You like this sun. The air is dry, feels somehow heavy in your lungs, going in and out. You can smell the sea, mineral and salty and organic in a way you can't put words to. Not the stink of dead fish and seaweed left rotting at high noon, but something fresh, prickly, just enough to keep from feeling too dry.
From time to time you pluck out a leaf from a nearby plant at random and roll it in your palms until it's crushed into a ball and plant juices dry on your palms. You might end up with a rash. So far you have mostly found strange spicy fragrances you're considering sprinkling on grubloaf.
"... have to step on my head?"
Your Descendant-Ancestor was terrified of the light a hour ago. Right now he's dogging the girl Jade's heels as she explores the woods, and grumping and always willing to help her hop up to catch a tree branch and climb, and he barely flinches at all every time he walks through a puddle of sunlight. You still haven't pushed your hood back.
It has very little to do with the shoddy way the horn holes are secured.
"Sorry, sorry, stop whining! It's not like I stepped on your horns."
"You'd better not, with that ginormous posterior of yours they'd snap clean off -- ow, stop or I'm dumping you!"
You like the purplish-blue of this sky. It looks so strangely soft, so powdery. So infinite. The sea is all jewel tones, so bright it's almost gaudy. Sometimes a breeze sneaks its way through the grass, ruffles your bangs, teases the edge of your cloak.
You let your newly-red hands bask in that strange drowsy warmth, but when the breeze gets too insistent you tug your sleeves back down to the base of your thumb, and then you fix your hood until it's once again level with your eyes.
Someone probably should get back inside, try to wake trusted allies, discuss what ought to be done next. You're the adult. You're the one who more or less led a rebellion (you didn't want to lead anyone and especially not to fight and die, you weren't trying to lead, you just talked and sometimes people would agree and that was all you wanted.) You should. When Dave rolls back on his feet, almost smooth even with the impressive sweep of his horns unbalancing him, and ambles back to the cave, you let him.
You've been out of the loop for hundreds, thousands of sweeps. The world you tried so hard to fix has been unmade. You feel irrelevant.
"Nyoo, Signless, why?! You catnot do that!" A heavy weight lands on your back, pitching you forward. You narrowly avoid crushing your smellnub into your knee.
"Broiling alive! Wasting all that delicious meat juice! Getting dry and stringy!"
You give Disciple a long, unimpressed look over your shoulder. She's still draped over your back, all compact hunter muscles, and her arms have come up around you; no escape there, and no breathing either.
A hank of long, messy hair drops in your face. You blow on it; it lands on your nose this time around. Awesome. She's still fake-pouting at you, though her eyes crinkle with restrained merriment.
"Disciple? Dearest, Northern Star of my life -- you are breaking my spine."
"I'll carry you around!" she offers in all mock-seriousness. "You can't be any heavier than a wildebeest."
"Thank you ever so much." But you smile, you can't help it. She'd probably throw you over her shoulder and go stomping around until you beg off from feeling about to throw up and your stomach a giant bruise, if you pushed her by keeping on brooding.
"That one was especially bad."
She laughs in your ear, low and rough-edged, smoke-scratchy, and then she mercifully slides off your back to sit at your side, shoulder to shoulder. Her eyes are darting all over the meadow, the sea, squinty from bright sunlight but fascinated, eager to explore.
She would have crow's feet there even if she stood in the shade. She lived; you didn't. She's beautiful.
"Asleha," you whisper. Disciple purses her lips at you.
"You say you're sorry again, I'm biting you. Ooh, is that the Kheper-cub?"
You laugh, you can't help it. You've said sorry once, when you both came out on the other side of death and fell in each other's arms in that first disbelieving, despairing moment, and then, the last of your strength stolen, you were falling asleep in a pile with Psiioniic and your mother and did not talk of anything else but how pointy Psii's elbows were -- and even then, not very intelligibly.
Your Descendant-Ancestor stands between gnarled trees, a good stone's throw away, half-hidden and half-sun-flecked by a tangle of lace-like leaves. He's staring at the two of you, frowning and wary and doubtful. You smile at him, half because you want to seem welcoming and it's habit by now, and half because it's hilarious the way his nose scrunches up when you do.
"You're going to love his name."
Disciple tilts her head your way, though her eyes are still fixed on her target like waiting arrowheads.
"He's named Karkat."
She bursts out laughing, and then she waves. "Karcub, hi! Ooh he's absconding, that means he wants to play right, can I hunt him down, can I?"
"Disciple!" you protest, but you're laughing. She leans into you, a moss-colored hand cupping your face. She presses her forehead to yours, smiling. One of her fangs is chipped.
You kiss it, gentle and slow, you kiss each other slow and intense and deep, you missed her, you missed her, most of the time you didn't really know you were dead and you still missed her, and she has missed you so much longer; your chest aches thinking of it.
"--glad you're here. So glad. Can I say that?"
"Hmm. You may."
The fake sternness melts into tenderness, into a strange, sanded-soft quality she didn't use to have. Time has weathered her. Sadness, exhaustion, you hope there were joys too, you hope there was satisfaction, contentment. You hope she was happy.
She looks older but she doesn't look like she died of old age. You want to ask. You don't want to ask. You don't know if you want to know. You will, eventually.
Her hands are on your wrists. Just resting there, light and life-warm, not circling, not holding you down. Not burning. You want to be sick anyway.
"Does it hurt?"
Your lips are dry. You blame the sun. It's too hot out here. "I'm not injured. There's no wound there."
"Not my question."
"It... doesn't, not really. I just can't --"
"Do you want me to look?" You can't answer. She tilts her head, peers under your hood. "Kheper? Khepurr, cubling--"
"It's fine." You thrust your wrists at her. You can't look. Lucky the little white flowers dotting blue grass off to the side are so interesting. They look like bells. "I'm just being a big whiny grub."
The light falls on your skin, golden-white, and it's different how it feels against skin that was previously hidden, how the breeze cools your sweat at the same time as the sun oozes into your very skin, not the same way as cloth-trapped heat at all.
"There's no marks."
"There should be," you say before you can think twice.
She stares at you, your wrists cradled in rough-skinned hands, her razor claws curled ticklish-light above your pulse points, the now visible darker net of blood vessels. She stares at you, and then she nods. "Then we'll get you tattooed."
And you can breathe.
You lean into her, eyes closing, forehead to forehead.
You remember her as a child, both times -- she liked the second one better, for all that her lusus died too early. She got to be wild, she got to be free, she wasn't looked at with disappointment because it took her more time than most to understand how to behave with other people, how to read their faces, how to find a middle ground between total avoidance and pouncing, cuddling.
You never minded the pouncing. Not even the second time around, when she caught you by surprise, from the back, and snarled in your face because it was her territory and she wanted you to leave, poor lonesome starveling with that cloud of tangles and brambles for hair. She said, go away! Mine! and you said Oh hello Asleha (your brain might have been somewhat shaken by the impact) and she never left you again.
You left her first. You open your mouth to apologize and she nips your ear with a little warning growl. Ow.
"Okay, no gross public make-outs allowed," says your Descendant-Ancestor from a few steps away. "This is a public cave exit, everyone walks by, imitate someone with something of a grasp on what shame means and go hide in the bushes."
Disciple straightens up to peer at him over your head, and then she coos. "Aw, Signless, he's so cute! He's like tiny you after we dumped you in that lake." Karkat's grumpy expression only worsens. Disciple eyes the open cliff and the sea underneath speculatively. "Wonder if there's a way down!"
"Don't even," Karkat growls, hand twitching as if to grab a weapon you can't see. "I will fillet you and provide the local carrionbeasts with a nice dinner. I'm a goddamn Knight."
Disciple brightens like her ossified organ-holder is now host to a lighthouse. Oh sweet mercy, what now? You're laughing before she even speaks, still too raw and confused and lost and she is just so her.
"Really?" she asks, and she bounces up on her feet. You're too late to hold her back. "Me too! We could spurr! I mean spar!"
For a second you are so entertained by the cringing horror on Karkat's ruddy face, the sneaky wink Jade is sending you as she giggles, the words don't even register.
And then they do, and you... But -- no. You must have heard it wrong.
Karkat frowns, hilariously wary. "You too what?"
"A knight, kid, a knight!" She bows, swishing her hair one-handed the way snooty bluebloods would swish a cape. "Asleha Leijon, Knight of Heart, at your pouncervice."
You... can't breathe. Once again. You can't, you -- oh. Oh.
You were telling yourself for so long that it was alright, that it was enough, more than. You believed it, too. You have stopped expecting this so long ago.
You laugh. The sound breaks in your throat. You keep laughing anyway. "You were the most magnificent," you assure her, "You had the most adorable God Tier outfit -- your hair wouldn't, wouldn't --"
Your Asleha's eyes brighten some more, and she starts nodding in startled agreement. "Stay in that stupid tight hood, oh, no, it really wouldn't! That was so irritating. I liked the cape, though, it got caught in things but it was so nice and warm to curl up... on... Khepurr?"
"Oh nooo", the human girl is saying, but you can't really see her, it's all blurred. Your Descendant-Ancestor is staring at you with slowly mounting horror. "Okay, what the fuck is up with the fountainhead game, no, no, stop, whatever it is we can figure it out oh hell no don't get your gross red fluids everywhere why are you crying?!"
"I was Seer," you say around a choking laugh, "I was Seer of Blood when we played the game and I had this silly cowl that hid my eyes and half my face, and the wings, sweet mercy, do you remember the wings?"
She's holding on to you and when she blinks two fat green tears roll on her cheeks. "Oh. Yes. I remember. Kheper, I remember."
"I remember, I remember, your hair was cut so short, you hated it, I remember Meenah kept tugging your hood down on your face and then I'd try to grab her stupid braids but she just -- just kept being Meenah, hsst! And -- and -- Mother was your moirail? Or, or, Psii? Or that other one, the sea troll? I can't--"
You laugh, you're a pale hussy and you laugh, you will never stop laughing. "I had a bit of a hard time making up my mind. You were up for that quadrant a couple times too, don't you--"
"Yes! But then we flipped spades beclaws you would never listen to me and I was furced to bite you, that was really annoying."
You're papping each other's face and wiping away each other's tears and still crying, making more work for each other, it's. A lot of things are still vague in her mind, of course, no matter how much the Game marked you all it was still only her childhood, her first childhood, but she remembers, you can't believe she remembers. The world-that-was, the peace and care and understanding, it's.
It's still alive. It's not buried inside your head any longer as if you merely made it all up, you're not crazy, you're not stupid believing it can work, believing trolls can be that.
... you're not even fully trolls anymore.
No matter. It just means this is a clean start. You'll all do it right from the very start. You'll see to it personally.
You can't wait to see if the rest of your old teammates remember. But even if they don't -- that's fine. That's alright. Psii and Mother have loved you for a lifetime. Greedy to want them to know you have loved them for two.
You let Asleha wipe your face a last time and turn to find your spectators, embarrassed and compassionate, standing a few feet away and waiting, hesitating, about to leave the two of you alone. No, no, it's good, you're done crying. You are. You hug your Disciple a last time -- she hugs back, so tight your cartilaginous support column cracks in two places -- and climb up on your feet. Enough moping, the day is too gorgeous to sit around and do nothing. The sun is warm and won't burn.
You throw back your hood, grin with all your teeth. Karkat flinches, suspicious; you laugh. Jade smiles, hesitant for the first few seconds and then wider, brighter, sharing in your happiness even though she doesn't understand its root. You're going to like her, you can tell.
"Alright! What were you two doing, and how can we help?"
"Looking for local plants, animals," Jade replies, as Karkat is still doing the wincing dance of the uncomfortable. "Anything we can eat or use in some other way. I also wanted to explore and find more caves, since we won't have enough houses built for everyone anytime soon, but Mister Worrywart thought we shouldn't go too far when no one knew where we'd gone--"
"And I still think that! Gog, Jade, we don't even have a clue how solid the rock here is and we are by the sea, what if you fall in and drown, or get trapped under rocks and get crushed to death, or there's always the popular suffocating to death thanks to a convenient cave-in--"
"Wiiitch of spaaaace. I can teleport away!"
"Not if your brain matter gets splattered out before you realize there's danger!"
"Well then!" Asleha says. "So then Khefur can do his Seer of Blood thing to see when we get injured so that we don't get injured, and you and I can do our meat shield knight thing, and everybody is happy!"
Your Blood powers don't really work like that, but you let her steamroll Karkat with it. Soon enough she and Jade are taking point, bouncing between strange corkscrew trees with gold-edged leaves and scrambling over rocks and fallen trunks. You and Karkat follow at a more leisurely (you) or exhausted (him) pace, crossing from sunlight into the comfortable dimness of the woods.
He sneaks you another side look from under his fringe and then squares his shoulders, firms his lip. He's still so young.
You can see traces of Revolter Vantas all over him. Maybe the Catalyst never grew old and willing to compromise either, maybe that's why he was so widely known for never settling for 'passable' or 'tolerable' and why you remember at least a dozen Law Vantas of Xyear. It's the expression his old self would make during the great Peaceful Protests of Caliatta on an iconic photograph you remember seeing in class. Your ancestor.
They seem remarkably similar, he and his other self. Maybe that's why he hasn't remembered. Not enough of a gap to register? Hm.
"So! We're going to have to find topics of conversation or this whole clonegrub thing is going to get real awkward, real quick. So. Random thought. You and Leijon Major. Pale or flushed? I couldn't tell."
... Pff. So young. "Both?"
Pffffft. "No, I mean both."
He gapes. "At the same time?! You can't do that! Not only is it depraved but what about your other prospects for those quadrants -- hell, your actual quadrantmates, being cheated on?!"
You make sure to take on your best Wise Sage expression, the one that always cracks Psii up. He says you could sell saltwater in a bottle to sea trolls. (He's right, too, you've tried it.) "All my quadrants are open to them as well. I give what I have, let them give back what they will. No obligations save that everyone be happy."
Karkat presses a hand to his forehead and does a stellar impression of someone with a psionic-class migraine. He almost gets a branch in the face from not seeing it coming; you generously lean over him and hold it back. He glares and sidesteps you like your out-quadrant behavior is possibly contagious. "Wow, what time is it? It's time for a horrible suspicion! How many do you mean by 'everyone'?"
"As many as my bloodpusher can hold!" You smile, wise face firmly affixed.
The both of you keep advancing through the grass. Leaves whisper in the sea breeze. Birds and flying lizards sing. Flutterbeasts drift through rays of sunlight like living dust motes.
"... I want it recorded that this is outrageous and I am outraged."
You try to look grave as you nod. "Duly noted."
"I think it's cute!" contributes Jade.
The forest is blueish and gilded in gold, the rocks are ochre mixed with white, it's gorgeously alien, a paradise of painless light and pleasant shade. This boy who is you and yet not and this girl who used not to even be your species are fighting and laughing and sputtering and teasing. The woman you love is hunting, wild and fierce and happy.
You don't have a clue how any of you are going to deal with the memories -- if this happen to anyone else, oh, you hope -- and you don't have a clue how you'll all deal with each other; the past was horror after horror and the future is a worrying mystery. But all in all right now is a pretty nice time to be.