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You wanted to avoid this.

You stalled for time, gave her every excuse in the book--you were busy dealing with Jack, you were busy exploring your planet, she should go on without you. She wouldn't have any of it. I can wait, she said, there's plenty to do right here! Besides, I've wanted to show you my tree for so long.

I don't want to see your stupid fucking tree, you told her, and she laughed.

You don't get a choice!

You suspect entrapment.

So here you are, stumbling your way through the godforsaken Ancient Holy Temple of the Fucking Naks--this land is even shittier than yours, it's all just crumbling ruins and fucking neurons in the sky. It doesn't make any sense. You were hoping to find her first--before she decided to ambush you like one of her Flarp victims--but you keep going in circles, turning back in on yourself. Like the planet itself is twisting around to confuse you.

And then you see her.


She looks--normal, is your first thought. More normal than you expected. Which is stupid, she's a fucking pole and her elbows are icepicks and she has a goddamn dragon plushie strapped to her back, but (in the back of your mind) you'd been imagining her three feet tall, with a goblin mouth to swallow you whole: more mythology than troll. A creature in a ghost story. If it hadn’t been for all those Trollian chats, you wouldn’t have believed Terezi Pyrope was real at all.

She's not even grinning at you. Just--staring (smelling, fine), like she's waiting to see whether you'll do a trick.

Shit, she’s plotting something, isn’t she? There is no way Terezi Pyrope is ever that quiet unless she’s got something up her sleeve. There is no way she’s this normal. You look at her again, at the set of her chin and her hair curling around her ears, and wonder--

H3H3H3H3

HOLY SHIT, IT’S LIKE A DEMENTED PURRBEAST HAD A FIGHT WITH A CHALKBOARD.
I’D KNOW THAT SOUND ANYWHERE. GC, RIGHT?

RUD3, K4RK4T!
BUT 1 UND3RST4ND 1F YOUR3 SHY >:]

GOD, KILL ME NOW.

In that moment, your life stops being entirely yours.

 


 

These days Prospit hums with energy and movement, feeling anything but empty. Kanaya is a regular fixture by now--you don’t even turn when you find her gliding through the alleys, hurrying to some unknown destination. She never goes far from the ground. Tavros, on the other hand, is constantly in flight, a mere chocolate blip against the Skaian sky. Gamzee you run into now and again, feeling along the walls with his hands like he doesn’t recognize anything around him.




It’s the last Prospit dreamer you’ve come here to see, though, and he hasn’t budged from his bed in all the time you’ve known him. Not that you don’t keep hoping. After a very robust series of experiments, you have determined that basically nothing you do on this side is going to get him to wake up; it’s something he’ll have to work out on his own. Pity.




His room’s the quietest in all of Prospit. You settle down on his bed--you’re sure he wouldn’t mind, what’s his is yours!--and wait.

 


 

"What. The. Fuck. Did. You. Do."

Terezi shrugs, still leaning back against the tree. Like this doesn't even matter to her. Like it's a fucking game. (It is a game, she'd point out, but fuck her and her pedantic shit.) "I did exactly what I told you I'd do, Karkat. I don't see why you're surprised."

"And I said no--"

"It was necessary."

"Necessary--fuck necessary, am I your fucking leader or not?"

You curl your hands into fists. God, and you'd actually bought her little act, her innocent face. Oh, yes, Karkat, of course you can be the leader. I totally trust your judgment and respect your authority! I'll just go behind your back and betray an important ally exactly like you told me not to do because I think I know better.

She fed you shit, and you’d taken it. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Her expression doesn’t change. "If I had asked you first, would you have agreed?".

"Of course I wouldn't have--I told you, I keep telling you--"

"It had to be done." She says it with the conviction of someone who's never been wrong in her life. "If we hadn't exiled him, he would have double-crossed us and taken the ring--I told you, I saw it. It's not like I went behind your back because I wanted to."

"You don't know him like I know him," you say.




She smiles--thin, not particularly amused. "I know the truth. It's my job to see these things."


 


 

He shifts as he sleeps, face contorted, seemingly always on the verge of waking from some nightmare. It’s a good match for your mood, at least.

VR1SK4 M4D3 GOD T13R
D1D YOU H34R?
BLUH BLUH OF COURS3 YOU H34RD SH3S B33N BR4GG1NG 4BOUT 1T NONSTOP
COMPL3T3LY 1NSUFF3R4BL3. 1 W3NT TO SL33P JUST TO G3T 4W4Y FROM H3R!

TH3R3S NO W4Y 1 C4N WORK W1TH H3R R1GHT NOW 4NYW4Y
NOT UNT1L SH3 C4LMS DOWN 4ND G3TS OV3R H3RS3LF
SO 4R4D14 K1CK3D H3R 4SS UNT1L SH3 N34RLY D13D, 1 DONT S33 HOW TH4TS SOMETHING TO BR4G 4BOUT >:[
BUT OF COURS3 SH3 WOULD
SH3 H4S 4LW4YS B33N L1K3 TH1S, TRY1NG TO TW1ST R34L1TY TO H3R OWN 3NDS
YOU 4R3 MUCH TH3 S4M3 W4Y! 4LTHOUGH YOU PROB4BLY DONT W4NT TO H34R TH4T
SH3 1S NOT N34RLY 4S 4DOR4BL3 4S YOU THOUGH >:]
H3H3H

BLUH
1 W1SH YOU WOULD W4K3 UP
TH3R3 1S SO MUCH FOR M3 TO SHOW YOU! SO M4NY TH1NGS FOR YOU TO S33
YOU WOULD PROB4BLY COMPL41N TH3 WHOL3 T1M3
BUT 3V3NTU4LLY YOU WOULD L34RN TO 4PPR3C14T3 1T
YOU TH1NK YOU C4NT W4K3 UP
BUT TH3 TRUTH 1S YOU COULD
1F YOU JUST TR13D
K4RK4T




1 WOND3R WH4T YOU 4R3 DR34M1NG 4BOUT? YOU 4LW4YS LOOK SO M1S3R4BL3 4ND POUTY
YOU 4R3 TOO S3R1OUS
P3RH4PS TH4T 1S WHY YOU ST1LL H4V3NT WOK3N UP....

 


 

You dream.

You’re drowning, drowning, carried away by the tide, arms beating uselessly against the waves. Your mouth tastes like blood. You are going to die here, seeing only red, choking on it--the story of your life, the one thing you can never escape.


You will die never having found--what?

What is it you’re looking for?

 


 


By now it’s a routine: you know his motions and the way he fights, can shift to cover every one of his weaknesses before he knows he’s in danger. Karkat has this tendency to box himself into a corner; he’s quick (not unusual for him) to go on the defensive, and it leaves him vulnerable to the unexpected, a feint or an ambush or an attack from a different angle.

He’s trying to keep from spilling blood.

Karkat fights grimly, seeing battle as only a means to an end, but you can afford to be a little bit bolder, a little more carefree. You think of fighting like a dance: time yourself to the rhythm of their motion, feel the flow of battle and the right point to strike. You relish it. And you always, always win.




TH3 D4Y OF YOUR COMUPP4NC3 1S UPON YOU >:]

TEREZI, THAT'S REALLY FUCKING CREEPY.

H3H3H
1 4M S1MPLY SHOW1NG TH3S3 CR1M1N4LS TH3 UN4SS41L4BL3 M1GHT OF TH3 L4W!

THEY'RE IMPS.
THEY BARELY KNOW HOW TO OPEN DOORS.

1GNOR4NC3 1S NO D3F3NS3

YOU'RE PSYCHOTIC.

WHY K4RK4T
1S TH4T 4 BL4CK SOL1C1T4T1ON >:?

UGH, NO. DON’T EVEN JOKE ABOUT THAT.
LET'S JUST GET THROUGH THIS FUCKING DUNGEON, OKAY? IT'S GIVING ME THE CREEPS.

OK4Y K4RK4T
FOR YOU
1 WOULDNT W4NT YOU TO G3T UPS3T, 4FT3R 4LL
OR SC4R3D

OH FUCK OFF.

You smile at him.

DONT WORRY
1LL PROT3CT YOU FROM TH3 MONST3RS >:]

 


 



The beast swings its tail around, bringing down a shower of rock that you only barely dodge. You hit the ground, elbows in the dirt, wiping dust out of your eyes--Terezi’s still fighting the monster one-handed. Somehow she managed to dodge the worst of it--typical, really--but teal drips from her left hand onto the ground.

You knew this was a bad idea. You told her and fucking told her, and what’s the point of a sidequest like this anyway?, but she just grinned--that grin, the one that means she wants to eat you for breakfast--and said it would be fun. Fun. Somehow she can still think about fun in a game that spits fire.

Fuck, that’s probably the attraction.

“Terezi--Terezi, don’t be retarded, we aren’t going to win this--” But she’s not listening: finds fencing with a twenty-foot lizard more interesting than you, apparently. She backs up until she’s practically leaning against the rock--first you think she’s leading the monster away from you, and fuck that you can take care of your goddamn own self, but then you see it: the monster’s occupied with her, gearing up to strike. It’s completely forgotten about you. You have a clear shot to its underbelly, if you only--

You scramble forward, half on your knees, and dig your sickle into the beast’s flesh just as it brings its tail down, dashing Terezi against the rocks. The lizard screams--thrashes, and you duck--shit, do you get out of here before you get caught in the crossfire or try to keep it away from her--

“Over here, you stupid animal,” you shout, but as it turns out you aren’t needed: Terezi stands up then, her face a mess of blood and dirt, and thrusts her canesword into the lizard’s neck. She stumbles off into a narrow passage through the rock, and you take that as your cue to follow.

 


 

3V3RYTH1NG SM3LLS L1K3 COTTON C4NDY
H3H3H
R4SPB3RRY COTTON C4NDY

OH MY GOD, DO YOU NEVER SHUT UP WITH THE SMELL SHIT?

The whole world is a wash of candy flavor, lemon to orange to blue raspberry, with just the slightest hint of cherry blending in. You can’t make out a thing. It’s so nice, though, you could just bury yourself in these scents, lose yourself forever....

“Terezi. Terezi! Wake up, you gibbering nooksucker! I cannot believe you are this stupid--”

“Mmmm, mluhhhhh Karkat?”

You feel a hand around your wrist, something being wrapped around your arm. “Oh, sure, let’s just throw ourselves into the mouth of a fucking vicious spikebeast for the sake of a shitty sidequest in an equally shitty game. Is it an important sidequest, at least? No, it’s as meaningless as Gamzee’s demented religion scribbled onto chalk tablets by Nepeta. Yeah, that’s definitely a good idea. It makes total sense and was definitely not concocted by someone incapable of finding their nook with both hands, or running a basic fucking cost-benefit analysis, what the fuck were you thinking.

Bandages, probably. Which means you’re bleeding.

How did that happen again? You try to remember.

“You could have died, did you ever fucking stop to consider that? You could have fucking died and we would have been down one Seer and bereft of whatever not-always-shitty plans you come up with while sniffing scalemate ass. God. God. And here I thought you were the only one on the red team incapable of drowning in their own drool.”

You take a deep breath, clear your head. Think. Concentrate. “Karkat,” you say, as calm and sure as you can make it, “I’m fine. It’s fine.”

“No. No, you’re not. You are fucked in the head. You might as well down a whole recuperacoon of sopor--fuck, it might actually make you smarter. Oh, that’s it, isn’t it? You’ve been snorting red chalk. It’s the only way to explain your sheer grubheadedness--”

You think: you pity this boy. You pity him so much.

 


 


You think: she’s gone. You think: there’s no chance, he already has her. You think: he’s probably got a mural going in her blood by now. You think: you should have gone for her when you had the chance. You think: you should have apologized for being such a dumbshit.

You think: this is all your fault.

You’re shaking as you mount the stairs and you know that even if she is alive there’s nothing you can do. You are a shitstain on the pantsleg of hilarious inadequacy. But--if there’s any chance she’s still there--if there’s any chance you might be able to save her--

You don’t want to know what you’ll see when you open the door.

 


 

After he hauls you back to Tavros’s hive--trying to carry you, but it doesn’t really work--he lets you sleep.

You wake to the sound of Karkat pacing, back and forth, back and forth in front of you. The couch smells like fiduspawn gel and your blood. You push yourself up on one elbow and manage a, “Have you been doing that the entire time?”

It only comes out a little croaky.

He runs his hand through his hair, bristling. “Fuck, no. Do I look like I’m made of time?”

You open your mouth--

“Don’t even fucking start, Terezi.”

“What do you mean?” you say innocently.

“You know fucking well what I mean. God. You are so--fucking--stupid.” He’s not getting any points for vocabulary today, but he doesn’t seem to care; he turns towards the wall.like he can’t stand looking at you a minute longer. You can taste his worry, heavy and bitter on your tongue.

With some difficulty--your muscles scream like a criminal at the gallows--you sit up. “It wasn’t pointless,” you say. “I was doing a favor for Tavros’s consorts.”

He sputters. “A favor for--now I know you’ve been snorting chalk. They’re data, Terezi. They don’t actually exist.”

“Of course they do!” You roll your eyes at him. “Besides, I think they’ll be useful later.”

“You think?” The pictures on the walls shake. A Pupa Pan poster detaches from the wall. “You sent yourself on Mission: Get Fucking Mauled by a Goddamn Lizard because you had a hunch that it might help us out later--”

“It’s my job to see these things.”

He goes quiet. Turns around, steps forward, steps back. Opens his mouth, closes it again. “Sit down,” you suggest.

Amazingly, he complies. You settle yourself against his shoulder--you are tired--and he doesn’t even protest. “It--you can’t just go saying that every time you do something completely insane.” He sounds strained. “It’s--it’s not going to work, okay.”

“Okay.” You shift closer. “I won’t, then.” Closer. “What do you want me to say next time, then?”

“You’re psychotic.”

You grin. “And you’re adorable.”



It’s warm in Tavros’s hive, everything buttercream colors. Karkat doesn’t say anything after that, and you feel him relax by inches: his breathing slows and the lines work their way out of his face. After a way-too-long time, he snakes an arm around your shoulder--just because he was getting tired of sitting like this, of course; you have every excuse of his memorized.

He burns hot. If you turn your head a little you can get a good sniff of his neck.



(You didn’t get to where you are by taking your eyes off the prize, after all.)

 


 

At the top of the stairs, you see her.