," Cross explained as they hefted a two-gallon jug apiece, "not sure how long before it's back either!"). It did take a bit longer to lug that water back into Central Park, and then to what at least felt out of the way enough that a passerby wouldn't feel inclined to listen in… or a certain would-be benevolent draconic overlord wouldn't be able to catch sight of them through a security camera.
"Alright," Noah started, cracking the seal on his two-gallon jug. "So, where do you want to start?"
"Honestly…" Cross scratched his chin thoughtfully as he swirled his water around in its jug. "I say we start with the most concrete, critical and relevant fact about this whole thing: it is, at this very moment, literally us against the world. So," he pointed his finger skyward. "No division, no ulterior motives, no keeping secrets for someone's own good unless there is a literal and immediate taboo on that intel. We do this together…" Cross grimaced as a shudder wracked him. "Or we end up in situations where we are praying for death."
"Makes sense…" Noah held up his forearm to Cross. "Partners?"
"Mmm… if it's not too much trouble…" Cross grinned sheepishly as he knocked his forearm against his compatriots. "Brothers instead? If only because I wouldn't mind having one I don't hate."
Noah froze for a moment, almost to think better of it. His own brother… his own brother wasn't here. He was back home, or at work, elsewhere. Not here. But if his twin wasn't here, then…
"Guess I get to be an older brother for once," he said, knocking his forearm back against Cross's again. "Now?" He raised his water jug. "Cheers!"
"Agreed!" Cross chuckled as he hefted his own jug as much as his relative lack of muscles allowed, and the two took deep pulls from their drinks. A moment later and they stopped, the acrid burning from the constant vomit finally fading away with the soothing balm of wonderful, delicious water.
"You ever notice how when you're thirsty, water tastes so much better?" Noah remarked.
"And exhaustion just makes it allll the sweeter," Cross chuckled in agreement, heaving a sigh of relief as he relaxed on the bench. He then donned a scowl. "Though, unfortunately, while relaxing is nice, we're still here for business, so let's get to it," he raised a quartet of fingers and started ticking them off one by one.
"Let's recap: We have where and when, we have a pretty good guess on why—no matter how much it suck ass—and we've at least we've gotten a pair of blunt instruments that we can use to start refining a how. Only question left now…" Cross clamped his fist shut and knocked his knuckles against his brow with a growl. "Is what the fuck we do now."
"It's simple," Noah said, steepling his fingers. "Stop Scion, knock some common sense into this dimension, and save the goddamn world." He smirked. "Not necessarily in that order."
"..." Cross was pointedly silent for a bit, taking a deep chug from his jug before suddenly slamming it down with an almost manic grin. "Fuck it, got nothing better to do, so why not! Let's go out there and be goddamn heroes!" he exclaimed, his demeanor ecstatic… before flipping right back to dour. "Though in that case we need to get a more concrete 'how' and chip out a more immediate answer to 'what the fuck we do now'."
"Well…" Noah drew out slowly, staring skywards as he thought things over. "If the date's anything to go by, Emma probably hasn't even met Sophia yet…" Noah shook his head. "I hate to say this, but it's probably best we let that run its course. Heartless as it might sound, the world needs Skitter, and we can pick up the pieces after. But too many important things came from Skitter's existence to just… stop it."
"Sucks like hell, but agreed," Cross concurred with a solemn nod.
"Besides." Noah pointed at the 'sell-by' date on his water jug. "We still have three and a half years or so, minimum. In the meantime, what other options do we have?
"Undersiders are a dead end," Cross picked back up, waving his hand in clear dismissal, "and don't exist yet either. Taking Coil head on with anything less than a cruise missile is suicide. And no matter what anyone says, I consider canon the 'bad ending'. Plus…" he scowled and jabbed his thumb downwards. "Gun to her head or not, it's fact that Lisa is a bit of a bitch."
"Lisa Wilbourne, yes; Sarah Livsey, no."
"As for the other options in the Bay proper…" Noah thought for a second, taking another swig. "Protectorate's right out, even before considering what's behind them."
"Mm…" Cross hummed into his own jug as he guzzled his water before scowling as he huffed out a heavy breath. "Much as their message is right and I'm all for forgoing the shitstorm that is a secret identity, New Wave might be a family of paras, but they're just a grab-bag of issues. And I'd really rather not go up against Carol 'sins of the father' Dallon without a big stick backing me up."
"Even if we could join Cau—" Noah froze, suddenly looking all around them. The lack of suddenly-appearing rectangular portals, and no fedora-wearing Mediterranean women, let him relax again. "—Them, without one of us getting a bullet in the head, I bet you they'd still fuck up even knowing what we know." Noah leaned back, swishing the water in his jug before taking another gulp. "So if we're not going for the Protectorate, and not other independent heroes, and the Bay itself is an absolute clusterfuck on the best of days…"
Cross spent almost a full minute rapping his fingers on his jug before slowly looking up and holding out his jug. "Go indie and make our own organization?" He offered tentatively.
Noah scoffed, knocking his own jug against Cross'. "Only if there's blackjack and hookers!"
"Hell yes, with blackjack and hookers!" Cross cackled, joining Noah in knocking back his drink.
"Pah…" Noah sighed as he set his jug back down. "Alright then, let's see…" he started to count off on his fingers. "Organization. One that can affect the world. We need money, we need some way to establish our reputation, we need equipment, we need practice, and we need to train. We want a sponsor, we want a skilled trainer, and we want legitimacy."
"Nonono," Cross hissed, hastily shooting upright and snapping a sidelong glare at his new bro. "We need legitimacy. Remember, Cauldron and the Protectorate have an official/unofficial no-tolerance policy on anyone doing superheroing that isn't them. If they can find an opening, they'll either break our good name or break our necks without a second thought. So we're either unassailable… or we're fucked."
"... didn't think of that," Noah admitted sheepishly. "First thing's first though: none of this matters if we can't afford it, and none of that matters if we can be replaced with someone else. So first thing's first and second thing's next. And right now, our 'first' is we need to see if there's any money available to us, and then we need to practice." He fished his wallet out of his pocket, and shook it. "I've probably got another fifty cash in here, but that's nowhere near…" He paused, thinking for a moment. Then Noah opened up his wallet, pulled out his bank card… and looked at Cross. "You don't think…?"
Cross hummed thoughtfully, withdrawing his own wallet and indicating his own debit card. "Well, the omni-bitch-and-or-bastard who landed us here already gave us one windfall, and I doubt she'd want to just see us starve in the streets… so unless you want to get a job as a living cooling unit, let's find us an ATM…" he trailed off for a few seconds as he tipped up his jug and started draining what remained of the water in the container, before upending the empty bottle and shaking out the last few drops with a sigh. "After we find a faucet, though, because man did that run out fast."
Noah tipped his own jug and drained that too, patting out the remaining water. "Yeah, it really—wait." He looked at his jug, then to Cross, then to Cross's jug, then to Cross's gut, then to his gut, then back to the jug. "We just guzzled two gallons of water apiece. And our stomachs aren't distended, we don't feel bloated…" He looked back at Cross again, perplexed. "And I still feel a little thirsty."
"Eh? Well yeah, so do I, I just said—!" Cross's chiding halted mid-sentence as he picked up on the same discrepancy his friend had pointed out, and it was with more than a little shock that he started to pat down his own gut. "Wait, hang on, that doesn't make any sense! These things are bigger than our stomachs! What, did the water just vanish into thin air or—?!"
The second the mere concept of 'air' flit through Cross's brain, both he and Noah were shocked into silence by an incredible, impossible phenomenon: smoke suddenly started wafting from Cross's flailing hands… or rather, steam.
"Whoa…" Noah breathed numbly. "Is that—?"
Cross raised and stared at his steaming palms in awe, and when the steam started to fade again, he hastily started to concentrate on the idea of steam again, and could only gape as fresh puffs of the heated gas expelled themselves from his hands. "...dude," he whispered in awe, clenching and unclenching his fingers incredulously. "I think you're gonna want to try this."
"Hell yes I do," Noah breathed, extending a hand. He concentrated on the idea of his power, on the concept of just freezing water—
With a sharp crack as the crystal expanded and solidified, ice erupted from the skin of Noah's outstretched hand, freezing around it like a boxer's mitt. It grew in all directions for a second before stopping, at once cubic and jagged, before a surprised flex of his knuckles cracked the incredibly fragile ice, and the shattered fragments fell to the grass below.
"Holy shit." He looked to Cross, letting another layer of ice crawl up on his hand before breaking it apart again. "It's not just touch. The Fruits did change our bodies."
"Makes sense, DFs always operate beyond their initial appearances!" Cross giggled ecstatically, staring excitedly as he summoned forth spurts of steam from each of his fingertips in succession. "Munch-Munch gave Wapol an abyss of a stomach to go along with his iron jaws, the Sand-Sand let Crocodile dessicate things… and apparently the Steam-Steam and Frost-Frost gave us internal reservoirs! We're—well," Cross winced and cocked his head to the side with a grimace. "We're a living locomotive and refrigerator respectively, but fuck it, there have been and are more ridiculous fruits out there. I'll take it."
"Huh…" Noah nodded in agreement, staring at his hand as he started to accumulate a hefty amount of frost in his palm and weighed it contemplatively. "How much do you think we can hold?"
"Weeeell," Cross made a show of scratching his chin contemplatively. "Seeing as Luffy's maximum length is 72 Gum-Gums, I'd estimate around, eh… 50 Steam-Steams and Frost-Frosts apiece?"
Noah gave Cross a decidedly flat stare as he crushed the fragile ice in his fist. "Are you actively trying to be annoying, or is smartass just your default?"
"Column A, column B," Cross admitted shamelessly, waving his hand in a so-so gesture. "We're already in the most grimdark hellhole there is, so if no one else is going to try to laugh, I might as well get my yucks in where I can. But ah, seriously though…" Cross shrugged helplessly. "Hell if I know. I say we just drink until we feel full, see where it gets us."
"...heh. Goddamn, that's pretty much going to be our motto, isn't it?" Noah shook his head with a chuckle as he stood up and started stretching out his sleepy joints. "'Try shit, see where it gets us'. ...well, at least it's simple, I'll give you that."
"A Steam-Man and a Frost-Man, taking on the world. And not just any world, but this world, of all worlds..." Cross favored Noah with a grin. "Come Hell or high water?"
"Nah," Noah said, grin of his own as he held up his forearm. "How about, come Hell or… Helheim."
"You know what? That is better." Cross stood up and raised his own arm, his grin stretching from ear to ear. "Together 'til the end, come Hell or Helheim."
And so the two knocked their forearms together, and then grasped each other's forearms respectfully.
"Now let's get started."
Xomniac: Greetings worthless pe—! IIII mean, adoring masses! 'Tis I, your most beloved and wondrous of authors, the illustrious Xomniac!
Gorgoneion: And joining him is his, as you avid Worm readers might recall, is me, co-author of the now mostly-dead Up in the Air. Don't worry, it's only mostly dead. Which means it can be brought back to life. If it were all dead, then there's nothing I can do, but if it's only mostly?... Well. That's another situation entirely!
X: Aaanyways, we come to you all—
X:—as I'll gladly say without the snail, bite me—with a most fantastic of announcements!
G: One day, I had an idea. So I went to Xom. Who then did what he does best: took my idea, let it rise until it doubled or tripled in size, and then kneaded it to shape as something far greater. What was originally a "shits and giggles" concept has instead ballooned into… THIS!
X: Now, fret not, feeble-minded—! I-I-I mean, valued readers! Just because I'm collaborating with Gorgo and bringing my genius into this ABSOLUTELY DOES NOT mean that This Bites! Is going anywhere. It's still my no. 1… I just couldn't help but want to write about this as well.
G: And yes. I know I put my own HeroAca solo fic Lamarckian on hiatus because law school. But… well. That one's coming back in a few weeks, and in the meantime… we concocted this mountain of madness.
X: I doubt there'll be anything close to a regular posting schedule, or hell, even a frequent one… but either way, we're doing this, and that's that. So for now?
G: Sit back.
Both: AND ENJOY THE SHOW!