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a pair of aces and eights

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"G-03-777, target on the move towards you. Proceed with caution."

Grian puts two fingers on the earpiece, trying to hear the words over the chaos around him. Outside the building sirens are blaring, inside the building people are blaring, and somewhere in here are about twenty lethal prisms that are able to blow this entire block up. What Grian is looking for is just the man that can tell them where they are - who, according to the informant over his earpiece, is heading just his way.

"Copy that."

It’s a completely normal office building in the heart of Aqua City, and the fact that his target was able to rent a few floors for quite a while is definitely something to ponder over later. Although, right now, all he needs to think about is getting information.

“He operates as usual, though be alert.”

“I’m always alert,” he responds. 

It takes a while of walking around and trying to concentrate, but after a small while, the alarms become a background noise and instead a new noise pushes itself into the forefront of Grian’s mind - footsteps.

Not running, no, but also not leisurely strolling. This must be it, Grian thinks. He zeros in on the noise, realizes that it’s closer than he thought it was, and starts running. His target doesn’t seem to hear or notice, since his footsteps continue as before - an advantage Grian will not pass up on.

“Ah!”

They meet in a fairly big room, the floor shining with a bright sheen of water covering the surface of it.  Grian tries stopping in his tracks, sliding a bit forwards, and just managing to stay upright. He quickly regains his balance, giving the wet floor sign and the bucket and mop next to him an annoyed glare. His target on the other hand starts flailing his arms around, barely holding onto the wall next to him.

“Well, hello there!” His voice is static-y and mechanic, like putting someone’s voice through autotune far too many times to be understandable. Grian rolls his eyes.

“Turn that voice changer off. It gives me a headache.”

He laughs. “But only because it’s you, Triple-Seven.” 

Scar lowers the mask with the built-in voice changer to rest on his chin. He looks the same as he always does. Well, he wears different outfits in every encounter of theirs, but they’re all similarly extravagant, so Grian stopped noticing it after the fifth new one. Although a constant is always his hidden face - a cloth wrapping around his chin and nose, almost like a normal face mask, just more secure; and an actual mask, one in a strange shape, vertical and covering the left side of his face.

The only reason he turns off his voice changer for Grian is because in one mission he somehow managed to break it, causing him to hear Scar’s actual voice - so there was no use in trying to conceal that part of his identity anymore. But it’s not like it helps him much, unless they actually catch a suspect. What is he gonna do, ask people to keep an ear out for him?

“Um, do we wanna do this somewhere drier?” Scar laughs nervously, tapping his foot on the floor.

Grian’s eyes quickly run over the room, assessing the situation. He can’t help but smile a bit. “Actually, this is just right.”

He kicks the bucket.

It slides towards Scar for a second, before thankfully toppling over and sending water all across the room. There’s not much water, but it reaches Scar’s feet and engulfs his soles, and he looks up somewhat strangely because of it.

“Oh no, you got me. My shoes are wet.”

Not letting him think for another second, Grian starts charging at Scar, making him shriek and try to run away. Emphasis on try. Instead of that, he falls face first onto the ground with a painful thud, the air pressed out of his lungs. He quickly turns on his back, but before he can get up Grian is on him. One knee on his chest, lightly pressing down but ready to put weight on it, the second knee on Scar’s hand, now uselessly laying next to him, and a hand holding his other wrist. Of course Scar could still try to kick him (to which Grian would respond to with his free hand, probably,) but instead he just blinks up at him, vidian eyes waiting.

“You’re gonna arrest me?” Scar scoffs. “You know that won’t work.”

It won’t work, that is true. Scar, despite… everything. Isn’t stupid. There is no way that a person, working right under the Watcher’s noses, can go on to do their illegal business for a decade without getting caught if they’re stupid. Even if Grian arrested Scar, got him out of this office building, maybe even getting him into a car that drives them to a cell, or an interrogation room- or, hell, to a lonely sea side with a box of wet cement waiting to dry around Scar’s shoes, the car would somehow crash and burn somewhere on the way, or the room he’d be trapped in would inexplicably explode from a cross-attack that was completely unrelated- some kind of “accident” once again preventing Scar’s capture.

Well paid people are loyal people. That’s Grian’s superiors' explanation to Scar’s winning streak, as if every failed attempt could be chalked up to some loyal subordinates coming in at the right time.

“Of course I’m not arresting you. Do you see handcuffs?”

“So, are we just hanging out here, then?”

“Tell me where the crystals are and I might let you go free.”

Scar’s eyes crinkle as he smiles, something innocent and sweet, like he’s trying to sell you cookies. “What crystals?”

Grian stares down at him, the sudden need to throttle Scar overcoming him. “Scar.”

“Yes? Hm, there are a lot of crystals on this planet, Triple-Seven. There’s quartz, there’s citrine, there’s granite-”

“Granite is a rock, not a crystal,” he interrupts. “The end crystals, Scar.”

Scar’s eyes widen, mouth opening like a fish out of water. “Oh yeah, yeah- that thing.” he nods a few seconds, and then closes his mouth again. His face reverts to the cookie-selling smile.

Grian blinks. “Well?”

“Well.”

“Where are they?”

“Where’s what?”

Grian groans in frustration, the only moment he looks away from Scar is to send a pitiful look towards the heavens. Sadly, there is a ceiling over his head. (And, if there was someone watching over them, then maybe they were rooting for Scar the whole time, whilst actively praying on Grian’s downfall). “Where are the end crystals?” He shakes Scar a little. “I might let you go if you tell me.”

Scar tilts his head, clicks his tongues a few times as he looks to the side. “Let me try to remember, alright?”

The need to throttle increases. Over the past seven years, it seems as though Scar only got more and more comfortable with driving Grian mad (and, frustratingly, only got more and more skilled at that as well). Nowadays, missions involving Scar seem to fail more than they succeed, and Scar’s little monopoly is growing while the rest of Aqua City is living in fear of whatever will happen with that.

“We’ll stay here all day if we have to.” Grian says, though it’s an obvious bluff.

“I have all the time in the world.”

“As do I.” He snaps, “In fact, I have the feeling that this’ll go a lot faster if I didn’t have to worry about keeping you here.”

“If you let me go, you and your buddies can run around all you want. You’ll find those crystals eventually.”

Grian hesitates. Then, slowly, he puts two of his fingers up near his ear, just as a warning.

“On second thought, detaining you now is starting to sound incredibly tempting…”

“You know none of your Watchers can contain me.”

Not on this night, and not for a long time, “Even so, it’s time wasted for you.”

“What?”

“While all the Watchers are up here, running around, and looking for the crystals you stole… you’re going to spend a long time being detained. Hours. Days. Weeks, if we’re lucky. Even if you somehow worm your way out of here, that’s a long time spent in one place.” And, even as Scar’s eyes start to narrow, Grian feels like he isn’t getting anywhere with him. So his strategy, as always, is to dig deeper, and try to press some kind of button, “And hey, even if you somehow manage to leave, who’s to say that the people bailing you out will be as lucky as you are-”

Scar’s hand flexes, and attempts to reach him. Grian only presses more weight on it, watching his fingers curl in response. 

“It’s in the ground,” Scar suddenly blurts out, before Grian could gloat about the moment he finally managed to get under his skin. “In the basement.”

“This building doesn’t have a basement.”

“Not officially. In the lobby, further back should be a hatch behind the counter. There’s a small storage room, that’s where they’re hidden.”

Grian gives Scar one last look-over. Although he doesn't seem worried, face trained into a carefully neutral expression, he also doesn't seem to be lying. At the very least, it couldn't hurt to check out if he might be telling the truth. He holds two fingers to his ear, and this time, Scar doesn’t fight it.

"G-03-777 here. On the ground floor, the south room should be a hidden hatch that leads underground. Please confirm."

"We're on it," says the staticy voice. He listens to them fumble around, maybe for about two minutes. He stares down Scar the entire time. As the waiting continues, the guy gives him a lopsided smile, turning his head left and right - obviously looking for an escape.

"There does seem to be a hatch."

"Good. Do you see the crystals in there?"

Another pause. He hears quiet counting. "All twenty of them. Good job, Triple-Seven. Move out, we're retrieving the crystals."

"Uh, in a minute. There's something I gotta do here." He gives Scar a meaningful look. Scar just clears his throat, smiling a bit impatiently.

"No, you don't. The crystals have been found, you need to leave now."

"Sorry! This is important."

"You can't just-"

Grian turns off the earpiece. If they really wanna reach him they can remotely turn it on again, but for a few moments, he's getting peace and quiet. 

"I've kept you waiting." His attention is back on the target.

"Evidently." He flexes his fingers beneath Grian’s knee. "But I've told you the truth."

"Very thankful for that.”

“So, are we gonna keep cuddling down here or do you have better things to do?”

Grian ignores whatever Scar just said. “Now, because I'm fair, I'll give you something great in return."

He lights up, an innocent smile curling on his face. "A present? I didn't get anything for you!"

"You got me valuable information. My present is a ten second head start,” he stands up, stumbling a few steps backwards, wary to avoid tripping over his surroundings. “Starting now."

Scar shrieks a little, scrambling to run away from Grian, slipping a little before he manages to stand and start running. He loudly counts down the seconds, hearing Scar’s fading footsteps in the distance. There is no place to run here - no stairways that lead down that won’t cause Scar to pass him, no elevators, nothing like that. He’ll eventually catch Scar, no matter how good that man can hide.

Still, he plays fair, and counts, even though he’s certain that Scar can’t hear him.

“...Four… Three… Two… One!”

Grian bolts down the hallway himself, following where Scar very obviously ran, hardly trying to conceal his echoing footsteps. He doesn’t quite know what he’d do if he caught him - since arresting him is obviously not an option in these conditions, a place that is swarming with Scar’s people, and the luck never on their side. Most likely, Grian would still try to arrest him. Continue this game of cat and mouse, that has been going on his nerves for at least eight years now.

Arresting Scar has to be something grand, he is completely aware of that. Getting him captured in a normal mission to retrieve some illegal goods is just inconceivable. It won’t happen. He still has to try.

Scar’s footsteps taper off in the near distance, and Grian speeds up to catch up to him. It’s hard to directly pinpoint Scar’s location, since there are a lot of doors to either side, but one stands ajar, almost too obviously, and Grian steps in with caution - maybe it was left open to confuse Grian, to buy time - but not checking it out is also stupid.

He pushes the door open, only his fingertips touching the surface as it slowly gives way into the room. His footsteps are nearly silent when he takes a step forward.

None of his precaution help, because the door very suddenly pushes back, slamming into Grian’s side with high velocity and pushing him into the doorframe. His body prevents it from closing, and he stumbles into the room holding his shoulder, a short dizzying moment befalling him. It takes him a second before he stands upright, looking Scar right in the eyes.

“Aw, I was hoping it’d hit your head.”

The room is small. There is no other door except this one - Scar is perfectly framed in the middle of the room, the gray morning sky out the window as bleak as Scar’s chances to escape. The air is fresh, the window standing open. Once the sun sits a bit higher, the heat will hit full force, will have everyone sweating and complaining, but right now is nice. Grian takes a step forward, causing Scar to step back.

“I don’t see your motive here, Triple-Seven.”

“Just the usual. One day it’s gonna be over.”

“You’re not very confident that it is today, are you?”

Grian comes closer, cornering Scar against the wall. There’s still a good distance between them, but nothing that he can’t cross in a matter of seconds. “I won’t set these kinds of expectations.”

Scar smiles. “How smart of you.” He has the gall to turn his back on Grian, one leg swinging up to rest on the window sill. He tilts his head, barely looking back. “But I’m afraid this will be the end of our chat.”

“Scar-”

Grian barely has time to react before Scar is out the window, very likely falling to a swift death. 

He quickly runs to the windowsill, bracing himself against the wall and looking down. But… there is no squashed sad body down there. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be anything indicating that someone was here just a moment prior.

“Up here, silly!”

Grian’s head snaps up, making direct eye contact with his target, just a floor above him.

“You wanna know how I got up here? Well, that’s something that… what are you doing?”

He carefully puts a foot on the thin wall, then his second one, and with precise balance he stands up straight. From here he still can’t reach the next window, even if he stretches his arms all the way up. So holding onto the window with one hand, he gets some kind of gadget out of his large pocket and presses a button, ejecting a hook that links onto the next floor’s window. He clips it onto his pocket again, a designated spot that shouldn’t tear under normal circumstances. Scar takes a step back as it lands. Grian pulls at it twice, satisfied when it doesn’t budge.

“I could just throw that thing out, y’know?” He yells, thumbing at the hook curiously.

“I won’t give you the chance.” He grabs onto a small protruding bit of the building that his fingers can barely hold onto, and with added force from a jump and him clipping back the line connected to the hook, he gets sent up another floor, one hand holding onto the bottom of the opening. When he looks up he sees Scar’s shocked face.

“You’re gonna fall.”

“What’s it to you?” He gets his second hand to grab the ledge. The tension gone from the line, his hook retreats back into the gadget. Now he only needs to hoist his body up.

Scar shrugs. “I just don’t wanna witness a man fall to his death, I think that’s a normal thing to think.”

Grian bites the inside of the cheek. His face must be red from how much he’s been running around today, a mission like this isn’t something you witness hourly. It might be harder than he thought to lift himself up - if it was just his bodyweight he’d be fine, but with all the additional weight from the gear he’s wearing it’s getting to him. He might have to think of another way.

So if he can’t get up to his target-

“Hey,” he looks at Scar, smiling slightly over his pounding heart. He can see the exposed half of Scar’s face from here, some of the usual chipper playfulness numbed. “Think fast.”

He lets go of the ledge, eyes screwed shut. For a moment, he considers all his options if his plan doesn’t work - how he can soften his fall, how he could still get to his target if all else fails but-

A hand wraps around his wrist, an alarmed yell prompting him to open his eyes again. His target is holding him up, teeth clenched and hand very clearly sweaty, holding his breath so he can’t even complain. His feet are swaying in the air as he's basically holding onto a thread. It’s perfect - Grian would’ve laughed if he didn’t think it would scare Scar into letting go. Now that Scar is bent towards him, he can easily reach his collar, holding onto it and gaining leverage by putting his feet on the wall. He pulls, using his strength to get Scar out of the window.

“You’re gonna kill us both!”

“We’re not dying, idiot.” All he needs to do is hold onto Scar and they’ll both be fine. If he aims right they can probably land back on the floor beneath them. If he doesn’t… with so much gear on him there has to be something that makes his fall a bit less lethal.

He presses harder against the building with his legs, hoisting Scar more and more out, but the man struggles against it, leaning back in. To Grian’s shock, he actually seems to be succeeding. Grian feels himself getting pulled in.

“Hey, you can’t just-”

“Oh, I will!” 

His chest is up by the window now. And at this point, he doesn’t see why he should work against it - he’s still getting up to Scar, which was his plan all along. With a last deep breath, his target braces himself against the wall and catapults him inside. Grian falls flat on his face, his shoulder getting the worst of it.

“Never underestimate the upper body strength of a good-looking guy!”

Grian just groans, rubbing his head. He’s used to bruises on his forehead from falling, but usually he knows when it’s about to happen. Blinking twice, he turns back to Scar. 

Who isn’t there anymore.

He stands up quickly, listening for any footsteps. None in the building, so he goes back to the damn window, first looking above, then beneath. Still nothing. But he must be around somewhere , he could find him in no time if he-

“Triple-Seven!”

Grian shrieks, walking backwards from the window. With a huff, he remembers the ear piece he turned off. “Yes, hello?”

“Don’t act cute with me. Get out of there right now. I swear if you don’t I’ll-”

“I get it, oh my gosh. I’m already leaving.”

“Everyone’s waiting for you! It’s your mission, we can’t proceed without you.”

“Well,” Grian doesn’t have anything fun to say to that. He locates the stairs and leaves the building, keeping his eyes peeled for any hidden Scars. If he was just given a few more minutes, if they just allowed him to do what he knows is best, if they didn’t take his elytra - which he is still so mad about - he would’ve caught Scar right then and there.

Outside the building, an army of his own crew is gathered and if they had their hood down, he’d know that none of them would be happy to see him. He can understand their impatience, but if they had waited just half an hour longer… This wouldn’t have been for nothing. He would’ve gotten Scar.

Someone groans as he approaches. “Look who’s finally here. Hey, Triple-Seven, what were you thinking, leaving us out here with- oh, I don’t know- twenty lethal weapons that could destroy the city if detonated?”

“I left them safe with you since you seem very capable, hm?” Grian slides his hood back on, unwilling to let any of them see uncovered parts of his face. He skims the crowd until he finds a person sticking out like a sore thumb, wearing a black suit instead of the watcher uniform. “Mumbo!”

His friend perks up, at least one person that seems happy to see him. “Good, you’re here! Tell me what to do and I’ll-”

“Just. Uh, they’re all in there, right?” He points at an inconspicuous van. Mumbo nods enthusiastically. “Okay. Good. Uh. I should…” 

Well, he actually needs to do a lot of things. Like check if they’re all there, or do the proper paperwork about it. But everyone here just wants to go home, and they’re already blaming Grian for needing to stay here for about twenty minutes longer than they all wanted to.
What are the chances of this going wrong? They’ve been doing this for literal years. Grian motions to Mumbo, waving for him to leave.. “Ah, you… you know what to do with them. It’s fine, just don’t get into a car accident.”

“Rodger that!”

“Everyone else,” he raises his voice, feeling the attention on him like pin-pricks in his skin. “You’re free to leave.”


His communicator is blinking.

Has been blinking, for the past twenty minutes. Or probably longer, and he only noticed it then. But twenty minutes ago he was standing at his stove with milk in a pot, and he had the great excuse that he can’t look away from that. Not even for a moment. And, after that he had a hot cup of milk with honey, and he just couldn’t dare let this delicacy cool down too much. So with the television running in the background, he took his sweet time drinking his warm milk. Now the mug stands by his sink, the inside of it still warm, and he’s been standing next to it, even with his aching legs, trying not to notice the continuously blinking communicator. 

He could be in the shower. Or going on a walk. Or hanging out with friends. He’s not bound to his job - the reason there are so many Watchers in the first place is so that there’s always someone available.

But this isn’t about being available, Grian knows that, even if he doesn’t want to. This is about - he groans - bureaucracy. Or the finer details. He hates the finer details. Either way, he knows he’s in some kind of trouble. And he’ll live! Has been living. In fact, if he tells himself that every outcome is something to shrug at, he can go into this level-headed.

It’s not that easy though. Because this maybe works when he goes into a dangerous mission - he knows the outcomes of injury and death and blood, guts, organs, whatever, all the fun stuff, but his superiors are… unpredictable. 

For example: They took away his elytra after disobeying orders. They never took anyone else’s elytra away. Grian’s the first,  as far as he knows, and now he’s the idiot without the elytra. Triple-Seven, nerfed again.

Grian has just accepted that his colleagues just hate him in particular. And it’s fine. He still likes most of his job. He doesn’t know what else he could do with himself. It’s just the socializing, the paperwork, the teamwork, the… everything that he needs to do with the others that he hates.

With a high-pitched note, not quite a frustrated scream but something sung, he takes the communicator.

There is a problem. Come to the base.

Vague. It’s like they hate him and want him to imagine every possible scenario. 

He puts on the watcher uniform, designed to purposefully obstruct his proportions, to hide any recognizable features - save for his name on his chest, in angular letters, G-03-777 . His lower face is hidden by a mask, a hood hiding his hair. Although, Grian’s uniform is a bit more special than the others, a bunch of gear sewed or screwed into his suit - which is generally looked at with a scrunched up nose in the headquarters. But he rightfully defended his extra tech, and his superior just sighed and shrugged.

It takes him less than five minutes to get to the base, his apartment within walking distance of it. People generally don't get weirded out by Watchers patrolling the streets anymore, although he remembers being little and noticing people sending suspicious stares his way. For the longest time, he used to think that people were staring at him, but only recently he realized that they were probably staring at the person holding his hand at the time - a person wearing a full-body costume that was completely concealing their identity.

When he storms into the building, the other watchers immediately free his path. There's advantages to making his walk look urgent, no matter where he's going. Even if he's out of uniform, going to buy groceries, people always feel a sense of urgency and make way for him.

Barely entering his superiors room, he starts talking, "Today was my day off, what is it?"

His superior does not look impressed. In fact, he looks horribly angry. Grian dials the temper down a bit, clearing his throat. "Can I help somehow?"

"Grian." That doesn't sound good. "Tell me what you did on the mission yesterday."

"I located the end crystals and brought them back."

"Uh-huh. Something else you need to tell me?"

"I went after Scar."

"Uh-huh. And anything else?"

Grian blanks. He thought this was about disobeying orders concerning him following Scar - because these things need to be documented, all of it needs to have its place in an office binder. It's a necessary evil, even if he would rather eat an entire stack or paper instead of printing a report on them.

But if it's not about him trying to capture Scar, what is it? He's done everything how he's always done it, maybe a bit more sloppy but nothing deserving of a stern call to the base-

"How many crystals did you retrieve?"

"20?"

"You sound unsure."

"It's 20. Multiple other Watchers counted them."

"Did you count them?"

Grian pulls his mouth in a thin line. In fact, he didn't see the crystals. There were thirty other guys there that could confirm the existence of the crystals and their exact numbers. "I didn't," he says, truthfully.

"You irresponsible-"

"Just tell me what happened! I get it, I messed up, it was hectic and I relied on the fact that I've done this a lot of times already - and no this is not me trying to excuse this - just," Grian sighs, trying to get it all out before his superior can nag on him any more. "What is it? Is there a problem?"

His superior looks unimpressed. "Crystals are missing."

"What? How?"

"That's what I want to know. That's what you'll find out. And don't complain about this being your day off. You did this to yourself."

"..." Grian lets the protests die in his throat. There's no use in arguing. "Yes sir."


The first place he needs to visit is the hall where they keep the confiscated end crystals. There's still a slight chance that his superior just… didn't count right. He took his bike with him on a train headed to the outskirts of town, the blistering heat filtering through the windows. It was poorly ventilated, and Grian was sweating in a shirt that was very clearly cheap, yet he still took out a little journal that fit in his pocket and a ballpoint pen along with it. He started sketching out the seats before him, the space for the luggage above, a person wearing headphones across from him. It was hard, since he had to steady his bike with one of his feet and the light kept changing, so in the end he drew over the entire sketch in soothing circles and shapes.

The buildings became smaller, then sparse, then there were none at all. Just a stop in one of the occasional clusters of towns the train stopped at. Out here, the desert looked like a desert again, and the heat shuddered over Grian's skin like it was physically engulfing him.

After a forty minute drive he left the train, leading his bike out of the doors and looking around the train stop for a moment.

There were two tracks, a small building that seemed completely empty save for a few chairs, and a digital sign scrolling to the right with information about the next arriving trains. Just a few others were waiting, and he had the feeling like they were staring at Grian, as if he had two heads instead of one. He ignored them, standing close to the building to get a bit of shade. The window was dirty, white and black and blue graffiti vandalizing most of the building. A heart with two initials, words Grian can't recognize, an ominous message that seemed like a warning.

He left the train station.

Relying on GPS built into his communicator, he clipped it to the basket of his bike and started the four mile journey to Watcher Base 02. The second one is meant purely for retaining the end crystals they produce or confiscate. Grian was there once before, during something his colleagues jokingly called a field trip - after a while a Watcher should at least know where all their hard work is going, so a group of forty will go on a bus once every two years and look at the other bases. It had been a somewhat jarring experience, the whole bus ride loud and rowdy, and his superior, sitting next to Grian, had just sighed, “It’s just like school again, isn’t it?”

Grian hadn’t answered. 

He shakes his head to get rid of the memory and instead focuses on the mission. So on the off-chance that he’s right and his boss actually did just not count right - which is barely even a possibility - then that would be it. He’d come back and point his finger at his superior and tell him that he just wasted money, energy, time, his day off and a lot of sweat for nothing. And that would usually put enough guilt on his shoulders that he’d give Grian another two days off. Which - well, it’s strange, but Grian actually doesn’t like not working. He feels terribly bored out of his mind, since his friend Mumbo is usually busy when he is not, and besides, that he really doesn’t know what to do with himself. So he’d probably wave it off, assuring his superior that he wasn’t too annoyed about the mess-up, or the fact that he always acts like he has no faith in Grian, and this whole thing would end up being just a huge waste of time- -

He shakes his head again. The mission.

Well, the wrong counting would be his favorite outcome. 

Because then, almost nothing would’ve been his fault, except him not following normal procedure rules. But that outcome is very unlikely. So in any case, after seeing the missing crystals for himself, he’ll have to go back again and… his second stop should be the people that found the crystals in the place he directed them to. But he doesn’t like dealing with his colleagues so he’ll push that out as far as he can. So his second stop will be Mumbo - the one who should’ve transported the crystals to this place. So maybe he knows something, but didn’t want to shoulder the brunt of failing his job, so he just left it unsaid. Which does seem quite reasonable, and something Grian would do himself, but when it affects him negatively, it’s unfair and basically the worst thing Mumbo could’ve done to him.

And he reckons that Mumbo will know something, because he always seems to know weirdly obscure stuff. He has a keen sense of his own gut feelings, so if he guesses something, he’s usually on the right track.

Having Mumbo on his side is just a generally good idea. He nods to himself - he’ll figure out the rest after involving his friend.

Usually it’d take him about twenty minutes to bike the four miles, but the sweltering heat and the need to rip his sweaty skin off his body make him stop multiple times to catch a breath and drink the water he packed into his backpack. At the very least, the road is flat and he only saw three cars on his entire ride there.

It takes him a bit more than half an hour to finally see a building growing larger in the near distance, a block of concrete with no personality. The base wobbles from the heat in Grian’s vision and he lets out a loud whoop as he gives it his all for the last few feet. His legs pedal like he’s running from something scary and the hot wind slides past his ears, lifting his hair and cooling his sweating face - like a pair of cold hands snaking their way around Grian’s neck.

When he’s finally in the parking lot, (something small in comparison to the building, maybe fifteen cars parked there), he searches for a place to put his bike, (there is none), and rings a bell next to a large metallic door. 

The door is barely reflective but there’s a small white dot on it, the sun frying Grian from both sides now. Heat radiates off the metal. It feels like the skin beneath his eye is already irritated from how much he’s been rubbing away the sweat. And even if he carefully dabs at it, it still slightly burns. A voice speaks from the doorbell, muffled and tinny.

“This is Watcher Base Two, where is your authentication?”

Grian clears his throat. “I am from Watcher Base Three, my number is G-03-777 and I’m here to confirm something about the crystals from my last confiscation.”

It’s silent on the other side for a moment. Grian stands there, wondering if maybe he wasn’t heard. Just as he takes a breath to ask for confirmation, the door opens with a smooth whirring noise. “You can wait in our lobby, we’ll meet you in a moment.”

Cool air emerges from the inside and Grian takes a step in as quickly as he can. The sterile and impersonal atmosphere continues into the building itself, an empty hallway greeting Grian, who suddenly feels very tiny in this big base.

The air is probably room temperature, maybe a bit below that, but Grain feels like he's been frozen over, dunked in a cool pool of water after cooking in the sun all day. He can easily imagine himself as a match stuck into snow.

He follows a small sign pointing him to the lobby, and there he sits down by the wall, a dark blue plastic chair mounted to it, like a waiting room. Grian thinks he’s used to this. He could very easily just close his eyes, start drifting away, go where nobody can hear, see, or otherwise sense him-

“G-03-777?”

But he doesn’t need to wait for long. He stands up, folding his hands behind his back, his legs pressed together and his face as neutral as possible, with sweaty armpits and all. “Yes.”

The two people that enter are dressed in a lab coat and pretty comfortable clothing underneath that. Grian can still see their numbers on the lab coat. S-02-342 and Z-02-293.

“Wow, you look…” Z trails off. He lifts his eyebrows and smiles a bit pitifully at Grian.

“...Interesting! Did you walk here or what?” S weighs in. She elbows Z, hiding a giggle behind a hand, trying not to make it obvious that she’s laughing at him. Grian’s face goes from neutral to glaring in one blink.

“I biked here.”

S laughs like a hyena now. Z also giggles. 

"There has been a problem," Grian quickly butts in, not letting them ask any more questions. "My superior told me that crystals are missing. I'm here to confirm that."

Z blinks. "Well, yup, right this way-"

S pushes him a bit, widening her eyes like secret code. Z doesn't understand. She smiles a bit impatiently, turning back to Grian. "We can't just let you in, sorry. Can we see your papers?"

Grian thinks he's about to cry. "...no."

"Did you not take them with you?"

"Yes."

"Are you gonna bike back?"

"Yes."

S starts snickering again. This time, Z pushes her. "Stress! Stop laughing at a biking man's pain!"

Her laugh slowly tapers off, just a last loud exhale. “Look, we have as much time as you do but I’ll do you a favor, alright?”

Favors are… unsafe and don’t sound like a good idea, but this whole trip is useless anyway, and just to placate his superior. So at the very least he can hear her out. He nods, waiting for her to continue.

“This isn’t how we usually do stuff, so don’t get the idea to show up again without your papers! But just this once…” she reaches for a long grey telephone in the pockets of her lab coat, the buttons making little beeping sounds as she presses them. “Just this once and never again.”

Her hand comes up into her hair to scratch her scalp, elbow raised high and she turns her back on Grian and her coworker, tapping her foot while waiting for someone on the other side to pick up.

Grian stands a bit anxiously, eyes flitting over to the other Watcher in the room, him picking at his nails. “What is she-”

“Hello, Watcher Base 02, S-02-342 here-” her voice turns even more cheery, high-pitched and overly-friendly. “Just wanted to ask you, uh, G-03, uh,” she looks over at Grian, tapping at her own number on her coat.

“He’s Triple-Seven!” Z says like it’s a realization, suddenly much more interested in Grian than his own nails.

“Right, there’s G-03-777 at our base right now, wanted to know if you can confirm his identity for us.”

Stress bites her lip, hand staying still in her hair as she listens to the call. Her coworker’s eyes on him are noticeable - and not calming. Grian does his hardest to avoid any eye contact.

That doesn’t detract him though, still talking up a storm as Stress makes little affirming noises on the phone. “I don’t know why I didn’t make the connection when you told us your number! Not used to hearing it like that, I guess. Wow, that’s the first time I’m seeing your face! I thought it’d be more like… chiseled jaw and beard or something. Yeah, and a cool scar over your eyebrow. Ha, speaking of Scar, are you gonna get that guy any time soon? If the best base three Watcher can’t get him, who can? It does seem a bit-”

“Sh!” Stress holds the phone in front of Grian’s face, giving her coworker a stern look and turning to smile at Grian. “For you.”

Grian hesitates as he reaches out, his anxiety peaking. “Hello?”

“Grian?”

He sighs. Quietly, so the speaker doesn’t pick up on it. It’s his superior, undoubtedly. “Yes, sir.”

“Did you forget your ID in the base?”

“Yes, I couldn’t-”

“Don’t come up with an excuse. You should be able to go check on everything now, I’ve told them that I recently sent you out.”

“Thank you.” Grian puts a finger on the button that will end the call. He waits for his superior's goodbye.

“I’ll see you again when you find these five crystals, alright? Send them to Base 02 immediately, no need to contact me first.”

“Alright.”

With that confirmation, his superior ends the call for him. He hands the phone back, nodding at the two Watchers.

“I’m Stress, by the way, and this guy-” she points at her coworker, “Is Zedaph. And you are?”

Grian looks at her shoes. They’re just sneakers, very well worn. “G-03-777.”

There’s a pause. Not long enough for Grian to look back up at them, but long enough to make him notice it. 

“Okay.” And that’s the end of it. “Come along then, this shouldn’t take too long.”

The two of them help him into a hazmat suit - according to them, a somewhat overly cautious and mostly unnecessary procedure. But this whole mess started with ignoring procedures, so Grian insists on doing everything according to their superiors.

The suit is yellow and heavy, and his limbs barely drag along as he makes them.

“It’s just like wading through heavy snow - you’ve ever been somewhere cold?” Zedaph asks him as he fastens a string around his ankle.

“No,” he answers, focusing on standing there stiffly, not getting in the way of the two watchers. He hasn’t seen snow before and it doesn’t seem very appealing.

“It’s fun,” Stress says, waving the helmet in front of him. “This is gonna be a bit uncomfortable but you’ll get used to it after a few minutes.”

And suddenly his face and neck are covered, and he’s trapped in his own air which makes him lightheaded for a second. His vision is… obstructed. He blinks a few times, trying to get used to his peripheral vision being gone. Something static is in his ear and he taps against the side of his head to try to get it out.

“That’s how we’ll communicate with you.” Stress’ voice suddenly sounds in his ear, muffled and electronic, and he twitches, turning his head to where she’s actually standing. She is holding something up to her mouth to remotely talk to Grian. 

“You alright?” Zedaph appears in his visor, slightly tilting his head. Grian nods once. “Alright. In you go then, and remember, don’t touch the explosives!” Grian nods again. Zedaph chuckles, although he doesn’t really know why.

The door opens with a similar noise that the front door did, a smooth whirring that sounds like displacing air. It closes back behind him, and he catches a last glimpse of Stress and Zedaph.

It’s a large hall, full of pallets and high standing shelves, yellow tape on the floor to indicate not to walk into, and Grian follows that for a while.

“There should be a yellow five on the floor somewhere and you’ll need to follow that ‘till you arrive at a dead end. That’s where your crystals should be.”

Grian counts the numbers on the floor. One, Two, Three, Four, and then Five. The room goes on beyond that. If he had to guess, it would probably go up to ten.

He will only find fifteen crystals, he already knows that. There’s no way that a mistake like that could go through every hoop the Watchers put these things through. But then what? He’ll go to Mumbo, sure, and that will calm his nerves a lot, but maybe it won’t help at all. If Mumbo knows nothing, and his coworkers know nothing, they’ll have to approach this step by step. So maybe the eyewitness who saw suspicious activity at the office building was wrong, or they counted the strange concealed bags that were carried in wrong. Maybe there was something else in the other five bags. Maybe these weren’t crystals at all.

Or maybe his coworkers counted wrong, and the five crystals are at a completely different location since they were given their tip from the eyewitness. 

Or they got lost when the third party transporter, Mumbo, was bringing them here. Or maybe something happened with them at Watcher Base 02, or-

The point is, there is a lot of stuff Grian can speculate about and nothing he can prove. And speculation means nothing under the watchful eye of his superior and his superior’s superiors. 

As he continues walking down the hall, he has the somewhat harrowing realization that he’s surrounded by otherworldly explosives that aren’t entirely stable and can go off with a single nudge. Putting them in metal boxes and hiding their dangerous purple glow from a normal explosion-fearing person is doing a good job to fake some semblance of safety but once he made himself consciously aware of their existence, the illusion suddenly popped, making his heart beat a bit too fast in his ears. Delivering and keeping them is a deadly job, and while he’s happy that he found Mumbo because of his involvement with the Watcher’s in this way, he does wish for Mumbo to stick more to the inventor parts of his hobby instead of the equivalent of being a motorbike driver without a helmet. But in the eight years that Grian has been working on the field, along with Mumbo as the third party transporter, no major accident occured. Which has to mean something.

“So…” Zedaph suddenly talks in his ear, and Grian jumps on the spot. “What's it like, to be Triple-Seven?”

“Stop distracting him!” Stress reprimands him. There’s a pause. For a hopeful minute Grian believes it’s over. Then Stress starts again, “How is it, though? Are you like, super popular? Do people want your autograph?”

Grian thinks about just ignoring them. “They don’t know what I look like. And my relationship to my coworkers is…” he coughs. “Amicable.” 

“Oh?” Zedaph sounds scandalized, although maybe a bit exaggerated. “Trouble with the crew?”

“Something like it. I’m not the socializing type.”

“Yes, we’ve noticed.” 

“Stress!”

They start bickering, somewhere halfway through the argument realizing that they are still yelling into Grian’s ear and turning off their microphone device. Meanwhile Grian is making his way through the large (larger than he realized) hall. It probably takes up a third of the entire building, and the strange plastic texture of the hazmat suit occasionally touching his still sweaty skin is making him want this to be over soon. He speeds up, as much as he can without losing his balance and toppling over, and the end of the number 5 path is coming closer and closer.

“How should I proceed?”

“Oh! You’re there already?”

He is by the time Zedaph finished the sentence. He hums.

“Okay. Be careful, but there’s a bunch of boxes in front of you, I assume. Every one of them has a date and some other information printed on it, but the date is the most important one for you. Look out for the ones that have the date of your last mission. They should all be in the same area but it gets hard to distinguish which are which.”

Stress chimes in. “If I understand your situation, there are some crystals missing and that’s the reason you’re here?”

“Right,” Grian confirms.

“Okay, then you should carefully - carefully, okay? Carefully check if there is only one crystal in every box. You can open the box by- are you looking at one right now?”

He approaches the closest one, a forced and sudden calm overwhelming him. He needs to focus, and hearing the blood pumping through his veins won’t help with this. “Yes.”

“There are two small levers, on each side of the box. Slide these down and when pressing down on the hatch in the middle, you should be able to open it. When you’re done, the hatch should automatically close, but you still need to put the two levers into place.”

The onslaught of information is dizzying, or maybe the way it was delivered but Grian closes his eyes and forces the calm back. It’s just like detaching himself from a stressful situation. He’s quite good at that.

Grian’s happy to find that opening the boxes isn’t as complicated as he made it in his mind. It literally is just sliding down the levers and pushing down on the hatch to open it. Disappointingly, but expected, there’s only one other crystal in there. 

Strategically he continues going through the boxes, never forgetting to slide the levers down. As he’s at the last one carrying the mission’s date, he closes it with a disappointed sigh.

“Not here?” Stress asks.

“No, they’re not.” Grian walks back onto the path indicated by the yellow tape. Exhausted from the repressed stress, he sits down. “Is there a possibility that the boxes were labeled wrong?”

“Nope!” Zedaph is quick to say. “Well, not really. The possibility is really small.”
“Can I check?”

It’s silent for a moment. Grian takes it to look over all the boxes to his left and right. There’s so many. So many explosives that act unpredictably… How Stress and Zedaph manage to work here for eight hours almost every day is completely unknown to Grian.

“I don’t think you should.” Zedaph says. “Or can. For that matter. You’d need extra permission that we can’t just get with a phone call. And… well, that seems like it wouldn’t be a one-man-job, y’know?”

Part of Grian is relieved. He stands up and borderline jogs back to the entrance. Now that he knows the way, knows how long it is, it feels much shorter on his way back. The door opens back up, and Grian has never been more relieved to see two strangers waiting for him.

They take off his helmet, and the room temperature air is cold on his sweaty face. His head pounds, not in a headache kind of way but as if there’s finally blood circulating in there again. He barely moves as the rest of the hazmat suit gets removed and put somewhere in a bin that’s labeled ‘used’.

“Sorry. Guess they’re really not here.” Stress walks ahead, leading him back to the entrance. “Do you wanna drink some tea or something?”

“A bottle of water would be nice.”

Zedaph grabs two from the waiting area that Grian hasn’t acknowledged before and throws one towards him. He catches it, pressing it against his chest.

The Watcher opens the one he kept, craning his neck up to get as much water as he can in a few seconds. He stops with a gasp, drying his mouth with the back of his hand. “Glad we didn’t get blown up. I get all nervous when you 03’s come here.”

“Sorry. I was careful.”

Stress snorts. “Nobody is careful enough, I’ll tell you that.”

“Don’t apologize.” Zedaph closes his eyes contently. “It was nice to see other people out here again. Would’ve loved to talk a bit more to the Triple-Seven, y’know? But I get it, we’re busy guys.”

“I am not that interesting.”

“I doubt that,” Stress smiles, but there’s something final in her voice and she opens the front door back up.

Grian steps out, back into the dry desert sun, and he gives the two Watchers a short nod. “Goodbye.” With gritted teeth he picks up his bike that he leaned against the wall next to the door, and out of the corner of his eye, he sees Zedaph and Stress exchange a look.

“You weren’t joking.”

Grian blinks. “About what?”

“You really did bike here!”

For some reason, that makes the two hysterically laugh. Grian jumps on his bike, pushing through the pain of touching the scorching hot handle, and pedals away from the ever quieting howling laughter behind him.

Next stop, Mumbo.


Mumbo has an apartment, Grian is pretty sure of that. He sometimes talks about rent, or a bedroom, he probably even mentioned cooking in a kitchen once or twice.

Despite that, Grian has never seen said apartment in the five years that he's known him. This isn't because they're not close - this is because Mumbo is insane and spends most of his time in a warehouse that he calls his garage.

It’s fine because Grian likes his garage. There are a lot of buttons and mechanical arms and levers, and every single one of them is staring at him with big pleading eyes, and Grian isn’t a monster, so he obliges. He isn’t allowed to be left unattended in the garage.

But this is where the Mumbo magic happens. And because Grian has the almost unfair advantage of being Mumbo’s friend, he gets to witness said magic happen. Today was no different. Grian barely enters through the main door when he’s already almost tackled by Mumbo.

“Now there you are!” He halts by bracing himself against Grian’s shoulders, and then he stumbles upright again. Grian just watches him in half-amusement. When he’s working with the Watchers, he always wears his usual suit, since he once said he likes the formality of it, but in his warehouse, it’s usually a red mechanics jumper. To hide the oil stains, he said.

“What do you have?”

“Look, I’ve been waiting for you to come over. I have a little buddy I need to show you, and it’s been in the works for, what, five days now? Quite a simple thing, but I think you’ll like it a lot.”

Now the problem with Mumbo’s little ‘buddies’ is that they need to be approved by the Watchers before Grian can actually do anything with them. And because the Watchers have this dumb love for documenting literally everything, this can take up to months before stuff like this is given a seal of approval. 

“Now, put out your hands and close your eyes.” 

“I’m not closing my eyes.”

“Squint really hard to make it look like you’re closing your eyes.”

Grian doesn’t do either, but he does put out his hands for Mumbo. His friend pulls out gloves of all things, fairly thin, like leather gloves, but made out of stretchy rubber - they both kind of struggle to put it on Grian’s hands, and he can only imagine how horribly frustrating it would be if he was sweaty on top of that. It feels like he’s getting a friction burn, and Mumbo starts muttering something about fixing his designs to fit humans better.

“Okay.” Mumbo looks less enthused and kind of annoyed now, but the gloves are on. Grian feels even more annoyed because the gloves are not comfortable.

“And what do these things do?”

“Oh!” Now he’s happy again. It's really easy to make this guy content, which is probably why Grian doesn't mind being his friend. “So, you know defibrillators, right?”

“No, I don’t know what that is.”

“...Really?”   

“Of course I know what that is, idiot.”

Mumbo isn’t offended by the sudden insult, so he simply carries on. “And, and well, I never had to use one, because people generally don’t have emergencies around me, which, by the way, is really nice of them - well, anyway, in those doctor shows they always rub the metal things together and then shock someone with it.”

“Uh-huh?” Grian stares at the gloves, as Mumbo is attaching small cords to them, plugging them in and connecting them to a tiny box, one that could fit in Grian’s hand. Instead, Mumbo attaches it to Grian’s belt. 

“Okay, now try it.”

“What, rubbing the gloves together?”

“Yup!”

“Mumbo, I’m actually here because there has been a problem with-”

“Just try! And then touch me.”

Grian frowns but obliges. He hears a quiet whirring from the box attached to his belt, that whirring transfers into his gloves - and then he feels the hair falling in his face rise up just a bit. He looks back at Mumbo. “And I just… touch you? With these?”

“Yes!”

He carefully puts a hand on Mumbo’s arm, the rest of his body turning away, unsure what’s about to happen. If there’s actually an electric current running through these gloves shouldn’t he… not touch a human person with it? Mumbo wouldn’t make gloves that would give someone an insignificant shock, he compared them to defibrillators. Which aren’t that deadly but - it still shouldn’t be used willy nilly on any person. He steals a glance at his friend who is eerily quiet.

Nothing happens. Literally nothing.

“This is lame.”

“Ha!” Mumbo does something akin to a little dance, smiling excitedly at Grian. “So!” He cracks his knuckles, one by one, before starting to zip down his jumper.

“What- keep your clothes on!”

Mumbo ignores him. “So you have little electrifying gloves, and I didn’t get shocked. Why’s that, you may ask?” He strips his arms out of the jumper, thankfully wearing a long-sleeved black turtleneck beneath it.

“Because your dumb gloves didn’t work.”

“Oh, it works alright. But what also works is this .” He points at the turtleneck. Now that Grian looks closer, he can see a small crosshatch pattern made from rubber on the suit. Grian looks at the suit and back at Mumbo.

“And this is…?”

“My anti-getting-electrocuted-suit.”

“So an insulator?”

“Yes.”

“Huh.” Grian picks at the suit, taking Mumbo’s sleeve between his thumb and index finger. Somehow, it looks like the suit and the gloves are part of a pair. Stylistically and efficiently. “So… who is this for?”

“The gloves are for you, for the low, low price of being my dear friend.”

“Ah.” Grian takes off the gloves, disconnecting them from the little box by his belt. Mumbo gives him a small case, intended to keep the gloves. “Thanks, Mumbo. I’m actually here for another reason.”

“So you’re not here for your dear friend?”

“No, I’m specifically here for my dear friend. You remember the mission two days back?”

Mumbo smiles strangely, suddenly looking to the side. “Uh, yes, yup, I remember that.”

“I’m in a bit of trouble. I was hoping you could help me.”

Mumbo nods at Grian to continue, while he slowly ties the sleeves of his jumper around his waist.

“It was pretty hectic after the mission, so I just sent you off without checking the crystals beforehand. Now my superior says that there are some missing, specifically five.”

“Maybe he didn’t count right?”

“That’s stupid. Plus I already checked, there really were five missing in Base 02.”

“Huh. Weird.”

“Yes. Now I’ll ask you very honestly, and I hope that you will respond very honestly, since, like you said, we are very dear friends. Do you have an idea what might’ve happened to those five missing crystals?”

“Nope!” Is all he says, shooting out like a bullet the moment Grian finished his sentence. There’s a pause. Grian knows he can’t budge now, if he says something he lost. Mumbo needs to talk first.

So they just stare at each other. Grian doesn’t mind at all, because Mumbo is usually the talkative one, and only occasionally Grian will scramble to talk for hours on end. Today wasn’t one of these days. Today, Grian could stand here and wait. And wait. And wait…

“Well, I guess that’s that.” Mumbo says. “Very weird, that thing about the crystals.”

Another pause.

“Why do they care about these crystals so much anyway? Five isn’t gonna be that big of a problem, y’know?” He continues. “It’s like, there are probably a lot more circulating right now, these five aren’t gonna be the ones that win the game, y’know. Yeah. It’s probably not that big of a deal if those are missing, you should say that to your superiors.”

Another pause.

“Oh, I know the Watchers are annoying about that stuff, but like- I can’t even be positive about that. Oh god. Yeah, they’re gonna take this super seriously. What will happen to you? If you come back empty-handed? I mean, you’re their favorite, so-”

“Are you kidding?” Grian breaks his silence. “I am not their favorite.”

Mumbo laughs in disbelief, staring at Grian like he just told him that he had been secretly raising a family of four. Grian nods towards him, eyes wide.

"What?" Mumbo waits a moment, thinking Grian might say something else. "Grian you… you are their favorite.”

"I'm not their favorite. I told you, they literally hate me."

"I mean, they're terribly rude and demeaning, I'll give you that. But they're really trying to keep you with them."

Grian shakes his head, clearly disapproving but not having the time to argue like he’d really want to - he was probably really close to cracking Mumbo and he just messed it up. “The crystals, Mumbo.”

“Oh. Yes. The crystals. What happened to them again?”

Grian glares at him.

“So like… genuinely, what would happen if you couldn’t find them anymore? The Watchers will be a bit mean to you? They do that anyway.”

He has to go about this a bit differently. “They’ll fire me. My superior told me that.”

“That’s a lie.”

“It’s not. Because I messed up an actually really important mission - that I had responsibility for…” Grian looks down, sniffling. “I don’t know what I would do if I got fired. My job is my life.”

“Th-they can’t fire you for that, it wasn’t even your fault, it was just… uh. Well, they can’t do that!”

Grian hides his eyes behind his arm, making his shoulders shake. “Oh Mumbo, you can just plan my funeral already… Once I'm gone, you can take all of my things.” He makes a drawn-out high pitched whining noise, like a toddler throwing a tantrum.

“Grian, no, don’t cry please!” Mumbo tries to pry his arm away from his face but can’t. “Please, come on, it won’t be that bad, it’ll be fine-”

“They’re gonna publicly execute me, ohh, and you’ll need to watch, that’s so horrible!” He whines louder. “I couldn't bear being you, if only I didn’t lose those crystals!” he hiccups. “No, what a long and happy life I could’ve lived-"

“Ah, stop, stop, I know where the crystals are!”

Grian immediately stops. He snaps his head up, staring at Mumbo with dry and wide eyes, like he’s about to lunge at him. “Uh-huh? Go on, please?”

“Oh gosh.” Mumbo pulls his shoulders up to his ears. “You were acting sad on purpose.”

“Yes, I was. Now go on, I wanna hear where those crystals are. I’m not getting into trouble for you, Mumbo.”

Mumbo sighs, dropping his shoulders again. “Okay. Okay. Oooh-kay. Follow me.”

Grian almost can’t believe that worked. But Mumbo is a simple man - he likes when he gets paid, and he doesn’t like when people around him are troubled. So making Mumbo admit something is usually not too hard. Either you bribe him, or cry until he cracks. One of these options is less humiliating, but also much more expensive. It’s obvious which one Grian would choose every time.

“Look, look. Okay. Look.” Mumbo fiddles with his hands, obviously very nervous. “No. I’m gonna- I’ll explain. Okay. Like, you know how we’re very dear friends?”

“Mumbo, I’m not gonna fake cry anymore, please just tell me where the crystals are.”

Looking at the floor, Mumbo opens a door that usually nobody has access to. A cold gust of air blows into his face - Grian is immediately drawn to the purplish glow emitting from the dark room.

“... You took the crystals?”

A nod.

“Why?!”

“They’re pretty.”

“Mumbo.”

“Alright, alright. I just wanted to see how they react to stuff. I wasn’t gonna use them in a bad way, you know that.”

“Obviously you’re not gonna do domestic terrorism, but you’re certainly terrorizing my heart! Mumbo!”

Mumbo closes the door again, locking it with a tiny key attached to a red bracelet Grian hasn’t noticed before, connected along with a few other charms. “It’s because they’re utilized in the wrong way.” He suddenly seems much more serious than before. “These guys,” he knocks at the door. “Are more than just glorified bombs. They are our future ! While one of these could blow up an entire building, it could also power an entire city block! Just… the only ones in possession of these are Watchers and like, guys who blow stuff up. Nobody is seriously doing any research on how we could be using their potential energy.”

“So… instead of asking the Watchers to do that, you just… steal?”

“You think I haven’t asked? I brought it up everytime I came across someone who could actually do something about this. But do you hear about any research being done? Some fun breakthrough?”

Grian doesn’t grace that with an answer.

“Sometimes you have to take things into your own hands. That’s what I’m doing.”

“What you’re doing is putting people in danger. And making trouble for me!”

Mumbo sighs. “I’ll bring the crystals to Base 02.”

“You better.”

As they walk towards the exit of Mumbo’s warehouse, he carefully taps Grian’s shoulder, making him stop for a moment. “Are you gonna report me to your boss? I- I was just trying to…”

Grian doesn’t look back. “I’ll see you later, Mumbo.”


“So…”

“Yeah.” Grian nods, taping on the floor with his hard sole. It echoes through the empty hallway and loops back around to the place he is standing in. “It’ll probably be fine.”

“That’s the spirit.”

Martyn isn’t really his friend. Grian isn’t friends with any of the watchers, and most of them would rather be caught dead than hang out with Grian anyway. Which is fine because the sentiment is mutual. But Martyn is one of the few that doesn’t mind Grian, and at the very least seems to tolerate him. Which is… again, mutual. Grian thinks Martyn is fine. They eat lunch together even if there are other spaces free on the food court. Martyn doesn’t care when Grian doesn’t respond to any of his nonsensical questions, and usually just tells him things very bluntly when something bothers him. Grian thinks he appreciates that in Martyn.

“Why are you here?” Grian asks. “Did you get in trouble too?” Something hopeful lights up in Grian, someone sharing the panic of having messed up. But Martyn doesn’t give him that satisfaction.

“Nope! Just heard you were called here so I thought I’ll wait with you.”

“That’s weird.”

“No G, that’s called being nice.”

“Is it? I think it’s called being weird.”

Martyn laughs at that, but it sounds like he doesn’t want to. So he coughs and shrugs his shoulders. “One day you’ll appreciate my kindness for what it is.”

“You just wanna get out of doing your paperwork.”

“Look, motives can be multifaceted. That’s very human and normal.”

“Uh-huh.” Grian crosses his arms and looks ahead, leaning against the wall next to the door. Martyn mirrors him, staring at his own shoes. The silence is nice and Grian wouldn’t admit that out loud, but having someone physically stand next to him helps quel anxious thoughts.

"Do we wanna eat lunch later, together?"

Grian tugs the strands of hair hanging in front of his eyes, frowning. "If I'm there, sure. I don't know my schedule for today."

Martyn hums and he somehow seems satisfied. He's someone who likes to complain a lot, and Grian enjoys complaining with him, especially about coworkers they both can't stand, but to hear him without complaint is unusual.

"You know," he starts somewhat ominously, a positive note in his voice that doesn't sit well with Grian at all. "You've always been so… rejecting when I tried to spend time with you, but lately that kind of changed and you-"

"Grian?" Comes from inside the office.

Grian perks up, shoulder going ridgid. He gives Martyn a short wave, who watches him enter the office with creased brows. Grian doesn't know if he's supposed to be relieved that he doesn't need to hear whatever Martyn was going on about now, or if he should be worried about talking to his superior.

The latter, he decides, as he silently closes the door behind him. 

His superior is still looking at some files as Grian sits down, two fingers against his temple. Paperwork is neverending, that's what he always says. Grian doesn't envy him for that. He enjoys his field work, thank you very much, looking at blocks of text makes his head hurt.

Not looking up, still shifting through some files, his superior finally speaks up. "How are you, Grian?"

"Good."

He hums. He gathers the few papers and aligns them with a loud knocking sound against the surface of the white table. "Anything planned for today?" Finally, he looks up, intertwining his hands and using them to support his chin. He gives Grian a short friendly smile, before letting his face fall back into its comfortable resting state.

Grian pulls his lips into a thin line. "...nothing, sir."

"Rest day?"

"I guess so." There's no need to mention that every day out of work seems to be a rest day. 

"Have you checked out the restaurant that opened a few weeks ago? It's a bit expensive, but really worth the cost. You should go visit it with some of your friends, split the bill, all that."

Grian rubs his sweaty palms against the rough fabric of his pants. His windpipe feels small, somehow. "Sir," he says stiltedly, almost croaking.

His superior sighs, head sliding down to have his hands rest by his forehead. "You're a mystery to me, Triple-Seven. Relax, you hear?"

"Yes, sir."

He looks even less impressed. Still, he finally starts with the actual conversation. "You found the crystals?" 

"I did."

"Where were they?"

Grian takes a breath. The story is rehearsed and clear in his head, and he tells it as naturally as he can. "The boxes were labeled wrong at the scene of the mission. So the third party transporter put them in his warehouse by accident. I found them still idle and untouched in the boxes that were labeled to be normal metal machine parts."

His superior breathes in sharply through his teeth. "That could've ended really badly. I would hate to lose our best transporter that we've had for… well, a decade. I really need to have a talk with your crew-"

"It's okay. I take full responsibility."

He cocks his eyebrow. "You are?"

"Yes. It's my fault in the first place."

"That doesn't sound like you at all, I'll be honest."

You've always been so… rejecting when I try to spend time with you . "I've taken some things to heart." But lately that kind of changed.

Martyn is wrong. Nothing changed. Grian has not moved from where he was a year ago. Five years ago. Eight years ago. 

"I'm glad, Grian."

"But your crew was still irresponsible with what they did. I will talk to them-"

"It's my crew. I want to talk to them."

He raised his hands. "All yours. Do what you gotta do."

Grian sighs deeply. It feels as though a hundred stones fell from his chest. The worst is over, even if he needs to fill out thirty forms to solidify this mistake into an everlasting memory of the endless binders that this company keeps.

"That's about this matter but I wanted to talk about something else with you."

Grian looks back up, nodding once.

"I'll be putting you on a break."

"...what?"

"It's fully paid, it's just like vacation. It's not usual for me to do this, or anyone for that matter but I do believe this is the right course of action."

"But…but I got the crystals back! No accidents happened, everything went well!" Grian's blood boils, and his face goes from sickly pale to blotchy red within worrying seconds. 

"This isn't a punishment."

"You're laying me off! You're suspending me from work!"

"It's a break. And it's paid. Just a month."

"A month?! A month?!"

"Stop yelling. Stop sounding so scandalized. Stop… all of that altogether. You haven't been on top of your game lately. You look like you sleep three hours a night. Grian, this is purely out of concern and not a petty punishment."

"You've gotta be kidding me. Sir, you need to reconsider."

"No. And that's final."

Grian stands up, the chair screeching and his hands slamming on the table. "Reconsider!"

His superior looks up beneath his heavy eyebrows, and it finally dawns on Grian that he might be making some sort of mistake. Convincing someone successfully hardly ever contains a screaming match.

"Leave the base and don't let yourself show until your break is over. That is an order. Follow it."

Grian hears that loud and clear. He doesn't close the door behind him, letting it slam against the wall of his superior's office as he storms out.

“Hey Grian, are you-”

Grian walks right past Martyn who was still waiting by the door for some reason, taking large steps that carry him far without running. Martyn turns around to follow him, quickly catching up by jogging over.

“Don’t wanna talk,” Grian says, hoping this will be the end of it.

“What’s up? What happened?”

“Sorry,” he says brusquely, not sounding sorry at all. “I don’t. Want to talk.”
“Dude, just tell me something .” he grabs Grian by his shoulder, making him stop very suddenly. “I just don’t wanna be worried for the rest of the day not knowing-”

“Are you a bother on purpose?”

Martyn suddenly shuts up. Grian feels slight satisfaction through his anger.

“...What?”

“There are a hundred other people in this building. You don’t need to bother me. Maybe look for someone who deserves it.”

Martyn doesn’t have anything to add onto that. He stares at Grian blankly, his hand slowly falling off his shoulder, awkwardly hanging in the air. That’s enough for Grian to continue walking out the building.

He can feel Martyn’s eyes on his back until he rounds a corner.


He wakes up once at 5AM. 

He’s not a heavy sleeper, yet he’s not an early riser. He’s a morning person but he’d rather wake in the later hours of the AM.

But he happens to wake up early when he’s anxious. A fading dream is present in his fast beating heart, a dispersing image of him turning his head to look himself in the eyes. There were no recognizable details on his face. His skin was as ashen as paper. When he gets up to drink some water, he lowers his head as he walks past the mirror.

He wakes up again at 7AM. 

A fading dream is present in his sweaty neck, sweaty palms. When he blinks he can see himself lying on his bed from way, way above, the image temporarily burned into his eyelids, but cooling off as he wakes up.

He wakes up for the last time at 8:49AM.

His mouth is sticky and dry. He goes to brush his teeth.


His communicator is blinking. He immediately turns down the volume from the television (playing some nonsensical reality TV show he wasn’t paying attention to) and goes to read his messages.

There’s two of them, and his heart immediately sinks when he sees who sent them to him. Not his superior. So it’s probably unimportant. Of course, there’d be no real reason for his superior to change his mind about Grian’s break. Still, he opens them.

The first one, by R-03-984, reads, Hi Triple-Seven, I’ve heard about the bad news :-( at least the break is paid! But for the time being, I’m taking over your squad, and I wanted to ask if you have any tips. Hope I’ll hear from you soon, and have a great break. Ren

Grian thinks he wants to smash his communicator. Or chew it up with his teeth. He goes away for three weeks and they’re assigning Ren for his squad? They’re tormenting Grian on purpose!

I’m busy. He answers, intending to never text him back another message again. Ren loves playing goody-two shoes, he’s a suck-up and plain annoying. Plus he sometimes asks Martyn to hang out with him when he’s clearly sitting at Grian’s table already.

The other message, coincidentally by Martyn, reads, Hey Grian. I’ve been told you were put on a break. I didn’t know why you said those things to me but I know now that you were upset. Do you wanna meet up and talk?

Grian turns off his communicator. He wasn’t emotional about it. He was just rightfully upset at- well, it is an emotion but- he was rightfully emotional. It made sense why he was angry. He fixed everything that went wrong on his own and still got punished. He’s still angry!

But he can’t spend his entire day sitting on his couch and burning in anger. He already did that yesterday - he sat there, silently, his TV off, his phone far away. And part of him, something performative inside, forbade him from getting up and doing something else. As if someone would walk in and go, aha! You do enjoy not working! So he just sat there. For hours.

Today was a bit different. He put on the TV for background noise at the very least but he somehow found that there is no show that he really likes. It’s either unfunny or Grian just doesn’t get the joke or maybe it’s not supposed to be funny but it still is painfully boring. Background noise is fun though.

An advertisement plays about a non-stick pan. Grian watches a family eat pancakes. He clicks to the next sender. Ads again, for a grocery store. Cooking food. Grian thinks a bit.

Maybe now that he has time… well. Part of him still bites and claws and tells him to sit there in silence - because otherwise it’d be like proving everyone right. But he never has time to cook something fun. Maybe now an opportunity arises.

Embarrassingly, he wasn’t able to cook until he was in his twenties. He never had easy access to a kitchen, which is what he tells people when it somehow becomes a topic, and truth be told, he never felt any inclination to cook. Eating was a way to energize your body and that’s how he saw it. Whether the meat he ate was chicken or beef or pork barely mattered. It took him very long to find out that the different types of noodles had different names. In short, he just never had to worry about that. Everything was served on a silver platter and he ate to replenish his energy. To be healthy.

Then he started living on his own. For the first month, he ate nothing but ready-made sandwiches from the tiny grocery store next to him. He got tired of the stale bread after two days. The ham inside made him want to retch, so he usually bought a vegetarian option. 

He only stopped after he felt seriously sick - and so with a constant stomach ache and his vision blurry from frustration and anger, he hesitantly entered Mumbo’s garage and asked him to help him out. 

It was the most embarrassing experience in his life. Mumbo also didn’t catch on immediately, laughing at some of Grian’s mistakes, thinking they were on purpose. To make him laugh. When Grian didn’t turn around, stopped moving at all, staring at the stove and staring and staring, Mumbo finally stopped. He went horribly quiet and asked, have you ever cooked before? And Grian didn’t wanna answer that.

That was answer enough.

Now he’s pretty up to date, knows enough to provide for himself. But his food is still just to energize. It’s to survive. He makes a big batch of the same food that lasts him for a week and that’s all he eats that week. Never anything special. He thinks he hasn’t touched his oven since Mumbo made a cake in his house, for his birthday.

He still thinks about that cake. Chocolate - very sweet. He liked it a lot.

Sluggishly, laying on his couch, he reaches for his phone. Maybe he can ask Mumbo for the recipe. If he has time now, he could try making something nice.

Hi.

Mumbo is online immediately. It takes him by surprise, since Mumbo could spend hours working on something, unconcerned if the world outside is burning.

Mumbo types. Then the bubble disappears. Comes back. Disappears. Comes back. Grian gets impatient, and decides to cut to the chase.

Chocolate cake recipe do you have that

???

The one we made on my birthday

No answer. Maybe he’s trying to remember. Or looking for the recipe somewhere around his room - although when they were making it together, he wasn’t reading anything. Not even online.

why? He finally writes. A pause. are you still mad at me

Whatever, ill just look online. And no

He mutes his notifications and starts looking up recipes online. For a moment he considers waiting on Mumbo’s answer, but then he remembers that the whole fiasco started with Mumbo - (he wasn’t mad, he wasn’t ) - so instead, he starts looking for someone not involved in the Watcher end crystal business. 

Finding a good website is harder than he thought, having to navigate through pop-ups and ads, random video clips playing when he expects it the least. Then he has to get through the big block of texts, scrolling through it and feeling horrible dread at accidentally missing some important information that he needs to know before making a cake, but in the end he finds good step by step instructions that they just should’ve put in the beginning.

When Mumbo was making the cake with him, he first pulled out all the ingredients he needed. He took it with him in a bag, even stuff like milk and eggs - “because I was pretty sure you didn’t have any of that” - he was wrong, by the way. He always has milk and eggs, because it’s easy to make quick meals with them. But admittedly, he didn’t have flour, or baking powder, or nearly enough sugar for a cake. Neither did he have the chocolate that you melt to pour on top of the cake, or cocoa powder.

There should be some around still, from the last cake.

He stands up, stretching and popping his spine, slowly shuffling over to his kitchen. In a shelf, full of spaghetti, cans and ramen, he kept the remainder of the ingredients that Mumbo took with him and with relief in his heart he sees that everything is in place. Flour, sugar, baking powder, cocoa powder, all half full and ready for use. He pulls out a plastic bowl, and opens the fridge. He needs three eggs for the recipe, and luckily he has exactly three eggs left. His fridge is mostly empty, there’s some butter in its plastic wrapping that he was meaning to throw out a few days ago, a few loose tomatoes, and a single cucumber. The vegetables are all wrinkled and probably not edible, so he’ll need to throw out these as well. He probably eats more at the lunch court of the Watcher base - sometimes you'll spend entire days there and the least the place can do is supply you with free food. His superior says that no one can work on an empty stomach, let alone a job as stressful as this one.

He eagerly cracks open three eggs before realizing that he should’ve mixed the dry ingredients together first. But it’s fine, he’ll do that in a separate bowl. If the eggs are in there already, he’ll just add milk to it and add the flour-sugar-cocoa mix to it later on.

He bends down back to his fridge, reaching for the bottom shelf. The milk jug is almost completely full, one of his spare ones that he hasn’t yet replaced and only opened a few weeks ago to make himself something-

He stands still, his refrigerator still open and a milk jug held by its handle. Hesitantly, he opens the red lid and lifts the jug to his nose.

It smells sour.

He closes the fridge with his foot, screwing the milk jug shut. It’s almost completely full. The cracked eggs swim pathetically in their bowl. Grian walks back to the couch, laying down and folding his hands over his chest. There’s a grocery store next to his apartment, a few blocks down. On the way out he should take the expired milk with him. He should also shower.

His head sinks into the soft material of the couch. It smells old when he’s this close to it. Sort of dusty. He doesn’t spend that much time here anyway. He can’t shower. When he listens closely, he can hear his neighbors talk quietly. It’s never loud enough to actually bother him, which he appreciates. 

Why can’t he shower? 

There were some that only stayed for three months that were awfully loud every night. It was so exhausting that Grian took on nightshifts instead of his preferred day shifts, so he could actually get shut-eye during the day when the neighbors were out and about. 

That’s right, his towel is in the washing machine and it’s still wet. He’ll have to hang it out to dry, or go downstairs to the communal dryers that he never uses. Air-dried is fine anyway. But he can’t shower with a wet towel. He can’t cook with expired milk.

He keeps laying on the couch. His neighbors go silent. He hears the empty sound buzz in his head. His eyes close. It feels a bit like he could sink through the couch, seep into it. The only indication that he was ever there, a quickly fading indentation of his body. He slept eight hours yet he feels fatigued. 

He reaches for his phone, opens his messaging app again.

Can you bake without m

He stops typing. Mumbo sent him messages.

can we call?

grian?

im really sorry grian can you please text backkk

There’s more messages in the same vein and Grian sighs, contemplating the block button. But after some more contemplation, he realizes that blocking Mumbo will send the wrong message. Which, presently, Grian doesn’t care about, but he does have enough foresight to know that he’ll regret it later on.

He impulsively clicks on the call button. It beeps four times before someone picks up.

“Grian?”

“Can you bake without milk?”

“Can you- what?”

“Bake. The cake on my birthday, can you do that without milk.”

“What are you talking about? Is this a trick question? A metaphor?”

Grian groans. “Whatever! You’re so weird.”

He thinks he hears Mumbo scoff or chuckle sarcastically, but he can’t tell over the phone quality. “Are you still mad at me? Should I expect like, Watchers raiding my garage soon?”

Grian’s face falls. So it’s about this - obviously Mumbo doesn’t wanna land in prison. It makes sense that he’d try to get information out of Grian. “No. And if someone wants to ask you about the missing crystals, tell them you’re busy.”

“What’d you…”

“Don’t do this again, okay?” He listens to the silence on Mumbo’s end. “Don’t let me catch you doing this again. Don’t make this my problem again.”

“Yes. Yes, Grian. Oh gosh, of course.” Mumbo sounds happy. “Thank you.”

“Yeah, yeah. Now end the call or I’ll block you.”

“No, you end the call!” Mumbo giggles, his voice sounding strangely giddy. He thought Grian was going to rat him out. He had zero trust in Grian!

“Go away, jerk. I hate you.”

“Love you too!” 

And Grian ends the call.

The performative part, the one that is convinced that someone is watching him, trying to trip him up, using his behavior sans his thoughts to convince everyone he’s lying about everything, acts like he’s more miserable than before. He sinks deeper into the couch, his face distorts in annoyance, his lips purse.

The normal part of Grian feels the resolve in his chest harden. Suddenly the cake doesn’t seem that important anymore.

Sometimes you have to take things into your own hands.

That's what Mumbo said. And Mumbo has a tendency to be right about things.

He tries saying it like Mumbo did, tries making it sound like something meaningful. But when he says it, it just sounds out of place, more sinister than motivating. Despite that, he makes up his mind.

He has to take things into his own hands.


Abilities aren’t that special most of the time.

Usually, they’re so insignificant that a person won’t know they have one until they’re well past their prime, suddenly talking to someone and realizing, huh, having more than two sets of teeth is not normal. Sometimes people don’t even realize it - like having hair that grows much faster than other people’s hair, or having premonitional abilities that are so slight that they can be chalked up to coincidence or gut feeling.

Other times these abilities are major. Something big.

Grian is one of these other times.

In his entire life, he has only met two other people whose abilities were significant enough to catch Grian’s eye. One of them actually being Martyn, although he only figured that out a few weeks after the guy started talking to him, and the other an old friend he hasn’t seen since he was a teen.

Grian’s history with his ability is… weird. It’s what caused him to join the watchers, living alongside them at a very young age, so he’s grateful for that. But it also caused him to be put through very rigorous routines, which actually messed a bit with said abilities. What used to come natural is now artificial and less meant to be than it should. Something he used to use almost daily was now very much less useful, thanks to some drawbacks.

But it’s not entirely useless. He draws his blinds close and locks his bedroom door, putting the key beneath his carpet, somewhere right in the middle where it would take frustratingly long to find again.

He was never able to explain it properly, but it works somewhat like this:

He’s sitting in the middle of the room. There is a very clear part in him that knows he is sitting in the middle of the room. There are his legs, crossed over each other, there are his hands, carefully placed on his knees, there is his spine, straightened but not too much, there is his hair, falling gently over his eyes. There are his eyes, slowly closing.

And then he just forgets.

It’s like he’s starting at his toes and works his way up. It’s how some people have explained how they fall asleep quickly. His body is dissolving before his inner eye, it’s as if he’s melting, it’s as if he ceases to exist. There are no legs, there are no hands, there is no spine, there is no hair, there is no Grian. He unravels, like an old sweater. When it reaches his head, it’s like floating.

And then he opens his eyes again. 

And there is his face, not like looking in the mirror, or having a picture taken, or a drawing of himself. He’s in front of himself, as the mirror, or the camera, as another person entirely, as nothing at all.

With a gasping breath he's suddenly back in his body. Right - he hasn't done that in a while. He can't stay in that state for too long because sometimes it messes a bit too much with his physical body. He needs to get back into the swing of things.

He's not entirely sure where to start. He's looking for his target, to catch him, or get information, because that could get him back early from his break.

In any way, it's no use to keep speculating without acting. Slightly faster than before, he lets go of his body. This time he doesn't bother with staying in his room for very long, knowing that seeing himself oftentimes grounds him back into his body.

Instead, he finally goes outside, and he plans to do it as quickly as possible.

In this state, detached from his body, it was scarily easy for him to get distracted from his goals. It was almost like he was a cat lounging near a window, minding its own business, possibly lying down for a nap, but then suddenly standing upright and attentive at the sight of a bird outside the window. Even if the bird is right outside, or sitting in a tree far enough away that the owner couldn't spot what it was looking at, it doesn't matter. The cat knows where it is- and the cat's not taking its eyes off it until it moves, or until it leaves its line of sight. Then, after that, it would either pay attention to another bird, or do something else entirely, suddenly buzzing with the energy of finding a bird outside its window. It would take forever for it to calm down, and it would almost never go back to lounging.

Grian could hear the sound of birds chirping blocks away from his apartment.

And though his gut instinct was to seek out the noise, and see where it's coming from and why his brain has been trying to pay attention to it, he forces himself to ignore it and continue searching.

One minute, he was near his apartment. In the next, he's in a park down the street. Then, he's going along the road, so far from his house that he can't see it from where he's floating.

But the further he gets from his body, the more he disconnected himself. And, despite trying to force himself to stay on track, he finds that that's easier said than done.

He is a cat lounging by the window, the world is a tree just close enough for him to see, and every slight distraction in his path are the birds perched on top of its branches.

What finally brings him back is the strain he feels in his head, a rattling, something quietly all around him. The pressure, while bearable, is just grounding enough for him to remember the task at hand, recognize that he's getting off track, and send him flying back into his body. 

Only once he's conscious enough to think, and the room stops feeling like it's spinning around him, does he lift his head off the door to his room. He moves, hands hanging off the handle of the doorknob - which may explain the rattling, accompanied with the headache.

He crawls back to the middle of his room, bites his lip hard and tries again.

With his target on his mind, he goes back again. Willing away the birds, the people, everything. One thing. He's here for one thing. 

He starts again, a pace so different it feels like whiplash. Instead of idling about, watching the world in a more abstract way, observing shapes and colors and unreality and reality - instead of that, it's a kaleidoscope before his inner eye, thousands of different places in their objective truth sliding past Grian. A cacophony of sounds, an orchestra with no conductor, nature and humans in all their raw prowess. It screams down Grian's throat, holds him captive, and all he wants to do is leave.

He forces apathy over him, a sense of calm in a hurricane of words and pictures, and it works, yet it is the same feeling he gets when waking up from a deep sleep. Something brewing beneath his skin, bubbling and hot and ill, so he forces even more apathy over it all. All that remains on his mind is the target. Scar.

After a while, an hour, a few seconds, who knows, he finally feels the kaleidoscope vision circling in on a vague area, maybe a hundred feet radius, an automatic response to his goal in mind. Scar is around here, somewhere. He can feel it. He just needs to find him.

A familiar taste spreads across his tongue, alarming in a faint way. For just a second he loses sight of his goal and-

He slams his hand down on the floor, stinging pain over his palm. The taste in his mouth is metallic. He wipes his nose in disgust, watching blood smear over the back of his hand. 

The method he used - that was called bullet train shifting (or maybe not - if anything, he could make up his own name. But he just got so used to the ones given to him) and he perfected it over the course of a year. It's anything but simple, but in the words of his mentor, he needs to be everywhere at once.

The training for this method was frustrating in ways no other training had been. The endurance tests, the ones that helped him untether from his body, stay floating, even under most pressing circumstances, even if it felt like his brain was melting, was physically straining. The body-consciousness feedback training that tested how well Grian's body could handle being without Grian himself often ended in minor injuries, since it doesn't seem like his body does well without him.

But the bullet train method was frustrating in a way he could never be able to describe again. Something about a mix of being told to do something that might not even be possible (no one else knew if he could actually archive their ideal method, yet Grian was expected to strive towards it anyway), the fact that he had to figure out most of the tricks on his own, the fact he wasn't able to multitask like this, even within his body-

Well. He can, now.

So, again- as he sniffs and rubs his nose, trying to clear his nose to keep himself from getting too distracted- he slips.

This time, he waits a little while longer before he attempts the method again, and tries a little harder to keep himself on track. As he goes further, he reminds himself to ignore everything that could be distracting. The birds singing, the couple walking hand-in-hand down the road… the stray cat rustling around in a dumpster next to a café… the sound of customers chatting at their respective tables, and the waitresses talking badly about them behind their backs-

He grinds his teeth together, making a frustrated noise in the back of his throat. His teeth are loud, the sound of them colliding seemingly echoing in his skull. Discomfort travels through his body in waves, but he clenches his fists together and goes back fast.

Snippets of conversation, snippets of places he's never seen before.

A park, a bench, a trash can

"I never thought that-"

"We aren't meant to-"

"-nothing much-"

The roof of a building, a living room, a cellar

"-family visit on the-"

"-movie was fine, i just wished you-"

"-horrible person-"

A tiny kitchen, a corner seat, a red wall

"-no olives! Why-"

"-and Triple-Seven-"

"-boring, really-"

Grian reels back. He noticed that. He heard his name in that last push. From a voice that was familiar. His head is pounding now, the beginnings of a headache that are just snippets of what's about to come if he keeps up with this. But he's so close. He needs to continue. He doesn't sit up, he just unclenches his jaw and releases the tension out of his shoulders. One last push, he tells himself.

"-olives are my least favorite-"

"-maybe another color-"

"The Watchers aren't necessarily fun to hang around, I'd assume."

That's it- he stops his rapid fire switching and it feels like suddenly stopping a car that was going at high speeds. The many voices go down to two, noise of traffic and crowds disappearing from one moment to another.

"I'm sorry, but what are you trying to say?" This voice, he doesn't recognize. He slowly gets used to his surroundings. It's warmly lit and Grian notices that he has been staring at a wall instead of the room. 

Scar is there. That's obviously the first thing he sees.

The man is in casual wear, a loose button up shirt. One arm is slung around the pale-blue seat he's on, his fingers tapping at the wooden frame of it. A cane is leaning next to him, and this one looks quite normal, not like the extravagant ones Grian sometimes sees him carry when they're chasing each other. A glass is in front of him, although Grian can't parse if it's coke or dark beer inside.

Across from him is another man. Nothing crazy about this guy either, and if anyone walked past them, it would've been a perfectly normal scene. Grian watches them from the edge of the table, listening in on their conversation. As he settles, the light overhead flickers once. The two men glance up at it but continue easily with their conversation. If he's lucky he can get some real interesting information, and maybe even Scar's location.

"I'm trying to say, Triple-Seven might be open to some… things?" Scar smiles, tilting his head. His friend just raises his eyebrows, staring at Scar to continue.

They're talking about him. He doesn't know why he's taken aback by that. After all, Grian is probably the most consistent Watcher that's going after Scar. It'd be stranger if Scar didn't talk about him.

"It's… well maybe you've heard the rumors?"

His friend shakes his head.

"You should really eavesdrop more on other people's conversations, Impulse."

…At least he has Scar's own okay to listen in on their conversation.

"There has been trouble in paradise."

"How unusual," Impulse laughs.

"People are saying that there has been a major disagreement between Triple-Seven and some of his superiors."

"But doesn't that happen, like, every other week?"

"One day he'll snap, won't he?... And aren't we good samaritans, wouldn't it be nice to offer him something up his alley with more freedom?"

“Scar.”

“Aw, come on. We’ve been at a standstill, things have been comfortable but we haven’t been moving forward. Let’s take a risk!

Grian really wants to chime in and ask what they mean specifically. It feels eerily like walking through the Watcher base and seeing people look at him from across the room and whisper to each other.

“What if it backfires?”

“That’s part of taking a risk. And I’m smart, I’ll keep the damage to a minimum.”

Impulse sighs and turns away. “What makes you even think he’d wanna leave the Watchers, let alone join you?”

Grian blanks. What makes him what? What? He agrees with this Impulse guy, what is Scar thinking about? Joining him. Joining Scar? When they have been fighting for literally almost a decade? When Grian has spent week after week trying to come up with something that would finally defeat him?

Has Scar gone mad?

“Look! Me and him go way back, if I get the chance to speak to him, maybe only for a half an hour, no chasing each other, I think… I think I could convince him that we’d make a pretty good team.”

“You don’t know him.”

“I do.”

Impulse looks quite pained at his friend, a bit pitiful as well. “Scar…”

“Hey, listen. I’ve gotten this far because I’m smart-”

“Because you’re lucky.”

“Rude!”

“And true.”

Scar waves his hands in front of him, starting over. “I’ve gotten this far because I’m smart and I think about stuff, so I obviously thought about this stuff not working. I have it handled! I know what I’m doing.” He slouches over a bit, a pause in his showmanship-like speech, then toning down to something less intense. “Look. Do me a favor - if you hear something about Triple-seven, if you know what he’s up to… let me know?”

Whatever this Impulse character answers to that is lost to Grian, whose entire world seems to suddenly shake, a repeating thumping noise filling up the space of his ear drums.

Thump, thump, thump. It was louder than Scar, who seemed to be laughing at something. It was also somehow louder than his vision, the world around him shrinking and shrinking, the noises of the two men speaking going quieter, until all he hears is static and a thump, thump, thump.

Grian?

He groans. His head hurts really bad. If he opens his eyes the light of his room will attack his retinas and make it even worse.

"Grian, come on. I know you're in here."

"Leave," he draws the word out, sounding more like a kid having a tantrum. He has every right to be impolite right now though, he almost found Scar. He could've tracked down his location, but he was grounded now, and the pulsing in his head is much too present for him to be able to go back. No matter how much he wants to find Scar, he maybe shouldn't push it too far this time. Especially when someone is at his door, sounding like they're ready to break it down.

"Grian! Open this stupid door now! Please."

He stumbles up, his feet ready to give out beneath him, and he holds himself for a moment, leaning against the cold wall of his room. "Give me a second," he mumbles, unsure if anyone can even hear him. 

This is bad. He’s really out of shape. His hands are shaking, he must look pale. When he finally opens his front door, he only opens it a crack, enough for one eye to get a peek.

“What do you want, Martyn?”

Martyn pushes the door open to Grian’s disdain. He pushes back, which makes Martyn push back on his back-pushing. They do this for a while, both on a standstill.

“Lea-heave, now!” He whines, and wow, he really does sound like he’s throwing a tantrum. 

“No, I wo-hon’t!” Martyn mocks him. For a second it feels like Martyn is giving up, letting the door close, but before it locks into place, he goes back full-force, taking Grian by surprise and making him stumble.

They stare at each other. Martyn is still in his Watcher uniform, which checks out - he probably came here straight after work. Although his hood is down and he’s not wearing the gloves that he usually has.

“Are you okay?” Is the first thing Martyn says, almost breathless. He looks Grian up and down, stopping at his shaking hands, the blood dripping down his chin, and then his pale face.

“Get out,” Grian croaks.

“Can you stop being stubborn for one second?” Martyn doesn’t come any closer, instead just leaning on the doorway which was still wide open. Obviously, his neighbors know that there’s a Watcher in the complex since he storms in and out of his apartment in his uniform, but he still doesn’t want anyone to snoop in on their conversation. People get curious about Watchers - he had to find that out firsthand, when some of his neighbors would gossip about him when he was out of uniform, as if he was a different person entirely. Not like they know that Grian and the Watcher are the same person - probably only his next door neighbor caught onto that. 

He uses a napkin to wipe away most of the blood, puts on his shoes, donning the face-mask and cloak that were hung up next to his door. He steps out with Martyn and moves to close his door.

“Did you take your keys?”

Grian pauses. He doesn’t answer, instead he walks back in and grabs them from his kitchen counter. After actually closing the door he takes a shaky breath. He doesn’t quite turn to Martyn. “I’m not stubborn.”

He actually laughs at that. “I didn’t know you could do jokes.”

“I can’t.” He blinks. “What, no I can! I’m funny.”

He ignores that. “Where are we going?” Martyn takes Grian’s wrist, possibly to prevent him from running away like he does many, many times and he trails after Grian as they walk down the steps in favor of using the elevator.

Martyn’s three fingers looping around his wrist is something he shouldn’t focus on - it’s not unusual for Mumbo to grab his sleeve in excitement and drag him around, or for Martyn to quickly pull him out of the way of someone running past them. But an unnatural sense of ease seems to go off in waves from that place of contact, visible in the way Grian’s hand stops shaking, then his shoulders relaxing, his headache being driven into some corner of his brain that won’t deal with any of it right now.

He snaps his own hand back, stopping dead in the middle of the staircase. Martyn turns around.

“Cut it out. Don’t use your… y’know. Don’t use that on me.”

Martyn blinks a bit flabbergasted, and then looks down at his hand. He flexes his fingers, wiggles them around. “Oh. Sorry. I didn’t even notice.”

“Don’t apologize. Just don’t touch me.”

“Alright, I won’t.”

They continue onward, walking down the stairs. Silently. Their shoes clack against the concrete, and there’s no one else that meets them on their way down. Probably because it’s pretty late, and anyone at this hour would probably take the elevator anyway. Grian is very considerate though, and because he knows that being stuck in an elevator with two silent Watchers is somewhat unnerving, he went for the slightly more time-consuming path. 

“We’re going back to the headquarters.”

“What for? I just left.”

Grian smiles, his eyebrows heavy over his eyelids. He can’t help but scoff, or laugh. Maybe he couldn’t find Scar’s location, maybe this will take a bit more than just going out of body once. If it was so easy, he would’ve caught the guy years ago. No, he needs something that gives him the upper hand - he needs to use the information given.

“So sorry Martyn,” he says, not sounding sorry at all. “But that’s top secret.”


“You are not in your right mind.”

His superior is, of course, being very annoying about his genius plan. 

Which is fine, because Grian assumed that would happen. He also assumed that he would turn around with a jump, blinking at Grian and going, you were supposed to be on a break! And is that blood on your face? To which Grian replied, well. Well. And then he moved on to the thing he actually wanted to say.

“Let me be your spy.”

“No.”

“Let me be your spy!”

“Saying it again won’t make it any more appealing. What makes you think that your target would even want you on his side?”

Grian’s eyes slide to the side and he bites his lip. If he could’ve avoided this part, that would’ve been great - but there’s no way around… “I heard… some stuff?”

“Triple-Seven.”

“Just listening around, y’know.”

“Grian.”

He looks back at his superior. He looks at him sternly, sighing and tapping with three of his fingers, a rhythm. “You’re not supposed to use your abilities without us supervising you.”

“Am I a toddler or something? Martyn can use his abilities anytime he wants to, why can’t I-!”

“Because Martyn’s abilities aren’t like yours, Grian.”

He shuts up very suddenly. This is how it went wrong last time. He got angry. He started arguing when he shouldn’t have - fine, he’s treated like a toddler when it comes to his abilities. He can brood about that when he’s alone in his room. But right now, he needs to sell this. He lifts his head, back straight, looking slightly down at his superior, who’s still sitting on his chair.

“We have been at a standstill for nearly a decade.” He sounds grave. He sounds serious - that’s good. “Scar has been our biggest enemy since I’ve arrived here, and probably even longer than that. There is barely anyone else giving us trouble. This entire end crystal business could end now! This year! Maybe next month!” He takes a step forward. “But it won’t end anytime soon- not if we keep taking the same approach. He’s going to go through some big changes. Why aren’t we keeping up?”

He looks at him from the side, his face being held up by one hand. He covers half of his mouth, pausing, thinking. 

“Because it will put you in danger.”

“This job is danger.”

“You are… susceptible to his influence.”

Grian’s nostrils flare in anger. “I am what?”

“Everyone could be. Do you think he built this big of a crime empire with no skills to manipulate? To tell people lies that appeal to them? Taunt them with a paycheck that’s too good to be true, just to never deliver?”

“As if I’m in this for the money! As if I haven’t been loyal since my childhood!”

“You have been! Grian, you are our most loyal-”

“Then I am the best pick for this!”

A pause. He holds his temples, running a finger over the tip of his fingernail. He looks irritated, but he's thinking. He’s thinking - that’s good!

“What did Scar say specifically?”

Grain looks down, nods to himself, recounting what he heard. “He thinks I would join him if he had the chance to talk to me. I know what you think but… it’s a pretty safe bet, I think. There’s nothing I care about that he can use on me for blackmail, and you know I’m not about the paycheck. But if I play along…”

He’s silent for a moment. “...and he specifically talked about you?”

“He thinks I’m going to leave the Watchers.”

Tapping on the table again. It’s uneven, thoughtless. he stares how his finger goes up and down, instead of noticing the rhythm that is falling apart. “And you want to do this.”

“I want to finally end this.”

He nods slowly. He has seemed to calm down, eyes no longer lined with irritation.

“Triple-Seven.”

Grian looks up. He blinks rapidly, staring and staring. The silence seems to go on forever. “Yes.”

“Take off the Watcher uniform. Storm out of the building, cause a scene, whatever. It seems there are enemy eyes and ears everywhere.” he leans forward, a rare and amused glint in his eyes. “Let’s make it public knowledge that Triple-Seven has left the Watchers. And it wasn’t a happy break-up.”

Grian takes off his hood, then his face mask. “So, what you’re saying is…”

“Let’s put you undercover Triple-Seven. And make it convincing.