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Not What We Planned On

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The idea had been to reset the world, by blowing up the universe it was in. The idea had been to destroy the green sun, and save themselves. The idea was to kill Jack, and if they died in the attempt and took him with them, well, it was better than the alternative. The idea had been to hope, like hell, that this would work. That it would be even somewhat successful. The idea was to take The Plan and run with it, and it didn't matter that it might not have been the best plan or that it might have had flaws - maybe really obvious ones - or that they had no clue at all that it would work. They'd lost so much and there was a clock counting down to tell them they'd soon lose it all.

It wasn't that they had nothing left to lose.

It was that if they were going to lose, it was damned well going to be ON THEIR OWN FUCKING TERMS.

(Karkat had given a speech. Kanaya had even been kind enough to transcribe it for the humans.)

 

Reset is an instant. It's not a frozen frame, not something that can be returned to countless times because it's the final and first point in time beginning and there is no time outside of it. It isn't a breath, or a thought - it's immeasurable. Immaterial. It's an explosion/implosion of whiteness that fades to black at the corners, but would remain white if you turned to look at the shadows. It wraps up the survivors as they stand but they have no time to look at shadows, because (as already mentioned) The Reset is an instant. And in that instant, it destroys everything. In that instant, it reaches into the winners and rebuilds it all.

 

==> Be John

You wake up in your bed, feeling like you've been hit by an ice cream truck. For a moment you debate turning over and going back to sleep - it's obviously early and you feel exhausted and sore and school's out so it's perfectly reasonable to sleep in, but something nagging at the back of your mind keeps your blurry eyes open.

Your room is lit by your uncovered window; through the glass you can still hear the damn birds. They never sound so annoying in the movies when the hero wakes up to birdsong, even if it’s signalling the apocalypse - and that thought has you looking blearily around you. Your posters are on the walls, and they look fine (why were you worried about them? Did you have a dream about them being ripped up?) but even still, you reach for your glasses and jam them onto your face a little woozily, sitting up and checking things now that they’re in focus.

Nothing's wrong, it looks the way it always has. That bothers you. For a moment you can't quite recall why; then something in the back of your head points out that the writing is missing. The graffiti you'd written apparently unconsciously, the later damage the imps had done – your room looked perfect, and it certainly hadn’t been that way before –

You panic and run to your computer, which lights up at your touch and shows a completely undisturbed pesterchum window with your friends all listed as offline. That can't be right. There was the game, and you remember it now as your run to your window and lift the glass, sticking your head out to find you're home, your house is home, back to where it belonged and returned to its normal size and shape. Without damage or imps or giant staircases or alchemiters or anything strange at all. You can see kids playing in their backyard, and that if nothing else tells you how crazy this is because you haven’t seen anyone, well, not human anyway, besides your friends since you started playing. This is absolutely insane, or a really good joke, or maybe...

You wonder if this is a dream, except it can't be a dream because you hurt in a rather distinct way, and when you start to check the impressive collection of bruises you can feel but not see, you realize you're still in your god pyjamas and that just makes this confusing. Maybe this means you're dead? You remember the bomb, and Rose's magic, and Karkat's plans. Did you succeed and just end up dead, or did you fail and end up dead? You hope this is a successful death if that's the case, because the implications of failing and dying had been a little grim. You also kindof hope that you stay dead if everyone else is, because coming back to life would really suck if no one else was with you. Then again, you’re pretty sure you were being MASSIVELY heroic, so that should count for something, right? And if this was a bubble thing, you could find the others – or at least that’s how Aradia had said it worked.

You might have spent another twenty minutes agonizing over your existential crisis and the fate of everyone you knew and loved a little more if the sound of swearing hadn't filtered up through the floor. You don't recognize the voice, but it's impossible to mistake the word choice.

"And who the fuck put a table there? Why would you put a table right where somebody is going to fucking walk? What sort of bulgesniffer puts a table in the middle of the room just to hold some weeds? Where the fuck is Egbert?! He'd better show up before I - DON'T TELL ME TO CALM DOWN, NOOKSNIFFER, I'm perfectly calm! I'm motherfucking rational considering these fucked up circumstances! I'm-"

"Karkat?" You ask, almost uncertain as you take the stairs two at a time. "Karkat!” Because who else could shout like that? You stop at the base of the stairs and stare, jaw hanging open, gaping at the grey-skinned teen in your living room. “Wow you really are a troll!"

Ok, yes it's a stupid statement and you can see his eyes roll and his lungs expand to start to tell you how stupid it is but you can't help that you've always kindof pictured him as a human even when he's described himself (which he didn't really do anyway) because that's just how your brain works. You know he said he was a troll and eventually you believed him but it’s not like you really spend a lot of time thinking about what they looked like! Trolls were aliens! In your mind they kept going between being humans (sometimes in those masks you saw on 4chan) to little kid Predators with all the braids in their hair, and neither of those had seemed right anyway.

"Egbert! It's about fucking time! I am going to be a gracious and amazing troll and not comment on how asinine you just sounded because I think I could spend a week on how fucking stupid you are so for your sake I’ll spare you the EPIC FUCKING BEATDOWN you deserve because it can wait! I want to know WHERE THE HELL ARE WE?"

You look around. We? Oh. There are other trolls in your livingroom. You don't know who any of them are but you think you can guess - but you wait to ask because Karkat is inhaling again and you can already tell he's ready to keep yelling until you give him an answer.

"This is my house. Uh, on Earth! We're in Washington, actually. Well, Maple Valley. Not that that makes any sense to you guys! Haha. I mean, I thought I was dreaming or maybe dead when I woke up, but if you're here that's probably not true, right? Unless we’re all dead and you’re in my bubble thing but I don’t know how that works, exactly. Maybe we fixed everything and we're all here now? Is everyone else here too? We could have a party!”

You think you've handled that pretty well, actually, but Karkat is a troll who is very good at proving you wrong.

"FIXED EVERYTHING? WE'RE TROLLS AND WE'RE ON YOUR FUCKING PLANET AND YOU THINK THIS IS FIXED?! I was wrong John Egbert, I wouldn't spend a week on how MONUMENTALLY INSANE YOU ARE. I WOULD SPEND A WEEK ALONE ON HOW FAR UP YOUR NOOK YOUR HEAD IS! I’d need another month to even skim the surface of your grublike mind. No, wait, that's insulting to grubs! HOW THE FUCK CAN YOU CALL THIS FIXED!?"

You are John Egbert, and right now you can't really see what the problem is. You're certain that Karkat is going to enlighten you.

But he’s going to have to wait, because suddenly there’s the smell of baking at your nose, sweet and coy and making your stomach turn in hunger you’d actually forgotten how to feel. You push past Karkat, past Vriska and Aradia, past the doors of the kitchen and into the sunlight-filled room, stop dead in the middle of the room and stare at the back of his head as he shuts the oven door on a batch of something.

A sound escapes out of you – you don’t even know what to call it and you really don’t care, because he turns to face you and it’s not a matter of you running to him, or him standing there with his arms open like so many movies you’ve seen. He’s there before you can even think to move, picks you up – you in your silly god pyjamas and tears streaming down your face – and he hugs you and you hug him and you can’t quite breathe and you don’t know if it’s because his arms are too tight or your chest is just stuck at your last gasp of breath out, and you don’t care.

When you let each other go, he puts you down but keeps his hands on your shoulders. You rub your face on your shirt because, well, snot is embarrassing and your dad’s looking a little teary himself but he’s managing to hold onto his MANGRIT better than you right now (still, not caring, he’s alive!) and when he ruffles your hair you suddenly believe – no matter what Karkat’s said – that it’s all going to be all right, now.

“You did it son, better than your old man could have ever imagined you would. I’m so very proud of you.”

You look up at the man who has shaped your life more than even Nick Cage, and you have a lifetime of movie research that tells you exactly what your response has to be to a heart-warming line like that. You grin at him, feeling like you’re flying again, because it’s hard to feel the floor under your feet when you’re so happy. “I learned from the best, Dad.”

He just produces a pipe and pats you on the shoulder and goes back to his baking – do your friends eat cookies, he asks? – and you don’t care where this is, how you got here, how weird it’s going to be to go back to real life after saving the world, how crazy Karkat seems right now . It’s perfect. You’re home and you’ve won and there’s a whole world outside you’re going to show the others and Dad will help, you know he will, and you’re so happy that if this were a movie they’d have done a freeze frame on your face and started scrolling the credits.

It’s going to be perfect.

 

(Later, you will look back on past you, and regret how much of an idiot you were.)

 

==> Be Dave

You wake up not because of bad dreams or birds chirping or people yelling. You wake up because you really, really have to pee.

Fuck that. You're in a soft bed and you're asleep or at least you were, and it feels like forever since you've been able to just fucking rest that there's no way you're not taking advantage of this. You can tell that if you just close your eyes behind those shades and hug your pillow, you'll sleep the sleep of the dead. You’ll be Sleeping Prince Irony. You’ll be so asleep they’ll have to hold a parade right through your fucking room just to wake you up, because an alarm clock won’t be good enough.

You roll over.

Fuck. Well now you're awake, because whatever part of your brain that decided rolling onto your stomach was a good idea was clearly insane. The pressure's changed the quiet clamour in your head to something a bit more physical, painful, and pointed. You've gotta piss, and doing so in your bed is too stupid to even think about, so get your ass out and to the bathroom already. If you’re really so fucking tired after this, you can crawl your ass back into bed and sleep to a more reasonable hour. Like four.

Your shades are on your face, so you don't need to put them on again. You still have to fight yourself to get up, but eventually you haul your ass off the mattress and drag your feet across the carpet. This is when you realize you're fully dressed - and wearing shoes - and damn, what did you do last night to crash into bed that hard? Must have been pretty sick, whatever it was.

You stumble down the hallway, and stop dead when you come face to face with a monster. Well no, not a monster - and not a kid in really good SFX makeup either, your brain hurriedly tells you. It’d be better if it was, actually. You wouldn’t actually be all that weirded out if John showed up in your hallway dressed in something out of Little Monsters just to prank you. That would actually probably be better than the truth. Because this is probably a troll. You’ve seen Terezi’s drawings, and the grey skin and horns are a pretty common theme in everything she’s done.

While there's a part of you - a large part - that knows that this doesn't make any sort of sense, none at fucking all, you put up a hand when she (totally a she) starts to speak and silence her with a hiss through your teeth.

"Shhhh. No words princess. Not yet. You're not real ‘til I finish going to the bathroom. Just wait here, ok? Or hey, if you want to disappear and all be some warped fucking dream, that's cool too. But the fucking universe can wait till I’ve taken a piss." And wash the sleep out of your eyes, you mentally add. You feel like death warmed over, you probably look half as bad.

You brush by her, ignoring the surprised open mouth and the weird colour her skin is turning and you close the bathroom door in her face. There. A man and his throne - in a completely ironic way. That's about it for introspection because your bladder is yelling at you louder than you can think.

Admittedly, in your war of attrition with your brother nothing is really ever safe, but you’d mutually agreed to leave the bathroom out of bounds for any training. You never got into the habit of locking the door when you’re home and you realize you didn’t this time right about when it opens and another troll - red sunglasses, white cane - walks in.

"Jezus fucking Christ!"

You will admit (later and in private) that perhaps that was not the chilliest of ways to handle the situation, but you're willing to give your addled brain a pass considering you'd never really properly prepared for a cutting response to an alien girl walking in on you taking a leak. You're aware now. It won't happen again. You’re prepared. (Next time, you’re locking the fucking door.)

++++++++++++

"If I'd known I was hosting intergalactic guests, I would have cleaned the place up. Shit, I'm embarrassed I don't have any decorations up, you know, 'hail to our new overlords' or 'god save the president' or whatever. I don’t even have a fucking labcoat. You want something to drink?"

You're a shitty host, and that's never been a problem because the people you think are cool enough to invite back to the apartment are those who can look after themselves and who will either understand the stunning irony surrounding them or will be suitably impressed by it. (You realize John would never manage either of those, but it doesn't really bother you.) There are three trolls in front of you though, refusing any sort of beverage, and they just look like they can’t decide if they’re lost, hurt, pissed off or just fucking confused.

Scratch that. Two of them look like that.

Terezi hasn't let go of your arm, and in a second you are going to go against your better judgment and all the voices of fucking reason and let her lick your (candy red) eye because she's Never Going To Fucking Leave You Alone if you don't, you can tell. You just woke up. You may or may not have helped blow up a universe. You are too tired for this shit. Then again, when has the universe ever given a shit about Dave Strider?

The other two - who look different from Terezi with gills on their faces and not enough accessories to be ironic and too much to be remotely attractive - keep glaring at one another sideways but aren't actually talking. Eridan's the emo kid, with cape and scarf and black glasses to match. He's standing with his back to the wall, as far back into the livingroom as he can get before he's outside. Feferi's sitting on the couch, the edge furthest from Eridian (and closest to you) and you're not sure why they're apart but you don't really care to ask. Let Rose meddle. They're here and that's what you're fucking dealing with now. You've looked outside, and the apartment is back where it belongs - or someone's put a really convincing painting over the window. The way the trolls hissed at the Texas sun streaming through the blinds sortof makes you think it's the former. Great. They’re even more light sensitive than you are. At least you’ve got spare shades in the house. (Like hell it’ll help EmoFish. That might need a movie makeover miracle, and you refuse to get near that sort of trash.)

"So now that the introductions are over and you've settled into the coolest livingspace you've ever seen, how about someone give me an idea about what the fuck is going on. Am I dreaming? Did we all die? Is this some sort of bubble thing?"

"It's not a bubble!" Feferi: the troll you'd met in the hallway, eyes bright and voice too damn happy for morning (is it morning? Close enough. It’s only noon and you're still dead tired. Or maybe just dead) assures you. "I'd know if it was! That's where I was, before I woke up here!” She glares at Eridian and you’re amused that ‘princess’ hadn’t been a bad nickname, considering she’s apparently royalty and carrying a grudge. “Bubbles feel different. And besides, I'd hear them, and they're gone. I can't hear anything at all! If Terezi's right and you and the others came up with a plan to break the game, it must have ruined the bubbles too. I felt like I was being pulled out of the water by some sort of giant squid!"

"Of course I'm right!" Terezi's claws scratch into your arm and you flinch when she breaks skin. Of course she flips her shit at that - raving about fragile skin and candy blood and trying to fix it all at once. At least it distracts her from your eyes and you manage to shake her off, not too worried because it seriously just looks like a cat used your arm as a landing place and it’s already starting to scab.

Terezi repeats the plan, and you join in from the human side. You're surprised that the other two don't know it, ‘til you find out they died before it happened. It probably means something when GillChick gapes at EmoGillBoy at his admission, but again: don't fucking care. Instead you focus on the fact that they'd died, in the very real sense, and had been in the bubbles you’d been told about but hadn’t had a chance to enjoy yourself. (That’s all right, apparently the place was full of Dead Daves anyway.) And now they were here, alive, together - and very confused about it.

That’s fine. You can handle whatever the fuck else this universe throws at you, you figure. But hearing that they’d been dead and now weren’t, well, it gives you a few things you want to do right fucking now.
"Well whatever. You three chill here. I'm going to check on something. Don't break yourselves before I get back." You're cool and nonchalant about it, no use getting hopes up you know, and fuck, it's just a short walk. You'll check your computer, see if any of the others are theoretically home, on Earth, and sitting on PesterChum like good children of this decade ought to be. Maybe they have guests too - which you realize is definitely preferable to having the trolls lost on the planet on their own. And if you stick your head in his room on the way by....

 

It's harder than you thought it'd be to turn the handle. You don't want to do it. Knight of Time and you still haven't had time to grieve - not that'd you'd be all lame and cry pansy girl tears for a week. No, Bro deserved something way cooler, way more ironic and iconic than that.

Bro deserved more than a sword through his chest.

You swallow the lump in your throat and pretend it's not there while you also pretend your stomach hasn’t dropped out of your torso and absconded to a week ago and turn the handle before you change your mind. It's dark, and you don't give a fuck about being polite, you just flip on the switch.

It's exactly as you remember it: not from the game, where the imps had gotten in, but just in general. The puppets everywhere, lil’ Cal perched on a shelf, Bro’s game stack, his computer and soundboard and deck and record collection he sometimes let you borrow from all sitting in various states of neat to complete fucking chaos.

No Bro. It's empty, and that lump feels a little sharper now but you're good at ignoring it so you just shut off the lights and shut the door and think about nothing ‘til you sit at your computer and find your buddies are online, thank god.

You don't have to admit you need the distraction, because there's no one asking. And if your eyes are wet, you can blame it on the exhaustion, but you aren't so worried. Your shades hide them damn well.

 

==> Be Jade Harley

You wake up and know something’s wrong the moment you open your eyes. You’re in your bed, in your room, and it is dark – your lights are off and the moonlight in from your window only adds depth to the room, it doesn’t actually make it very visible. When you sit up the air is sweet with the flowers that hang in baskets from the ceiling, and you’re hit with how much you’ve missed this place, missed the silence and the certainty that it had held before the game. You have no idea how you ended up here, not when your last memory was blowing everything up and hoping – with every last particle of your being, every cell, every breath – that it would somehow work.

“I was gonna wake a sister up, and then she up and woke on her own. That’s a fuckin miracle, that is, I was being all quiet and everything.”

There’s a troll in your room, and you aren’t surprised or worried at all. Ok, you’re surprised, but at this point you’re not sure anything can worry you. Or maybe it’s the other way around when you look at his white painted face and his glassy stare as he keeps back near the door. Maybe he’s worried about you? Maybe you’re worried but not surprised. Why was he here? This certainly didn’t feel like a dreambubble, and he isn’t a troll you recognize.

You climb out of bed, and you’re still fully dressed right down to your glasses and shoes. That’s good – you don’t have to waste time deciding what to wear as you walk up to the stranger and give him your best smile, because you want to be friendly and you don’t want him to be scared at all. “Hello!” You greet him, and he actually takes a step back, looking maybe sick? It’s hard for you to tell, but you keep going. “I’m Jade! Who are you?”

“Know who you are, little sister, don’t you worry. My best bro Tavros was all up and telling me how we’re in your motherfuckin hive now which is pretty chill. You’ve got the biggest hive I’ve ever seen, all full of miracles.”

“Tavros said?” You step out into the hall, and he follows, feet scuffing beside you and looking around like he can see things you can’t. Maybe he can, actually – trolls might have much better eyesight than you. “Is Tavros here?” He’d mentioned the other troll, and you’re excited to finally meet him! You’d been trying in dreams when you found out he’d died (that most of the trolls had died), but it had been so chaotic you hadn’t managed it.

“Best bro? Yeah, brother’s here, just chilling out all easy by the fire, looking after Sollux because some motherfucker went and took out his miracle viewers so the brother’s blind. We should go see them. Sent this chill brother to find you since they couldn’t.”

He acts like he wants to move, but he stares to his left and says nothing else so you huff and grab his hand – it’s cooler than yours, and his nails are cold and hard – and pull him to the transportalizer. If there are others here you want to meet them, no matter where ‘here’ ends up being! You know, somehow, that once you meet everyone you’ll be able to figure out what’s happened, where you are, what you have to do now. Right now it’s just nice that no one is trying to kill you.

You forget that the troll hasn’t yet told you his name.

++++++++++++++++++

“Tavros!”

You smile so hard your cheeks hurt and you don’t care, running in to the grand foyer and up to the troll with too-large horns who’s sitting on the couch and staring at you in surprise. You give him your very best in welcome hugs, the sort you learned with Bec and perfected on Dave (Jade, easy, a guy’s gotta breathe!) and when you pull away his face is sortof brown on the cheeks and smiles at you but it’s not nearly so good a smile as your own: his is wobbling. That’s ok though, it’s still nice on him.

“Uh, hi Jade.”

“And you are Sollux!” Which is all the warning you think to give the blind troll before you hug him too and he’s all hard edged and pointy, sputtering something as he goes stiff as a statue. It’s just like the first time you hugged Dave, so you know he’ll get used to it. You don’t hug him too long though, because now you remember that you haven’t really said hi to the troll that came to find you and that’s probably rude so you look back at him and you have to tilt your head up to see his eyes because he’s taller. “You never did tell me your name! I can’t say hello properly ‘til you say your name!”

The troll just stares down at you, blinking, and it’s Tavros who answers. “That’s, uh, Gamzee. He decided to go, uh, find you...was that ok?”

“Gamzee?” You don’t hug this troll now, you look back at Tavros and Sollux and then to the bigger troll. “But didn’t he hurt everyone? I thought he was crazy.” You remembered very specific conversations about that, or at least you think you do.

“Shit, I’d never hurt a brother.” Gamzee’s face, even under the white paint, crumples and you think this is him sad. “That’d be motherfuckin rude. I’d never mess with my main bros.”

“I, um, think he’s better now?” Tavros looks at his hands in his lap, and you realize the robot legs he told you about are gone, or they look just like normal troll legs.

“No. He jutht doethn’t remember.”

It’s the first time Sollux has spoken (besides his sputtering at your hug) and you hear what he’s said and a part of you knows why he’s so angry and maybe he’s right to be, but Gamzee is sad and you don’t really know how to deal with sadness except one way. So you wrap your arms around the confused troll’s torso and give him an extra hard hug and tell him how glad you are that he’s feeling better now.
And then you ask where everyone else is.

“That’s, uh, what we hoped you’d know?”

“Fuck. You mean you don’t know? Thith ith jutht great.” You’re impressed by how deeply he can scowl, his missing eyes making him look scarily angry. You think he should get eyepatches, like a pirate! He could wear one on each eye, and then people would know he was really, really tough!

Gamzee looks down at you and you don’t understand the look in his eyes at all; “Thanks, little sister.” is all he says, and then he walks away, sitting down in front of the fireplace and staring at the flames. You think about maybe asking if he wants another hug, but Sollux and Tavros want you to pay attention to them, and they’re right that you need to get your computer down here – as many computers as you have, actually – so that they can try to contact everyone and see what the hell has happened.

You forget about Gamzee for a while. It’s probably for the best.

You don’t realize Grandpa is missing, because you’ve never really thought of him as a part of this room. You never really thought of him as dead.

 

==> Be Rose Lalonde.

You wake up to the sound of unfamiliar voices in the almost smothering softness of your own bed. You only have a moment to be disoriented before something, no someone lands on you, trapping your legs under the blankets and laughing in a very disquieting way.

You have been under a rather intense amount of stress, something that could excuse your immediate reaction - which was to retaliate rather indiscriminately. You flipped up and slammed your hand against the body attacking you, reaching for your needles which just weren’t there and forcing the intruder against the wall, ready to do as much damage as necessary to protect yourself.

Or at least, that’s what you intended to do. Had you any form of actual martial training, aside from two gruelling days spent fighting for your life, you might have actually managed that much. As it was your legs got caught in the sheets, your attacker shifted slightly, and you ended up face-first on the carpet at the foot of your bed; legs still caught on the mattress, hands breaking enough of your fall to save your face from a broken nose.

It was really quite embarrassing.

“Nepeta, I believe you have startled her. This was why I had suggested waking her calmly and without contact.”

The voice is calm, lilted and carries an accent you can’t quite place, as well as being entirely unfamiliar. An argentite hand enters your field of view, nails glossy and obsidian black, and its owner easily helps you up to your feet when you grasp it. You regain your bearings quickly because, despite waking up in your bed, content and happy, you have never in your life been unsuspicious and nothing about this seems quite right.

You recognize Kanaya because she sent you a photo of herself during one of your hesitant, post LOHAC conversations. She looks better than the image projected, glowing faintly (a trait she’d ascribed to becoming a rainbow drinker) and is dressed in a rather eyecatching bright green dress with a fuchsia belt tied at the middle and you then realize you’ve spent more time examining Kanaya’s clothing than you have even noticing the two other trolls in your room and that certainly isn’t rather telling at all.
Oh. You’re still holding her hand.

Well, as the adage went, in for a penny... “Kanaya.” You greet the troll with a small smile that you hope looks genuine (and then you wonder about troll body language and exactly how facial expressions might be translated especially in a culture as theirs with violence so clearly a daily expectation not to mention that smiling was a remnant of your evolution from primates and it was a standard trope that alien species found the baring of teeth to be antagonistic and gods, you’re rambling aren’t you? Well at least it’s in your own brackets) and squeeze her hand slightly before letting go. “I’m afraid I don’t recognize your friends.”

(They don’t use friends do they so that was probably another mistake and honestly what sort of huge social gaffs were you going to commit on this most basic of introductions? All right, linguistics lessons focusing on proper terminology would probably need to be one of the first things you deal with, once whatever is going on is settled. You absolutely loathe not having the appropriate words for a situation, and you suspect this is going to be a regular occurrence. Being aware of this in advance now means you are prepared for the future. Now stop talking to yourself and pay attention to the introductions.)

“...Nepeta Leijon and this is Equius Zahhak. Their handles are arsenicCatnip and centaursTesticle, although I believe neither of them chose to troll you directly.”

“Hello Rose! I’m sorry I pawssibly scared you awake! I was excited to see someone new!”

She’s gripping your arm in a hug, which is unsettling in itself (you are anything but a physically demonstrative person) but the strength in her arms is disturbing because if you risked closing your eyes you could easily picture that a small, heavy vice had been attached to you. One with sharp claws, because they might possibly be breaking your skin. “Ow.”

It’s not actually an intentional exclamation, and you’re not terribly hurt even if she did break skin, but their reaction is rather instantaneous, unknowingly mirroring another set of trolls in Texas. Kanaya is examining your arm and Nepeta is standing with the other troll – Equius’s hand on her shoulder, looking like a schoolchild being scolded. His eyes are hidden behind black sunglasses, but his body language is actually rather plain to read and he seems disappointed. (At least, assuming you are properly translating alien body language, which it is entirely possible that you’re not, considering that there isn’t actually all that much that’s universal across Earth. You’re going to have to check your assumptions every time, aren’t you?)

“I apologize that Nepeta has forgotten her strength and is acting in a very unseemly manner. I am afraid the two of us are still adjusting to regaining our lives in this new world, and such excitement is difficult for her to contain. It seems that humans are more fragile than we expected.”

“I didn’t mean to hurt her!”

“Nevertheless it’s a terrible reflection on the both of us for you to act out in such a common way. You must respect the human who helped save us, especially in her hive, Nepeta.”

Their interactions are certainly interesting – the way he was taking responsibility for her actions implied that he viewed himself as some form of caretaker, perhaps? Or no, this might be part of the quadrants Kanaya had mentioned and John had attempted to explain. (Another thing to ask about, now that you’re not trying to blow up a universe.) You shake your head as Kanaya tries to bandage your arm with your pillowcase. “No, it’s all right. It was clearly an accident, don’t worry about it. It’s all right, Kanaya, let me just clean this up and I’ll be fine. It’s really not the important thing right now.”

Because now you can think clearly and the three trolls are looking at you and you realize your head is empty of their voices – any voices at all, aside from your own – for the first time in twenty-four hours (and it had felt like years). “Look, as wonderful as it is to see you, and as nice as it is to wake up in my own bed, did it work? Where are the others? If I woke up here, does that mean they’re in their own beds?” You walk to your bathroom and leave the door open, assuming at least someone will follow to answer as you wash the blood off your arm. The small holes – they’re tiny, but deep - bleed enough to look alarming, but they’re already clotted so you just wipe the blood off with your facecloth and don’t even worry about band-aids. Kanaya speaks, her voice surprisingly soothing as you work, filling you in on whatever it was you missed when it all faded to white.

 

“We.... are not entirely certain as to the nature of this place. It seems to be your world, restored as it was before you ran the session, which did not seem to be the intended end result of the game, but is certainly not the strangest outcome that could have occurred. It does seem to have been a successful outcome, with the fortuitous addition that Equius and Nepeta are here as well and clearly alive when they had died in the Veil, which leads me to hope that the others have likewise revived somehow. We are the only trolls in your hive that we have found, however: we woke together in the spacious main room with the large statue and many smaller ornaments. Your lusus – I mean, your mother suggested we would find you resting here, which was when Nepeta woke you in a manner that was quite impolite.”

You are shock still for a moment, one hand holding a tube of Neosporin and the other a q-tip and it takes every ounce of strength you have not to let your hands tremble. You completely and utterly fail. “My mother? Is here? She’s alive?” There’s a sick feeling in your throat and for a moment you wonder if it’s the grimdark but it’s not, it’s pure emotion, hurt and hope and uncertainty balled into a wave of near-nausea you don’t know how to handle. You give up on the charade of steady hands and set the tube and applicator down on the counter with the careful precision you need right now. You remind yourself to keep breathing, because your brain doesn’t function without air.

“Yes, I believe it’s her. She seemed... surprised to see us but not unaware of our existence. She suggested you would find time to speak with her once ‘this mess’ was taken care of, though I will admit I hardly can consider our arrival here untidy.”

White and red. You remember white and red and the way it hadn’t blended together to make pink, no, it just became deeper and deeper red, until it stained everything, until it turned brown and dried and she’d died and it all went black and you had always harboured the suspicion that when she left your life you would be grateful and when she did you found that wasn’t the case at all –

(Breathe.)

You turn back to Kanaya, to the trolls, and yes; this mess. It needs to be taken care of. You are absolutely capable of handling the situation in front of you first before running downstairs like a child and finding your mother and grabbing her and never letting go.

(Breathe!)

“Have you contacted any of the trolls? Are any of them online?” You step back into your room and pull the chair away from your computer.

Now Kanaya sounds actually embarrassed. “I am afraid that all of us arrived with... not what we would consider the most useful of captchalogged inventory. None of us has a computer on hand. And yours requires a password.”

There’s a moment when you want to be offended at the potential invasion of privacy that implied – but you are also capable of being honest with yourself and if the positions had been reversed, you absolutely would have been the one to attempt someone else’s computer to find out if everyone was alive and well and what exactly had happened. It would have been hypocritical to complain about something like that, especially when it hadn’t actually occurred.

Especially when you reach over and type in your password (ECH0praxia) and then gesture to Kanaya. “Go ahead and log in, see if you can reach them. I’m going to-“ Go downstairs and see if my mother is actually alive and then memorize her face because I never want to see the red and white again - “borrow mother’s laptop so that at least two of us can be online at once.”

It’s a very reasonable decision, you think – especially if it turns out that the others are online. Of course, you could simply wait to see, but that really isn’t necessary and doing so now while the program boots up is a perfectly reasonable use of the time. You don’t think Kanaya is fooled, and for once find you don’t care if your actions are transparent. You reach for your door-

And it nearly falls on you, yanking on the handle causing the entire slab of wood to tilt towards your head. It’s Equius who catches it, startlingly fast. He’s blushing – and his cheeks are blue and you’d been aware of the blood colour differences but hadn’t stopped to think of the physiological changes that might create. (You wonder, for an idle moment, if you took a flash photo of him would he have blue-eye instead of red-eye?) He’s apologizing profusely and lifting the door as if it were a sheet of paper. Looking at the muscles in his arms, maybe it is, to him.

“Fiddlesticks! Please forgive me but I misjudged how strong I would be compared to your home and I broke your door very badly opening it. I will of course replace it as soon as we are settled here, I have –“

You cut him off with a shake of your head and assure him it’s fine. You are (potentially) free of the session, home, alive, along with your mother and quite possibly your friends as well. You could not be bothered about a door if you tried. You head downstairs, away from the strange trolls to find her (and your first meeting with another species wasn’t terrible. Congratulations, you haven’t yet started a war, which puts you ahead of every main male lead in all of Egbert’s favourite alien movies).

When you realize the railing to the staircase has actually been warped and ripped out in places with handprinted dents every few steps... your arm twinges and you begin to worry about how strong trolls actually are.

But that’s not important. There’s a woman you need to see, and that is the only thing that matters right now.

 

==> Be Dave

Apparently you were the last fucker to wake up, or the trolls were actually being polite because the others had all apparently been woken up by their respective houseguests, whatever. You sign on and it’s like some cheesy high school reunion filmed for reality tv, where they go and find all the craziest dudes and chicks to interview so they get to ask each other ‘hey I heard you broke your neck in that extreme mudwrestling league how are you doing? Whatever happened to your three legged dog?’ except it’s only been a few hours (as far as any of you can tell and as Knight of Time you should be better but their guess is as fucking good as yours) since you’ve seen each other. The best Egbert can manage is madly flailing on his keyboard that he’s hosting ‘the coolest’ trolls (kid has such a crush it’s pathetic), Lalonde is already waxing about how she thinks this might have all gone down, and Jade is... Well, Jade. It’s a worry when you find out she has the crazy-ass troll who went on a fucking killing spree, but then apparently so do you and you also know the girl can look after herself and since apparently the fucker is back on his drugs or whatever it is that kept him from going postal, you’ll not worry ‘til you can actually fucking do something.

You think you’re handling it pretty fucking well, relating the important bits back to the three trolls behind you and pretty much refusing to play messenger for them because no way in hell are you trying to have a conversation between GillsChick to you to Jade to apparently some blind troll. Seriously. You eventually feel guilty enough (and threatened enough, but you refuse to let any of them know that Terezi’s claws are starting to get to you) to get Bro’s laptop. Terezi claims it, but that doesn’t last long when you see how she intends to use it, and you put it firmly in GillsChick’s lap. “You play messenger. She’s going to fucking fry the thing and electrocute herself if she drools on it like that again.”

Terezi isn’t happy – but GillsChick starts hissing at her in whatever their language is that isn’t English and you leave them to fight it out. At least EmoGills is staying decidedly quiet and not making a mess – which you actually expected out of him, considering how he looks – but sure as fuck aren’t going to complain about.

You get back to your convo windows and your stomach – only recently returned from its three week vacation – dumps the keys on the table and slams the door on its way out, flipping you the bird as it goes. Jade’s asking you if Bro’s back.

Fuck.

Fuck.

The universe can’t be that fucking cruel, can it? Oh wait. Dave Strider’s universe sure as hell can, all you have to do is bend over because it’s going to fuck you every damn way and you don’t have a fucking inch to complain in. Fuck. Your hands are not fucking shaking.

So everybody’s got their damn guardian back except you? Well, that’s ok. You don’t need a fucking thing. Bro brought you up right. You survived him, you’re going to make him proud. You’re going to make sure every damn minute he spent with you wasn’t a waste of his time, even after you saved the damn world and yourself and your friends (but not him, you didn’t save him).

You tell everyone you’ll be back, close the fucking program and you don’t slam up out of your chair. No. You are motherfucking chill. You stand and stretch and point at EmoGills and jerk your thumb at your desktop. “Here. I’m gonna get some fresh air, you trolls are using my whole supply of cool. You want a turn, knock yourself out. Sign me up for any porn sites and I’ll take it out of your ass.”

You don’t listen to his attempt at a scathing comment. He’s stuttering too much and you’re not sticking around to decipher his weirdass accent. You are not, in any way or interpretation, running away. You’re just.... taking a fucking minute to breathe. That’s all.

The only benefit of being at the top of a shitty apartment complex is the roof access. It doesn’t make up for the leaks when it rained, the heat that the AC barely touched, of the way everyone’s fucking smells wafted up and into your space. But it was still your favourite part of the place hands down, and you and Bro had spent more time there, training or just listening to tunes or watching the city lights go up as the sun went down...

There is a figure sitting on one of the vent units, long legs pulled up ‘til his knees are at his chin. One hand is curled around them, the other is listlessly tapping a beat against the aged metal frame. You can’t even deny who it is, because there’s no room in your mind for that sort of irony. It’s your bro. He’s been here, sitting on this fucking roof this whole fucking time.

You actually catch him off guard, because – you think – he’s not expecting you to throw yourself at him and try to murder him with your bare hands. You’re not expecting the way he doesn’t fight back, and you sure as hell don’t expect the way he’s hugging you or the way he’s saying sorry over and over again like it was somehow his fault and hearing him hurting is worse somehow than seeing him dead, because even in death he was still impossible and invincible and you expected to see him just get up and flip you the bird and move off but you can hear how human he is and that’s your fault and now you’re saying fucking sorry and your chill has packed up and left to join your stomach on a whirlwind honeymoon to Reno and you don’t fucking care.

 

You both end up sitting, side by side, legs dangling over the edge of the roof. It’s something neither of you ever dared to do before – there was being cool and there was being stupid, but now you’re not afraid of anything. You’re proud to say neither one of you actually was reduced to snivelling, and once the shock had worn off and you’d both tried to apologize for failing the other, well, you agreed to shut the fuck up about it and let it drop.

It’s only midafternoon but you’re already looking forward to when the sun sets and the nightlife starts, the neon around your apartment painting everything alive and pulsing and you could do with more life right now. You can see people walking down the street like it hadn’t just been the end of the world and it’s not enough. You think there should be some sort of parade – Easter and Christmas and Mardi Gras and that Indian festival where they throw coloured dust everywhere - winding down the streets. Someone ought to be fucking celebrating.

Maybe you’ll just throw your own fucking party. Get everyone here. Congratulations, we did it – whatever the fuck ‘it’ is. Bro would totally buy you beer. And that thought makes you wonder if trolls drank, and what they were like if they got drunk – and what Terezi would be like drunk, and oh good god maybe you’ll stick to apple juice instead.

Bro shifts, and you see his fist moving and you duck before you even realize – surviving the apocalypse didn’t train you out of certain habits – but it just sits in the air beside you, waiting for the appropriate fistbump in return, and you oblige because like hell will you leave him hanging. You are never leaving him hanging.

“So.” Bro drawls, voice normal and even, just like it was supposed to sound. He doesn’t tell you how proud he is or any of that shit, and you don’t expect him to. You already know, and he knows you do, and that’s how you work. “You better introduce me to those aliens of yours. I think I hear screaming.”

 

And well, that’s about the end of your happy reunion. But you’re not fucking complaining. At least the universe got something right for once.

Chapter Text

carcinoGeneticist [CG] opened memo on board WHAT THE HELL IS THIS SHIT.
CG: ALL RIGHT TIME FOR EVERYONE TO GET OVER THESE FUCKING SAPPY REUNIONS AND GET THEIR ASSES IN HERE.
CG: FUCKING CONGRATULATIONS WE’RE ALL ALIVE AND DIDN’T DIE IN AN EXPLOSION THAT WAS SUPPOSED TO DESTROY THIS FUCKING UNIVERSE.
CG: EVEN THE ASSHOLES ARE ALIVE!
CG: NOW GET YOUR NOOKSNIFFING, SOPOR-THICK THINK PANS TOGETHER IN HERE SO WE CAN FIGURE OUT WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED.
CG: COME ON. I KNOW THE HUMANS HAVE BEEN TALKING TO EACH OTHER. I CAN SEE EGBERT RIGHT FUCKING NOW. I AM STARING AT THE BACK OF HIS UGLY OVERSIZED HEAD. GET IN HERE!

ectoBiologist [EB] responded to memo
EB: hey karkat!
EB: just give everyone a second ok?
EB: we’re all still pretty excited to be home and that everyone is alive. there aren’t enough computers for everyone anyway.

CG: I KNOW THAT NOOKSNIFFER. THAT’S WHY I GAVE EVERYONE ANOTHER TEN FUCKING MINUTES TO GET THEIR SHITTY REUNIONS OVER WITH.
CG: THE TIME FOR REUINIONS IS OVER. NOW IS THE TIME FOR FIGURING OUT THIS SHITTY PLANET.

tentacleTherapist [TT] responded to memo
TT: While I would be the first to admit that Earth is far from perfect in any scenario, I’m curious why you feel this is a failure of some sort? I would surmise that Earth, and that is to assume this is a flawed one, would still be immensely preferable to starving to death or dying at the hands of Jack Noir.
TT: I am of course certain you will correct me if wrong.
TT: Also, I feel I should add a good morning Karkat. Congratulations on successfully navigating your team through your half of the plan.

CG: OF COURSE WE SUCCEEDED. WE ARE CLEARLY NOT FLOATING AROUND WITH THE HORRORTERRORS AND SOILING OUR RESPECTIVE CLOTHING, AND ARADIA SAYS THIS ISN’T ANY SORT OF STUPID DEAD BUBBLE.
apocalypseArisen [AA] responded to memo
AA: we arent
turntechGodhead [TG] responded to memo
TG: gillschick says the same thing
TG: emogills is with Lalonde on her theory that the universe gave us what we wanted most.

CG: SEE THAT? THAT IS WHY THIS IS A FUCKING PROBLEM OF JACK NOIR PROPORTIONS. BOTH OUR RESIDENT PSYCHOPATHIC KILLERS ARE NOT HERE WHERE ARADIA AND VRISKA AND I CAN TAKE CARE OF THEM.
EB: you forgot me
CG: I REFUSE TO RECOGNIZE THAT.
CG: THEY’RE WITH THE GOD DAMMED COOL KID AND THE TRIO WHO COULDN’T HURT A FUCKING SCOURGEFLY IF IT WAS BITING THEM.

TG: i can handle myself
gardenGnostic [GG] responded to memo
GG: that really isnt very nice! ive been fighting just as much as everyone else. :(
adiosToreador [AT] responded to memo
AT: aND, UH, TO BE FAIR, gAMZEE SEEMS LIKE HIMSELF? hE HASNT MENTIONED ANY BLOOD, oR RAINBOWS OR ANYTHING,
AT: hE HAS HIS PIES,

CG: WELL THAT’S THE BEST NEWS I’VE HEARD ALL FUCKING DAY. TELL ME, DID ANY OF YOU IDIOTS THINK TO FIND OUT HOW MANY PIES HE HAS?
GG: ill go ask!
CG: GO? YOU ARE LETTING THAT MOTHERFUCKER OUT OF YOUR SIGHT? HAVE YOU ALL BEEN EATING HIS FUCKING PIES?
AT: uH, NO? i ALREADY SAID BEFORE kARKAT, gAMZEES, UH, bETTER,
AT: hES LIKE OLD gAMZEE
AT: nOT THE sUBJUGGLATOR
AT: hES MOSTLY JUST SITTING oUTSIDE,

CG: OUTSIDE? YOU’RE JUST LETTING HIM FRY?!
AT: nO? iTS PRETTY NICE OUTSIDE, bUT THE STARS ARE sTRANGE
CG: I CAN SEE THE FUCKING SUNLIGHT THROUGH THEIR PITIFUL WINDOW COVERINGS! CAPTOR IS THE BLIND ONE, NOT YOU!

TT: Karkat, Jade and the others are currently on an island halfway around the world from us. For them, it should be 4:13 am.
CG: WHAT
CG: HOW IS THAT EVEN POSSIBLE
CG: THAT MAKES NO FUCKING SENSE

cuttlefishCuller[CC] responded to memo
CC: T)(at does seem very silly! W)(y would s)(e be so far away?
AT: iT rEALLY IS NIGHT HERE, dOES THAT MEAN ITS DAY FOR YOU?
TG: for fuck sakes
TG: i declare a five minute break so we can all dig out our geography textbooks
TG: harley will have to use google maps or something
TG: and give our intergalactic guests a crash course on earth

GG: ok im back!! Gamzee says he has five pies! that doesn’t really seem like enough though.
CG: WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOUR WORLD?
GG: what?
TG: harley do us a favour and scroll up
TG: and the problems with earth would take more than a memo to fill
TG: pester lalonde later if you feel strong enough
TG: but yeah were spread out

CG: FUCK THIS WORLD. IF WE’D ALL WOKEN UP ON ALTERNIA WE COULD HAVE ALL BEEN AT SOMEONE’S HIVE IN A DAY! AND THAT’S ASSUMING WE HAD TO WALK TO ACCOMMODATE YOUR WEAKER SLOWER LEGS!
grimAuxiliatrix [GA] responded to memo
GA: Karkat, While I Do Not Mean To Wrest Control Of This Memo From You, Perhaps We Should Return To The Original Purpose You Had Intended?
CG: FINE. YES. WELL IN CASE ANYONE MISSED THE NEWS WE’RE ALL ALIVE ON THE HUMAN PLANET. AND APPARENTLY STUPIDLY FUCKING FAR APART. AND ARADIA WONT BE BENDING TIME ANYTIME SOON BECAUSE APPARENTLY THIS WORLD DOESN’T WORK THAT WAY.
CG: IT SOUNDS LIKE SOME OF US LUCKY BASTARDS GOT TO KEEP OUR GOD POWERS BUT THE REST OF US ARE GIVING SWEET EMPTY NOOK-ALL. EGBERT HAS HIS WIND BUT ITS NOT GOD POWERED WHICH IS TO SAY HE’S NOT FLYING EVERYWHERE. VRISKA AND ME HAVE ZILCH EXCEPT HER ARM AND EYE ARE BACK.
CG: SO I WANT A FUCKING ROLL CALL HERE.

GA: I Am Happy To Report That Equius And Nepeta Are Alive And Well. Neither Seem Otherwise Than Their Usual Selves. I Have Remained A Rainbow Drinker, Though The Wound In My Torso Has Been Completely Healed.
TT: In that vein I am also well and have been restored to my pre-Sburb self, and the voices of the grimdark are no longer speaking with me. I believe I have retained some magical ability, as I can sense it within me, but it does not seem to be accessible without my wands. I’m hesitant to experiment too deeply at the moment, until we understand more about the current situation.
TG: no timey-wimey bullshit here
TG: feel like i should be able to but trying felt like running headfirst into a wall

AT: i ALREADY SAID gAMZEE WAS HERE AND ALL RIGHT, i MEAN, LIKE HIMSELF, AND sOLLUX IS BLIND,
AT: hE DOESNT HAVE HIS POWERS BUT HE SAYS HE CANT HEAR VOICES EITHER SO THATS 0K
AT: mY BACK SEEMS TO BE FIXED, BECAUSE i CAN FEEL MY LEGS, EXCEPT THEY DON’T WANT TO WORK, sO i GUESS ITS JUST LIKE BEFORE WE PLAYED SGRUB

CC: Glubglub! I’m so excited to know Sollux is all right! Of course, Terezi and I are )(ere and just fin!
CC: ----Eridan’s )(ere too.

CG: DON’T LET HIM OUT OF YOUR SIGHT. YOU HEAR THAT STRIDER? YOU GOT STUCK WITH AMPORA, YOU’RE RESPONSIBLE FOR HIS DERANGED PSYCHOPATHIC ASS UNTIL WE CAN GET ALL OF US TOGETHER.
CG: THAT’S ANOTHER FUCKING PROBLEM BECAUSE WE ARE NOT JUST WALKING TO EACH OTHER’S HIVE HERE.
CG: CAPTOR’S GROUP IS ON AN ISLAND AND INCLUDES A BLIND TROLL, A CRIPPLE, AND MAKARA.

GA: I Am Certain That We Will Be Able To Find A Suitable Plan Of Action. After Previous Events In Our Own Session As Well As Guiding The Humans, It Surely Can’t Be That Difficult.
TT: Actually, Karkat has a point. If this is truly a rebuilt earth as it seems to be, it is not going to be easy to have aliens attempt, for example, to take a plane. None of the trolls are going to have valid identification, for one thing, and it would be impossible to disguise them from any close scrutiny. Humans are easily upset at anything that could be considered ‘the other’ and the trolls will absolutely fall under that classification. Of course, I am hardly the expert John is on the matter.
CG: EXACTLY! HAS ANYONE STRAINED THEIR THINK PANS SO FAR AS TO WONDER HOW WE’RE FUCKING GOING TO LIVE HERE? IF THIS REALLY IS THE FUCKING ENDGAME I DON’T SEE ANY OF US HERE AS GODS, DO YOU? INSTEAD WE’RE SOME SORT OF PITYFUCK THE HUMANS SESSION GAVE US? WE ARE GOING TO NEED TO EAT. WE NEED SOPOR SLIME FOR OUR RECUPERACOONS AND MAKARA’S PIES. WE CAN’T JUST USE AN ALCHEMITER TO MAKE SHIT. THIS IS A REAL FUCKING WORLD AGAIN.
CG: AND MONEY. I DON’T HAVE ANY BOONDOLLARS HERE, DO ANY OF YOU? ARE WE JUST GOING TO LIVE OF THE HUMANS FUCKING CHARITY UNTIL THEY GET TIRED OF US AND GIVE US TO HUMAN CULLING TEAMS?

GG: thats silly wed never let someone kill you! Besides i don’t think humans have culling teams
GG: do we dave?

TG: not the way karkles is making it out like
GA: To Be Fair, Karkat, I Think We Have Not Had Enough Time To Process Everything. It’s Been A Few Trying Days And Several Of Us Are Recently Returned From The Dead.
GA: To Be Honest, I Am Surprised That You’ve Already Thought This Far Into Future Issues.

CG: WHAT
CG: ARE YOU TELLING ME NO ONE ELSE STOPPED TO CONSIDER WHAT WOULD HAVE HAPPENED TO THE HUMANS IF THEIR WEAK MONKEY SELVES HAD ARRIVED ON ALTERNIA?
CG: AM I ACTUALLY THE ONLY FUCKING TROLL WITH THE MENTAL POWERS TO STOP LOOKING AT THE SHIT THAT WE ARE SURROUNDED IN TO CHECK WHAT DIRECTION MORE IS RAINING IN FROM?
AT: iT WOULDNT BE GOOD? i MEAN, IT WOULD HAVE BEEN nICE FOR A WHILE
AT: bUT THEN IT WOULD HAVE BEEN HARD TO HIDE THEM FROM THE cULLING dRONES

TG: your planet doesnt sound like the party of the century no matter how you try to describe it
TG: earth is totally the superior party
TG: were the kids whos parents are out and we have a pool and a dj and the whole thing is fucking catered
TG: alternias the lonely kid down the street with stale pizza and someones dad making weak balloon animals

EB: so why don’t we just make it a road trip?
TA: A What?
EB: a road trip! it’ll be fun! i’ll get dad to rent a van and we can drive to dave’s place. rose can get her mom to do the same thing!
TG: egbert as chill as my place is theres no way i have space for that many people
TT: I would suggest that adding more trolls to a populous city center would be a bad idea as well. In addition I don’t believe my mother would agree to this plan as she loathes driving for any extended period of time.
TT: It might be possible to bring everyone to my home in New York. We have the space to host all of us, though not indefinitely, and I live in the Adirondacks. It would be remote enough to avoid most neighbourly attention until we’ve made more concrete plans.

TG: thats still a stupidly long drive
TG: i don’t know if bros car could manage that
TG: and it still doesnt get Jade and her guests near us

GG: ill go find grandpa and see what he thinks
GG: im sure hell know what to do!! :)
GG: brb!

CG: GREAT.
CG: THIS IS THE FIRST FUCKING ORDER OF BUSINESS. WE ARE GETTING OUR ASSES TOGETHER. ALL OF YOU WORK WITH YOUR HUMANS AND FIND A PLAN TO GET YOU TO LALONDE’S HIVE.
CG: I DON’T CARE HOW YOU DO IT.
CG: IS THERE ANYTHING USEFUL YOU HAVE TO ADD? A SUDDEN REALIZATION OF GODLIKE POWERS WE CAN USE TO SHAPE THIS FESTERING PLANET TO OUR WILL?

TT: I think your skills as a leader of trolls has left your subjects in shock and awe. I underestimated your finesse at dealing with such a large group of people, and am suitably impressed. I would suggest we settle ourselves to making plans for the day as well as adjusting to the current situation. There is still some shock that needs to work its way out of our systems, and undoubtedly that will need time. We will be able to discuss the fine details online when we need to.
CG: WHATEVER. I EXPECT TO HEAR PROGRESS BY TONIGHT.
AT: oR MORNING, i GUESS, FOR US?
CG: FUCK. IN EIGHT HOURS I EXPECT SOMETHING OUT OF YOU BULGELICKING GRUBS. IS THAT CLEAR ENOUGH?
CC: Glub glub! Sure t)(ing Karkat!
TG: whatever
TA: Understood.
AT: yES,
CG: THEN GET OFF YOUR ASSES AND GET TO WORK.

CG closed memo.

==> Be Gamzee Makara

In front of you is the ocean. It isn’t your ocean, but it still makes you feel better to stand by it. The sound of water is the same miracle everywhere, you now know, even when you’re on a whole different planet and your own one was destroyed like a sand dollar crushed in your fist. When you close your eyes and hold your breath you are home, and you do that till you’re so dizzy you have to stop or fall over, and falling off this cliff and into the water would be a bad idea.

It does smell like home here as you gasp for breath, it just also smells like humanity. You know you are fucking far away from most of them, and part of you is quite happy about it. You don’t examine the feeling too deeply, because your gut tells you that a full out feelings jam is not in your future. You have always listened to your gut. It’s always got the good news for you, and tells you when something’s a mystery and something’s beautiful and when it’s time for new pies. You like to think of yourself as a good buddy to yourself because shit, who else would look after you?

No one followed you out here. No one walked away from the wicked hive and into the cool night that was wide open, stars getting their twinkle on like little sparkles all up in the sky. You could get lost in that miracle, staring up until it fills your whole thinkpan. It’s not a black sky either, it’s a beautiful deep blue. Only some blind fuckers would call that black, and you left him behind. Well not left really since he wouldn’t have wanted to come and said so and made a joke that you should stay out till the sun came up. It’s all right that he isn’t here with you anyway, since you would have had to explain how beautiful all this place was, and no matter how many words you used you know it wouldn’t have been enough. The right words are sometimes a mystery to you. Your best buddy Tavros probably would have come if you’d offered to carry him, and usually you don’t mind helping your brother out, but maybe it’s nice to be alone here anyway. You like the quiet and the water and the stars. It’s just like home. And your buddies didn’t want to be here with you anyway.

Everyone is just too stressed out. Everyone has got their angry on. You don’t know how to fix it, especially since they won’t let you. Everyone needs to get their chill on, instead of walking around with all their stress right up in their faces and arms and hands and backs. It’s not healthy to have so much all bitching tied up like that. Your buddy Karkat knows, that’s why he’s so angry all the time. He’s getting all his feelings out that way, even if you think he’d be better with a good feelings jam, he still knows how to be chill when he’s done. Sollux and Tavros have totally forgotten. You think you should teach them, remind your brothers how. Things are good here, real good. They just need a troll to show them how to enjoy it.

But there are things you need to do first. There’s a reason you’re out here, right now, and it’s not for the sky and sparkles and water crashing in endless waves, calling your lusus back to you. Except your lusus is dead, and you remember this only after a moment staring into the dark. He was bad at coming when you called for him. He never heard you calling. So it’s easy to pretend he isn’t dead, because it’s almost the same thing, isn’t it? He was always away, so you can just pretend that he’s still away and ignoring your calls.

You wish that made you feel better.

Your sylladex is easy to empty and the contents pile around your feet in a heap. You rescue your pies because those are important – very fucking important now, so important your hand shake before you get them stored away again, and you don’t remember why but that’s all right, you can guard them until you need them again. You are good at looking after things, you think.

One of the horns at your feet is suddenly in your hand, a little miracle as if it had jumped like a fish to get there, so quick you didn’t even see it. You don’t squeeze the black end to make it speak. You only honked once when you’d arrived in this miracle world here, and that had been enough. The way Sollux had reacted – the way your buddy had lost his chill in the worst way, lost his head and tried to fight and run and got hurt falling over things – the way it had made your bloodgusher race and your head hurt so bad and your stomach turn like you’d eaten nothing but pies for days and days....you’d put your horn away. But that wasn’t good enough. Your head still hurt and your stomach still made you want to be sick and you listened to your gut which was sometimes your stomach so you came out to the water to let it carry the bad feelings away.

The horn clattered down the cliff and didn’t make a sound besides ‘plop’ when it hit the water and disappeared. Another followed, this time not dropped but thrown. Pretty soon you are throwing them all, one by one, as hard as you can as if they could take your sudden anger away. You don’t know why you’re angry and you don’t like it, but you think throwing away your horns will bring your chill back, the way throwing stones into the ocean used to call your lusus. (You don’t want to remember that your lusus usually didn’t come when you called, didn’t hear the stones and was too far away for you to hit no matter how hard you threw them.)

When the horns are gone, all gone and you check your sylladex twice to be sure, you stand with your toes to the very edge of the cliff and your clubs in your hands. You know this is a dangerous thing to do; you’ve never stood at the edge where the cliff could collapse before, you’d learned when you were just a wiggler that cliffs were always changing and warping and dropping into the water and being a mirror to the water’s song, back and forth and meeting in the middle (another miracle). You aren’t worried, though you can’t say if it’s because you don’t think the cliff would collapse or if you wouldn’t mind falling in now, but that doesn’t matter. One club flies into the air, spinning in the perfect way they always did for you, settling back into your hand with the most satisfying sound, the slap of solid wood and plastic hitting flesh...

You shudder, and pull your arm back to throw when a hand drops, heavily, on your shoulder. For a moment you wonder if one of your buddies has come to help you. You wonder if maybe Karkat had found a way to come and help a brother out, because he’d always been so good at helping when you needed him to...

It’s a human. You look up (and it’s not a familiar action) and it’s an adult and that’s worrying and you’re hit with a line of fear from thinkpan to bloodgusher because Adults aren’t Allowed To Be Here – but no, no that was home and this isn’t home and this is Jade’s lusus or guardian or whatever the adult wanted to be called and he probably wasn’t here to up and cull a brother even if you’re throwing things into his ocean. (His ocean, not yours.)

“Do you really want to do that?”

It’s such a strange question, but the way his voice is asking you makes you think a little harder, makes you look at your clubs to the water and back again. They’re your clubs, they’ve been yours since as long as you can remember. You’d learned to juggle with them first and even though you’d learned how to juggle other things later – like faygo bottles and pies and cluckbeasts – nothing was ever so satisfying or made you feel so good as the weight in your hands of a club coming down - that thought cuts off and your headache spikes painfully and bile rises in your throat, makes you gag, makes you want to fucking cry. You don’t know why you’re so fucking sad but it’s bad and that’s reason enough to throw them, to hurl them as hard as you can, one two out into the ocean. You don’t look at them to see them sink; you know the fuckers will and you can’t see with all these tears in your eyes. But you feel better, and you feel worse, and you feel somehow full and empty with them gone.

The hand on your shoulder squeezes and you expect pain because it’s an adult and you’re being weak and even if you’ve never really liked that shit you aren’t motherfucking ignorant, you know what being too weak means. But it doesn’t hurt, and you look up at the fucker and he’s standing there, all smiles and proud and then he up and hands you a white square of fabric. “Blow your nose now son, and dry your eyes. I dare say you made the right choice, but you have things you need to be doing and this isn’t a time for more tears.”

He has a nice voice, and it makes you feel instantly better to hear it. You do as he tells you because he is giving you good advice, and cleaning up your face messes up your makeup because it’s now all over the nosewiper but you don’t really mind. “Don’t think there’s anything you want this motherfucker doing, my brother. I’m all out of my miracles.”

“Bah! You couldn’t be more wrong!”

It’s such a simple statement and he’s so firm about it, it makes you stare at him. He’s smiling and that should set off all sorts of badness because you were now arguing with an adult and that was a shitty idea except the smile wasn’t one that said you were going to be hurt, it was actually looking pretty sad all on his face, and it was also kindof nice, and you really missed nice.

“You are perfectly aware that there are miracles you have, Gamzee, and miracles that you experience! Inner and outer miracles, if you would.”

That’s... a little confusing, but you’re pretty sure you know what he means. You were the fucking miracle expert, once. “Uh, I guess I do? But I’m all up and empty now. My insides are pretty far from a miracle, even if they’re all up and being mysterious on me.” You don’t want to be sick anymore, and you’re not crying, but just because you feel better doesn’t mean you feel good.

The hand on your shoulder finds its way into your hair, and it messes it up in a good way that doesn’t at all touch your horns and it’s really strange but nice. His voice is still so calm and chill you think this motherfucker understands how to be properly cool. “You’re alive Gamzee. As long as you are alive, that’s a miracle too. As long as you’re alive, you’ll find more miracles for yourself.”

You lean into him, into his warmness and the strange way he smells, into his comfort that is kindness and not yelling or hating or fear or avoidance. There is so much good here you wonder if you could call it a fucking miracle too.

“Truth be told, this place is a jolly miracle all on its own! And I must say I’m quite glad you’ve ended up with us Gamzee.” He seemed to consider things for a moment, because he is suddenly looking past you, but then his eyes lock back on your own and all you can think of is how sharp they are even behind his glasses. “I think I can let you in on a secret of my own, since it looks to me like you need a spot of help!”

That’s a surprise, but you always like hearing about new things and as long as this isn’t a hurtful secret you’ll be glad to hear it and he doesn’t seem like the sort of adult to be all up and getting his hurt on anyone. “I’m good at secrets, brother. Never spilled a motherfucking one yet. Not even the ones I don’t know about!”

“Well then I suspect I can trust you with this!” He leans down, looking right at you, face telling you that this was his serious business and your thinkpan rushes to make sure you remember this because fuck, forgetting would be bad somehow, you just know it. “If you find enough of those outside miracles, my boy – well they’ll fill you right up! They’ll call back all the miracles that should by all rights be inside of you. They’ll chase out the darkness and the bad and the good will be stronger in you. And I’ll have you know my island here is chock-full of miracles for you to experience!”

“No shit?”

“Indeed. So I suggest you explore as much as you can of this place and find as many miracles as you can.” He stops, and for a moment seems like he’s all confused like how Tavros sometimes gets when Karkat is yelling for a really long time. “Well, I suppose writing things down might be a bit much for you. How about you make it a song of some sort? You should be able to; you’re the bard after all!”

For a moment you see nothing but blazing green. You are so angry your teeth crack.

The moment passes and the idea of finding new inspiration is pretty damn chill. So is the idea of giving your brother trolls some space. This lusus was beyond chill. He was the motherfucking shit for helping you, standing here and up and sharing all his good ideas!

“Shit that’s fucking bitchtits! That’s totally what I’m going to do!” You might, maybe, be grabbing at it a little desperately, but you’d been out of ideas for what to do after you took care of your horns and everything that hurt to look at. This was something. And it was a wicked plan. Your gut was totally up and on board with this plan. Motherfucker was a rainbowmaker of miracles. Just beautiful.

You maybe even feel... good.

“You’re a pretty wicked chill motherfucker for coming out and helping a brother out! I don’t want to be all empty in my head so I’m gonna find me some miracles and it’s gonna be BEAUTIFUL.” Your bloodgusher is pumping hard again, but this time you think maybe it’s a good sign.

“Well thank you Gamzee, I was quite glad to help. But I think I am going to ask you a favour in exchange for all the advice, if you wouldn’t terribly mind?” His hand goes up to the hair on his face, and he pulls it. You’re a little surprised it doesn’t come off.

“Anything. Any fucking thing.”

“Call me Grandpa. I’m afraid I’m just too old to get used to ‘motherfucker’ as any sort of endearing moniker.”

You smile at him, and then you laugh, and he laughs, and you’re not sure why you get the urge to throw your arms around his waist the way you do, but your gut has spoken and you’re hugging him the way you used to hug goat dad when you saw him. “You got it, Grandpa.”

Yeah. You feel good.

==>Be Jade Harley

"So... Why do you think I'm like this?"

You have three books open in front of you, as well as your laptop with more open tabs than you probably need. You borrowed grandpa's x-ray machine to check Tavros' back, but the best you can really do is guess, because you are a spacewitch, Jade, not a doctor.

"Well, I think your back is healed. I mean it mostly looks like it wasn't ever broken! So it's not! But all the muscles in your legs are all weak and floppy. So I think maybe your body came back fixed, but it remembered your legs being all not exercised?" You shrug and smile at him: as guesses go, it's not so bad! You feel really confident about it but you really wish you could be better and know for sure.

Right now a good guess is the best you can do – you've never had a doctor on the island before, and now is probably not a good time to start even if you could find someone who knew about troll biology - which you can't. You almost wish you were back in Sburb because you are pretty sure you could have fixed this with a bit of programming and some alchemiter help. At least Tavros isn't hurting, and that’s better than him being hurting and not being able to help at all.

"All the things I found said that not using your muscles for a long time, like being in a wheelchair, made them weak and floppy. But they also say that you can exercise to make them stronger! So I think we can help you exercise and then you'll be able to make them strong and not at all floppy and then you'll walk again and won't even need robot legs!"

His face flushes, chocolate brown and interesting and he gives you one of his wobbly smiles, the ones where you think he might try to run away or maybe cry at any moment, except he can't and never does and instead he says, "Thanks, Jade. I'd be a lot more worried if I didn't have you here."

You tickle his bare feet and he yells and twitches, his giant horns slamming into the side of the couch and you giggle when he pouts at you. "See? I'll have your legs back in no time! I bet if Dave was here he could help us do it even faster!" You think Dave would have a lot to say about all of this, and you miss his running commentary.

Tavros' face droops at Dave’s name, which is really strange because you thought he and Dave were friends? But you realize he's just missing his friend because Dave is sometimes very silly and confusing. “Is Dave ok? He’s not, uh, really telling me if he’s doing ok when I ask, I think he’s really busy or distracted or something.”

You roll your eyes in exasperation, your whole head moving with it. You really like the way eye-rolling looks, now that you’ve seen it in person. It’s fun to do! And it looks much better than you’d imagined it did when you read about it in books. “Dave is silly. He isn’t very good about letting people know how he feels. He’s like a big walking statue of cool – well no, he wouldn’t be a statue since he can move. Maybe he’s more like a robot! Yeah, he’s like a robot that’s made out of nothing but cool parts. And inside his very very middle where his heart is he has all sorts of feelings but he can’t be cool if he shows them off, so he has to keep being a cool robot. And even when you see he’s sad or angry or scared, well I guess angry is ok, but sad or scared, you can’t say you guessed it at all or he’ll feel really uncool. And maybe angry then too. So he’s got a whole way of being cool even when he’s not feeling good about something, and you just have to learn how to listen to him! Sometimes he says it in his cool ways, even if they’re hard to understand.”

Tavros stares at you for a moment and you wonder if that wasn’t clear enough. You try really very hard to make sure the words you say are what you mean them to be, especially since you used to get confused in your dreams, but you thought you were being pretty clear. Dave = Robot - exploding + coolness. That’s a pretty good formula. You wonder if you could break down everyone else like that.

“I, uh, I thought I was getting better at understanding him. But he only responded with more sick burns at me when I asked and it was really uncomfortable...”

Let’s see, Tavros would be uncertainty + magic - anger? Or should you stick with the same equation structure? Tavros = Bunny – fear? No, that wasn’t right, Tavros wasn’t nearly so jumpy as bunnies and rabbits weren’t brave and Tavros was VERY brave, braver than a rabbit without fear would be you think. Maybe Tavros = fairy + bravery - anger?

“Um, Jade?”

You blink and forget your equations for the moment, and your face gets hot when you realize you were distracted and being mean by ignoring Tavros. You quickly remember what he’d said to you and give him a big hug so he knows that he doesn’t have to be so worried. He makes fun noises when you hug him, not angry like Sollux but surprised and happy at the same time. “It’s ok Tavros. I think that just means that Dave isn’t ok right now. But he’s going to be ok later! If he’s talking back to you that means he’ll be fine, and besides he has Terezi and Feferi with him, and his Bro! And if Grandpa was right about being able to get all of us together soon, then he’ll have us too and you can do what I do!”

“What’s that Jade?”

“Give him a giant hug! Like this!”

He sputters and laughs and it’s the first time you think you’ve heard him laugh – it’s a good sound, it’s warm and happy and you like it instantly and want to hear it a lot more. You can probably find ways to make Tavros laugh and be happy while he’s here, you think, because you’re very good at ideas! And Tavros deserves to have some happy, because he’s had too much sad that you know of.

“All right, all right. If you say Dave’s ok I’ll believe you, uh, until we can go see him in person. “ Tavros’ face is still tinted brown, and when you sit down on the table in front of the couch he’s on, his eyes follow you and he smiles when you smile at him.

You decide that talking about Dave should stop now, so that Tavros can stop worrying. You’re not worried at all because Dave is answering his messages and as long as he’s pestering you he’s not dead, so of course he’s ok!

“Come on Tavros. Let’s look through these videos and see if we can find some exercises we can start doing right now!”

It’s much, much better to be using these books and your computer to look for help for someone else, instead of trying to use it to help you set your leg when you broke it. Much, much better!

==>Be Sollux Captor

Being blind sucks bulges.

It’s one giant pain, so rage inducing you are giving yourself a migraine just from gritting your teeth. It goes beyond your usual levels of incensed violence and right out the other end, and you’re caught between being despondent, depressed, and furious all at once.

In short, you fucking hate it. Your teeth have grown back but your eyes are still a ruined mess. Fuck this world.

If you’re honest with yourself (and to be honest you kindof suck at that), well, in the veil it had been maybe 0k. It wasn’t all right, it wasn’t good, but you’d been almost managing. The asteroid had been full of empty hallways and sure they’d gone on for-fucking-ever but you’d gotten the hang of the main area and it had been quiet. At the time you’d exchanged your sight for silence, so that you couldn’t hear the screams of the dead (they’d stopped being voices 600 hours ago), and that had actually seemed like a good idea, even if it wasn’t yours or even your choice and you’d known it was coming anyway. You were coping.

(And, if you admitted it, you’d had help.)

You’d expected to go blind. You’d sure as hell had enough warning from the dead and the horrorterrors and fuck, history too. You’d spent most of your life waiting for it to happen so when it did it was almost a relief except you’d been conscious only long enough to hear Fef die, and there was no relief, just horror until you passed out. When you’d come to you’d been too shocked, too distanced from yourself, knowing Feferi was dead but alive in her bubble and happy enough. You’d focused on just surviving the next hour with Gamzee on a killing rampage and Karkat running off without you, and well, being blind really wasn’t the worst of your problems in the veil.

Now though, now it’s just fucking stupid

You hate this hive: it’s a maze of hallways and stairs and a bunch of them don’t even seem to lead anywhere. You’re trying to use what Terezi had half-taught/mostly-explained to you but it’s almost impossible because this place just smells of old dust and brown and grey shapes. You figured out how to navigate the main room, and you can get from there to the ablution trap without too much difficulty, but that’s it. Anything beyond that and you’re lost and you hate it.

You hate the trolls you’re stuck here with. You could have ended up with Feferi, and the two of you could have talked more about your feelings for one another and feelings in general. You could have had Karkat, who you know would have spent at least one whole fucking day waiting on you hand and foot out of guilt for leaving you and knocking out your teeth, and then would have gotten back to just talking to/at you the way the two of you had always been; something you hadn’t quite ever defined.( It was something that neither of you were able to define, but was maybe pale and maybe flushed and sometimes black and fuck, you’d been a bit preoccupied to ever worry about defining it.) You’d have been happy with Kanaya, considering she’d saved your ass on the asteroid. She’d picked you up and helped you and then took care of that bastard Eridan with one slice of her chainsaw. (You can only imagine what it looked like, but fuck it had sounded and smelled like revenge in the best way possible). Terezi could have helped you learn to ‘see’. Aradia... Aradia would have just been good. You owed her a hug. Owe her. She’s alive here again and apparently in her own body once more. You really wished you were with Aradia.

You could have been stuck with anyone, and almost anyone would have been better than fucking Makara (so he has five pies, that’s just great, you’re totally going to be the first to die when he runs out), and Tavros-can’t-do-anything-Nitram. Apparently he’s come back a cripple again, which is just perfect because the best he can do is watch you walk into things and say ‘uh, more to your left. Sorry, I mean, my left, your right. Sorry.’

You hate the humans. There are two of them and they smell and they are constantly moving around and they... don’t hover. They don’t check in on you or Tavros or Gamzee obsessively the way you expected them to. When you go exploring they don’t find you and tell you not to wander blindly through their hive. They’re away as much as they’re around, doing whatever they think is ‘important’, and apparently Jade’s looking after the hive as much as her lusus is because he’d been dead for years or something. After a day of cursing and explanations and whatever plans the others were making they’d both just left you all mostly alone. Jade made you all eat and at least human meat wasn’t too bad and you could eat it with your hands. You’re still thinking her vegetable mess was a joke of some sort. No way they actually ate that shit.

They’d tried to get you to sleep lying down like humans do, which was a fucking joke and at least you had Makara and Nitram to back you up there. There wasn’t a damn recuperacoon to be found and the only spoor slime was staying in Gamzee’s pies, but you could at least get some decent piles going. You’d expected to have to explain it in simple fucking terms so their feeble thinkpans could grasp the world-shattering idea that no, their fucking way of doing it wasn’t going to work – but the primates just agreed and you ended up standing there like a pathetic lump of uselessness waiting for a culling fork as they collected enough things to pile properly - Gamzee helping because you and Tavros were pathetic, standing around and waiting for two humans to help you . You’d slept that night feeling like the shittiest excuse for a troll ever in a pile made up out of soft things because you suddenly couldn’t bear to explain that no, comfort wasn’t the point. (And besides, it’s better than Gamzee’s horn pile. You swear to god if you ever hear a horn honk again, you will kill the nearest motherfucker.)

The lusus – you refused to call him anything else, no matter what Gamzee was saying – had actually set up a shitty computer for you to use so you weren’t relying on Tavros to be your eyes and so you might maybe be able to have a private conversation. It was almost a decent gesture except, since you couldn’t see, the thing spoke what was happening on the screen. You might have known how to use a computer but none of these programs were what you were familiar with and learning them from a disembodied voice was impossible. Even worse the whole system was slow and had all the finesse of Karkat in a Memo arguing with himself.

And you had to ask Feferi to drop her typing quirk entirely, because the system had no fucking clue. You sure as hell couldn’t translate ‘I ohtee e anans find a way for us to get tajat asune’ without some severe mental stress – and guessing. Oh, and it could barely handle your fucking lisp in the first place.

You’re cursing the computer, this hive and the world in general but mostly your miserable existence when Jade sets a hand on your shoulder and you jump twice your height (almost) into the air. It has to be Jade because she’s the only one in the house stupid enough to touch you, stupid enough to sneak up on a troll. You miss disembowelling her by inches, but her voice makes you think she doesn’t even fucking notice. “What the fuck do you want? I told you about thurprithing me!”

“You’re arguing with the computer again. I thought I’d help you!”

She is giggling, It makes you upset because she’s laughing at you. It makes you sad because it reminds you of Aradia. She takes your hands in hers and pushes and pulls you until you’re sitting in front of the husktop again, and then she’s putting something on your head what the fuck fuck- oh. It’s a headset. “What?”

“Grandpa was being nice but I don’t think he thought about how all the trolls type and your lisp or anything. So I told Dave to give Feferi one of his headphones and microphones because he’s a DJ and so is his brother so they must have some at home and now you and Feferi can talk without creepy computer voice misreading everything!”

She’s reaching over your shoulders, her front pressed to your back and you are so totally not ok with this, you don’t need a human to help with a computer, you’ll die before you admit you might need help, you’re the one who programmed Sgrub for fuck sakes –

And then Feferi’s voice is in your ears. “-hear me? Glub glub glub! Oh it says we’re connected! Is it lagging? Sollux? Soooollllux?”

“Fef?” Your voice is not fucking cracking. You completely ignore Jade when she tries to explain how the program works, because that implies that you ever intend to disconnect, and right now you don’t. “Fef, I can hear you.”

“Great!” You can hear her smile, you can imagine it pretty easily too. It helps shake the terrible sound of her dying from the back of your mind. “This was such a good idea! Glub glub! Tell Jade I really appreciate it! She’s not as stupid as I thought she was!”

You lift up the headspeakers and listen but you can’t tell if she’s still around of if she’s run off again like she usually does. “Jade?”

She’s moved off at least a bit because her voice is coming from across the room. “Yes?”

“Thankth... Fef says thankth too. Thith wath a good idea.” You leave the rest of Fef’s compliment out because you’re not sure about humans but telling her Fef thought she was stupid might have been insulting.

It’s good to hear Feferi’s voice. It makes you feel less like shit and more like a troll someone gives a fuck about. You still hate being blind, but maybe now you can talk to Terezi and get her to help you figure out all this fucking brown grey noise. Later. Once you and Feferi are done. Much, much later.

Chapter Text

==>Be Dave Strider
You are getting used to the sounds of screaming. Your neighbours aren’t exactly happy about it, but let them try to deal with a trio of aliens who fight like kids on a 90’s sitcom and see how well they do. You deserve a fucking medal just for putting up with this, and it’s only been three fucking days (sixty hours twenty minutes like fuck are you thinking about seconds). The screaming matches are getting old and there’s only so much room in a two bedroom apartment to go around. Bro’s been decent about groceries at least (you’ve lived off of takeout for the last year but you don’t want to risk some delivery guy seeing one of the trolls and like hell can you trust them to stay out of sight), and they’re easy to feed. Give them protein and they shut up for a while. You can manage that, at least.

You know the others aren’t having these sorts of issues, but like hell are you going to complain.

EB: haha! karkat just flailed around a lot.
EB: he’s not so bad. dad says his bark is worse than his bite anyway.

TG: completely untrue
TG: his bite is poisonous like a wild komodo dragon
TG: have you seen his teeth?
TG: its a festering wound first and then they cut your leg off before the rot hits your brain

EB: i don’t think so. i'm sure they would have warned us if they were poisonous, right?
EB: haha! we’re going to watch con air tonight!!!

You’re tempted to pester Karkat and warn him in advance, but honestly if the ball of incandescent fury is stupid enough to agree to a movie night with Egbert he deserves the emotional scarring. Maybe you can offer therapy later, if you’re feeling gracious.

EB: vriska wants to go on a d8 with me.
EB: i’m not sure what i should do with an alien girl on a date though.

TG: this is where id point out the irony in you dating an alien
TG: and it playing right into your movie fetish and probably starting an interspecies incident
TG: but i don’t think youd actually listen
TG: so ill just give you some advice
TG: man to man
TG: be careful with her tentacles
TG: theyre probably really sensitive so dont bite them
TG: remember that oldschool anime i linked you
TG: itll probably be a lot like that
TG: only youre the schoolgirl
TG: she probably doesn’t want to eat your soul but you should ask first just in case
TG: don’t ask me where the bucket comes in
TG: everything i think of is too stupid to
TG: oh shit gtg
TG: theyre fighting again

EB: uhhhhh ok! i know you were totally joking about the tentacles.
EB: but i really wish i knew what the bucket thing is.
EB: good luck!!!

You slip away from your computer. Usually you ignore the screaming until it gets to neighbours-calling-the-cops levels since it’s almost always Peixes and Ampora anyway, but you’d just heard it hit Jerry Springer levels of trashy shouting so it’s time to play babysitter. You’re deciding what angle you want to attack from (‘if you two hate each other so much why don’t you get a room?’ went over spectacularly last time) when one of the voices turns scared and there’s a cry of pain. You don’t even think about it - you just flashstep your ass over there, ready for the worst.

Terezi and Eridan are in the kitchen, which is to say Terezi has Eridan pinned up against the wall with one hand around his neck and her walking stick a gleaming sword that’s poised in the air behind her, already dripping purple-red ooze onto the cracked tile floor. Eridan’s arm is soaked in the stuff and a second later your brain catches up with today’s events like the last kid on a conga-line and you realize that shit’s his blood. You’ve got Terezi’s sword-hand in a tight grip before she impales Gillsface like a... well, like a fish, really.

“Dude, what the fuck?”

“Dave!” She’s trying to pull her hand forward out of your grip – she’s still trying to kill him and the fact she doesn’t seem upset that you’ve walked in on this is more than a little fucked up. She also hasn’t let go of Ampora’s throat, which is probably why you can keep her hand in your grip. She’s strong. “Dave, you were asleep!”

“I’m an insomniac” you snap, rather than admit you’d crashed a little early to get some fucking time to talk to the others without being interrupted every two minutes. “Did you seriously wait till I was asleep to plan to cut up Gills here like some untrained sushi chef?

Gills – Ampora – who hasn’t corrected you even though he flinches Every. Fucking. Time you use some sort of nickname – just stands there. This whole thing is making you really buggy because he’s not even fighting back. His face is kinda ashy grey like a dead cigarette end and he’s glaring at you in what the idiot probably thinks of as some sort of challenge but honestly he just looks fucking scared.

“It’s Justice, Dave.”

It might be justice but dammit the way she’s grinning and almost giggling, all teeth and sharp edges makes you think of a much uglier word. You catch movement at the corner of your eyes and fuck, it’s Feferi standing there like some sort of depressed wallflower, hoping the boy walking towards her is going to ask her to dance, instead of, you know, using the fucking bathroom that’s beside her. She looks victorious and hungry and she’s surrounded by smuppets and holy fuck trolls are messed up.

You turn back to Terezi because what else can you do? She’s lowering her sword at least so you let her hand go, but you’re tense and eyeing her just in case she tries it again. “I think I’ve gotta go back to the old reliable standby and repeat: what the fuck?”

She lets go of Ampora completely and turns to you. He slides to the ground, clutching his arm and you wonder if he doesn’t have any god dammed survival instincts at all because he ought to be absconding. “Dave! We had a trial! We’ve weighed the evidence and the expert testimony and found him guilty and this is his sentence.” She leans into you and smiles even broader, licking her lips the way she usually does right before asking if she can taste your eyes and you like her, you know you do, but right now you think you’d rather be anywhere but here. “You don’t want to get in the way of Justice, Dave. It’s important.

All right Strider. One thing at a time. One fucking thing. First, regain your deadpan. You are letting your freaked-the-fuck-out get to you. Flipping your shit out will not improve this situation (though it would immensely improve your fucking mood). “You had a trial?”

That’s better. That’s the perfect monotone you need in this sort of situation, and you believe you can hold onto it right up until Terezi waves her hands to indicate the plush smuppet jury sitting on the various counters and along the stovetop and Feferi’s vicious added “He killed me!” that makes you realize that all trolls are batshit insane. There is no lighter term you can possibly apply for this. They had a trial. With smuppets. You would up and quit right now, except you’re pretty sure that would leave Eridan dead and that doesn’t sit with you. Not at all.

“Okay. Okay. First off? There is going to be no killing in this apartment, got it? This is a fucking no kill zone. You have got to get executive permission before you decide to swat a fucking fly in here, and that means none of this sushi night shit. The neighbours would never let us hear the end of it: Just think of the property values!”

All three just stare at you blankly and you wonder why you bother with the irony, sometimes.

“Secondly, Terezi, you don’t get to be judge, jury and fucking executioner here! This isn’t a game anymore. No, Smuppet juries do not count!” You raise a hand before Feferi gets more than a word out and nod in her direction. “Yeah I get that he killed you Peixes but right now you’re not acting like the better troll here.” Not the way she’s growling, almost drooling over there watching this. You look back at Terezi and adjust your shades to give you a moment to collect yourself. “What are you planning to do, Terezi? Kill Eridan and then kill Gamzee and Vriska once we’re in New York?”

“Yes?”

God, but she says yes like she doesn’t understand the question. She stands there and stares at you through red lenses and her head tilted and you can’t fucking help the way your jaw drops or the way your god dammed blood runs cold. You shudder because she’s the same troll you’ve been speaking with for months (more or less) and laughed with and shared shitty comics with and you’ve always known she was an alien but that still didn’t prepare you for this. Fate gives everyone a second chance and she’s already planning on murdering people.

You take a moment to find your voice and you think it’s pretty even when you do. You’ll find out later that you freaked them out a little because it was so damn cold and low they didn’t know what was wrong at first, but that’s not important. What’s important are the points that you are going to hammer through her skull like you’re wielding the fucking Zillyhoo. “Rose went grimdark and says if she hadn’t woken up when she did she probably would have killed us all, eventually. John falling asleep is how Jack got so powerful. I’m responsible for a whole lot of Dead Daves, and some of those are timelines where I fucked up so bad one of the others died. Are you going to kill us too?”

“Dave-“

“You messing with John in the beginning got him killed until future me fixed things. Hell, I’m recalling you’re responsible for one of those Dead Dave’s yourself, Terezi.”

She drops the sword to the tile floor, and the clatter is the loudest thing in the room. It’s a low fucking blow (and fuck, it’s not even entirely true, part of the fault there lies with you) but fuck. Fuck, you can’t take any more death. You’d left it behind and you were done with the game and the idea of the violence starting back up again makes you want to be sick. You have to clench your fists to keep the shaking from being visible and you’re suddenly sweating like you’re nervous, though you’re not, you’re angry. (You might also be scared, but you are a fucking expert at denial.)

“When we’re at Lalonde’s,” your voice is gravel rough. You’re losing your chill here. Christ pull yourself together. “When we’re there, if you and the rest of the trolls decide you want to fucking murder each other, well, that’ll be your god dammed choice. Twelve of you left but you want your own little war, well, Harley’s got her own island we can put you out there and you can Battle Royal it out for all I fucking care. But you are not going to kill anyone here and now. House fucking rules.

You reach down and hoist Ampora to his feet. He’s swaying, which probably isn’t good for him. “I’ve seen enough dead bodies to last me a fucking lifetime.” Sure, most of them had been yours, but even then you’d seen enough to fuel an HBO series for a solid three season run. Or cable TV for a decade. The point is the sentiment, which if you could find a Hallmark card for you’d sign it in cherry red Crayola marker just so Terezi would be sure to read it.

You sling Ampora’s unresisting arm over your shoulder and Terezi runs out of the kitchen. You feel like shit. Con-fucking-gratulations, you made your weird alien not-girlfriend cry. She kind of deserved it. You’re still a jackass. God, you know Egbert’s got it easier than this.

You’ll find her once Ampora isn’t maybe bleeding to death. You’ll find some way to apologize for being a jerk while still making it clear that the stabbing is not ok here. But first you’re going to drag Ampora into the bathroom and sit his skinny hipster ass down on the toiletseat. He fights for a second when you try to take his shirt off like he’s shy or some shit, but he’s weak and dizzy and you yell at him in no uncertain terms that that shirt is coming off or he’s bleeding to death, there’s no middle ground here, and he caves pretty easily by then.

You’ve got the first-aid kit open and you’ve dealt with enough sword-related injuries between you and Bro that you’re pretty confident in handling this. You’ve always looked after your own injuries, no matter how bad. Bro didn’t like hospitals and it wasn’t like his shitty jobs ever had fucking insurance. You’re both just lucky you’d never needed anything serious stitched up.

Ampora’s arm is a purple mess, in more ways than one. You focus on the injury first: it’s a straight stab into his upper arm. It’s deep but its all muscle and isn’t bleeding like he’s hit an artery, and even if he was you don’t know what you’d do about it. You’re probably going to be ok with cleaning it up and a tight bandage though – Terezi’s sword is narrow and thin, so the wound’s only an inch and a bit across.

It’s the rest of his arm you’re trying not to pay attention to, especially since he keeps shifting like he can hide it. There are thin, precise lines that work their way up from his forearm to past his elbow, up both of his arms. You’d almost think they were more Weird Troll Biology Shit but they don’t match, and you have a suspicion about what they are. Eridan’s clearly embarrassed, considering the way his whole face is purple – and so are his gills, those are gills on his chest, and they’re fluttering.

“What?”

Crap. Caught staring. Quick: go for the easy insult. “Trolls are fucking weird, dude.”

“Yeah? Well fuck you. Humans smell.”

You might have had a dozen responses to burn Ampora with in return for that quip, but you hold your tongue from the worst because one: you aren’t trying to be more of a jackass and the shaky way he says it and the fucking fear in his eyes says that going for his throat (metaphorically) is probably a bad idea. And two: it’s the first fucking coherent thing he’s said throughout this whole fucking debacle. You’re kind of glad he’s not suddenly mute. You focus first on bandaging his arm, then you can reply.

“You’re lucky we haven’t taken you out to mingle. Six something billion of us all getting our funk on, I bet even you couldn’t hold your breath that long.” (Not being a jackass did not mean you were going to fucking coddle anybody here. Bro taught you better than that.)

It’s clearly a good choice too: Ampora straightens, grabbing his shirt and holding it up like a shield, but his eyes are a hell of a lot more aware than they were five minutes ago and they’ve lost some of the creepy-ass haunted look. Funny that – Terezi tries to kill him and he just sort of takes it. You insult him and he’s suddenly wearing all his righteous fury like a suit of fucking armor.

“Don’t put that back on, it’s trashed.” You gesture at his shirt as he bares his teeth at you in what you are pretty sure is supposed to be a growl. “I’ll give you a new one.” Something with long sleeves.

He sneers – yes, that is totally a sneer, fuck trolls have a lot of teeth – and the wrecked shirt disappears into his sylladex while a fresh one takes its place. You notice how it’s the exact same shirt (this one with a bandage bulge on one arm instead of purple blood everywhere) and you shake your head in disgust. “You’re shitting me. You seriously just own repeats of the same damn hipster outfit?”

“There’s nothin wrong with my clothin, you fuckin ignorant primate.”

You laugh at the insult because it’s so piss-poor and he bristles and man, it’s so fucking easy to get him riled up but you’re pretty okay with that because he no longer looks like some sort of caged animal, doesn’t fucking reek of fear. You’re pretty sure you can’t push him too far the other way, but there’s nobody better qualified for this fucking game. You’re the champion, hands down, at pissing people off without pushing them to the point of hating your guts and never speaking to you again. You can handle this.

You make a decision. “Come on.”

You grab his hand and even though he starts protesting before you even move (in Alternian and English and really, has anyone figured out how that worked yet?) he doesn’t really try to stop you from dragging him through the living room, ignoring the glares Gillschick sends your way, into the kitchen and up the stairs to the roof.

Trolls are basically vampires when it comes to sunlight, and not the emo sparkling kind either. (Megido had apparently ended up outside at Egbert’s during the afternoon and declared it ‘tolerable’ but general troll opinion in the Strider house was that she was crazy.) Night seemed to hold no horror for them though, and when you pushed Ampora towards the crate he actually seemed to relax a little and sit down. Admittedly you’re pretty sure some of that relaxing is the fucking bloodloss, but whatever.

You and Bro made this roof a part of your apartment the minute you leased the place, and there’s a cooler tucked into one of the roof-box-things that you don’t quite know what they are. Even after getting destroyed and rebuilt, Earth-2 remembered the details because the cooler’s full of booze and juice boxes. You toss one damp white box to Eridan and smile when he fumbles with it. “Nice catch.”

“If you’d giwen me some fuckin warnin...”

“Christ, life doesn’t give warnings.”

You’d meant it mostly as a joke. Sure it was true, but it was also the line Bro used to taunt you with for years until you got used to finding fucking swords and smuppets in every inconceivable space; used until you learned to duck before walking into a room and to check your exits Every. Fucking. Time.

And Ampora is just sitting there, staring at you like you’ve babbled the secret to some great treasure, like you’ve just told Indy ‘the Grail? That old thing? Won it in a poker game old man, it’s yours’. After a few more awkward moments where Ampora still hasn’t said a thing and you wonder if he’s even breathing you rip your straw open with your teeth and stab the pointy end into the little foil circle with more force than strictly necessary.

“You gonna drink or gape at me like a landed fish some more? You’re living up to the Gills, here.”

Man, but the way they blush with colour is so freaking cool and fucking creepy. At least Ampora shakes himself out of whatever it was and looks away to focus on his own juicebox. He doesn’t eat the straw (which you’d ironically expected) but he does get apple juice all over his hands when he squeezes the box (which you totally called). He curses, you chuckle and lean back on the roof to stare at the night sky. The moon’s pretty beautiful tonight, but to be honest you’d have found an overcast sky pissing rain beautiful compared to the session you’d just left. Earth is pretty fucking wonderful (even with the current complications) because it’s familiar and so, so much safer than you ever thought it was.

Funny that. You’d always thought Bro was teaching you self defence so that you could fight off creepers and muggers and the hordes of girlfriends you’d be beating off in high school. You didn’t exactly live in the best part of town, and you’d always been careful with yourself when out with Bro at one of his gigs late into the night. Now you kind of feel like nothing can touch you here. Earth’s so damn... Earth’s fucking pedestrian is what it is. Want to fucking mug Dave Strider? Well get in line. Let’s see you mess with the fucking Knight of Time.

You’d not made plans beyond coming out to the roof for some silence and air and safety from the rampaging estrogen levels that were filling the apartment. You hadn’t expected much more than you and Ampora trading insults back and forth, or silence. Ampora’s the one who surprises you. He’s been all quiet and still, but he throws his empty juicebox at your head to catch your attention and gives you the harshest look you’ve seen on his face yet.

“What do you ewen want?”

Oooookay. Not the line you were expecting, but you know this answer by heart. You even sit up for it, and give him your brightest beauty-pageant smile. “World peace!”

He blinks, glares, and scowls in that order, cursing violently under his breath (but kind of surprisingly not that much at you). “What the fuck was that?”

Man, your irony really is lost on aliens. It’s like you’re going to have to give them a crash course on human pop culture from the last twenty years just so that they can properly appreciate just how ironic you are. You sigh, and actually take a little pity on the guy. Bloodloss remember?

“That was a pat answer. Cliché. I could have used ‘a pony’ but that’s pretty gendered. Well, not that you’d know it and technically so is world peace, I guess. Do trolls even have beauty pageants?”

Annnnd again with the staring. Seriously, you’re beginning to wonder if the gilltrolls even blink all that often. Maybe they have one of those clear eyelids fish have so they can see underwater. Or was that birds? Whatever. His face is too fucking easy to read, even for an alien. He wears his emotions so out and open it’s beyond pathetic. Right now you can actually see the anger working across his face like a wave and you can’t quite help but grin and point out “I mean, troll talent contests would totally be things like ripping a guy’s head off in seconds, or maybe forced death marches in time to music, right?”

“Is eweryone on your disgusting, grubbing planet this fuckin insane?”

“If you mean ruggedly handsome masters of ironic beatdown and the cool nod, no. I’m pretty one of a kind.”

“Oh thank cod. Seriously Strider, what the hell?”

Is that the first time he’s used your name? You think so. All that anger in his face isn’t quite in his voice either. Baby’s learning to control himself. (You’d give him a gold star if you and Bro hadn’t used the last package in a passive aggressive war over cleaning the bathroom.) There’s something in his eyes you don’t have a fucking clue about, and you wish he had some damn shades because even if they wouldn’t actually help his cool, they’d at least keep you from seeing his eyes and they keep going from creepy to confusing.

“At the moment Ampora, I want to enjoy my apple juice. Then I’m going to put my ass firmly back to bed for my eight hours of beauty sleep. From you I don’t want a fucking thing, except for you to not make a mess in my kitchen.”

“Then why’d you stop her?”

“Dude!” Ok, the deadpan way he just asked that? Creepy and not good. Boy does not sound like he’s happy to be alive here, which you shouldn’t care about but you really, really fucking do. “Dude, she was up and ready to kill you. Why worry about the tiny details when you could be enjoying this fine-ass night where we both aren’t dead?

“Because no one does any fucking thing for free Strider, and I’m no bulgemunching stupor-thick filthblood you can distract with a blunt-toothed smile and harsh words.”

You tsk against your teeth, shaking your head in scathing disappointment. “How’d a big sharkfish like you get so damned cynical. Someone didn’t hug you enough as a grub I bet.”

You regret it when you say it – it would have been perfectly fine for Rose, but you’ve been walking a careful line with Ampora and that went over it. You expect it to spark anger, or maybe if you’re lucky change the subject because you don’t want to give him the honest answer to why you saved him because, well, not wanting to feed the nightmares in your head was pretty fucking selfish really. Honesty isn’t your thing, which is why it surprises you so much when it’s what he reaches for.

You’re not quite sure what to do with it.

“My own fuckin moirail was using me. Three fuckin sweeps I thought we had ewerythin and turned out I was just a big fucking joke. They all knew. Just laughed and rubbed all their quadrants in my face. They all beat their levels together and left me to fucking die and the game had the audacity to call me the glubbing Prince of Hope? Whatewer you want, Strider, spell it out because I’m too fucking tired of waiting for the next knife in my chest. Terezi’s probably just going to kill me when I’m stupid enough to sleep, but she won’t want to piss off her potential matesprit too badly.” He turns his eyes to meet yours and god, the way he sounds they ought to be at least wet here but they’re bone dry and Ampora looks... empty. Used up. Like he had when Terezi had been half-strangling him, except thos time without the fear.

You realize that every moment of anger you’d gotten out of him hadn’t been a fucking accomplishment to crow proudly about. You fucking moron, this isn’t something you’re going to fix with a few burns and a cool nod, and fuck you’re not the person who should be dealing with this. You suddenly realize you’re in over your head, and Eridan’s still talking.

“Karkat says humans don’t do pity, and I’ll be fucked if I know how your romance works but this sure as hell isn’t hate – unless you’re ewen more fucked up than ewen I expected. So what the hell is this Strider, because I’m glubbing tired of games.”

Fuck fuck fuck “Woah, dude, back that train up because romance? This is not romance. Romance isn’t even near what we are doing here, ok?” You are not hitting on a troll by accident. That shit is too unironic to even think about seriously. “Look, like I told Terezi, gutting you in my kitchen because she decided to was wrong, and I am sure as hell not letting her get execution-happy in my own fucking apartment. Fuck, I’d get to be the human who couldn’t keep his damned pets alive for a week, which is just pathetic.”

You remember you could never keep the bettas you bought alive, even though they were supposed to be stupidly easy to care for and Egbert forgot about his for a month and the thing was fine. You’ve never been good with fish.

You decide not to mention that part.

“Look, Ampora: the universe gave you another chance, I’m chill with letting you have it. I’m in no fucking position to judge you dude.”

Ampora... he’s sighing, like he’s disappointed. Why the fuck is he disappointed that you’re chill with oxygen exchange arrangement with the atmosphere? What did he want you to say, you were going to lord it over him? Fuck no. You don’t care about him, not really. He’s just the troll you got stuck with and since he’s here he’s your responsibility and since you can’t deal with another dead body right now (not at home, not somewhere safe , not somewhere that would make the game fucking real again) well you might as well take it seriously.

Ah shit. “Terezi’s gonna keep after you, isn’t she?”

Ampora’s just quiet, and you’re pretty sure that’s the answer and the kid has a fucking deathwish and why, why isn’t Rose here she’s the one who’d have wet her pink panties to deal with someone this messed up, would have happily left you alone for month at least to get some time to sit down with this screwed up troll and why the fuck didn’t he wake up in New York where his hipster ass would have fit in instead of Houston to be your problem you’re maybe a little scared of fucking up more.

Just fucking great. Universe two, Dave Strider minus everything.

“Fine. Since you’re clearly not enjoying the best of the Houston skyline while she’s showing you her jewels, come on. Just don’t complain when the haze rolls in later and you see shit all.”

It’s another round of dragging him through the house – his protests are louder, his actual physical resistance is the same weak tug you ignore. You grab his ‘pile’ which is half your shit anyway and captchalogue it before he can complain, then drag him into your room and slam the door behind you both.

If he was quiet before he’s silent now, though it’s a different sort of quiet and has a shitton of tension you are going to ignore like the fucking elephant in the room that it is. Oh, crap, bad fucking metaphor you retroactively erase from ever having existed in your mind. You’re ignoring Ampora, and you’re especially ignoring the fact that you’re pretty sure he’s blushing.

You go to the corner furthest from your bed, dump his crap there, and then point to it while glaring in his general direction. “There. If Terezi tries to mess with you, I’ll be around to keep it from getting bloody again.” And you’re kind of banking on the fact that she likes you to keep her Judge Judy sessions out of your damn room.

You log back into Pesterchum just long enough to tell Egbert that you’re crashing – and that you have a fucking story for him tomorrow – and when you log out and hit the lights Ampora is still standing, staring at you, and he’s even more alien and creepy in the light from your monitor.

“No romance. Don’t hurt your head trying to think about it. This is just the human keeping his alien guest from getting creamed while we figure out what the fuck we’re going to do. So go to sleep already.

(You learn later that the fact he’d just settled into the pile without a complaint, without tearing your gut open for suggesting he needed protection, without even bothering to insult you or really saying anything at all was a pretty screaming sign of how messed up his head was, but like fuck you were supposed to know that now. Guess who is not an expert in trolls? You are.)

He’s pretty pathetic, but you don’t tell him to man up. You change into pyjamas in the dark and since those boxers aren’t leaving your ass you’re not even embarrassed about it. You flop into bed, expecting you’ll manage a few hours of sleep at least (your insomnia’s back with a vengeance, not that you’re surprised. At least it makes it easy to talk to Harley) and you are already planning what to do when you inevitably wake up. Mainly, find Lalonde and beat her down till she gives you some advice on how to deal with this shit (god that conversation is going to suck monkeycock) and find Terezi and figure out some way to apologize for being a jackass while at the same time stressing the whole ‘no stabbing’ rule you’ve implemented. Keep your aliens alive for another day and find out what Grandpa Harley was doing on the ‘getting you all together’ front. You’re pretty sure he’s getting fake ID’s for the trolls but you don’t know how the hell that’s going to pass airport security, but that’s his problem. You have your own here.

“Hey Ampora. What’s your blood made of?”

What?

Fuck that came out totally wrong. “I mean humans are all iron so our blood’s red, right? Bro and I get hurt and we’re eating steaks for a week to fix it. You lost a lot of blood. How’d’you usually fix that?”

“I’ll be fine.” Oh that was a growl. Anger again, and you think at first that it’s a good thing and then you remember his dead eyes and fuck, you are not qualified to deal with insane teenage hipster aliens from mars.

Tomorrow, you’ll dig up your mangrit and deal with all this shit. Tomorrow, you’ve got work to do. Why are you not fucking surprised the universe gave you the most difficult fucking trolls to handle?

==> Be Terezi Pyrope

“...you’re responsible for one of those Dead Dave’s yourself, Terezi.”

Your whole body goes numb and for a moment you are blind until you remember how to breathe again. You want to argue that he'd made the bargain, that it hadn't been him, that another doomed timeline wasn't important on the grand scheme - but you can't find the words. You don't have time to start because Dave is picking Eridan up, is telling you that Justice won't be served, that there are things you can't do and he's angry at you and disgusted, you can hear it in his voice and that should not distract you from your duty, but it does.

It hurts. Why does this boy hurt you, how can he make you cry without even touching you?

Your blood is singing in your veins make him pay make him pay and it’s something you’ve always listened to, the grand calling of the legislacerator that you knew you were destined to become. A legislacerator wouldn’t let matters of quadrants interfere – but you’re not a legislacerator yet, and you hurt, and you do the only thing you can think to in the face of this betrayal.

You abscond. You leave your Dragon Cane which is foolish. So is running when this hive is so small and there is nowhere to run. That's exactly how you'd cornered Eridan Ampora who'd been running from his fate and it had suited you just fine but now...

You run, and the hive is a blur of half-formed colours because you’re not focusing, you know it well enough by now. You run, and slam into a wall that shouldn't be in the middle of the hall. It's solid but soft enough you're unhurt when you bounce off and it catches you before you fall. "Ow" it says with a laugh and breath of air that’s tinged with iron. It's Dave's lusus, Bro. He smells like Dave but different. More chemical, more metal. Sharper. Less cherry. He’s a wall of boring black and white. At least Dave dresses far more interestingly.

He's silent and looking at you, still holding your shoulders and you know he can’t see that you might maybe have been upset behind your glasses, but you're still ready to wrench away and save face when he shifts and lets go. You sense his shrug with the rustle of his shirt and the subtle movement in the air around him. He asks, seemingly out of nowhere, “You like cherry, right?"

All right. He has your attention now.

He walks away and you watch the white haze of his shirt as it leaves a trail down the hall. You don’t know what that was about so you don’t follow him, and he stops a second later and asks, curious without being condescending, "So no one bothered me with the details on how the hell you see and you're not exactly licking the walls here. Do I assume you're good, or will a few directions not be out of place like a fat kid on a ballet team? How’s that taste thing work for you anyway?"

Humans are strange. You've never been asked that before - everyone had always assumed you could handle yourself, because if you couldn't you'd be culled. You would never tell anyone that you needed help. You've also never had someone ask how you saw. Well, excluding Captor, but that was because he'd gone blind himself and teaching him didn't count.

"I don't need to lick the walls to smell where they are and I can smell you well enough too. I don't need help."

"If you can smell everything, what's with the licking? Just Jonesing to fry my laptop with your tongue?"

You sigh. "Details, dumbass. I get things in focus that way." At least his questions are distracting you from the mess you’d just run away from. Thinking about colour and explaining to his poor thinkpan how your heightened senses worked was much better than raging somewhere ‘til you broke something. “Your puny human senses don’t compare to mine. Colours all have smells and tastes, no matter what they are. I just taught my thinkpan to see what I smell and taste. It really wasn’t that hard.”

Of course, when your Lusus was teaching you and it was a matter of life or death, well, you worked very hard to learn quickly and perfectly.

"Cool. Come on."

He walks away and you follow because it's a another distraction from the things you do not want to think about or feel right now, and breaking things in Dave’s hive would only make matters worse. Bro leads the way to his room which admittedly has you very curious - it had been labelled off limits the minute you'd arrived and getting to see it yourself and in person was very different that the glimpse you'd gotten while trolling Dave.

The room smells deeply of Bro. Lived in and saturated strong, his scent mixes with others you don't quite know yet but have smelled around the hive. Two or three you think are food. One is strong and chemical and you've smelled it in thehygiene block. They mix and tint the air around you until you get used to them and can focus on your surroundings. You're excited to leave this hive eventually and smell this world properly, because it all appears so bright. Humans like colour the way you do, it seems. For now you content yourself with a few deep breaths to memorize the layout of Bro's room and sit down on his human recuperacoon deck.

Bro is digging through a container not too far from you and makes a sound of accomplishment before he turns and tosses something your way. You have just enough warning in the change of the air to catch the black blur before it sails past your head, and you're rewarded by the smell of cherries, chocolate and that chemical smell that is in everything humans seem to eat. Usually it puts you off, but the cherry is appealing enough to overrule it this time.

"Chocolate Cherry Liquor Pralines. Planned on giving them as a gift to a chick, but she quit before I got the chance. Might as well give em to someone who'll appreciate em, because I can't eat that sweet crap."

The box is liquorice black. Black like your feelings right now, which is pretty appropriate. The legislacerator in you is still trying to burn through your mind (make him pay make him pay makehimpay) but your bloodgusher still aches at Dave's betrayal and it's a bitter thing that he chose Eridan over you. You might not have said anything to him outright, might maybe not exactly know if your own feelings were flush or pale, but you'd expected him to return them. Not shun you.
The box tears open in your hands easily, and the smell that hits you is so strong your blind eyes water in sympathy for your nose. Good god, humans don't do their sweets halfway!

The first one explodes in your mouth when you bite into it and suddenly you can see through time. Well, not really but that's what it feels like. There are stars in your mind’s eye, bells in your ears ringing high and low, cherry in everything you taste/smell/feel; red obliterating the room, Bro, the sound of your own laughter...

You come to flat on your back, prone on the softness of Bro's recuperacoon and you growl instinctively, a warning that Bro’s ignoring to shake your shoulder and he's lucky he isn't leaning over you to make you feel more trapped or you couldn’t be held accountable for your actions. Your head is clearing and you smell clean green mint instead of cloying cherry. A few deep breaths and you realize he's holding your green chalk under your nose.

"What are you doing?"

“If I'd know trolls were such lightweights I would have just given you gum or something. You must be a really cheap date."

You sit up. Besides the haze of red over everything and the leftover tang of chocolate still clinging to your teeth, you're fine. So you glare at Bro. "Why did you put my chalk under my nose?"

"It was green, and cleaner than using my dirty socks. Figured it'd balance out the cherry."

You glare some more, though admittedly it's more in shock now, not anger, and you can't read him, not one bit so you finally blurt "How the fuck did you know that?"

"Didn't." Another draft of air, another shrug. "Educated guess. You were cackling about seeing red before you passed out."

It is exactly what you would have done, it's exactly how you've dealt with too-potent flavours before. It's exactly right for you and you laugh, high and hard and head thrown back. You let the rage you didn't realize was ruling you flow out and away and you laugh, because how is it a lusus knows more about you than your friends? The answer is he doesn't. You're being stupid and emotional and silly and you refuse to let your emotions rule you, you shouldn’t, a legislacerator can’t. But it’s still a shock that he could take so little about you and guess that. It makes you feel... strange.

You should talk to Karkat, you realize. You've been too busy playing here to properly troll anyone and you've been neglecting him. He'll sympathize, maybe, but mostly he'll just make you feel better. You can tell him about how horrible today went and he’ll find a way to tell you how not actually horrible it was, because of how much worse he can imagine it to be. He'll want to be there when Eridan pays too, so Dave was right, really. This is the sort of thing you should be doing with an audience. Sollux deserved to be there - so did Kanaya. You’re still mad at him, of course. But you feel better with a plan in mind.

"So what did my baby brother do to make you that pissed off? Revoke eye-licking privileges?"

You really ought to tell Bro to piss off, but he’s sitting beside you and he’s good company right now. Instead you grin and spear another chocolate on one pointed fingernail. He makes a worried sound but you ignore it to lick around the treat, before popping it into your mouth. You're much more prepared now and the sensation is still strong, but it’s no longer leaving you blind. The red haze over Bro’s boring room is actually kind of fun, really. And now that the chocolates aren’t leaving you cackling, they’re actually quite tasty.

Full of chocolate and cherry and sugar, high from the hurt and desperately trying to convince yourself you’re fine, you tell the tale of the heroic and dedicatedLegislacerator (wait, that's you, right? okay okay go on) and her foe, the highblooded murderer (and that is? Okay sorry) who sought to escape the blind hand of justice as it fell.

You make sure you include the highlights, for drama's sake: including the trial (so that's why my Mr Pony smuppet is hanging from a noose without any legs) and of course the last-minute staying of the execution, stopped by the greatest betrayal! The potential matesprit to theLegislacerator shunning her for the guilty! Surely they can’t believe that their foolish Quadrants would stand in the way of Justice! The dedicated young Legislacerator would not be stopped! She’d simply regrouped to come back stronger yet!

You realize that you may have gotten carried away with the details right as you realize you're out of chocolates, your fingers finding just empty, crackling plastic at the bottom of the box. The chocolates have been decimated in the face of your cause. You feel pretty good about that really; they were a worthy sacrifice.

"So wait. Dave keeps you from killing this kid and you think this means he has the hots for him?"

"Why else would he save him? It has to be pity." Eridan would be one of the most pitiful trolls in the group - if he didn't make everyone so disgusted and platonically hate him all the time.

"See, you say pity and I don't think it means what I think it means."

You laugh again, even though it's not really funny. Humans didn't understand the quadrants, you knew that. You'd just always entertained the idea of introducing Dave to them yourself.

You're leaning against Bro and suddenly wondering what he tastes like, if he’s more metal or more cherry under his pale skin. Of course, you know he'd be too fast for you to catch. He taught Dave, after all. But you’re leaning against him and you think maybe you could manage it – that it would be fun - if you felt like moving at all.

"Look, kid. Terezi. I am pretty fucking sure that saving Gills was not a marriage proposal or declaration of love on my brother's part, all right? Frankly I would have done the same thing. A dead body on our kitchen floor would have been pretty uncool." He shifts, and smells like honesty and worry and apples. It’s nice, and he rests a hand over your shoulders and pats your arm and you don’t want to bite him for the action at all. "Don't count your crazy alien love interest dead yet. Even if you aren't even close to the girl I expected him to come home with."

That's good to hear. Your bloodgusher beats faster when you think about it, and you grin when you think about Karkat's ban on makeout sessions, sloppy or not. It's even funnier because you know how much he's hiding his flush for John.

"Tomorrow, I am going to be very angry at Dave," you announce to the world in general. You have a plan. You are proud of yourself for overcoming your heartache in a constructive way, sneakily getting advice from Dave’s lusus you can use against him. You’d even start now, but your legs are pretty heavy and this silly bed thing isn’t nearly as bad as you thought. At least not for sitting on. "I’ll find him. Teach him not to mess with a girl's heart. Find Eridan too." You lick your lips happily. "Teach him not to mess with my quadrants."

You yawn, so large and long your jaw cracks. You shouldn't be so tired, but you are. You can't bring yourself to worry about it either. Bro says something about stabbing, and you nod happily. You’ll not kill Eridan now unless he does something new. You can wait, and stab him later. That will be better...

You don't realize you're falling asleep when hands pick you up. You're boneless and limp and you should be enraged or terrified but you can't really feel anything except contentment. You’re safe with Bro, in a way you can’t understand but has something to do with the way he smells and moves and holds you, like a proper lusus would. He chuckles when he sets you into your pile, setting smuppets and blankets and video game cases around you ineffectively, but it doesn’t matter. You sleep like you’re drowning in sopor slime, perfectly peaceful and content and dreamless. It’s the best night’s rest you’ve had since before Sgrub.

Of course it doesn’t last.

Then again, later, when your head is pounding savagely as you empty the contents of your stomach into the load gaper (porcelain god, Dave calls it), while the Knight of Time is at your side holding back your hair, wiping down your face with a cool cloth as you purge and cry and he curses chocolate and cherries and his brother all in one go...

As he sits up with you, shoulder to shoulder, as you wait for the shudders and horrifying nausea to pass...

Well, if this isn’t pity, what is?

==>Be Dave

Trolls are actually even more gross than your brother hungover, and you are even comparing it to the time Bro was hungover and had food poisoning. This is so unironic it deserves to be on daytime television. As soon as Terezi isn’t hurling teal-coloured vomit every time she moves you are getting online to warn the others – especially Egbert, considering the crap his dad seemed to feed him. No chocolate. Or cherries. At least to start with – you’re really worried that maybe it’s the processed crap additives that made her sick and like hell those are going to be easy to avoid. Safer if you all do what you can to just avoid the issue in the first fucking place.

Then, you are going to kick your brother’s ass.

(A small and treacherous part of you sort of wants to admit that it’s nice to see Terezi calm and not.... creeping you the fuck out. You hate to see her sick but you feel a little less useless helping her than you have for the last few days, and when she’s just sitting with you and not talking about murdering people, well, she’s a bit more like the troll you first met online. Sure she’s also miserable but you’re hoping to fix that. Hoping like hell.)

==>Be Feferi Peixes

Being alone is a completely foreign feeling to you.

You don't like it at all.

Your name is Feferi Peixes and you were once the heiress (apparent) to all of Alternia. Now, you're one of twelve orphaned aliens on a planet inhospitable to you. You're doomed as a race because without the matriorb you are and will always be the last of your kind. (That is why you can not and will never forgive Eridan Ampora for what he did. Killing you was a betrayal but one for which you could have one day perhaps granted him your pardon. Destroying the one hope of your race surviving with you? Beyond you? Never.)

You are six sweeps old and you feel far older. And, as already stated, you're lonely.

You have always attracted attention. Trolls always sought your favour, hoping it would carry (if) when you took your rightful place and overthrew the Condesce. Purple and indigo in the ocean, every other colour on the land, trolls spoke to you. When the lesser bloods, the lowest colours, found you welcoming and sympathetic to their lives they shared them with you. You learned their dreams and fears, of the life they hoped to achieve and the culling they hoped to avoid. No matter where you walked or swam, you always had company.

Even after your abdication (and you really hadn't minded, not really) and it had only been the twelve of you beating the game - or trapped on an asteroid - you'd been acknowledged.

Now... Well, Sollux spoke with you on your borrowed husktops until his voice was raw and he was clearly fighting sleep and you had to order him off to rest. Jade had outdone herself in suggesting the voice chat function, and you'd had to re-examine your opinion of the girl from that.

But when Sollux signs off you are left staring at his greyed-out name on your troll- no, Pesterchum window, and again you feel alone. John has been sharing details about Earth with Karkat and Vriska and Aradia by showing them movies. They are often online to answer messages, but they are distracted and slow if it isn't pressing. Kanaya is likewise educating herself on the cultural differences between humans and trolls with Rose (they are promising a detailed writeup by the end of the week) and Nepeta and Equius are apparently more interested in exploring the forest around Rose's hive than sitting in front of a borrowed computer... and after being trapped in the veil you find you can't blame them.

Frankly, you're even a little jealous that they can leave the hive and not be seen. Dave has made it quite clear that such a thing isn't the case for his hive, and looking out the windows in the evenings to see the population walking by, you understand his caution.

Tavros would have been someone to troll if he didn't keep similar hours to Sollux. As it was whatever Jade was doing to fix his legs was exhausting him, because he was usually asleep before Sollux and woke up later too. Terezi was pleasant company, but you weren't interested in her flarp character and she was rather focused on her plainly flushed feelings for Dave. The human wasn't a terrible host to be certain, but you felt he could have been doing more for you all, to prepare you for this world you were now trapped on. Television shows could only show so much, and you had dozens of questions you'd intended to ask him before the night's events had changed all plans.

The trial had been Terezi's idea: she'd been tired of the arguments you had with Eridan - which were hardly real arguments anyway because he rarely rose his voice or did more than growl, leaving you to do all the hard work - and you had to admit the idea of justice appealed to you. The legislacerators were a respected class and you knew already that Terezi had been born for the duty, what harm could of be to encourage her just this once?

You had admittedly never experienced a trial before, though you were of course aware of how it was supposed to proceed. The jury being made of stuffed toys was a bit different, but Terezi assured you this was perfectly acceptable as any jury would be composed of patsies and the weak-willed anyway. The legislacerator was truly the power in the court, and since you had her on your side...

You hadn't expected the human interruption, but in retrospect it wasn't that surprising. They were squeamish about death as a rule it seemed, and Dave's reaction spoke to that. But if it was unexpected for you, it was a slash across the face to Terezi. Seeing Dave side, seemingly, with Eridan must have hurt her deeply. You would have gone to comfort her had you been thinking clearly, but the sight of his blood had you more than a little enraged and you'd had to settle in your pile just to calm yourself down. (Had Sollux been online, it would have been a perfect chance for a feelings jam. Instead you'd had to settle for grinding your teeth and hissing until the worst of the bloodlust passed.)

You do your best to ignore Dave and Eridan's passage across the room; you're still tucked into your pile when Bro arrives an hour later, carrying a limp Terezi in his arms. You actually have a moment of panic as you think she's dead, because why else would she be so prone in his arms? But you come to realize she's merely sleeping, calm and content in a way that's almost obscene when she's being carried by someone not her matesprit. Maybe it's because he's a lusus, then? You can't imagine how else she could possibly allow him to tuck her gently into the pile, how he could run a hand through her hair fondly and not be gored for his troubles. She's asleep without sopor slime and you know she's been having the same trouble with her aggression you've been having, that the piles are only somewhat helping... and yet she's still sound asleep after he leaves (he greets you with a nod but is otherwise silent) and you're maybe a tiny bit jealous.

You should sleep as well, but it's difficult because your body is well aware of the night and tells you it's the time to be moving, even though you are tired. The humans have been kind enough to cover their windows against the sunlight, and shift their own sleeping habits forward to accommodate you, but...

It's hard to sleep. Harder than it was in the veil, where you had dreams and memories in bubbles to keep you company. The horrorterrors did not bother you at all - rather they reminded you of your lusus, and they were easy to commune with when you'd understood their plight. Dreams in the veil had their hidden benefits as well - for all of Karkat's fears, once you'd created the bubbles, sleep in the veil was somewhat peaceful. You'd slept several times - most of you had - without the slime in your 'coon to calm you, and you'd been quite fine.

You've slept twice here so far, and already you can feel the effects as your natural aggression is starting to show. The piles are some small help, they press in without actively restraining, but they can only do so much. You are beginning to suspect Karkat's proclamations about this planet were right, and it chills you. These are the last of your people. You will protect them.

When sleep refuses to visit you, you quietly stand and wander the small space of the apartment. You don't expect to see anyone and you aren't disappointed. There really isn't far to go. The two respiteblocks are closed to you, the bathroom is tiny, and the main room holds a sleeping troll. So you find yourself in the kitchen, and you settle on getting yourself a glass of water both as something to do and to hydrate yourself - this planet is strangely dry.

You find the poor fish in a tiny glass barely bigger than itself, sealed away in the dark of a cupboard. You'd thought it was merely a nice design on the container until it moved. Now it is both a welcome distraction and a horror in one. You quickly find a much larger bowl and fill it with the filtered water Bro had purchased for you because the swill from the taps the humans drink might be fit for them, but it makes you feel ill thinking about it. Getting the temperature right takes some work with the microwave but at least the fish is content to wait and is very pleased when you finally transfer it to its new home.

Food is another problem, because what it is asking for you know you won’t find in the human hive (you look, nonetheless) but it is content to wait now that it has someone to look after it, and you'll get Bro or Dave to bring you something suitable for your new charge. He is quite lovely, blue and red and purple with broad fins that trail in the water behind him like wings. He is already looking better in the clean water, and when you dip your fingers in the water he darts between them with agile grace that you haven’t seen since before Sgrub.

He reminds you of what you miss, but you refuse to let the sadness bring you down. You are better than silly emotions like that.

You're awake to hear Terezi run gagging to the bathroom and be noisily ill into the toilet. You start to investigate but stop in the hallway as the door to Dave's room opens and he steps out - looking surprisingly alert. He looks at you for only a second before he heads onto the bathroom himself, and you decide to let him take charge. You don't mind - such an action is probably flushed, and you don't want to interfere if she doesn't need the help. He seems to have it well in hand.

By the time the faint traces of sunlight are sneaking past the heavy window covers, you've given up on sleep for the night entirely. You've instead spent the evening playing with the fish - named Glub, for the moment - and telling it about your oceans. The poor thing has never seen water bigger than the bowl it's swimming in now. You've kept an ear open simply to ensure Terezi is well, and it's not quite a surprise when Dave walks into the kitchen, grabs a soda from the fridge, and slams himself bonelessly into the chair across from you.

"It is so fucking freaky that you even puke in full Technicolor. Just gotta say."

You don't have a response for that so you shrug politely and watch him open the can and drink far heavily than you could have managed, considering the drink is carbonated. Then again, most Earth drinks have been too sweet for you anyway.

"Dude,Peixes, where did you get the fish?" Dave's still wearing his tinted glasses, so you can't see his eyes, but he's clearly surprised that it's still alive and you bristle indignantly.

"In that cupboard! And I can't believe you just left him there to die! It's cruel and he's starving so you need to go bring back food for him from somewhere because nothing here will work and I won't let you starve him to death."

"Dude. Serious? I had no idea it was even there. Are you sure you'rePeixes?You didn't even use a fish pun. You sure you're not some pod person? I won't find the real Feferi trussed up in a closet somewhere?"

You glare at him, but can't quite hide the quirk of a smile around your fangs as you tell him, "The fish puns are just for the hallibut."

Dave flails back into his chair, clutching his chest dramatically. "Ow. Ow that was so bad it hurt. I am pretty sure it's illegal to subject a guy to puns that lethal at six am. Consider the point taken, and that's not all: for a limited time offer I will totally stop calling you gillschick for the remainder of this warped engagement if you spare me the worst of your fishy substitutions."

"I suppose I cod be convinced. If you promise food for Glub here."

"Done and done. Now seriously, where did you get the little gills? I haven't had a betta for years."

You have to swear up and down on your lusus' name before he believes it came from his kitchen, but he decides it's all his lusus' fault - Glub along with Terezi's sickness - and he promises fish food while he warns you not to eat anything his lusus offers you. Considering Bro had been doing much of the food preparation, that might be hard; then Dave amends that to refusing any sweets and that's far easier to manage.

You rather expect him to return to Terezi, or perhaps to his respiteblock after that; it is very early for him and humans needed sleep every night. Unlike trolls who could go several days without sleep if necessary, humans apparently didn't function well on less.

But he doesn't leave. He finishes the soda and crushes the can in his hand, and for lack of anything to say to him you remain silent. He's surprisingly different from the Dead Dave's you had met. More angry, you think. Perhaps they had been accustomed to their fate, whereas this Dave has an uncertain future ahead of him. It's hard to have too much sympathy when he's alive and well on his own planet with the rest of his life in front of him - he's being silly if that's what bothers him - but he's your host and you try not to judge too harshly or loudly. Perhaps he's conflicted about something else. You'd speak to his moirail, if he had one.

"Peixes. Last night. That's not going to happen again."

You look at him, more than a little curious. So often he reminds you of Karkat - he has the anger and the vitriol and the fire the same, moving him forward and making him think and plan in a way you can admire, because it's a trait you know you need to cultivate yourself. As someone who might have been Condesce in another life, you can appreciate a Knight who knows what he is doing. But here and now it's not the Knight who speaks to you. Or if it is, it's a part of the Knight you have never seen. (You wonder if Karkat has this in him.)

This is not a request, not a missive or directive he is following, not a choice for you. He's issuing an ultimatum, in quiet words that don't invite argument and even seated across from you he's somehow projecting the subtle threat that there will be consequences for failure. You're impressed at his impudence.

You wonder if this is what Terezi sees in him: his fire and passion and under it the belief that he could hold his own against you. Perhaps that's why Terezi pities him so: a Knight who doesn't know a Queen could be pitiable indeed. Still, this is his hive - and you are dependent on him.

"I'm sorry, Dave. We didn't realize you had rules for your hive we would be breaking. Eridan will pay for his crimes in front of the others, when we reach Rose's hive. It's what we should have done to start with."

Surprisingly, Dave doesn't look pleased about your admission. Considering apologizing is pretty rare for you it's a little annoying, but he's not to know that himself. He nods and pulls himself up, throwing the can into a container piled high with them.

"Good. Then the conversation is over and I won't be finding you egging Terezi on while we're here. You'll have time to work your justice the fuck out at Lalonde's. Harley says Gramps will have everything ready to go in a day or two. Not that I'm all too clear on how we're flying with a trio of aliens, but I try not to argue with billionaires."

It's clearly all he intends to say as he turns away from you, and you debate a minute before asking "How is Terezi?"

"Pissed off, exhausted, probably fucking dehydrated but we're not to the clear fluids stage yet. Curled on the couch with a tub because the bucket freaked her out. Unless you're even weirder than you look, she'll be fine as flowers by tonight or tomorrow. Really depends on if this was a hangover or food poisoning."

You have never been sick yourself, never had to look after a sick troll so you aren't entirely sure what one should do, though the process should be similar to looking after your fish. It's clear Dave has things well in hand though, and so you decide you don't yet need to interfere.

"That's good. Thank you for telling me."

"Eridan's gonna be all right too. Not that you bothered to ask." He stoops to pick up Terezi's Dragon Cane, carrying it out into the main room before you can tell him that picking up another troll's weapon is pretty taboo. Well, Terezi would teach him once she was well, undoubtedly.

You turn your attention back to your new companion, who will hopefully hold your attention until there is something for you to do. You settle your chin into your hand, resting your weight there and focusing on the reflections on the bowl. That’s a better choice than your annoyance at Eridan, which Dave has reminded you of. "Well Glub, what we do today? Glub glub glub..."

==>Be Bro

What? At six thirty in the fucking morning? Go to hell. I'm going back to sleep. There is nothing about my mind you want to be near at six-fucking-thirty. Come back at something that resembles a decent hour. Like tomorrow.

==>Be Broderick Strider

I will fucking end you. Try it again. I dare you.

==>Be Broderick Strider - Later.

Your name is Bro and anyone who wants to call you something else usually doesn't get a third chance. You'd change it legally but it's always been money you didn't have, and self policing seemed to work pretty well. If even the aliens got the idea, you figure you have it pretty well in hand.

Right now, though, it feels like the only fucking thing you have in hand. You wake up and emerge from your room to find Dave glaring at you. This isn't at all unusual and since Dave usually felt he had reason to glare, you're ready to ignore it unless he backs that shit up with good cold steel or at least a burn of two. That's totally your intention ‘til you see he's on the couch with Terezi curled against him, and she's looking ashy and miserable and any jokes about reaching second base die in your throat when he whips the empty chocolate box at your head and follows it up with a ball of paper - a new shopping list.

You read it. Ginger ale and crackers. Soup. NO FUCKING SWEETS. Fuck. Yeah, okay, you feel bad.

"You sure it was the chocolate?"

"Bro, I was up close and personal with the chocolatey cherry remains all night. If it wasn't the chocolate it was something in it; I don't know what. Fuck. They've been fine with meat."

You definitely feel guilty, not that you intend to show it, so you scan the list and figure if you leave now you can shop and be back before three. You have music you need to mix tonight: this reborn world might have gotten your room right, right down to the cracks in the paint, but anything you'd written in the two weeks before it all went to hell is gone, and you're pretty sure you have a gig tonight.

"Fish food? For bettas? Why? I thought we were sticking with meat?" Not to mention you'd need a pound of the stuff to feed the trolls and you don't think the supermarket carries it in bulk.

"Not for them, dumbass. For the betta you left in the kitchen. Peixes found it and has her smother complex turned to eleven on it now."

Okay, you left a betta in the kitchen? You don't remember that. Then again, you aren't always the most sober when you come home from a gig and you've brought home stranger. And the world somehow got remade with you in it, for all you know it's the one from last year and was given a fishy second chance. At least this time someone wanted to look after the thing.

"Right. Don't get your panties in a twist. Let her have it if she cares, I'll deal with the shopping now. I have a gig tonight. Probably."

"What do you mean probably? It's Saturday. You always have a gig."

It is, admittedly, weird to be worrying about work when you'd been playing the game of your life not that long ago, but aliens didn't feed themselves and you still had bills to pay and the scene liked to forget about you if you didn't keep up and make it remember. "Yeah well when I called to confirm I got some kid on the line, I guess. Said 'sure' when I asked when I was spinning and couldn't tell me when or pass me along to the boss - or anyone with a more functioning brain. So I'll go and see what the hell is up with management."

Your brother makes a face and you shrug. Money is always tight when you don't have a solid gig, and he knows it. One night won’t hurt you though, so you won't worry 'til tonight.

The shopping is actually pretty easy for once. The supermarket is blessedly quiet for a Saturday and you manage to get everything on the list without too much hassle. You debate for a minute before buying most of the requests from the I-am-too-healthy-for-my-own-good hipster organic food aisle. It costs more and hurts your cred to do, but you're worried about making Dave's guests sick(er) and this is probably a good idea. You balance it out with a tub of jerky, a case of cheap beer and a pack of condoms. That feels more appropriately ironic, and as a bonus it now looks like you're cooking for your earth-mother type girlfriend. You can live with that as you flirt with the cashier (just to keep your hand in, neither of you are serious) and head back home.

You leave Dave to the wrangling of his guests since he seems to have it in hand and you know he'll let you know if he needs a hand. (This admittedly might be in an unorthodox manner, such as setting part of the house on fire, but you and your brother have a Method and it Works.) You’re pretty proud of him, actually. The game has changed him – and how could he not have fucking changed in that hellhole? – but he’s come out of it still himself. He’s still your little brother, and if he’s older and wiser (and still looking at you like he’s worried you might disappear any fucking second), you can’t hold that against him. He’s grown, good and bad, and the only thing you know how to do is pretend the bad isn’t there at all and hope he follows you. (You were never dad material, fuck no. You think you didn’t do too bad as a brother though, all things considered. You’re not great at comfort, but you’d win a blackbelt in denial in any fucking school of thought.)

Dave’s got this. And even if you just sort of helped him save this whole fucking world, it’s not like anyone else knows and like it or not the world’s still the same, still turning and holding out its hand with bills to pay and mouths to feed. At least now the monsters you have to fight are ones you can win against. Really, nothing feels that impossible now. (You wonder if Dave feels like this too, caught between seeing how pointless everything is now that you’ve survived the apocalypse and how fucking amazing the world is now that you’re alive and here to enjoy it. Maybe you’ll ask him one day. Maybe.)

You retreat to your room and set your ass to work on something new. Your mind is full of blood and lava and iron and steel while you work and it shows in the final mix, because it's heavy and harder than you usually play at this club - but somehow pretty fucking perfect for a victorious comeback. You'd name it something ironic like Knight, but like hell will you let Dave see you so sentimental. So you title it Caledscratch and suddenly it's time to pack your gear up for the evening.

The club is exactly how you remember it, but the staff have clearly been lighting up before they even started today because everyone's a little high and useless. It won't be the first time it's happened (when the boss is away this place goes to hell, which explains the kid on the phone too) so you set up your gear and ignore everyone but the bartender who has at least remembered what you drink. The club's run like shit but the crowd is good and the pay's better than a lot of other gigs so it's totally worth dealing with some stupid once in a while. (Your buddy Alex keeps bugging you to do weddings, but no way in hell are you going near that disaster.)

When it's time for your set you're chill and ready to go, one beer enough to loosen you up without changing the dexterity you worked your ass off to keep. No one can spin like you and you make sure it stays that way: In the neon and blacklight you can flashstep and no one ever sees you well enough to see what it is, working between two decks like you're a duo - you get paid like a duo would bill for, but you only split it with yourself - and the music is live and moving and you play the crowd like a master puppeteer.

Well. Usually.

Right now the dance floor is packed; young bodies stuffed into tight clothing and shine, some a better fit than others. They pushed onto the floor when you'd gotten going, clearly approving of the beat...

But they're hardly moving.

They're just sort of.... standing around. Swaying or bouncing to the beat like you're DJing a Goth party or some shit like that. Did the scene change that much in a week? Or did you just totally blow it with this set?

You take your break earlier than planned, which is to say you cue the next track and flashstep to the bar. Ruby's tending at the moment, looking overwhelmed and annoyed.

"Aren't you supposed to have help?"

"I think so!" She smiles, then frowns, like she can't decide what to do. "I think Maria and Ed are supposed to be in tonight, but no one's seen em! Koda just started dancing and left me to deal, jackass! I can't blame him though, this is really good!"

You look out at the zombie crowd and back to Ruby. "Good? No one's moving! I screwed this set up fierce."

"Are you kidding? This is great stuff! They're loving it. Just look at them go!"

You stare out at the crowd again, willing to see whatever the fuck Ruby does. You’ve got nothing. One of the too-young-for-this kids who clearly bribed the bouncer is doing a pretty shitty flashdance impersonation. Everyone else is just...there.

You step back to your board and keep going, because money is money and if they're not booing you off they're paying you. It doesn't feel right and it kills your groove because you have always fed off the crowd for your beats and this room has no vibe of its own. It’s a fucking black hole in front of you, sucking the music in and giving nothing back. You have no god dammed clue what it might mean, but there's a nagging suspicion in your mind that there is going to be trouble later on.

For now, you keep spinning the turntables.

Chapter Text

==> Be Karkat Vantas

Earth is exactly as wretched as you thought it would be.

It's been four days and you hate it more than you could have ever imagined. From the tightly packed hives that all look the same to the neighbours that keep you trapped inside Egbert's unless you don a ridiculous disguise, you hate it. Everything is loud and bright and they use colour like Terezi and Gamzee at their worst. Everything is sickeningly blinding from their walls to their clothing to their art to their television and movies and fucking food. You hate it.

You have discovered you fucking love human baking. Totally beside the point.

Earth is soft. Alternia was sharp. Earth has rolling grass and the beasts are pets or kept in cages or fear coming too close to the stench of humanity, no sharp cliffs and shattered landscapes and hungry predators to stalk you. Earth is bright where you expect the dark and it sleeps when you think they should be awake. The sun might not scorch your skin but it burns your eyes all the same. Here the adults mix and mingle with the grubs in a way that makes your blood run cold. You will not call Earth weak: after four days of human television and newscasts and wars and riots and politics and murder and weak is not the word you would use.

Stupid, on the other hand? That fucking fits them perfectly.

Egbert's movies only drive the point home. Humans will fight when they ought to back down - and it looks like they never backed down. Of course, trolls weren't exactly a race that liked to bow down to anyone, but shit - sometimes the other troll was stronger. That's how life worked! Sometimes you backed down, when you could, and you'd live to make them pay later - or at least you lived.

(You had thought, once, that if the Armada had reached Earth and its humans the whole planet would have shit itself in its rush to surrender. Now you know they'd destroy themselves and their planet before they could even hear the terms. You're really not sure which is worse.)

You hate how stupid humans are, how things that seem so obvious to you just result in confused looks or nervous laughter, their pathetic thinkpans incapable of comprehending something so fucking simple. Their ablution trap was a perfect example: humans had digital control for most of their daily lives and yet they controlled their water temperature by guessing. How fucking stupid could they be? And it wasn't remotely exact or universal, so you had to learn not only the controls in the ablution block but also the meal preparation block and when you had pointed this out to Egbert he just shrugged and laughed. It is infuriating.

You hate human languages. What the fuck is this world doing with that many languages? Alternia had its dialects, sure, but it was still one fucking language! Humans apparently had lost count somewhere after a thousand! And that's a sneaking worry in itself: when your session had been interrupted and you'd been thrown into the Veil you'd realized early on that the humans were speaking their own language to you - one that you all understood. You'd not actually worried about your sudden acquisition of a new tongue because you were supposed to be gods on Earth and what kind of gods couldn't speak to their followers? You’d really had too much else to worry about in the Veil to fucking stress over suddenly speaking some primitive, limited language, and besides it was useful.

Now the suspicion clings to your thinkpan, because you speak English but none of the other gibbering human tongues and that's what the four kids speak, and that can't be a fucking coincidence. English isn't even the main fucking language on the planet! You refuse to admit you're worried that something wanted you to talk to them. Every time you start to think of another power controlling all of this this somehow your stomach churns and you just want to run away screaming.

You fucking hate being the only troll with the mental capacity to think about this. Everyone else is too busy: either worshipping at their respective human's feet, attempting sloppy makeouts, or 'exploring'; too busy being grateful they're alive/whole/healed to really process how fucked you all are.

Sometimes you can calm down enough to be glad you're not on Alternia. You had thought on it (extensively) and if the game had dropped the humans in your planet it would have been a death sentence for them, and probably whoever was hosting them. That doesn’t mean this is much better and you aren't looking forward to a life on Earth where you'll be even more in hiding than you were on Alternia.

It wasn't even about having to hide, not really. You've lived in hiding for your whole fucking life, friends carefully kept behind a computer screen and interactions with trolls outside of your hive kept to the absolute minimum. You could easily manage it again - on Alternia it was all you had to look forward to. If you had somehow survived the game simply to return home, you would have still been forced to hide. Hide until you were too old to... and then you didn't really have a fucking clue what you were going to do. Hope that the red of your eyes were dark enough to be considered a rust blood's, hopefully. If not...

The point was that you had been duped. You'd been fed a fucking lie and like the most pathetic, stupidest grub in existence you'd believed it. You... You had actually been suckered in by the promise of a new world. You had gotten your hopes up that after the session, when the battles had been won and you'd created a new world... you'd let yourself hope it would be better. That you would have made a place you'd never have to hide in again.

Past you was a fucking idiot. As usual.

You hate Earth, but Egbert has been trying his best. It's still surprisingly easy to be infuriated by him, but at the same time the dopey kid is just so damn happy to see you and the others he's falling over himself to be a good host. It makes you feel guilty when you get caught in a good rant about how enraged you are because Egbert will just end up looking like you think this is all his fault somehow and fuck no, that isn't it at all.

You really wish he wasn't so damn pitiable. It is not helping you keep the clear head you need right now as a leader and Serket is watching you like a hawkbeast, just in case you try anything towards her flush crush. You'd have told her exactly where to stick that opinion - but John's clearly interested in her and likewise clearly not interested in you (which is what he says and not how he acts and humans are fucking complicated and you hate that) so you're not trying much of anything quadrant related. You just don't have the energy to deal with this shit.

You don't even have time for it either. If everyone else is too fucking occupied with their goddamm sloppy makeouts, you will continue to be the fucking leader and you will not fuck up this time and you will make sure you're not all on the road to a swift culling. (You were delusional to think you'd ever get any quadrants at all.)

Harley has actually been the greatest help. Her and her lusus both have been working hard to get you all together again. You were pissed off at John for not doing more himself at first but when he makes it (guiltily) clear that he doesn't know what to do and Grandpa apparently has a working plan, you leave it at that. It's eating at you to remain passive but at least you're not trapped in the veil, and no one here is dead or currently trying to kill each other. On the list of shitty options, you’ll take this one over those any day.

(It’s really fucking pathetic that these days you take that as the fucking highpoint. Oh look, still not dead! Still not being murdered! It’s a fucking great day! )

"Good morning Karkat!"

Megido is grinning at you from her pile. You have no fucking clue how she wakes up so God dammed cheerful but she's greeted you the same every fucking morning, even when it's pretty clear you feel neither good nor are even remotely happy with the morning. You might like this version (apparently the 'real' version) of Megido best, but that doesn't mean you enjoy her sugary sweet wake-up calls.  At least you're not alone in that: Serket curses her out soundly and buries herself deep into her pile until nothing but hair is visible, threatening (almost inaudibly) to vivisect the next person who wakes her up.

Humans keep stupid fucking hours and you can already hear Egbert and his father downstairs, but you don't dare face them right after waking up. You and Serket both are already waking angry and aggressive and accidentally tearing one of your hosts' arms off would be a shitty thing to do, so you've agreed to take your time in the mornings to try to keep the accidents down. It was actually a surprise that Serket agreed - hell, she’d made the suggestion - but you suppose she's just as freaked out by the dreams as you are. Megido did technically agree along with you, but she really hasn't had much of the side effects of sleeping without slime yet, lucky grub.

The point was none of you wanted to hurt Egbert or his lusus. Stupidly, it took you actually attacking Egbert before he believed you that pouncing into the room he'd set the three of you in was a stupid fucking idea worthy of a painful culling then and there - which might have been what happened if Megido hadn't interfered. That had been embarrassing as all hell, but at least it got the point across, even if it meant trying to kill Megido while she sat on your chest. (You're beginning to suspect that she's regaining some of that time shit with how fast she is, which would be a real fucking bonus here. You need every advantage you can get on this shitty planet.)

You haul yourself out of your shitty pile because you aren't interested in more nightmares and honestly this is still more sleep than what you got in the fucking Veil. It's not comfortable here: the whole house is too fucking bright, the pathetic window covers Egbert has kept closed for you hardly enough against the burning sun and your eyes hurt as they struggle to adjust. Of course humans have to be fucking diurnal. Their eyesight is too piss-poor to manage anything at night. (Another weakness: they would have been blind on Alternia.)

You glance at the borrowed husktop but don't bother turning it on. No one else will be onine. You fucking hate timezones. The entire idea of being so spread out on a planet that you require multiple times of day - humans are insane. To be so extended and so many on one planet? You had wondered how they sustained themselves but television was surprisingly informative there. It was very clear they didn't; they might not have had the hemospectrum but they had their castes all the same. Theirs were just much more complicated, and had an added bonus that humans seemed to want to hide it. That was somehow worse than Alternia, where no one sane pretended the hemospectrum didn't exist. They might hate it or support it or not care either way, but no one denied it.

You drag yourself growling into the ablution trap and only manage to stop clenching your jaw under the spray of water (tepid, the best you can manage with their stupid inefficient taps) and application of cleaning agent. You think about things that aren't your nightmares even if it's hard because the game has turned so much into a nightmare in some way. You stand under the water and you close your eyes and shudder and tell yourself over and over again that it isn't blood, and stay there until the water is cold.

When you finally make your way downstairs to the meal preparation block you are fit for engaging humans for another day. You don't even curse out Megido for beating you downstairs and being so fucking cheerful about it. (It will be at least an hour, and probably far longer, before Serket makes her way downstairs.) Instead you join Megido and Egbert at the table, survive their over-enthusiastic greetings, and enjoy the first meal of the morning. John informs you of the new ban on candy, which is ridiculous because you’ve eaten gushers without problem in the Veil, but hearing how badly sick Terezi had become (and this was Pyrope, who ate everything) you figure it’s probably a better idea to be safe than purging.

A plate stacked high is set in front of you and you can’t help but give John’s lusus a grunt and something like a smile in thanks. You might hate a lot of things about Earth, but pancakes are fucking delicious.

 

==> Be Aradia Megido

There is something very wrong with this world.

You really wish you knew what it was.

Still, it's hard to complain about. You're alive! Your friends are alive! And somehow you know that Jack is gone and that there are no threats here. You don't know how you know this, exactly, and attempting to contact your future selves is even more confusing and all but impossible, but for all that Karkat is worrying about humanity being dangerous you feel certain it won't be an issue. Still, it's Karkat's nature to worry and you don't think you could ever convince him to stop. It's nice how much he wants to look after everyone. He still feels bad about how everyone went crazy but you tried to explain to him that it all worked out now, and that was the important thing.

Of course, it’s been a very big surprise to you that this is how it worked out at all - your future selves certainly hadn't even suggested it! Being alive was the important thing. And safe. Alive and safe. They were the most important things.

You're not together with the others yet, but you know you will be. Jade promises and her lusus is working hard for it - you'd even had your photo taken for some sort of identification documentation that was being made for you. It's really quite exciting, even if you miss everyone.

John is a very good host. Of course you're sure all the humans are good hosts but John is a very good host indeed. He's as excited to have you and Karkat and Vriska in his hive as you are to be there, and despite how hectic things are it's been fun too. His lusus has been very helpful, excited to be making food for John's friends and he's made lots and lots (and lots and lots) of food, all different sorts, to see what you like best.

So far, Karkat really likes all the baked things like cakes and pies. Vriska and you liked the meatbread and steak best, with the green vegetables that you can shred in your teeth all stringy and crunchy and delicious. You all agree that the meat would be better if it wasn't cooked so much, but Earth meat isn’t good for eating raw or nearly raw, so this is a pretty good compromise.

John's lusus is Mr Egbert when you remember his name properly, and he is very kind to spend so much time making sure you are happy here. His job is important but he's taken time off to make sure you're all taken care of, which is very sweet. Karkat grumbles about him but you think it's just because he isn't used to seeing adults around and they scare him a little bit - not that Karkat would ever admit to being scared! You think Mr Egbert knows this too, because he watches you all very closely when he thinks you're not watching him, and he's extra careful to give Karkat room and even ask him for what he thinks about things. Mr Egbert must have been a very good friendleader once himself.

It's very strange to be awake during the day. It's normal for the humans of course, which is why you're awake sometime after the sun rises and sleep (when you can) after it sets. It's fun to be out in the brightness without being burnt, even if it does hurt your eyes and makes them water, and you wish you could explore around John's hive more but he's afraid of what will happen if his neighbours see you - and for all that you feel confident about this planet it's not something you can put into words and you think it's better to be safe than risk everyone just for some fun. (Besides, Karkat nearly had an aneurism when you'd ventured into the backyard. You don't want him to make himself sick with worry.)

It's been a very nice morning, even if you didn't sleep as well as you would have liked. It's probably the lack of sopor slime and that's really worrying but you don't want to stress about it too much because there isn't anything you can do to fix it. You try to contact future you but all you get is a cold sort of 'go away' and you still aren't sure if that's you or some aspect of this world. The world really doesn't like it when you try anything about time - the first time you'd tried it felt like dying all over again, and it hurt longer. You know Karkat wants you to have your powers because he wants all the advantages he can get, but you're not too sure how much you're going to have here. You won't tell him till you know for sure either way.

You really miss flying, though.

You meet John and his lusus in what you call the meal preparation block and they call a kitchen. Humans are really fancy about things, though they don't think it's fancy at all. John and Mr Egbert are happy to see you and all you have to do is sit at the table and breakfast appears in front of you, faster than even your own lusus would have managed. It's a bit tricky to use the fork and knife; troll cuisine was mostly made to eat with your hands, but you're getting better at this! You even didn't break your plate yesterday!

Your plate is mostly greasy meat called bacon that comes from an animal called a pig. They don't call it pigmeat either, they call it pork or bacon and you're just supposed to know that it's meat. It seems awfully complicated, but you don't mind terribly because it tastes much much better than it looks. You had every intention of asking John and his lusus about how the plans for today were going, but you end up occupied with the bacon first and you're halfway through your plate when Karkat arrives.

You watch Karkat very closely because he and Vriska have been waking up very angry and you don't want him being mad at the humans first thing, but you don’t need to worry. Mr Egbert puts a plate in front of Karkat - piled high with pancakes with some bacon on the side - and the troll is suddenly happier. Not that Karkat is smiling of course - but you're getting better at reading his moods.

When Karkat's mouth is too full to properly yell, you ask your human host "John, what are we going to do today?"

Karkat growls anyway, something that is probably supposed to be 'I'm the leader here' but John just giggles. "Well I think I want to do some packing for our trip, and maybe see if we need to get you three anything? And oh, dad has to go to work to get more time off, so lunch is up to us. I was thinking we should have a movie day! I know we've watched some things but those were mostly to show you more about humans. They're not the most fun movies. I want to show you some fun things!"

Karkat is choking on his pancakes. You thump him on the back until he can breathe again and try not to laugh too obviously, because he hates being laughed at more than anything.

"You want to show us mindless drivel made to entertain the fucking lowest denominator of the human race. For fun. Do you enjoy seeing me in pain, Egbert? Is that what this is? And extended make Karkat the most miserable troll in existence plan?"

John grins, his blunt teeth not at all worrying. "Of course not silly! You liked Con Air, right? I want to show you Armageddon. And probably ET or Independence Day and Harry Potter and Jurassic Park and, well, there are a lot of movies we could watch! We can have everyone pick one out of my collection if you'd like? And we can turn the living room into a fort and make popcorn and just hang out?"

That last line is said almost like a question, as if John is expecting Karkat to say no. Under his big smile he's sad and tired looking, you think, and you think you're right because Karkat doesn't yell more the way you expect him to. He sighs instead, and his voice is barely above a mutter. "Fuck, fine. We'll watch your shitty movies, but I reserve the right to veto anything so shitty that it puts my thinkpan in danger of liquidating."

You grin and match John's smile, because you both know that Karkat has been perfectly all right with everything else he's been shown. He's probably just upset he can't show John any of his favourite movies.

That's actually a really sad thing for everyone. You might have arrived with a sylladex, but it certainly wasn't a very useful one. It didn't have the things you'd captchalogged in Sgrub and the Veil, and it didn't have the things you would have maybe wanted if you'd had to start out in a new world. It was just... a random collection of things. They weren't important. That was one of the parts of being here that made you feel odd. You should have had what was important. That would have been right.

When Mr Egbert leaves you get another feeling of not-rightness. It's hard to describe and you're worried you might be assuming too much about these feelings when you haven't got a guide to help you with them, but you tell John's lusus to be careful anyway and the way he looks at you, all thoughtful and quiet, says that he's taking your advice seriously. It makes you feel better.

Vriska joins you well over an hour later, still looking grumpy ‘til she sees John. You and Karkat are helping him build a pillow fort, which is badly named because it's not at all strong enough to withstand an attack, but it's mostly just for sitting in while you watch movies so that's okay. You're piling blankets when Vriska throws her arms around John gleefully, looking much happier while John flails for a moment and then hugs her back. Karkat looks angry and sick and sad all at once and you feel bad for him, a little. You really expected him and Vriska to fight more (you expected Vriska to fight with you too for that matter) but Karkat is actually trying to be better and isn't messing with her flush and Vriska is sort of trying to be nicer, you think. It's admittedly hard to tell sometimes.

You'd tried to ask Karkat about John, but he'd just growled about humans not having quadrants and being 'fucking stupid with their hangups' and that was the last he was willing to talk about the matter. You'd mentioned it to Kanaya, because she was good at talking to others, and you were sure she'd be good help for Karkat. You still needed him as leader. There was a lot you no longer knew, a lot you were no longer certain of, but this was something you knew to be true. And an upset Karkat would make mistakes. (Well, more upset than usual.)

You're only sort of interested in the movies until you see there's a human Indiana Jones, which is totally exciting. Vriska finds a movie about pirates which makes her pleased, and Karkat eventually settles on watching a human Will Smith movie called Men in Black. John says it's about aliens and really funny, so you're pretty sure it will be a good day.

For the most part, you were totally right. About everything. And except for the bit where Karkat almost killed John's neighbour and Vriska got upset and tried to control John and Karkat threatened to cull her right in John's hive and Mr Egbert coming home to the fight, everything was pretty ok.

No one died, so that’s a good day, right?

 

==>Be John Egbert

Today is going to be a great day, you can feel it in your very bones. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, Dad is making breakfast in the kitchen and that includes delicious bacon and toast and peanut butter (and after eating nothing but gushers for a few days, the sight of sweets makes you gag). Dad's making the food you missed the most, the perfect father figure, and he's been working twice as hard to make sure there's food for your trolls to eat too. You always knew you had a great dad, even if he drove you crazy with all the clowns everywhere and his occasional cryptic messages about being strong (and his forever growing pranksters gambit), but right now, seeing him alive and making a plate of bacon almost as tall as you, you can understand just how cool he is and how lucky you are.

Three troll kids in his house? Well, let him get the good china out. (You put it back almost instantly, but it was a nice thought and the trolls didn't know better and you had extra plates anyway.) Not sure what they can eat? Well he'll show them the Egbert family specials! They're angry and swear a lot and fight a lot and swear even more? Your dad just gains momentary deafness. Karkat drops the f-bomb three times in one sentence and Dad doesn't even blink, just offers the troll a towel and shuts off the tap from under the sink. Of course, if you say damn too loudly he gives you a look.

A week ago you would have yelled and stomped pouted about how unfair it was. Now you know it's Dad's way of trying to accept your friends, and so instead you apologize and try not to let Karkat's better phrases slip into your speech when Dad’s around. You understand your dad better now, you think. It's a good feeling, like the sort of thing that happens after a montage where the two opposing protagonists learn to work together for the greater good or martial arts tournament or to defeat the antagonist at his own game.

Your dad is a hero too, even if he didn't get to have his own powers and died in the second act. Now that he's been resurrected you have decided you both need to spend some time together. Even if it’s just making dinner together, it means a lot to be able to stand next to him and watch him work. You never properly appreciated him before: now, you know better. Of course it's hard to do more right now while you're settling the trolls in, but you know that you are going to have plenty of time with Dad soon enough.

The idea that he might get hurt again is impossible to think about. Right now, your dad is invincible.

Dad's been so good about Vriska and Karkat and Aradia, staying home from work to help you with them. When Grandpa Harley settles the travel details for you (a whole private plane! On a private airport! It's very James Bond!) Dad doesn't even hesitate. Of course he's coming along! He's got plenty of vacation days, after all. (You never speak about his normal job, his normal room. It doesn't mean you both don't know you know; it's just that it doesn't need to be talked about. That's part of being a Man.)

Dad announces that he's going to run errands and stop by his work today, shopping for food and things and talking to his boss because he can't get a hold of him over the phone. Aradia warns him to be careful but you're sure that's just her being nice. You give Dad a completely unmanly hug anyway and don't care a bit that you might be uncool for doing it.

You let Dad leave and focus on the important task of assembling a movie watching base. You've progressed to a pretty good looking fort in front of the living room television, Karkat and Aradia being really good at the whole building things idea (even if they complained about the materials) and getting into it with some prodding. Well, Aradia was having fun to start with, but Karkat has even joined in, complaining about placement and insisting he gets to direct where the pillows go.

You’ve got a collection of probably-okay-for-trolls snacks, popcorn and chips and apples and jerky: no chocolate or candy after Dave’s very colourful warning this morning. You figure they’re all okay because your friends have eaten everything so far and haven’t been sick. Hopefully Terezi’s was just because the chocolates were old or something though, because it’d really suck if they couldn’t eat your favourite candies here.

You're debating the finer points of the blanket wall versus the couch cushion wall when Vrisksa wraps you in a hug from behind that might have toppled you if you weren't so strong. She giggles into your ear, voice high and happy. "John! What aaaaaaaare you doing?"

The fact that she can somehow pronounce eight 'a's is really cool. "Were going to have a movie day! We're building a fort to watch them in first. Do you want to help? Or you can pick out a movie, everyone gets to pick one." You remember that this is the first you've seen her this morning and hurriedly add "Or breakfast too! There's breakfast in the kitchen; we saved you lots."

You're not sure why Vriska looks at Karkat first, maybe for unspoken troll agreements that breakfast was good, but she grabs your arm and drags you back towards the kitchen an instant later. "Come on John! You have to explain all the food I'm going to eat! I don't want to be guessing! These two can finish the tiny hive building."

Well, you'd be a terrible hostfriend if you didn't help her, right?

Vriska eats heartily, happy at the bacon and laughing at the tall glass of milk you offer her. She's into her second helping and you're glad Dad is okay with feeding the trolls because they eat even more than you do, when she thuds her chin into her hand and leans on the table. "John, why do we have to watch movies today? It's soooooooo boring!" She sticks out her tongue at you and her eye with the seven pupils looks like it's spinning a little. "That's allllllll we do!"

You sputter a little. "It's totally not all we do Vriska, last night we played video games! You beat Karkat in Rockband and everything. And besides, we have to stay in the house so it's good to stay busy."

She shreds a piece of bacon with her teeth and rolls her eyes. "Seriously Egderp, I'm not worried about your pathetic human neighbours. You can't think they can hurt us!"

You're actually surprised, because you thought you had explained things really clearly. And Rose had helped and she was maybe more complicated about it but bluh. Okay.

"It's not that I don't think you can protect yourself, Vriska. But you're aliens and you kind of really look like aliens and if people see you they might panic or call the police or the government. Really. And that would be bad because it'd be hard to fight the government and people would get hurt. I mean, I know you have to go outside eventually but everyone agreed it's best to hide for now? Until we get together and we have a better plan."

"Then we won't let anyone see us, stupid." She brings her other hand up to her chin until she's holding her head up that way, elbows on the table and hair falling around her face. She's pretty, like this. "If anyone sees us we'll cull them. Then it's not a problem!"

You laugh because you think she's joking. It's not even a funny joke but you laugh because it has to be. You giggle, and then you stop because she's looking right at you with the smallest smile on her lips and she's serious. Oh.

"Uh, Vriska, you can't kill people here. I know it was, um, sort of okay on Alternia but here that's against the law and would get us in a whole lot of trouble and kind of completely ruin the idea of hiding. Um. Entirely. It's not nice to kill people either. You really shouldn't do that." You chew on your lip, a bad habit you know, and tentatively add "Didn't you say you didn't want to be killing people anymore? I mean, in the Veil. You told me you felt bad about it..."

She gives you a look that's amused and confused at the same time, her fangs looking very sharp against her lips. "Well yes, but that was - that was different. Why should we let other humans keep us from doing what we want? It's stupid to hide."

"Um, no it isn't? It's really smart to hide right now. Because of the police and government and things..."

"Well then we'll kill them when they come. That will be fair and right, right? It's not like they're innocent. They'd be like Threshecutioners and Legislacerators. It's their job to fight."

She's scary like this. "Really Vriska, I don't think-"

"I haaaaaaaate hiding John! I'm going to crazy if we have to spend any more time inside doing nothing!"

She sounds deadly serious, and when she stabs a piece of pancake with her finger she breaks the plate in two and doesn't even notice. You panic a little because you don't want anyone going crazy and you want Vriska to be happy and you want to be a good host.

"Okay okay! Tonight! Late, when the neighbours are all asleep, we'll go to the park or something. But you'll have to wear a disguise." You'll think of something to explain it away. Maybe you could pretend you were filming a movie? "It's just two more days. Jade's Grandpa says he's got a plane for us to visit Rose in. Rose has lots of space and her neighbours are far and she says we can explore around and be safe there for sure. Okay?" You attempt a face you hope is puppy-like and adorable. "Please?"

It doesn't quite work as well as you hoped because Vriska smacks you on the back of the head. She doesn't mean it to hurt so much you know, but your head snaps forward and your glasses fly onto the table nonetheless.

"All right, fine. But only because you asked soooooooo pitifully. And you have to take us out tonight. That's a promise you made. You have to keep it or you'll be a terrible liar."

You rub the back of your head and replace your glasses, blinking to get your eyes to focus. Trolls are stronger than the average human, that's for sure. "Of course. It's a promise. We'll have some fun tonight! Uh, I mean more fun! Today is going to be fun anyway. Really!"

You do hope Vriska is okay with the movies today. Things got kind of heated last night with the video games and you wanted to try to avoid any fights. Well, any more fights. The trolls have been great and haven’t broken much besides some plates and cups and one lamp and one of the photos on the stairway and the remote, but those were all accidents! You just don’t want any more...

++++++++++++

Harry Potter does not go over well at all – there’s too much about being a human implied in the movie and not enough explained for the trolls to understand and after it takes your an hour to watch the first thirty minutes, pausing to explain why something was bad or good or how you didn’t know how the magic worked it was just magic and Karkat not being happy about the wands at all you give up.

Pirates of the Caribbean is a bit better because Vriska’s totally behind the pirate idea and doesn’t really care what’s going on as long as there’s plundering to watch. She’s sitting next to you, right up against your side and it’s kind of nice and totally not something you’re used to but it seems to make her happy. Karkat and Aradia are curled up against the wall cushions and leaving you and Vriska the couch which is totally unnecessary but Karkat gets angry when you suggest he join you and Aradia insists she likes the floor anyway. You don’t bother insisting because it’s important they feel comfortable and besides, Vriska insists that this is better.

You’ve gotten to the part where Johnny Depp is being amazing and asking why the rum is gone while Keira Knightley burns it all to summon a rescue (you have to explain what rum is. Trolls don’t have alcohol at all, which seems really strange to you) when your front door opens.

You panic almost instantly when you realize it isn't Dad. You jump from the couch but you're tangled with Vriska and end up falling flat on your face. Your neighbour just chuckles, slipping her shoes off at the door. "Excited to see me John? Or do you just miss my casserole that much?"

"Ms Dearheart!" It's Sunday. She drops by every Sunday, like clockwork. She brings vegetables from her garden and sometimes dinner for you and Dad in exchange for Dad's baking. She helped raise you when grandma passed away, babysitting for you ‘til only last year when Dad said you were old enough to look after yourself. She had keys to the house but she never needed them because the door was unlocked and she'd long ago been told to just walk in. how could you have forgotten? this is bad.

"Don't be so surprised Johnny! You look like you've seen a ghost!" She walks into the living room, looking the trolls over with a calculating eye. "If I'd known you were having friends over I'd have brought more lasagna!" She hands you a Tupperware container as you get to your feet and smiles. "Friends from school? Enjoying the break I bet! All ready to go back tomorrow?”

Your mind races, prankster's gambit stretched to the max as you nod enthusiastically. "Oh yeah these are friends from school. Actually they're exchange students! We're getting ready for a costume party next week. It’s totally going to be the best party! Do you like our costumes so far?"

Ms Dearheart looks over the four of you for a moment and then leans down to you, lowering her voice. "John dear, I know you love your little jokes but I don't think it's nice to make fun of your guests. If you need some help with costume bits you know I still have the tickle trunk in the attic. You're welcome to borrow anything you need." She pats your head and gives you a look that's almost disappointed. "I know you won't let a bunch of your friends go to a costume party without a proper costume, right Johnny?"

You do not understand what is going on. At all. But she isn't screaming about aliens or monsters and that's the important thing, right?

She straightens up and looks at Aradia. "Why, you're a beautiful young lady! John, you should introduce me to your friends before they think I'm some crazy old bird."

You look at your friends. Oh God, Karkat has his sickles out and Vriska is rolling dice in her hands. You suddenly wish you spoke troll because this would be a really great time to learn how to say 'please don't kill my neighbour she's harmless I promise!'

You make your way to Karkat and pull on his arm, hoping he understands. You giggle nervously as you introduce him to the grey-haired woman."This is Karkat Ms Dearheart. And that's Aradia and this is Vriska. Guys, this is Ms Dearheart. She lives next door to us and used to babysit me. Um, I guess that makes her like a sort of occasional lusus for me."

Karkat is growling under his breath, all the muscles in his arm tense and twitching, but he doesn't move and a minute later his sickles disappear and you breathe a sigh of relief.

"It's so nice to meet you!" your neighbour trills, and then nods past you to the kitchen. "It’s good to see Johnny with friends not on that silly computer of his.” She reaches over and pinches your cheek in approval, and you know you’re blushing in embarrassment but she is as old as Nana... “Well! I'm afraid I shouldn't stay much longer, I'm just dropping by to pick up some things Mr Egbert made for me. You should try my lasagna, dears. It's one of Johnny's favourites. Of course you’ll have to convince him to share it with you!"

She heads into the kitchen and you all sag visibly for a moment; then Karkat straightens and inhales and you can see the black cloud of cursing gather across his face. "WHAT THE FU-"

You stop him with a hand over his mouth and shaking your head violently. The kitchen door is only a half partition and no way will the sound not carry. "Shhhhh! She can still hear us!" you hiss, and it at least puts the rant on pause.

"What was that?" Vriska asks into the silence, and you can't tell if she means what happened or your neighbour in general or both.

Ms Dearheart saves you from having to answer, appearing back out of the kitchen with one of the baskets she'd left last week tucked under her arm and holding two trays of tarts and a fresh cake. She hosts parties for other ladies in her church, you remember. They love Dad's crazy sweet Betty Crockery cooking.

"Well I'm off. Thank your father for me and tell him I'll have some ripe tomatoes for him probably tomorrow. And don't forget the tickle trunk John!" She gives Vriska a look and grins. "I have the perfect dress if you'd like to be a vampire dear. All you'd need is to buy some makeup."

She has her loafers on and is out the door before any of you can manage a reply.

You realize your hand is still over Karkat's mouth. You pull it back and laugh more out of nervousness than finding that funny. It wasn't funny. Okay, it kind of was but it was mostly scary and worrying.

"What the FUCK was THAT?" Well. At least Karkat's recovered already.

You flop bonelessly back onto the couch. The trolls are all standing around looking tense, but you are shaky from the adrenaline and just want to relax for a minute. "I honestly don't know! Really! I mean, she's getting old for sure but she isn't blind? Maybe she was really distracted and not paying any attention?"

"Egbert, EVERYTHING you have shown and told us about humans makes that FUCKING HARD TO BELIEVE."

"She didn't see us." Aradia's voice is quiet, especially compared to Karkat's, and worried sounding. She shivers and the trolls tense up, though you don't know what it means. "She looked at us, but didn't see us. I could... almost sense it. There was something wrong..."

"I told her you were in costume and she scolded me for tricking you. She didn't think you were dressed up at all." You chew on your lip and try to think how that could be possible. "Maybe she just saw normal people? I mean, just humans? Maybe when the game reset it tried to protect you that way?" It's a silly guess, but you don't know what else it might be.

"That's pretty fucking messed up, Egbert, but it's an idea and I can't think of a better one. Fuck.” Karkat drags one hand through his already messy hair, and it just sticks out at all angles when he’s done. “We need to talk to the others and see what they think. Maybe they've noticed already and just haven't tasked their shitty thinkpans to consider the rest of us and share such a motherfucking miracle." Karkat ends up settling his arms cross over his chest and he's totally being Leader!Karkat but you don't mind, because it's a good idea.

"Yeah. We can pause the movies for now and-"

"Go outside!" Vriska interrupts, smiling like a cat. "We should test this out! Make sure it's not just John's silly neighbour. Then we can tell the others! Come on John! You promised!"

You hesitate. You don't want to go out in the middle of the day - there are too many people around and it would be dangerous if you were wrong. You should make sure first! See what Dave and Rose think for sure, go out and still act like people can see you just in case. Rushing out without a plan is how the heroes always got hurt and somebody died or made a big mess it took the rest of the movie to fix.

"I... we...we should wait...."

Vriska wants you to go out and you promised her. You did make a promise and you don't want to be a bad friend and break it. That would be terrible. Being a good friend is one of the most important things. It will be safe outside. You know everything will be fine. Your mind ignores all the rest of the worries because they’re not important. You should go outside. Your legs clearly agree with you because you're already walking to the front door when all hell breaks loose.

 

==>Be Vriska Serket.

Pain explodes across your face as Karkat punches you, hard enough to send you sprawling. Even with your restored vision eightfold you hadn't seen that coming (you’d been focused on John, controlling humans was harder than trolls) and it's the only damn way he could have gotten the drop on you, the little wriggler. Your hands are on your dice but it's too late because he has them out of your hand and his sickle at your throat and you can feel the edge biting into your skin. You meet Karkat's eyes and you feel suddenly maybe a little bit frightened, because you have never seen him look like this. Not at you. No. He wasn't ever capable of being truly strong, you'd thought.

He's surprising you now.

Aradia is standing beside you, hands raised uncertainly towards you both like she's not sure if she's supposed to hold you down or pull Karkat off. Oh hell.

"Um guys?" You can't see John but you can hear him, voice shaken as his mind clears. Dammit. You had just wanted to go outside! There was nothing wrong with that. You could have taken care of yourself AND John. Everyone is being pathetic bleatbeasts, afraid of their own shadows.

"Try that again Serket, and I'll have you tied and gagged and locked in a room, I swear it." The sickle digs in a little deeper and Aradia gasps and glares down at you, arms crossed over her chest. John enters your field of view, clutching his head and stammering when he sees your blood. Karkat won't let John pull him off, but the pressure at your throat lets up and you can breathe a little easier, even if your bloodgusher is pounding in your chest.

Vantas looks up at John and you feel strangely guilty when he explains. "Serket can control minds and I bet she didn't tell you. That was her deciding you were going to go outside and risk the rest of our necks whether you wanted to or not."

"I never-" You wished you had your dice, but Vantas has them somewhere you can't call them back from. Probably captchalogged, the bastard. He knew he couldn't beat you in a fair fight. The pressure at your neck increases again, and you have to be still or risk slicing your own throat open. Dammit.

"Vriska?" Why does John sound so upset? It's no big deal, you hadn't done anything or hurt anyone. Why was it a problem? Honestly, they were acting like a bunch of wrigglers. It's probably the blood. You hope it is, anyway.

"I was just speeding things up! You were going to agree with me anyway!" This is too far out of your control and you don't know how to get it back. Usually you'd find a way to shift the blame but that's not going to work here. Bluh. You’ll just have to convince John this was for the best – because it was.

John goes quiet for a few seconds and it's a whole different sort of worrying because you haven't seen his eyes go dark like that before. When he shakes his head his voice is quiet and not at all his derpy self. "No. No, I don't think I would have, Vriska. I'm a friendleader. I have to think about everyone."

John's hand settles on Karkat's shoulder and you bite back a hiss of possessive jealousy. John is yours and you won't let Vantas try to worm his pitiful existence into your romance. You almost crow in victory when John tells Vantas to let you up, Karkat's face a mask of fury but the stupid grub is truly pathetic because he listens and the sickle disappears. You refuse to show that he worried you at all and hoist yourself up with as much grace as you can manage, giving John your biiiiiiiigest smile.

He doesn't return it, and the expression freezes on your face.

"Aradia, do you remember where the bandages were we used yesterday? Can you help Vriska clean her neck? I'm going to talk to the others. We should test this. Maybe it will help us get everyone together faster too." John isn't checking to see if you're all right. John is going to go talk on his pesterchum instead of worrying about you. You hate being ignored.

You decide to be direct because you also hate dancing around something, it's stupid and lazy and something for people who are weak and afraid and you are neither. "Come on John," You grab his arm and lean up against his shoulder, not caring how you stain his shirt a deeper blue. "You're not angry, are you?"

John gives you a smile, but it's one of his fake ones, one you can recognize immediately. You hate it as much as you hate how he shakes you off his arm.

"Yes. I think I am Vriska. That really wasn't nice; it was mean. And selfish. So yeah, I'm upset. But I'll forgive you, okay? Just don't do it again. Now go clean up your neck and I'll go talk to Dave and Rose! It won't take long. Then we can figure out what we're going to do tonight!"

He leaves and you end up staring at the back if his head 'till he turns into his room and you can't understand what you did wrong but clearly it was something. Stupid humans. Why did they have to be so complicated?

Karkat is by your side the minute John is gone, growling at you. "Dammit Serket, I thought you were smarter than that. Fuck. As your fucking leader I am telling you now that John isn't a troll, you crazy bitch. It's redrom or nothing with him, if you haven't fucking figured that out. And if you pull that shit again I swear I will cull you."

It would be perfectly pitiful - Karkat Vantas so flushed for a human who didn't pity him at all that he was protecting him outside of quadrants - except that he was daring to tell you what to do with your matesprit and he could go to hell.

You don't need your dice to win a fight, and you launch yourself at Karkat before he can even think to prepare. Let him assume you'd be cowed by his pathetic threats, by John's confusing words. You refuse to be weak. Weakness is death. You learned that better than any of the others. That's why you achieved your God Tier. (Okay, you maybe took cunning advantage of being beaten to death, but the point was you took advantage of it!)

You have a lot of rage right now, the anger bubbling through your blood (makehimpay) only partly Karkat's fault, but he makes a good target. You're furious at being trapped here, at being passive and unable to make decisions for yourself. You hate having to wait, hate sitting around and doing nothing of any importance, movies and games a pale substitute for the life that is teeming just outside that door. You're furious that you had a chance to go out and seize the day for yourself and that it was taken away from you. You hate seeing Aradia watching and hate how she's back to her old self and still doesn't care about you.

You're furious that John doesn't remember you.

You manage a solid blow to Karkat's temple and he hisses and tries to tackle you and for a minute you feel good. This John was the John that survived, Alpha John. The John that had earned a place in this world, or something like that. He wasn't the John you'd gotten to know after you'd died. The John that had taken you walking in the snow and given you his coat and laughed and told you jokes and let you kiss him under the stars, all dry lips and blunt teeth. He wasn't the John that listened to your stories all the way through and told you how cool you were. This John didn't know that John existed. He didn't know about your first date or your seventh. He hadn't kissed you back. He didn't understand how much you pitied him. The last damn thing he remembered was you suggesting a date - and dying.

It wasn't fair. Worse, no one understood.

Karkat has been fighting you with his bare hands, which is outright stupid of him when you know he has his sickles, but maybe he's trying for a fair fight. It's especially stupid because you still have your vision eightfold and while you're not totally used to fighting with two functional arms it gives you a bit of an advantage. It isn't anything like precognition but it lets you have a pretty good idea of what's going to happen next. You swing at his face and suddenly everything snaps into focus at once, one brief moment of clarity that is too short to act on and so you can barely effect it at all. Egbert comes running down the stairs to separate you while the front door opens and his lusus walks in. Karkat grabs your arm and sends you flying and only knowing he was about to appear keeps you from slamming into John's lusus. You hit the wall instead, hard enough to knock the silly photos hanging on it down and leave a dent in the soft building material. When you spin and turn to launch yourself at Karkat one more time you're separated by a literal wall of wind, and can do nothing but snarl.

John's wind is making a mess in the hallway but he doesn't stop until he has you and Karkat completely separated, Aradia holding Vantas back and John standing between you and the other trolls. John doesn't look angry, which is the worst thing. He's upset and sad and it's all Karkat's fault for sticking his quadrant-desperate head where it didn't belong. How dare he tell you how to handle your quadrants? You are furious and you refuse to think about anything else, like how pathetic you are for thinking of John as your matesprit when he doesn't even know he likes you yet, or how much you hate seeing him angry at you, or how this might have been better if you could just control your temper. You hate feeling guilty, feeling bad; It never does you any good at all. Crying helps nothing and no one. Fighting is always the answer.

Then John looks you in the eyes and asks, "Why are you fighting?"

And you don't have any answers at all.

 

==>Be Mr Egbert

Shopping list:
· Paper plates
· Toothbrushes x3
· Listerine
· Hair brush? Are there different kinds? Ask lady at pharmacy
· Extra strength stain remover
· Asparagus
· Steak
· Ground beef
· Second meatloaf pan
· Bacon (thick slices)
· Eggs
· Icing sugar
· Cupcake liners
· Vanilla extract

You quite enjoy shopping, especially on Sundays as you can greet your neighbours and share what gossip they've picked up over the week. Of course you’re not a gossiping man yourself! Far from it! Any secret you have stays firmly behind your lips and pipe and you'd never impugn on someone's business in such a way! Still, it's a good way to keep up to date on the activities of the neighbourhood, and knowing that someone might not be adverse to having some cake or a loaf of bread appear at their door is always a nice thing. There are always neighbourhood troubles and while you can't always fix them, you like to think a sweet treat helps improve everyone's mood.

Today is a quiet day - the supermarket is emptier than usual, which is nice because the lines will be quick and you don't have a lot to purchase. You usually are well stocked in the house, especially as you like to purchase in bulk, but the addition of three very hungry aliens has depleted your pantry somewhat and there are some things you just need to buy fresh.

There are a few things you just don’t usually use too, and those need to be bought new. You're not usually one for paper plates, but hopefully they will cut down on the broken dishes in the house. Your son was completely correct that the good china was not appropriate for your guests. You are very proud he realized this before more than one plate was broken. You are, in fact, very proud of him in general.

How could you not be? Your mother had given you the faintest hints that John was destined for something great, but never in your wildest dreams would you have imagined a strange world-altering game where your son was responsible for saving the world. If your chest swelled any more it would explode, and you wished the tale wasn't quite so bizarre because you want to brag to the world about the accomplishments your son has managed all on his own. Of course, no one would believe you, which is precisely why - well, one of the reasons why - you're so interested in joining John and his friends on their trip to meet the others in New York. The lovely Ms Lalonde will be there, as will Bro and the charming Mr Harley. If there were any three adults who would better understand you, you can't think of them. 

You're still rather amazed at your miraculous recovery. Dying had been painful and was a rather vivid memory in your mind even now, an experience you had no interest to repeat. You thank your blessings every morning that John survived and was so strong to succeed, truly following in your footsteps and even surpassing you. You're saddened that your mother, his Nana could not return with you as well, but you suspect the fact that she had been dead some time, her ashes returned to their proper place on your mantle, was probably responsible for it. 

Nevertheless, you're proud indeed.

John's troll friends are interesting. Certainly they're colourful, and Aradia is quite nice, a sweet child who’s already asked you to teach her to bake. Karkat took some getting used to, of course, but it's hard not to appreciate a growing boy who can eat one of your cakes in one sitting alone. ("This is seriously the best fucking thing I've eaten in sweeps. How the hell does John not like this? What sort of shitty charge hates on the fucking glorious cooking you're doing here? If I didn't want to eat it all myself I'd shove it down his god-dammed protein chute!") The troll boy is clearly uncertain around you and still shocked at what he’s experienced, and you do your best to give him room. Vriska is a... unique girl. You don’t exactly approve of her relationship with John, but he's a growing boy and it's up to him to make his decisions. Perhaps there's more to her you haven't seen yet - you certainly don't want to be accused of judging her by appearance! Overall, though, they're good guests and you're glad to be helping John with them.

 

Checkout is quick and easy, the cashier must be tired today because she hardly says much to you at all but you certainly can't be upset - after all, she did just get completely reborn or rebuilt and even if no one seems to have any memory of the events besides those who survived to the Medium, that has to take a toll on someone! You wish her a good day nonetheless and head straight to the office from the supermarket. You do have perishables, but it's a short trip and you really just need to pop in, touch base with Ricky and whoever ended up working overtime this week, and make sure they can manage without you for a bit longer. It shouldn't take long at all, and then you'll return home and John and you can start dinner in a perfectly respectable, father and son sort of way. 

You're looking forward to a full lifetime of those moments, now that you have a life to have them in again.

 

 

==>Be John

It is later. Vriska has absconded to the spare room, Karkat and Aradia are chilling in the basement, and you and Dad have the main floor - which mostly means the kitchen anyway - to yourselves.

Dad has a cup of coffee in front of him, and considering it's almost six it means he must be upset. He never drinks coffee after lunchtime otherwise. You fiddle with the glass of orange juice he's poured for you before you can manage "I'm sorry about the mess in the hall. I'll clean it up. And I can pay for the broken frame out of my allowance! I'm sorry they were fighting in the house."

Dad hates fighting in the house. Worse, you can't even promise it won't happen again. Karkat and Vriska are really angry at each other, and you only half know why - maybe. It's making things complicated, which is sad because you had been so excited about a movie day with everyone. You'd really thought they'd enjoy it.

"I'll do all the kitchen cleanup too." You hope that added offer will be enough, you don't want to end up with all the chores in the house for one fight, but Dad is just staring past your head. It's a little worrying and you only get him to snap back to you when you wave a hand in front of his face. "Dad? Earth to Dad? Is something wrong?"

Dad looks at you for a long time, quiet enough you're about to start apologizing again, when he finally sighs and shakes his head. "I stopped by the office today."

You nod. That was part of his errands to run; making sure he could be gone to take you and the others to New York. "Was your boss not there after all? Do they not want you to go?"

"Ricky was there." Dad sighs again, taking another sip of coffee. "He usually works Sundays, actually. And going to New York won't be a problem at all. The problem is that Ricky and the others don't remember me."

You stare in confusion. "What?"

"They don't remember that I work for them. Ricky at least knew who I was and seemed just as confused as I, but they had no records that I ever worked there. My office belonged to someone else, my things were nowhere to be found. Most of the folks working today knew me as Mr Egbert, and that was it."

You keep staring, mind racing for some sort of explanation and finding none. "You went to the right place? Maybe there just weren’t enough people in on a Sunday? Maybe they were playing a really good prank?"

Dad turns the cup in his hands and shakes his head. "They're not the pranking sort, son. I've worked with Ricky for some of our bigger projects. He's the head of the whole department. If he can barely remember me, I don't know who will. Everyone was completely confused as well - they didn't seem to know what they were supposed to be doing. I tried to get some answers but..." He shrugs. It's a motion so foreign on your father you can't remember the last time you saw it on him. He's still got a smile for you when he looks up, but it's strained. "At least work won't be an issue for time off, now. We'll get everything settled once you and your friends are taken care of."

Your dad is worried. He tries to hide it, but he's worried and when he looks at you it makes your heart hurt more than you can bear, because he's worried about you. This isn't right. You won. You're home. This is a whole new world for you to grow up in and enjoy and something is wrong and you desperately don't want it to be wrong.

You give your dad a hug. You don't know what else to do. The important thing is everyone is alive and soon will be together and you can figure this all out as a team. You have friends you can rely on now - and that means Dad can rely on them too. You'll figure this all out. You will.

The two of you make dinner together, talking about less stressful things and you're glad Dad's not angry about the fighting after all. You mention Ms Dearheart and how the others want you to test it out tonight and see if others don't see the trolls, and Dad thinks it's a good idea - as long as you're careful. He suggests finding some kids, which you totally hadn't thought of, because no one will believe kids if they say they saw monsters anyway. Your dad has really good ideas.  

You take a plate of food up to Vriska, still totally confused about how you feel about her right now, but at least she seems happy you brought her food even if she doesn't want to come downstairs and join everyone. That's okay - you figure you should let her stay in her pile for as long as she needs to, and that way she'll hopefully be good about going out tonight. That surprises her, but you did promise, after all.

You end up eating on the couch - a totally rare thing because Dad is a firm believer in eating at a table - and Karkat and Aradia join you, Karkat even asking if you can finish Pirates. You're so thrilled he's interested in finishing the movie you can almost forget about how stressful and bluh the day has been. You eat and laugh at Johnny Depp and try to explain that human skeletons don't usually walk around on their own and yeah they kinda do look like that, what do troll skeletons look like anyway?

+++++++++

When you go out in the evening, the streetlights are just starting to turn on and it's cold. The trolls don't complain about their layered disguises because they're too busy being shocked at how cold it is (it's only forty, that's not bad at all!) and staring in amazement at the frost in their breath. Well, except Vriska who just wonders if it's going to snow. Then you have to explain what snow is to Karkat and Aradia and they seem pretty horrified by it, but Vriska calls them wigglers and insists it's fun and you don't get to really ask her how she knows about snow if they don't, because one of your neighbours are walking by. You whip out the video camera Dad was awesome and let you borrow (making sure you knew you'd not get an allowance ever again if you broke it) and you film your friends walking down the street and all of you wave to Mr... Mr Ramsey, you're pretty sure. He just nods back and keeps walking.

After three more tests Vriska gets so impatient she walks right up to a couple and asks them point blank if she looks strange to them. They stare for a moment and then shake their head, breath a white haze around their heads, and then the woman tells Vriska she has very pretty hair and if you and the others are making fun of her she should find nicer friends.

It's pretty much official by then that other humans can't see the trolls as trolls. You figure they must see them as people - as humans - but you don't exactly know how to go about asking that. A few hours ago you would have been super happy to know that you can go exploring without worrying about the government sending the Men in Black to take your friends away. Now you wonder if it's maybe something connected to Dad's work, and it makes you worry what other things might be wrong you don't know about yet.

You’re only thirteen. There’s a lot you don’t know about yet.

Chapter Text

==>Be Rose Lalonde

It's early morning for you, and your guests are still asleep. You are somewhat envious of their dormancy but they had remained awake far past your own hours and it was only natural for them to rest now in turn. You wish you could oversleep, yourself; between the nightmares and the lingering fight-or-flight instincts the game instilled into you, the four or five hours of respite you are managing simply have to be enough.

Your computer wakes from its own slumber at the touch of your hand. The moment your status changes from offline to available, your chum window flashes. It's Dave: the hour does not surprise you much. You doubt his in-game experiences have cured his pre-game insomnia.

TG: lalonde i hope you youre ready for this
TG: your whole life youve been waiting for this moment i know
TG: so get your little clicky pen and your fucking notebook
TG: i need your advice
TG: shit rose im serious here
TG: dont leave me hanging

TT: I'm not, I assure you. It's just that this is quite the occasion and I almost feel inadequately prepared. I'm afraid I'm completely out of clicky pens.
TG: im already regretting this
TT: Please Dave, you have my full attention.
TG: look
TG: ok first off keep the trolls away from candy and sugar and crap
TG: i just spent four hours watching terezi pray to the porcelain god and there isn't much more disturbing than teal coloured puke let me tell you
TG: chocolate cherry liqueurs did her in worse than a fratboy on initiation night

TT: I will take that notice under advisement. I don't foresee much of an issue considering the absolute lack of candy in the household. Mother has an emergency chocolate supply I'm not supposed to know about; it’s easy enough to leave alone.
TT: I’ll admit that doesn't sound like the reason you pestered me. Considering how rarely you admit to needing any outside assistance at all, I am both curious to the cause and intent in rendering what assistance I can.
TT: Are you wondering about gifts for Terezi? Or has that stage of your relationship already been passed? Were your eyes to her liking?

TG: dammit lalonde could you stop for a minute this is serious
TT: I'm sorry Dave
TT: I worried that if I simply asked you to explain what was wrong outright you wouldn't believe it was me. I would hate to waste time assuring you I was not some sort of pod person.

TG: ok you have a point
TT: Please explain the issue and I will do my best to keep the cynicism to a minimum.
TG: its eridan
TT: Well I suppose I am only somewhat surprised.
TT: Honestly Dave there is nothing strange or wrong about being attracted to someone who presents as the same gender as you. We have had this discussion before, although I had honestly believed your feelings for John would be what pushed this to the forefront

TG: holy shit on a stick lalonde projecting much?
TG: i mean i know youre repressing the biggest fucking crush since king king discovered girls
TG: but just because you're not getting any is no fucking reason to assume thats the case for the rest of us
TG: im not interested in ampora
TG: this is not
TG: in fact
TG: about any sort of fucking romance
TG: except maybe avoiding one and even then that's more the cherry on top of this shit sundae lalonde
TG: i am asking for help because fiahboy is the most pathetic walking example of classic depression ive ever seen
TG: fuck he ever dresses the part

Typos are not a common thing with Dave and that forces you to pause: it’s another moment to dissect what he’s said, carefully ignoring any insinuations that you might have jumped to conclusions due to your own feelings. Dave has been repressing his sexuality for the last year at least, you're certain of it. You had been steadily working on it as a sort of pet project, maybe to write a paper on it "developing sexuality in a teen male raised by an older brother obsessed with puppet porn." The title needed work but you thought you had something...

You focus on red text and think on what you know about Eridan Ampora. It isn't a lot - Kanaya had sketched a rough outline of everyone for you and his had been quite thin. Highblooded which meant he was prone to extreme aggression, with genocidal tendencies; something of your counterpart in that he'd developed a sort of white magic that might have been science based. He'd tried to kill Sollux and Kanaya and had succeeded in killing Feferi. He was responsible for Kanaya's transition to Rainbow Drinker meaning he had killed her, technically; it just hadn't stuck. Kanaya had killed him in retribution and to prevent him from running to Jack Noir and dooming everyone.

TT: All right. Assuming you're correct and Eridan is indeed suffering from depression, what exactly are you asking for?
TG: fuck i don't even know
TG: just... advice i guess
TG: the kid is fucked up lalonde and i dont mean in the usual troll way
TG: and dont even get me started on how screwed up trolls are
TG: hes got a deathwish i mean terezi was about to kill him in our kitchen she had him sliced and was ready to dice and he just let her
TG: if i hadn't walked in wed be down one troll
TG: which would be great for the grocery bill but i can just hear you now
TG: 'strider can't even keep one shitty troll alive'
TG: ‘i bet he thinks troll sushi is ironic’
TG: fuck
TG: i'm pretty sure he was cutting himself
TG: his arms are a mess
TG: and his eyes are messed up like they look like he's just a corpse or something
TG: its fucking creepy

TT: Dave if you are not already doing so, I am going to remind you to breathe.
TG: fuck you lalonde im not a hyperventilating geek oh let me get my inhaler
TG: i am reacting appropriately to the attempted fucking murder in my apartment

TT: Secondly I'm going to suggest you try to keep sharp objects away from Eridan. It won't stop him if he's dedicated to hurting himself but it helps to not have the temptation in plain sight.
TG: oh fuck me sideways the god dammed troll has to end up in the house full of shitty swords
TG: you do realize i couldn't put them all away if i tried?
TG: all right what else?

TT: I don't know. It depends on the cause of his depression. If it’s situational, perhaps he'll feel better once you're all here together.
TG: i doubt it
TG: terezi is planning on killing him at your place now
TG: i'd be worried about him making a break for it but he seriously can't be bothered
TG: and not in an ironic way
TG: so be prepared for a trial and probably smuppets

TT: What?
TG: terezi really loves the damn things
TG: don't ask me why

TT: I’ll be happy to refrain for the moment. Could you please elaborate on the trial, Dave?
TG: god yeah can we have some human veto power or something?
TG: terezi and gillschick are up and ready to put eridan on the chopping block for whatever he did
TG: killing people i guess
TG: and terezis planning on it for makara and sekret too
TG: though its pretty hypocritical if you ask me
TG: we've got a budding judge judy here
TG: except its more like judge judy had a kid with vlad the impaler

TT: That is quite the mental image I must admit
TG: god i can't wait till this shit is sorted out.

The conversation moves on, as all of your conversations with Dave - your brother, still so strange a thought - always do. He's frustrated that you don't have a simple solution to his problem but the reality is for all of your books and facts and papers and even the occasional discussion... you have no experience in dealing with anyone presenting the sort of symptoms Dave has outlined. You're very curious of course, and there is a large part of you that is now interested to meet Ampora because it would certainly be something to learn from, enticing enough to make you forget that Eridan is a person in his own right and probably should not be viewed as an experiment. Then again, he killed Kanaya. You feel some small grudge would be healthy for your natural development.

The best advice you can give Dave is to keep an eye on the troll and perhaps distract him from whatever is eating at him. It's a temporary fix but better advice than nothing and you certainly can't suggest taking him to a clinic. It will simply have to be enough for the next day and a half, until you can meet the subject in question and speak with him yourself.

Eventually neither of you have additional questions or insults to trade and Dave’s trolls are awakening so you sign off. Jade has already left with her companions and they and the others will arrive tomorrow. Between now and then you have work to do: You've been slowly getting the house ready, because even with the space you have going from two people to five had required some rearranging. From five to twenty is going to be.... interesting.

At least you have Kanaya to assist. Without her help you would have been tempted to just convert the oversized dining room into a communal sleeping area for the trolls and split up the humans into the spare rooms. It had been somewhat of a discovery to have the exact nature of troll sleep without sedatives explained and as complicated as it made things you understand why she insists that space is made for every troll to retreat to for safety - their own and everyone else's.

The only exceptions made are for Equius and Nepeta, who are content to share a space if it eases the stress on the situation, and Tavros and Gamzee. Tavros had actually had contacted you and asked that they be kept together; Kanaya had looked a little relieved at that, and you took the cue from her that someone to look after Gamzee was a good thing. She didn't explain how the pairs would tolerate each other's presence better than other trolls would and you decided not to ask. Curiosity was one thing but there was such a thing as decorum.

What to do with the humans had actually been another struggle - keep the guardians with their children? You didn't have enough space to give each adult their own room and you weren't sure how they'd take to sharing beds or sleeping on a couch. You'd almost given up, the badly sketched floorplan of your house a mess of names and crossouts in front of you when your mother had leaned over your shoulder and pointed with a perfectly manicured red nail "Put Harley and Bro in the main guest room, put the boys in the smaller room and Jade can stay with you. Mr Egbert will stay with me."

You start to protest - Grandpa Harley and Bro were the big worries - but the idea of your mother with Mr Egbert makes your mind skip and scratch like a needle on a record. "What?"

"Oh we're old friends, darling. Don't worry, it will all work out. Trust your mother."

You don't know what's worse - when she doesn't even bother to be sarcastic or when she thinks she's being witty. Still, if Grandpa and Bro met in the game they'd at least know each other, and (ignoring the idea of your mother having a sex life) she and Mr Egbert together would solve the biggest issues of space.

You pencil it in and decide not to dwell on it and move on.

The sound of broken glass makes you jump and your mother rolls her eyes at you as you stand and don't even hesitate to grab the from the closet. You honestly don't know why you bother putting it away, really.

"I'll add plastic tumblers to the shopping list. I suppose I should buy a whole set, before we have to dip onto the good glassware."

She sighs dramatically and you feign ignorance as you step past her and into the kitchen, where Equius and Nepeta are standing around a mess of broken glass and milk, the taller troll blushing deep blue and looking chagrined.

"My apologies! I was being careless. These glasses are not strong enough! Please inform me of what repayment I can make -"

You cut him off by pushing the broom into his hands, glad your mother hasn’t had a chance to take advantage of him. "By learning to clean it up."

You pointedly ignore the way he sweats when you correct what he's doing and he's focused enough he doesn't snap the broom handle in half, which is an unexpected bonus. You have to take it away and kick him out when he starts to get carried away and attempts to clean the kitchen with it, momentary confidence in handling a stick with some bristles attached making him think he might be capable of more fine work, like dusting and putting the dishes away.

That's all right, your mother is quick to assure you in the tone that always sets your teeth on edge. She hated that plate anyway.

 

==>Be Nepeta

You’re outside, and it is the very best thing. Right now it is even better than your shipping wall – which you miss – but you know shipping is forever and eventually being outside will just be a normal fun thing again instead of being really really special the way it is right now.

You can hear Equius fretting beneath you; he is being very silly. You call down assurances that you're fine, sheesh! And go back to what you're doing, which is watch the smallest winged beast you have ever seen feed its young - which are even smaller. It is the most adorable thing you can ever remember seeing. If Rose had not already told you not to bring any pets home you'd be tempted to put one of the tiny things in your pocket and see how long you can keep it alive. Sadly Equius is being a spoilsport and is making you keep all of your promises, even the ones you hadn't really meant.

"Nepeta, please come down this instant. That tree is no place for you to be and you should leave those creatures alone. They are not even a mouthful to you. Come down this instant. I-I insist."

You pout and sigh but you clamber down the tree with ease, shooting your moirail a look that another troll might call black, but is really just annoyed disappointment. Equius has been insisting an awful lot since you came back to life and you're getting terribly tired of it.

"I don't know why they fascinate you! They're too young to chase or hunt and too small to eat. And that tree was not strong enough to hold your weight."

You roll your eyes and give Equius a smack that you know doesn't hurt. "Beclaws they were cute! And that tree was bigger around than I was, I was purrrrfectly safe!"

Equius has turned into a worrywort; he doesn't even give you a speech about your cat puns and how you should be more mature now, which is a sure sign of how distracted he is. You stifle an annoyed yowl and grab his hand, dragging him through the woods until you find something new to distract you both with.

You like this world a lot so far - there is a lot of neat stuff to look at and play with for sure! Of course by now the more brave local wildlife have learned to leave you and Equius alone, but there is still lots to see! The one beast you meet (coyote, probably. Rose gave you a book full of great pictures to help you identify everything) turns tail and runs when it spots you, and you're not in the mood to chase - mostly because it would mean leaving Equius behind and he'd complain.

You follow the sound of water and ignore your companion's complaints about hurting you and slowing down and humans finding you and you only stop when you find the river. Its pretty, bubbling and with a quick current that you wouldn't try to swim even if it wouldn't be way too cold to anyway. You're only comfortable because Rose gave you and Equius extra clothing. Your green jacket still blends in with the world around you the way it should but you're wearing it over thick pants, warm socks and a thing called a hoodie that's just a thick god tier shirt. It's pink, but you decided after a day of running in the woods that pink was better than cold.

Equius at least has blue to wear, his own hoodie proudly saying Toronto Maple Leafs across the front. Rose assured you both it was a well respected sports team and that they would not be offended at Equius donning their badge, which made Equius happy (and sweaty, but that wasn't ever hard) and you tried not to smile because you were pretty sure Rose was making sure not to laugh. It was all in the way her eyes crinkled at the corners, you'd decided.

Anyway, you aren’t cold and you aren’t going to do something silly like get wet and freeze, but the river means there will be lots of animals nearby and it would be nice just to listen to the water for a while. After spending so long in the veil it is wonderful to be able to feel the wind and smell the grass get dirty with real dirt again. Dream bubble dirt did not count!

"Come on Equius! Let's go see what's on the other side. I bet we can find more deer!" You could see the animal trails from here, and the skittish creatures were fun to watch. They moved in interesting ways and you liked how light the little ones looked when they ran, like they were made out of air.

"Nepeta...."

He's already using his warning voice and you stop, standing at the water's edge and eyeing the rocks you'd need to hop to cross, looking back to him and sigh, exasperated. "What?"

He at least looks a little sorry and you feel bad for being annoyed, but he's been nipping at your ankles like a grub since you got here. "I simply think it would be best if you were more careful."

"Eeeequius!" You know he hates to hear you whine even more than your most pawful puns, but you can't help yourself. "Do you really think I'm just a wiggler? It's just some water! Why are you acting like a bad lusus instead of like my Equius?" You really miss your Equius. This Equius isn't as much fun.

"I don't think that at all!" He's blushing which means he's lying, because Equius believes that lying to your moirail is one of the worst things you can do. He's much better at lying to other people (when he's not sweating). But the fact that he's lying you is really worrying.

Sometimes Equius has his moods you can't quite read because he's still figuring out what he thinks himself. He likes to take his time to decide things and while he's deciding there's no way to tell what way he'll decide. You had thought this was one of those Equius moments but that can't be true. Not if he's lying.

You stare up at him, his cracked glasses reflecting you back in bits and pieces. "Equius?"

"Y-yes Nepeta?"

"We are going to have a feelings jam right now."

+++++++++++++++

It actually isn't instant, since any good jam needs a pile and you don't have one readymade yourself. Thankfully the forest is full of things you can pile on so it's just a matter of getting a collection big enough for you both. You add the two greatcat skin rugs that had come with you and the castoff leaves and needles and branches are already much more comfortable than any pile of robot parts.

Equius does not want to have a feelings jam, but he knows you very well and some things he can't run away from or you'll just pounce on him. Feelings jams are definitely one of those matters. You have rules between you both, of course: When Equius insists you promise to listen to him even if you really don't want to. When you insist, he does the same. It works because neither of you insist unless it's really important. It also works because you noticed that the other person was almost always right. So you insist on the feelings jam, and Equius settles down with you.

Equius is still blushing and not sweating, so you're pretty sure this isn't about one of his crushes. Besides, neither of you have really bothered with trolling anyone since coming back to life. You had spent forever in the veil and then all anyone had wanted to do was sit on the husktops and no one really wanted to roleplay and the dream bubble had been nice but it had taken a while to find Equius and even when you did it hadn't been real. Not the way this world is.

Equius squirms in the pile. You don't think he's really talked to the others because he's been more interested in staying with you and exploring, so you really can't think of what might be bothering him. "I don't think we should be doing this out in the open Nepeta. What if a human were to see us?"

You give him your best pout and cross your arms over your chest. "Do you really think I'd let a human sneak up on us? What kind of great hunter do you think I am? Now stop trying to wiggle out of this! What's wrong Equius? If you can't tell me, who can you tell?"

He sits silently for a moment, but you know he's thinking and making decisions by the way his fingers tap together, not in any sort of pattern but distractedly. Everyone has ways that tell you what or how they're thinking, and you know Equius the very best. You can tell the exact moment he decides to stop lying and hiding and tell you the truth and you reward him with a big smile and a hug.

"It is not anything that I should be troubling you with Nepeta. I am sorry..." You give him another look and he continues. "I worry for you. I do not want you to be hurt again. The human Rose believes death here would be expressly permanent."

You stare at him for a moment, confused. "But Equius, that's silly! We already talked about that when we were dead. We can just make sure we're careful and we're being careful!" You shift over to him and lean against his side, curling some of the fur around you both. "No one is going to send you to kill Gamzee again. He has his pies! Tavros said so. Dying was just an accident. It isn't going to happen again."

You'd talked about it a lot in your bubble. You had really thought Equius understood - it wasn't anyone's fault except maybe Gamzee's and that was because he was crazy. He wasn't crazy now, so it was all right - wasn't it?

Equius tugs on his hair in frustration but finally sets an arm behind you. It's the closest he lets himself get to a hug, but you don't mind because you have enough hugs for the both of you.

There’s in his voice as he speaks and it makes your whole chest feel heavy, your bloodgusher tight and hurting in your chest. His voice cracks as he asks "How can you say it was an accident?" and you've never heard your moirail like this before. You thought he'd understood, but now... maybe not. "How could you want a moirail who's so weak he can't even protect you when it matters most!"

Tears prick at the corners of your eyes. "Oh Equius..."

"I let him kill me! I could have stopped him. I did not. I was too weak. Too l-lewd. I disgust myself, Nepeta Lejion, and I do not know how you can still think I am worthy of you."

You climb into his lap and Equius sits stock still but that's okay because it's how he always sits when you do this. You wrap your arms around his neck and settle against his chest and only when you're still does he relax. He can't bear to bring his arms around you, but he relaxes all the same and you know he would hold you if he trusted himself to.

"I failed, Nepeta. And in death I could face it but we are alive again and so are the others and how can I face them knowing it?" He's crying, and he never ever cries. Thin lines of blue are snaking out from behind his cracked glasses and you push the lenses away and wipe at his cheeks with the clean(est) edge of your sleeve. "What if it happens again? I can't forgive myself already. How can I protect you now when I already know I'll fail?"

Oh Equius, your wonderful, foolish Equius. You curl against his chest and pretend to purr. The sound is so ridiculous it makes him snort in the briefest laugh, but that was exactly the point. "You're being very silly you know." You point this out with a smile you know he can hear even if he can't see.

"So speaks the girl who wishes she were a cat."

"Hey!" You giggle and feel his vascular system start to relax under your ear at the sound, so you giggle a little longer. "I mean I forgive you! And there really isn't anything to forgive anyway, really. It isn't your fault and no one is going to blame you, Equius. You're the only one silly enough to blame you when you tried even though sending you was a very bad idea."

You poke a finger at his chest, nails sharp enough to sting even him. "Besides, moirails are about being the very best of companions and knowing all the bad things about you and wanting to like you anyway. It's about pitying the big strong troll boy who always wants to do gentle things and never can. It's about reminding you to keep your temper before you break someone and feelings jams when you feel silly for just being yourself."

His breathing is slowing down now too, which is good to hear. You run a hand down his arm, trying to put all the faith you have in him into that touch. "You're my moirail. If I don't know you, who would? I know you'll always protect me from everything you can, but that doesn't mean you have to! I'm purrrty strong, remember. I'll purrrtect you too." You turn your head to look up at him, and it means the whole wide world to you that he's smiling. "Next time, if we have to fight Gamzee, we'll fight him together. We're pawfully strong together Equius!"

His face freezes for a moment but then he laughs and shakes his head at your terrible puns. Which only makes you pout because you'd left almost all of them out to keep things serious, really! And then you're pelting him with dry leaves and it becomes a leaf fight, which you win when you trip him and pounce on his chest and cover his whole head in an armful of crunchy, spiky brown.

You end up lying on your backs, his head to yours and legs splayed out in opposite directions, staring at the late evening light through the trees. The sun is too bright, but in the woods it's always cooler and dark enough not to hurt too much and right now it's almost like the duskbreak of Alternia. It's just way more blue yellow than purple red.

"Everyone will be here tomorrow!"

"Yes. Nitram, Captor and Makara are already on their way with their humans. Their travel time is to be the longest."

"Wow. I can't believe they live so far apart...." you try to imagine it, on Alternia. It would have been horrible. How would you have met Equius if he'd lived days and days and days and days away? "We should do something nice for everyone. As a present for coming."

Equius turns his head to you. There are still needle leaves in his hair and it makes you smile. "Of course they would come. Why would they need a gift?"

"Beclaws it's fun! Beclaws it would be the mice thing to do!"

Equius sighs but reaches out with his hand to set it near yours, so you can cover his fist with your fingers. It's like a hug, without breaking anything.

"Do you have an idea of what our companions would like?"

Your grin is all teeth, and they're very sharp teeth indeed. "Pawwwsibly..."

 

==>Be Kanaya Maryam

It's evening, and you are seated on the padded reclining deck known as a couch. The television is off; instead of current media Rose is sharing with you human music, much of which had been written several hundred years before she was hatched. You are absolutely enthralled by the sound playing device she has in this main room, the way it sounds like you are surrounded by the musicians, the rise and fall of it flooding through you and rattling in your chest. It's completely unlike listening to the small speakers on your husktop and an incredibly heady feeling. It’s also providing a distraction from the unease both you and Rose are experiencing after the evening’s memo, something you suspect you’re both grateful for.

John's information on the trolls and the reactions of his neighbours as well as his lusus’ strange predicament has left everyone confused as to the state of matters. None of you can quite decide what might be happening but it is worrisome nonetheless. There is no one here for you to meet, no one for you to test how you might be perceived, to check yourselves against the status of the world – which is why everyone is traveling to Rose’s hive in the first place, but is somewhat inconvenient at the moment. Rose promises to send Ms Lalonde to visit her laboratory to gather further information but it will have to wait until tomorrow for reasons you don’t quite understand and yet sense should not inquire about.

No one has any idea what might be happening. The best Rose can surmise at the moment is that when you were brought to Earth (or it was recreated, the actual mechanics are unknown) it inherently sought to protect you and the others by ‘warping perceived reality’ around you. It was certainly convenient if that were the case, though you're curious as to the effects and scope and scale that it would work in. Rose is quick to point out it doesn't explain Mr Egbert's work or the 'Zombie Goths' Bro had dealt with, and the mystery clearly eats at her.

You’re glad she’s chosen to focus on something else for the moment, even if it had been somewhat at your insistence. She moves her right hand in the smallest movement in time to the music, back and forth with elegance; even that tiny motion is incredibly expressive for her, you think.

"This one of my favourite pieces by Mozart, though not his most popular. I suppose it isn’t as accessible but I find the counterpoint between the strings to be rather compelling.”

"It is wonderful."

"Kanaya, I am going to suspect I have left you speechless. That's the same thing you have said about the last three pieces."

You can feel the blush that tints your cheeks even as you try to remain composed. Rose has a way of sounding like she is scolding, even with a smile on her face. You wish you could tell if it was intentional.

"I am sorry, Rose, it is just that wonderful seems to be the most appropriate word I could use. I will attempt to be more descriptive in the future, but you are right that I am somewhat... without words. Music like this... I have never heard anything similar.”

That surprises Rose, and you wonder why. You had already explained to her how little art was allowed on Alternia once one reached adulthood. It certainly wasn't a profession one undertook, and that included music. Of course you had heard the great Alternian themes and anthems but they were played though your husktop or the television, not a large set of speakers that wrapped the sound around you.

"But music... I suppose I am making assumptions again, but surely there would be more popular music? Folk songs perhaps, things that are carried through oral tradition?"

You attempt to translate that, and fail. "What kind of tradition is that?"

"Oral. Things that are retold verbally and carried through the collective... oh. Of course. I am being silly again - you haven't yet met your elders so there would not be much chance for that to happen. I suppose you aren't taught that sort of thing when you are schooled, either. Isn't there music in your movies and television shows? And that begs the question of actors. Here they’re considered artists of a type, would I be wrong in assuming it’s different for you?”

Usually Rose is better at only asking one question at a time but these do flow one into the other, so you suppose you can manage it. Composing your face into what Rose has begun to call your ‘serious contemplation and explanation of Alternian history’ expression, you fold your hands into your lap and consider where best to start.

"I was schooled to recognize music and the main anthems for the Alternian fleet, the Empress and her court. Royalty and the inner circle have their own music, themes that would be played when they were introduced. Otherwise music falls under the domain of the subjugglators. It was a part of their teachings, which I was not interested in pursuing. I would say that Gamzee is the expert or our group but I think it would be best not to mention it to him. Of course, all Alternians are welcome to pursue music as a hobby, but it would be... something kept private. Shared with your quadrants, perhaps. Not placed for all to see without official sanction."

These discussions are always interesting, because it allows you and Rose to explore the many differences between your cultures without the discomfort of misunderstandings first.

"Actors are usually part of exploration crews. In fact, movies were only created after the Exodus of our people to colonize and conquer the greater reaches of space. Exploration crews have great spans of time in which not much is happening: they film their movies then, and share them with other crews. The best films are given sanction and shared with the entire fleet.” You consider for a moment and then add, embarrassed "I am afraid I don't know how exactly they come by their music. I would guess they write it themselves and create it digitally, but Karkat is the expert in such matters. You might want to direct that question to him."

Rose nods, matching your own gravity with a look of interest and the faint curl of her lips and eyes that you have concluded is a sign of happiness. You think it's happiness, at least. Rose does not express herself through body language particularly often (or well).

"Well, I won't compare your system to our own, though I can't help wonder if actors wouldn't be better off the way Alternians ran things. It's not a subject I have a great deal of knowledge on myself. John would be our resident movie expert; his knowledge of the medium is vast, even if his taste is infamously poor."

That's an opening, and you decide to risk taking it. "I would be interested in watching a film you considered good, Rose. I hope that there is such a thing?" You are quite certain you are not blushing, and that you ensured such a request was phrased in an appropriately bland manner. You are greatly enjoying Rose's company, and might even be a bit sad that your rather exclusive contact would soon be cut short. Of course, that was an absolute necessity, especially considering the rather worrying information that John and Dave had already shared. That said, knowing that you needed the others here and actually giving up the almost privacy this hive afforded is somewhat hard.

"I do have a few movies..." Rose is contemplative for a moment, then slides off the couch with quiet grace. (You had complimented her rather economical movements and she had explained that her mother had forced her to learn to dance for several years. It had not sounded pleasant, so you had not inquired further. )

"If you feel you could be interested in the heroic tale of twelve heroes, several of whom are not warriors, sent on a quest to travel an extensive and dangerous land to destroy an object of power that belongs to a near-god of immense evil power, featuring - oh forget it." Rose shook her head, looking bemused at her attempt at trollish naming structure. You almost tell her it had been a good start when she shuts off the music and the sudden silence is a strange void in the air between you. She reaches into a cabinet and pulls out a box that's thicker than you would have expected.

"It's a fantasy and a very good story. We'd only manage part one tonight, but there will be time for the others later." When she looks at you there is no mistaking the happiness in her facial features, alien as they are. "How about a movie, Miss Maryam?"

Your bloodgusher has been far quieter in your chest since your death and rebirth as a rainbow drinker, but those words set it pulsing, felt through your whole body. You give Rose a matching smile and small nod, giving you time to school your voice to the correct tone of pleased amusement. "That sounds lovely, Miss Lalonde."

There is the faintest touch of colour on her cheeks and you wonder if Rose is blushing.

You hope so.

++++++++++++

You have been enjoying the movie immensely. Rose is seated close enough to you that you can feel her body heat without actually touching. Once in a while you ask her a question about the narrative or she turns to explain the context of a statement, but the film is quite accessible even lacking your knowledge of humanity. Rose suggests it is because the film isn't really about humanity per se, and as such must explain its context to the audience. You suspect she is right.

It never ceases to amaze you how eloquent she can be. Even when half distracted she speaks in the tones of your most idealistic novel and yet she takes the words that would seem ancient and clumsy in anyone else's mouth and makes them real, makes them sound alive and vibrant all over again. You are certain if you tried it would be a miserable failure. It makes you appreciate listening to her even more.

Her words are a shield. It's a skill you have seen other trolls attempt but none have ever managed. It's a skill you have attempted yourself, to limited success. Rose is a master. She hides behind them, pushing herself as far away as she can until she is nearly invisible in the distance. It’s impressive. You wonder how she possibly learned to do it so well.

It is hard not to pity her. You should know better, but you're doing a terrible job of controlling your emotions. You aren't entirely certain you want to control them. You have not discovered Rose's own thoughts, to see if she has similar feelings for you. You suspect that it will take time to learn - for the both of you. You find you don't mind the wait; too many romances in your life have gone wrong. You aren't interested in rushing and ruining another. (Assuming, of course, there is a romance to have. You suspect a moirallegiance at the least, but might be waxing red yourself.)

Your attention returns to the movie and it holds you until the next interruption, this time in the form of Ms Lalonde standing in the doorway between the food preparation block and this room. She is silhouetted against the light in the other room and there is a glass in her hand. You can feel Rose tense beside you but when you look at her she looks no different than usual.

"Good evening mother."

"Evening, Rose, it is good. In fact, I came to make sure the two of you were enjoying yourselves. I know how worried you are about your dear mother interfering with your personal life."

You can hear Rose's bloodgusher – her heart. That is a new sensation and takes a moment to identify. You suspect it is beating harder than it should be but you do not have anything to compare or measure it against. You watch the skin around her mouth go tense and there is the smallest twitch - once, twice - and then she is smiling brittle and sharp and completely unlike the Rose you have known until now.

"I am certain you will endeavour to do whatever pleases you, mother, content in the knowledge it's for my own good, despite any argument or documentation to the opposite."

The movie is forgotten. "Why Rose, one would think you didn't approve of my motherly concern! I simply want to meet my future alien daughter in law. Or were you hoping to avoid the embarrassment of me paying for the wedding by eloping somewhere obtuse? You know I would never forgive myself."

Rose's teeth clench minutely. You wonder if her mother can see from her perspective, it's such a small motion. Her heart’s beat gets louder too and her cheeks flush, clear even in the low light. You are rather uncertain about what exactly is going on, but you can see a fight with words as plainly as one with fists, and currently Ms Lalonde is winning.

The alien comment had clearly been in regards to yourself. You question in the next pause as an attempt to lighten the tension "and what, exactly, would a daughter in law be? Or a wedding? I'm afraid my education in human traditions hasn't included those terms."

Ms Lalonde gestures with her glass, and doesn't seem to notice when some of the contents spill. Rose certainly does, another muscle tic on her otherwise composed face. "A marriage. It's rather traditional to get married before you take your wife to bed, after all. Of course I don't doubt Rose would be able to tell me all the ways such a tradition only reinforces the hurtful stereotypes and weakens women in society. She should - I bought her the books on the topic."

The woman walks into the room towards you both. Her heart is suddenly audible to you and it sounds too fast for her words, almost as if it was skipping. You're not certain if that's a result of being an adult or the current conversation.

"The question of the moment is who wears the pants in the relationship. I'm going to have to set unreasonable expectations of one of you. Of course, Rose is already well prepared."

"Mother!

You haven't heard Rose's voice take that tone before. It's both angry and pleading, and she sounds almost like a troll with it. It's distractingly attractive, but you focus instead on her hovering lusus who smells of something rotten. You are rather confused as to why your clothing is important. "I'm afraid I am not often in pants. I prefer skirts or dresses whenever possible."

The lusus makes an unpleasant facial contortion. "I should have known Rose would be the man, though I rather expected she'd find someone quicker on the uptake. Well! I'll make sure I have an ample stock of preventatives. I suppose birth control won't be an issue-

"Mother!"

"Unless you're more biologically compatible than I assumed. Rose, I'll make an appointment with Doctor Gershwin for you tomorrow, and you and Kana-

"Mother, enough!" Rose is standing, her face as bright a red as flows through her veins. It's surprisingly beautiful, though now is not the time. You expect her voice to continue in anger but Rose simply clenches her fists for a moment and then breathes out, hands settling loose by her sides. It's rather believable, except you can see her trembling, hear her heart’s beat. You suspect her mother cannot.

She continues in a voice that is almost surprisingly soft. "Enough, Mother. I am not interested in your head games and I am done proving myself to you. You are drunk, Mother. You are embarrassing me and yourself. Go to bed or back to your parlour. Leave my friends and I alone, please."

You think she did an admirable job, right up until that last please. It was a bit too young for her, a bit too weak against the greater opponent. You'd seen similar things between Vriska and Tavros. (You probably could have advised the Taurus, if you'd been inclined. You weren't.)

Ms Lalonde reels back and you can see this is going to end in strife. Rose must come to the same conclusion because she tenses -

And then, terrifyingly, her heart stops.

You gasp and rise, completely uncertain what to do but she cannot die, you will not allow it, not after coming so far. You stare at her suddenly white face and your stomach churns in panic but she doesn't collapse.

Tha-thump.

Her heart. The beat is slow, so slow and you wonder how that is even possible even as her hands raise and power sparks along her fingertips and her skin is not white it's grey, deepening into something sallow and sick, her eyes are black and the words she speaks are not English but their meaning is impossible to miss as a spear of lightning jumps wildly from her hands and strikes the wall only inches from her lusus. It leaves a black mark half the size of the adult in height and nearly as wide, acrid smoke in the air. Ms Lalonde is staring - the hair on her head standing nearly on end.

Rose is trembling, black and purple lightning crawling over her skin. Despite all you had spoken on since you had arrived here, one topic Rose avoided completely was her Grimdark possession. In many ways that told you more than you suspected she wanted you to know about her experience.

You reach out and set a hand on her bare arm. You aren't afraid of the lightning; not afraid of dying, really. Rainbow Drinkers are incredibly difficult to kill after all. You are still capable of fear, of course. Right now you are afraid for Rose - not of her.

The lightning burns for a moment and then simply tickles before it slowly disappears. "Rose?"

She's still trembling, but slowly the colour returns to her face and her eyes fill in, awareness dawning as the light returns. She licks her lips and tries to speak but nothing but a croak emerges. You reach for her glass of tea but her eyes fall on the blackened burn on the wall and the broken glass at her mother's feet and the sound from her throat is a wounded keen.

A moment later she's gone, before you can say a word or offer any comfort, absconded up the stairs and from the sound of it being ill in the load gaper.

"Well!" Ms Lalonde stays still for a moment and then shrugs and tries to flatten her hair. "You're certainly having an effect. She's never been this excitable."

You stare at the adult, momentarily uncomprehending. "Ms Lalonde, I do not believe I was responsible for that emotional outburst. You were the one who hurt Rose, not I."

"Nonsense!" Her voice is high and uncomfortable on your ears. "Rose and I were simply joking. It's a human thing. Something we've done for years. She'll return with a barbed line for me soon enough."

You look up the stairs where Rose had disappeared into. It's now completely silent. "I don't believe this will be the case. Rose has discovered that losing her temper is a potential outlet for the Grimdark powers she had been possessed by. She nearly killed you."

Ms Lalonde looks at you as if you are incredibly stupid. It's disconcerting to say the least as she has been a gracious host until this event. "She didn't kill me. That means I am going to keep testing her temper until she can control herself again. She's forgotten, clearly."

The woman looks down her slender nose at you and for a moment Vriska's face is superimposed over her pale features. It suddenly makes as much sense as anything else in this world. "You are making her stronger." It isn’t a question.

"Someone has to. Someone has to prepare her. Someone has to protect her."

You stand, dusting your clothing until it falls properly from your frame. The adult is tall but so are you and at the moment you feel bigger. "The game is over, Ms Lalonde. We won. Your... daughter won. Are you still trying to make her strong, when she survived and you did not? What are you preparing her for now? What are you protecting her from?"

"Who are you to tell me how to raise my daughter?"

"I am Rose's friend. One of many. And I have seen what happens when someone who means well forces their ideal of strength onto someone else. As have all of our companions. We won't appreciate that you think it is responsible to make your charge cry. For trolls, that would make you a terrible guardian."

"She's my Rose. You can't take her from me!" You are surprised because the adult's voice cracks and her eyes are overbright. Again, she reminds you so much of Vriska. You wonder if she remembers how to cry. Vriska had forgotten.

You meet her eyes with your own and you do not flinch. She does. "I can. I will, if I feel it is necessary for Rose's happiness. You would not be able to stop me."

You rather expect anger - you don't know why you are arguing with this lusus, except that you hope it will learn and treat Rose better, as she deserves to be treated. Respect. You realize this lusus does not respect her charge, and it makes you incredibly sad.

Ms Lalonde does not escalate the conversation. She looks at you and you can't tell in this light if she is actually crying, and she absconds before you can move to check.

Well. That was... unexpected.

You spend a moment conflicted, because you want to go to Rose but at the same time the broken glass lies forgotten on the floor. You end up compromising by dragging a small table overtop of the mess. It will keep Nepeta and Equius from injuring themselves when they return from their outing, and you can deal with it yourself if necessary tomorrow.

You climb the stairs to find Rose, because you do not want her to remain alone after the day's events. At some point you will have to have a conversation about her magic; there is no avoiding it now.

You think perhaps you understand another piece of the strange puzzle that is Rose Lalonde. Yet there are still so many holes in the picture you do not yet know what the final image will be. The mystery is exciting.

And sad.

 

==>Be Ms Lalonde.

Your name is Amber Lalonde, but your first name is known by only your bank, your gynaecologist, and the government. To everyone else you are Ms or Doctor and you approve of the distance it creates.

You are not, despite your daughter's accusations to the contrary, drunk. At the most you might allow the label of 'tipsy' but even that feels like an over exaggeration.

You are not ineb- iner- intoxicated. You have certainly had a few drinks, but you are more in control of your faculties than out of them. In conclusion: not drunk. You can't afford the luxury of being drunk.

Your hands shake as you pour yourself a fresh martini from your personal bar, but that's from emotion, not alcohol. The fact that you can't tell if you're furious or sad or scared is the alcohol through and through - which is exactly the job it was supposed to do.

You skip the olive.

You've made Rose upset. You doubt you made her cry, as it's hard to believe your beautiful, resilient daughter could be shedding a tear over words. At least not now, anyway. You had taught her to be better than that. You weren't going to raise a princess who needed saving - no. You were saving the world with her. You were raising a young woman who would be able to make the tough decisions and could save herself. You certainly succeeded.

You're here, living proof of her skill at beating the game.

You sip at your drink. You are numb, but you remember. You always remember: the trick is not to feel.

Out of everyone it seemed you remembered the most. Not that it meant much; you never had answers, only more questions. Only irresistible urges that forced you to do the strangest things, like dropping everything to get on a plane and fly to Washington where you walked blindly through the city in the blistering heat and ended up in a cafe with three random strangers: Mrs Egbert, Harley and Broderick.

You had actually felt bad for the Strider boy. He was rail thin and admitted he'd hitchhiked to get there, not that he understood why. None of you had understood why, why you were there or how you knew one another's names. You'd spoken for hours, moving from the cafe to a park, from the park to your hotel. One of you mentioned dreams almost hesitantly and the hours stretched on - fragments between you all pieced together either a deal with the devil or the world's most elaborate psychological experiment. You are inclined to believe the former - you can't think of a government with this kind of imagination nor a madman with that kind of budget.

The point wasn't that you had the dreams, besides; it was what they meant. And really, deducing that was simple: if given the chance to save the world, you'd do whatever was necessary.

You'd promised to keep in touch. That felt important. You'd all fallen asleep in your suite, and it hadn't felt strange at all to have a woman old enough to be your mother curl next to you on the king sized bed, or for Bro (not Broderick) and Harley to collapse on the pull out and sleep like they had known each other for years, nevermind hours.

When you woke you weren't surprised to see Bro gone: the kid was tough, that was abundantly clear. You hoped he'd find the fifties you'd tucked into his backpack that probably contained all he owned. You hoped he'd remember you were serious when you told him to call you if he needed help.

You thought that was it. You'd gone home, back to your lab and back to your work (up and coming young scientist your ass, your sponsors were dragging their feet). You expected... well, you hadn't expected. That was the problem.

You hadn't expected the flashes of memories that weren't yours. You hadn't expected the pain, not really physical but remembered anguish. You hadn't expected to wake up with tears on your face, to cry at the colour blue.

You'd called the others. Of course you had. Ms Egbert had no suggestions, her own dreams far less frequent and more coherent than your own. Harley had given his sympathies but the best he could offer was that he felt you shouldn't be suffering so, that it was wrong. Not morally of course - but that somehow the rules you didn't understand you were playing by had been broken inexplicably. In the end you just felt relieved you'd gotten a hold of him at all, his travels taking him far and wide. Bro suffered from the dreams the least but his solution for them had thankfully given you some idea for dealing with your own.

"I get high." He sounded older already, voice with a rough edge and almost defensive, as if you were going to be scandalized by his choices, as though you had some right to be chastising him instead of being a woman living ten hours away from him who knew him from her dreams.

You thank him instead. You're a scientist, and lighting up was not only technically illegal but frowned upon in your circle of peers and impossible to hide from the random mandatory drug tests. But it was an idea - and alcohol seemed to do a reasonable job as an alternative.

It had drowned out all but the strongest dreams but more importantly it stopped the pain. It let you pass through the days without embarrassing emotional attacks, let you sleep without gritting your teeth until your mouth bled. It got you through labs where you understood more than the supervisor who asked you to get him a coffee, sweetheart, and the months of unemployment that resulted from his second degree burns (and who kept their coffee that hot, anyway?).

Your glass is empty. You consider another drink, and something close to guilt makes you stop and reconsider. Did you need to be drowning that feeling as well? Something to do with Rose...

Rose, your beautiful girl, who had fallen from the sky and landed at your feet. Who had your face but Bro's smile and who had fallen asleep in your arms the moment you'd picked her up. Who you had no idea how to raise and yet you knew to your very bones that you were going to prepare for her something great. Something terrible. Same difference, wasn’t it?

You had taken her to your apartment, wrapped her in a blanket and laid her on your bed, surrounded by pillows because you certainly didn't have anything appropriate for her to sleep in. When you'd fallen asleep next to her you couldn't help the smile on your face or the warm feeling in your chest and you didn't care that you couldn't tell if it was your own emotion or more psychological conditioning from the powers that seemed to control you.

You'd had such screaming nightmares you'd woken up to blood on your pillow and your little girl - Rose, your Rose like the flower she was, beautiful and full of thorns - screaming beside you. Her tears were easy to soothe. Your own lasted hours; the migraine days. Your left eardrum never healed but the vessels in your eyes cleared eventually and at least there was no doubt from your lab that you needed 'personal time'. You were never sure if the nightmare was somehow intentional; some otherworldly way of making sure you took care of the child and bonded with her in those important formative months.

You don't care and never did. She was and is and will always be your little girl and you loved her the minute you laid eyes on her.

You hadn't been surprised to hear from Bro the next day, panicking because he didn't have the first idea of how to raise a child and actually had the gall to think you did. You both shared a laugh about that: he'd even had dreams to warn him and hadn't really believed them, the fool. Neither of you are shocked to hear Harley (always Harley) found his little girl. You all wait for Ms Egbert, but her mystery meteor child doesn't arrive when any of you expect him.

She knows he's coming with just enough time to write you all notes asking you to help her son, who will be raising her little John in her stead. And that she's sorry she won't see you again. She signs the letter with hugs and kisses, x's and o's in a line. You read her obituary in the paper and feel empty when you don't cry, but you think you ran out of tears in your dreams.

You keep a laminated copy of the newspaper clipping with the letter in an envelope in the middle of a box of tax returns from 1996. You can't bear to throw it out but you don't dare let Rose find it. (She was snooping by the age of six. You rewarded her by leaving carefully crafted, nearly chastising notes, often with money or trinkets inside, reminding her if she wanted something she simply had to ask. It embarrasses her until she learns to be more sneaky, more subtle, more careful, until some days you can't tell where she's been at all.)

How long have you been standing here, leaning against the counter with your fingers around an empty glass, one foot kicked up like you're flirting with the invisible patrons of your imaginary and likely unhealthy bar, the ghosts of dead romances and one night stands that never, ever became more because you had a life to lead that was not your own? They're old ghosts, now. You don't remember their faces, if you even ever knew them. You stopped being Amber when you became Mom, and frivolities were rejected in favour of the young lady you needed to raise.

You raised her well. You raised her to succeed and to need no one and to know herself, with psychology magazines and private tutors and a house in the woods where she could never be the princess because she would never meet a prince in amidst the trees, only wolves and deer and coyotes and none of those would turn out to be enchanted heirs, only predators. You surrounded her with the wild so that she’d be protected, so that you could keep her as much as you were raising her. You loved her and you taught her the world was a dangerous place and that she’d need her wits to survive.

She survived. You wonder if it’s ironic or just sad that you didn’t. It was probably fate.

She survived.

You set the glass on the counter carefully, not wanting to misjudge. Perhaps that last martini had been in error but it is certainly too late to regret it now. Rose had survived, she’d won, and she’d done everything you’d raised her to do and now what? That alien girl had asked you what you were preparing her for now. The truth is you don’t know. You stare around you at your too-large house and at the metaphorical world outside and there are no instructions, no ghosts or whispers or urges or ideas to tell you what you need to do now. You never planned to get this far and you realize in a foggy sort of way that you never expected Rose to win.

 

==>Be Rose

You've forgotten how to knit.

That isn't entirely true - you are still perfectly aware of the mechanics of the art, even of the pattern you are attempting to recreate. Perhaps it is better instead to say that you have forgotten how to knit while emotionally compromised. It's all the more frustrating because it has been one of your best methods of dispelling unpleasant feelings (almost all of which stem from your mother) and finding something else to focus on.

Right now you are unpicking another row, more stitches dropped than kept due to your shaking hands and you are beginning to suspect you will have to give up this project entirely for the moment. You can't calm your racing heart, can't steady your jittering fingers (perhaps picking up your needles had been a bad idea, but it was pure habit that had you reaching for them and they were plastic and weightless and harmless in your hand). Seeing yourself fail time and again is doing absolutely nothing to improve your mood.

The knock at your door startles you: Kanaya's voice slips through the cracks and wraps around you, subtly soothing. The knitting you leave to the wayside, forgotten in your haste to admit the other girl to your space. You shut the door instantly behind her and fight not to blush because as uncouth and impolite as your mother had been there was a grain of truth to her words (as there usually was). You are very fond of Kanaya Maryam. You just are not sure how you want to act on that fact. Having it nearly forced out with all the inelegance of a drunkard is NOT on the list of acceptable options.

"Rose."

You manage a smile for Kanaya that almost feels natural, and gesture to the breadth of your room. "Please, have a seat. I apologize for my mother's abhorrent behaviour: I'm afraid she's like this any time she overindulges." Which was to say most of the time - she'd been so sober for the last three days you'd actually wondered if the game had convinced her to stop. Apparently not.

Kanaya takes a seat on the edge of your bed, her skirts falling over her legs like a waterfall of silk and you are quietly both jealous and enamoured with her poise and grace. "It is nothing for you to apologize for." She folds her hands in her lap, skin luminescent in the dusk of your room. "I am not worried about implied insults by a lusus under the influence of fermented fruit. I am much more concerned about your own well being. That was magic, Rose."

You freeze and are shaking your head before you even realize it, the negation instinct-deep. "No. I don't wish to talk about it. Not now, Kanaya." Not ever.

Kanaya reaches for your hand. Her fingers are cool; her grasp incredibly strong. She pulls you onto the bed and does not release your hand and it's strangely more comforting than entrapping. "Rose, the others will be arriving tomorrow and I believe that the combined chaos of us all will keep us from having much time to ourselves. It needs to be discussed. It needs to be now." She looks at you with sympathy in her gold-flecked eyes and you know you are undone, but you don't know how to give in without a fight.

"Kanaya, I assure you, there is nothing to be discussed."

"You almost killed your lusus with your powers. You lost your temper and there is now a hole in the wall downstairs. If that is nothing, what will you have to do to consider it worth discussion? I would prefer to avoid unnecessary deaths or the destruction of your hive if possible."

You swallow the lump in your throat and try to block out the image of the smouldering wall. You've always been good at controlling your emotions but this is far more difficult than a forgotten birthday or bruised ego. You'd tried to kill your own mother. Worse, you had wanted to.

"I understand your discomfort, Rose, and if I did not think it unwise, I would wait until you were ready. But the Grimdark controlled you once and I do not want that to happen again."

She is as even toned as any therapist could aspire to be; her voice full of concern and not censure, her hand slowly warming in yours. You take a breath to make one last attempt, one deflection to take things far far away from this, but she beats you to it, voice suddenly so soft you have to strain to hear it. "Magic destroyed Eridan in the Veil. I do not wish to see it destroy you."

You succumb to the inevitable, shaking your head even as you sag. You don't realize how much tension Kanaya is carrying in her frame until she likewise relaxes, the two of you leaning shoulder to shoulder at the foot of your bed.

"What do you want me to say? It appears my original assumption of my magic remaining was correct. And despite the complete lack of eldritch workings or horrorterrors or voices in my head to act as warning, apparently my abilities remain Grimdark in nature. I don't understand it Kanaya, so I do not know what to tell you."

Kanaya is still holding your hand, and her fingers rub against your knuckles, her thumb drawing lazy circles around the base of your own. It is a distraction and a comfort all at once, and her smile is comforting for all that her fangs (and in all good conscience you can't call them canines) glint in the light. "Then tell me what you do not understand, Rose. Tell me, and even if we both do not understand, we will not be alone in your ignorance."

It is not exactly the strongest argument someone could make to you - and had it been anyone else, had it been any other predicament, you would have deflected. You would have rooted out the marrow of their suspicious concern and found a way to turn it back on them, would have warped and manipulated the truth so it was a mirror you were holding to the inquisitor's own self, a reflection infinitely unto them and rendering you opaque. You would have. You want to.

But you know Kanaya. You know her well, even if mainly through text-based communication, and you feel you understand her. This concern for you is genuine. This fear for your well-being has been a founding part of your friendship with her, and while you cannot say she lacks any selfish motivation at all, her reasons are almost always altruistic. If there is any person you could open up to, here and now, it is her.

Now you just have to convince yourself of this fact.

You sigh and gather yourself like you would gather the folds of a well worn cloak and you sometimes you imagine your psyche as exactly that - a cloak or shroud made out of patchwork and determination, gathered under your hands to protect and hide the core of yourself, that part of you that you sometimes hate because it is still a little girl and she still stomps her feet and demands for life to be fair.

Now you are just being silly, distracting yourself to buy time you do not have. Kanaya has remained silent, her thumb still tracing over your skin, and it's only her silence and her patience that allows you to speak. You're embarrassed at how your voice shakes, at how you have to fight to raise it above a whisper (and fail to) and at the stuttering stops you fall into, each time having to pull yourself together to start again.

You can't just speak of this time, and you and Kanaya are both aware of that fact. It hasn't been a fight to get you to acknowledge this slip, but to acknowledge your fall in the first place, and so now you have to remember what happened when they reached into your mind and took you away from yourself. They'd turned off your humanity but left your rage, fuelled it and fired it and made you a puppet wind-up doll, the darkness clawing and consuming and the part of you that was still aware split into two equal halves, one howling in despair and the other shrieking in fear, and they'd even turned that against you.

You remembered begging, pleading for them to let you go. You remember offering anything, anything for them to give you back to yourself. You remember what a relief it had been to die, because it was over. You remember swearing to yourself as your life returned that you would never let it happen again.

You're not sure when Kanaya moves, not sure when holding your hand becomes holding you, but her arms are around your shoulders and you're leaning against her chest, eyes dry but feeling like you've cried for hours, thick tongued and tension headache blossoming across your temples. Her hands are soft, her nails a sharp but not painful contrast as she cards them through your hair and almost without your own intent you find yourself calming.

"Thank you."

They should be your words, but they're hers: she bends down and presses a kiss to your forehead that is nothing but chaste and tender and her eyes may not be human but they smile in the same way, the corners turning ever so faintly and you can't help but offer a shaky but honest smile in return.

"I should be saying that, Kanaya. I shouldn't have done that." You know better than to lay things at other people's feet and despite your certainty that this needed to happen before you began, you regret it almost the instant you have finished. Not because you don't feel better but because you do feel better and it came from wasting someone else's time. You'd had to share it because you couldn't handle it yourself and that was the sort of thing the weak, the inconsiderate did. You want to be neither.

"You trusted me." Kanaya says simply, and those three words take the wind from the sails of your ship of self-loathing and doubt and guide you back to safe harbour. "I know such a thing does not come easily to you. It means a great deal to me - not only that you could do so, but that you would allow me to help you." Her arms tighten around you and it is a feeling more like home than you have ever experienced.

You raise your arms tentatively, settling your hands on Kanaya's elbows and squeezing, returning the hug as best as you can from this angle. It's worth the effort for the smile that lights across her face.

You don't admit anything so gauche as fear to her, even though you're aware she knows. She does you the respect in turn of not mentioning it. Instead she purses her lips and considers the room around you with some thought.

"I think our first goal should be to make sure you keep your temper under control. I do not believe you will find that nearly so much a struggle as some of my companions." She smiles to let you in on a small private joke and you realize she wasn't simply being honest, she was attempting irony and that tiny note of normalcy in this insane world makes you feel a lifetime better.

Sadly, it is difficult to create an action plan to prevent your (hopefully please God or what(ever?) higher power can hear this not inevitable) slide into the dark waters of the Grimdark, but Kanaya has ideas and they're good ones. It might amount to nothing but action is far, far better than inaction and you are willing to try anything to keep the darkness out.

It's very late when she suggests you sleep, but you shake your head and claim insomnia and the rainbow drinker does not argue with you: instead she fetches your knitting and sets it back in your hands and commands, voice light and lilting, to please teach her, if that would be all right.

You knit until you can't see straight, until the false dawn glow of morning is visible through your unshuttered window, and you doubt Kanaya has understood any of the near gibberish you have said but that isn't the point. It's a focus and it allows you to relax and when your head nods one last time you don't resist as the plastic needles and warm wool are tugged gently from your fingers. Kanaya settles you in your bed and tucks pink blankets around your shoulders and instead of leaving she settles next to you, sitting on the comforter up against the headboard with one of your books in her pale hand.

"I'll wake you if you begin to dream."

You can't keep your eyes open to stare at her a moment longer and you have no energy to speak. You slip one hand out of the recesses of your comforter and set it on her knee, the first thing in reach, and you barely manage to squeeze it in thanks before you fall prey to your exhaustion and finally sleep, but it's enough.

It might be one of the kindest things someone has ever done for you and for once you can't begin to calculate how to pay her back through sarcasm and wit.

For the first time since you first woke up back home, you sleep without the nightmares.

 

==>Be Rose (later)

It's morning, nearing afternoon, and you wake up warm and comfortable and well rested for the first time in what feels like years (though it's only been just under two weeks). You're alone in your room but you remember Kanaya's presence and the book she was reading sits on your bedside table, bookmark halfway through the yellowed pages.

You feel... good. It's a poor adjective choice and yet there is no better. You feel balanced as you strip out of yesterday's clothes and step under the spray of the shower. You don't feel the need to scrub and scrub and scrub like you had in the veil, as if that would have cleansed the grey from your skin. You just wash to be clean; right now it's enough.

Fresh clothing and bubblegum aftertaste (you never grew to like mint toothpaste and your mother abuses it by buying children's formulas but you don't really mind) later you make your way downstairs where Kanaya is preparing breakfast. It isn't an elaborate affair but out of all the trolls she is the only one to have grasped the basics of appliances. Equius was (rightly) too afraid to touch anything for fear of breaking it and Nepeta had no idea how anything worked and even less interest.

You'd asked, in passing curiosity, how they fed themselves when they'd lived on Alternia. Somehow the idea that Equius had a butler cow centaur was less disturbing then the idea that Nepeta hunted for her own food and ate it raw. The fact that Kanaya's lusus had been too large to run her hive and therefore the girl had to become at least somewhat competent seemed perfectly normal in comparison.

Toast appears in front of you as you sit, almost like magic, and you spread one half with peanut butter and the other with honey and you don't care one whit that it makes a mess. You're giddy, the usual tension in your chest nearly banished and you give Kanaya a smile and thank her as she sits beside you. You mean for more than just the breakfast, but you suspect she knows.

There’s a note on the table, folded into a white envelope that’s been sprayed with perfume. Mother even sealed it with wax, how thoughtful.

Rose,
I’m off to the lab today, please be a dear and ensure the house is ready for all of our guests. I’m sure you’re up to the task!
I’ll be back in time for dinner.
Hugs and Kisses
~Mom

You mull over that passive aggressive underline and exclamation point and masticate your breakfast with perhaps more force than actually necessary. You suppose it’s a small blessing that she will be gone for the majority of the day. You don’t want to have to face her so early in the morning and you can only hope that the attraction of new guests will mean she’ll attempt sobriety when she returns. It’s a faint hope admittedly but you have lived your life on such things. It's really a shame you don't have time to respond in kind: you've been waiting for an excuse to use the local singing telegram service you discovered last month.

Kanaya waits until you're finished both the note and your breakfast to speak, choosing her words with her usual grace and precision, like a ballerina with a rifle. "I am afraid I have two pieces of information, both of which are troublesome. One is in regards to our companions. The other I may be wrong in my judgement of its importance, but felt should be mentioned nonetheless."

The tension in your chest teases you, clenching like a fist before letting go, as if it were trying to warn you of what it was capable of (as if you could ever forget). You forget your mother entirely to focus on the luminescent troll before you. "By all means Kanaya, speak now. You didn't have to wait until I was finished."

"I wanted to ensure that you were properly fuelled. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day."

You can tell she's quoting that from memory because she's trying to sound like Tony the Tiger without quite realizing it. You’re too worried to even twitch a smile; you raise an eyebrow and motion for her to continue, forcing yourself to appear calm so that maybe you can convince yourself.

"The first point is that Equius and Nepeta did not return last night. Their piles are not slept in. I looked to find sign of them outside your hive, but saw nothing."

Yes, that is worrying. You can't exactly mount a search party and you'd warned them not to stray too far. Your area didn't allow hunting and it was the wrong season for it entirely, buy you’re still concerned that perhaps a less-than-savoury hunter injured one of them. You hope fervently that it isn't the case, that they’re not hurt somewhere or lost or any number of increasingly improbable but terrible outcomes.

"All right. We can take a look through the woods and see if we can find them ourselves if they don't check in soon. What's the second point?"

Kanaya hesitates, looking embarrassed, but whatever it is that leaves her uncertain she decides to ignore. "Is it normal for your newscasts to repeat themselves?"

You consider that: you've never been particularly interested in the news, sensationalized and Euro-centric as it is, but you have occasionally watched broadcasts if nothing else than to research how mental illnesses were framed in the public eye and media. "Yes? I suppose so, if it was a particularly important or gripping story, or as developments changed. Why?"

"Because the broadcast has been the same today as it was yesterday as it was the day before that. They are occasionally speaking in-between stories but.... perhaps you should investigate yourself? I may be jumping to conclusions."

You dust your fingers off and follow her back into the living room. The hair on the back of your neck raises to see the black burn on the wall but you turn away and ignore it, forcing yourself to focus on your breathing and the television and Kanaya and not the physical proof that you'd lost control last night.

The television is turned to your local news broadcast because you only received a handful of channels and the national was always run with static. A woman with too much makeup and perfectly styled hair and frighteningly straight teeth spoke about a citizen being rescued after falling into the lake and of the talk to add casinos to banks to encourage people to save while they gamble. That sounds utterly ridiculous and exactly like the news, and you turn to Kanaya - you hadn't actually watched last night's broadcast to compare - when she holds her hand up for silence.

The camera cuts away to footage of a teen flailing in the water and a man jumping into the water to drag him out. The voice over is the same report you heard five minutes ago. "Maybe they wanted a chance to use the footage? If it just came in, I suppose they'd be willing to-"

"I have seen this same report of the youth in cold water and heroic rescue six times including this instance. It was first played last night while you were making the evening meal. It was repeated a second time during that broadcast. This is the fourth time I have seen it today."

"That.... is highly unusual."

"I thought so. I did not think humanity required this sort of repetition. Not only that but the event is hardly noteworthy: neither human seem to be of importance and neither died."

You can't help but shake your head at that good-naturedly and Kanaya frowns because she recognizes the look on your face. "Have I said something wrong? Please explain."

"No, no," you assure her. "I suppose the idea of human interest stories would seem strange to you. To make a complicated empathic phenomenon simple: humans enjoy hearing when things go well and when something tragic occurs but it all works out in the end. Our world is not a kind place even if it pales in comparison to Alternia, and we naturally gravitate towards stories that allow us to believe it is not as terrible as we know it to be. It’s a sort of defence mechanism, if you will. So the identity of the people in the story does not directly matter - in fact, it is even more poignant because they are apparently normal people. If the boy had been rescued by someone specifically trained to do so I doubt we would have heard about it at all."

"Humanity is very strange," Kanaya observes, looking thoughtfully at the television screen. This is her usual response to your more esoteric explanations so you're not offended in the least. And anyway, she’s quite right.

You smile instead. "Yes. We really are."

There's a part of you that wants to reach for her hand and make a ridiculous promise of explaining it all to her, showing her the world as if she were a cloistered princess and you her prince charming on a white horse, opening up doors and spreading out the landscape of the world before you both.

You reach for the remote instead. You don't know how to ride a horse and your knowledge of the world extends roughly one mile around the perimeter of your home. Your experience with romance comes from fantasy novels where you usually rewrite the relationships in your head so that the good-hearted paladin ends up with his best friend of years, the witty bard, instead of the lady knight. You've lived your life until now in psychology papers and fantasy, fanfiction and forums, Tolkein and Dante, Atwood and Nietzsche and right now you would trade it all in for a pink book with sparkles on the cover that gave you suggestions about how to talk to girls at parties.

What you want to say is thank you or maybe I think I like you or even do you think you could explain quadrants again, Miss Maryam, because I feel that I may wish to pursue one with you. Instead you say "Let's go look for Nepeta and Equius. We can research the news after we find them, while we wait for the others to arrive. With any luck it will be the result of a new director, or perhaps the editing team being sick."

It isn't a great hope and you recall what John and Dave have already shared about the strangeness of this reborn Earth and you fully suspect this is another symptom of a far greater problem. The issue, of course, is that none of the symptoms so far make any sense, and you have no idea what the problem might be.

Worse, you wonder if you'll have the power to fix it.

Chapter Text

==>Be Jade Harley

 

The morning of the day of your big trip halfway across the world to rejoin your friends does not start well. Twelve stitches and lots of gauze are not a good way to start any day, really. Even if it had been an accident.

You know Tavros didn't mean it. He'd never hurt you on purpose, but accident or not you don't argue with Grandpa when he tells you that you're not allowed to wake the trolls up anymore. He needed even more bandages than you did after Sollux had bit him when he'd come to rescue you.You feel very stupid for needing a rescue in the first place, but you couldn't help it. They'd all been growling and twitching in their sleep and you thought it was a bad nightmare. (You almost never had nightmares growing up but sometimes you'd be trapped in sleep paralysis and that was scary so you thought waking everyone up right away was the best idea.)

Well, you know better now and it doesn't hurt so much. Really the worst part is how angry Sollux is and how embarrassed Tavros is, but you know they'll get over it soon enough. Today is too exciting to worry about claw marks anyway! (And if the trolls complain too much you'll beat them up until they behave. Dave's already told you that's a pretty good plan.)

You've never left your island except when you'd entered the game and it's exciting and scary both at once, a bubble in your stomach like butterflies are dancing inside there and you have to explain to Tavros that you didn't eat any, they just sort of appeared (a little like magic) and they'll disappear the same way.

Grandpa has been working very, very hard to get everyone together. He opened his office back up and cleaned out all the dust and the family of flying foxes and it was almost like before, once you'd moved his old computer back and sheepishly changed the desktop wallpaper to one of his old hunting photos instead of your favourite squiddles fanart. Grandpa had patted your head and called you his little lady just like he always had in your imaginings and had spent hours and hours on the computer and the phone making arrangements.

Most of the time he was yelling. That was normal too. It was nice having him back after being gone so long. Now you didn't have to imagine that you can hear his cursing all the way through the house, because all you had to do was listen. He was even better at cursing now than you remembered, or maybe being dead made him better at cursing for when he came alive again. Though when you think about it Jadesprite hadn't been good at cursing at all when you’d resurrected her, so that might be a causation-correlation thing.

Since Grandpa was looking after the plans for everyone you looked after the house and island, just like you always did. After all, it wasn't like it was going to look after itself.

Usually, you wake up when the sun rises (if you haven’t fallen asleep only an hour or two before) and you haven't had your sleep trouble since your dreamself died, so it's nice to be able to get up and get lots of work done. You start on your garden first, making sure everything will be okay if you're gone for a while. It all should be: you made automatic watering programs and fertilizers and temperature controls for the greenhouse because sometimes you'd sleep for a day or two and miss your work. Sometimes you'd get hurt or sick and you'd not be able to do your work 'til you got better. The computers will manage things for you if you tell them to.

Then you check the island. This takes a lot more time than it used to because before you could count on Bec to teleport you home when you got tired. You miss him terribly, though not enough to want him back if it meant Jack had come with him. It was better to have no Bec and no Jack than have Bec and be fighting for your life again. It wasn't any fun the last time; it would have really fucking sucked if you were still fighting now.

Still, you miss him. You'd even gone and explored the temple in the hopes that he would find you and teleport you away, but all you found were empty stone walls and no best friend and you had to climb out again, disappointed and dirty. You tried not to let the others see that you were upset. They didn't understand how good a friend Bec was. The best. Your first too. So even though you have lots of friends now none of them are quite like Bec.

Tavros asked you yesterday what you were checking your island for and hadn't understood when you'd said changes. Of course, he was a troll and not a human girl and he hadn't lived on an island his whole life. He didn't know how important it was to note all the changes, watch the patterns and see if they shifted. The birds and fish were harbingers of the big storms, the bugs of the coming rain. The tidepools told you the seasons and the plants warned you of poison in the ground from the volcano. Lots of times you'd explore and find nothing different, but that didn't matter: the important part was checking to be sure.

You make it a short trip this time because you're leaving soon. You don't say goodbye to your house or your room or your swimming spot or the beach because you know you'll be back and besides they don't need goodbyes. You would have wished your animal friends goodbye if you had any, but Bec always chased them off. (That's why you can't be girl Tarzan, you explained to Dave once. Because you'd have to have a lot more cool animal friends who talked to you than just an awesome but jealous dog. He told you that if it walked like a goat and looked like a goat and sounded like a cat it was probably still a goat, though almost definitely one destined for YouTube. It was so ironic you still aren't sure what he meant.)

When you get back to the house, Grandpa is waiting impatiently by the front door. "Gracious, girl! Are you trying to give an old man a heart attack? Our ride will be here soon enough! Now go make sure those aliens of yours are ready, big day ahead, big day!"

He grins under his feathery moustache and claps his oversized hands and you jump up to hug him impulsively, planting a wet kiss on his cheek and then ducking inside before he can sputter too much about ladylike behaviour. Why you would possibly want to act like a lady you really don't know. You’d much rather act like Jade.

Of course everyone is ready, it isn't at all like you have much to do. The trolls don't have to pack because they don't have anything besides what they came with. It seemed a little silly to try to give them anything else, since what you had really wasn't what they needed. Once you are with Rose and Dave and John you are sure you'll be able to take care of things better. It will be cool to go shopping in person as opposed to on a computer, and it will be good to give the trolls some new clean clothes so they can do laundry easier. Trolls didn't seem to mind too much about dirty clothing which makes sense to you, but smelling bad wasn't very nice no matter how clean or dirty you were. And smelly trolls, you’ve learned, are really damn gross.

Sollux is still on his computer, still talking to Feferi. It's hard not to overhear him since he is talking, and that means overhearing how much he hates being here. That makes you sad because Tavros and Gamzee are having fun and despite everyone worrying Gamzee hasn't once tried to kill you except when he woke up and even then he'd gotten confused and just tore up the couch instead. Grandpa likes him too and Grandpa is an excellent judge of character - he told you so himself.

You really hate telling Sollux he needs to sign off and get ready, but it doesn't matter because he doesn't listen to you anyway. In fact he ignores you completely until you take the computer away and promise Feferi that you'll make him sign on as soon as you have internet again. He calls you quite a few interesting troll names and you fight right back and threaten to leave him behind if he keeps being an ass. Of course you don't mean it but Sollux just shrinks, like it's a real threat and he's suddenly afraid and all the anger is out of his voice when he asks you if you'll really leave him to rot here.

It takes ten minutes of furious hugs to make sure Sollux knows you'd never ever keep him away from his friends.

++++++++++

Grandpa shouts for you and you finish checking your house one last time. It is strange to be leaving it and you're trying to make sure you have absolutely everything taken care of. Now you're out of time so it just has to be enough. You're leaving and you don't know when you'll be back. You can't tell if you never want to return - or if you don't want to leave. Feelings sure are complicated sometimes.

The noise of the helicopter as you step outside is terribly loud and you stare in wonder as the blades slow, optical illusion that they're turning backwards slowly reversing until they finally stop. It's both bigger and smaller than you expected it to be, slick lines and black paint and a galaxy painted on the tail. Grandpa waves at you to catch your attention impatiently and you hurry across the grass to meet him. The others are already there, Tavros held in Grandpa's arms like he weighs nothing. (You've been working very hard to help his legs back to working properly again but you've only gotten to standing up so far. Walking was going to take a lot more YouTube videos.)

"Come on girl! Time to get those feet of your wet on some real travel, not those silly game shenanigans! In, in all of you. You too, Mister Tavros."

Grandpa hustles all of you into the helicopter and into your seats. You help buckle Sollux and Gamzee in and that's when the first problem comes. Because both of them get very upset.

Tavros leans over and unbuckles Sollux as Grandpa puts his hands on Gamzee's shoulders, and both have the same effect - the trolls calm down and stop trying to claw everyone. You hadn't realized that maybe they would think of seatbelts and harnesses as being trapped, but apparently it's a bad thing. You're almost twenty minutes late to take off because that's how long it takes to convince Sollux and Gamzee that you're not going to kill them or leave them stuck in the helicopter or all sorts of silly things. Grandpa does a better job of it with Gamzee than you do with Sollux: the blind troll spends the whole flight away from your island clutching his buckle and making sure he can undo it at a moment's notice. He's unusually annoying today and you're trying hard not to be too upset but it's really a pain.

Tavros at least sits quiet and patient and watches out the window in glee and awe. He's so excited to see the sky and the clouds you have to call his name lots of times before he hears you, like he forgot he was wearing his headphone radio things. Of course he blushes when he realizes you were calling him. It's very easy to make Tavros blush.

"Are you having fun?"

"Yes! This is amazing! We're flying Jade - I love flying!" His voice is scratchy over the radio into your ears, but it's easy to hear how happy he is. "I wish we could feel the wind! Then it would be perfect!"

Tavros doesn't stutter when he's happy. That's nice, and very cute. You wonder if you should tell him, but that would probably only make him embarrassed and he always stuttered then. Tavros happy is a lot better than Tavros talking to Rufio, you decide. Maybe you will tell him, later.

"Don't worry, my boy. You'll be well sick of flying by the time we're done, mark my words." Grandpa is very annoyed, and is sitting and grumping in his seat because the pilot thanked him for not smoking five times until Grandpa stopped. (He had tried asking very nicely too! But the pilot said no and that was that, which made for grumpy Grandpa. It's a bit enlightening because you never saw anyone say no to Grandpa, not ever.)

"I don't think I'll ever get tired of flying." Tavros counters, shaking his head, craning his neck to better see out the window beside him.

He's not at all upset about being strapped in like the others - he isn't even holding onto the belt. Tavros sometimes doesn't act like the other trolls at all. "How come you're not worried about the seatbelt like Gamzee and Sollux are, Tavros?"

"Becath he'th a wriggler." Sollux grumped, clawing at the seat, tearing lines into the leather. "He’th alwayth been a wriggler. If he didn't-"

Tavros' smile is gone, all gone and it makes you angry so you punch Sollux in the arm. "Shut up, fuckass. I wasn't asking you! You're the wiggler! It's just a strap and you can undo it any time! Tavros is being braver than you! He isn’t ruining things and making fun of people!"

Tavros is blushing really badly now, and biting his lip and looking at his hands and he's really silly sometimes because even when you compliment him he gets embarrassed. "Uh, no I'm not - not being brave. Not really. Um, it's just that I, um, I'm really used to being trapped? It was really bad, at first, um, in my chair. I was pretty sick for a while, until I got used to it."

"Damn right," Gamzee adds with a big smile that shows off all of his teeth. "My brother was all crazy in his thinkpan when I found him. We laid down some MERCIful MUSIC until he was better, I remember." Gamzee looks like he's about to say more when the pilot points out the sight of land and you're all distracted by landing (and getting out of the seatbelts) to think more about it.

Tavros is more scared than usual, stuttering and unsure as the airport people bring a wheelchair for him, but you think it's from all the flying and meeting new people. Gamzee insists on pushing him and growls when anyone tries to help, but that's just a troll thing.

Isn't it?

 

==>Be Rose

You and Kanaya have canvassed the outer rim of your immediate property to no avail. There are no indications of either Equius or Nepeta and while Kanaya is not surprised at the development, both trolls being adept hunters and capable of hiding their trail, you're worried. You think that you'll make your Mother purchase cellphones for the trolls so that you can remain in contact even if they adventure into the woods. Right now you wish you'd thought of it before the pair had left.

"What do you think our next step to finding the location of our missing companions should be?" Kanaya is stepping carefully through the deer trail that leads up into the mountains, being certain to keep an eye on you and the house. Neither of you want her lost as well.

"I suppose we will have to wait. I can check the local police and game department and see if anything unusual was reported. We can hope that they're sleeping now and in the evening when the others have arrived we can work out search parties. We can send up flares, if Mother still has some stashed in the basement. Perhaps they are simply lost and need a reminder to where we are." From what you have heard and seen of the pair, it seems unlikely. You hold onto hope nonetheless.

You turn back to the house and Kanaya follows so gracefully at your side that she is nearly floating, otherworldly even for a troll in the way her skin reflects the light of the sun. You had always been of the school that firmly believed that vampires did not and should never sparkle but you think maybe rainbow drinkers could be given the exception. Kanaya shines and shimmers in the light and she's beautiful and unsettling all at once.

She stops suddenly, spinning around and you're preparing yourself for strife even when you have no weapons and don't know the threat. She has her tube of lipstick out and you can't think of a better disguise or a more ridiculous one and you're both prepared as the sounds of a struggle finally reaches your ears.

When Nepeta appears you have a single moment of relief before you recognize what she's carrying and then the relief is completely overshadowed by panic. It's a mountain lion. A very dead mountain lion, carried across her tiny shoulders like Hercules would in stories of old. She looks inordinately pleased with herself. You can't help but think about the local animal groups and their insistence that the creatures were extinct in the mountains.

You decide proof of the creature's (former) existence is not what you need to be worried about right now. Right now you are looking at the blood the creature has spilled down Nepeta's back and undoubtedly trailed for miles behind her, and the fact that your area was considered a reserve and hunting was not supposed to happen (and yes it did, but that meant you had a very vigilant Parks and Rec marshal who you are sure is going to follow that trail back to your home and ask uncomfortable questions you aren't going to be able to answer).

Kanaya is fretting over Nepeta's jacket, as if that were the thing to be worried about at this instant instead of more pressing matters like the two hundred pounds of wild cat the girl has killed - oh God - with her bare hands.

"You look upset, Rose. I would think the return of our presumed missing friends would be cause of happiness. Nepeta's catch has disturbed you? Are large feline creatures considered inappropriate to hunt here?"

Nepeta turns to you with wide eyes that are shocked at the implication of wrongdoing and her bottom lip extends and wavers. You have never personally experienced the real-time display of the word 'wibble' before; you feel enlightened. Nepeta is... wibbling. It is surprisingly effective. "But Roooooose, how could it be bad to hunt him? It wasn't like he didn't defend himself! He tried really hard! And this way you don't have to worry about salmon-ella or germs or anything making us sick so everyone can have a nice welcome home dinner!" She's so proud of herself you can almost feel it, a wave of self assurance coupled with the sort of naivety that triggers feelings in you that must certainly be similar to the urge adults have to keep children from sticking their fingers into electrical sockets. It is actually quite difficult to be angry with her, though the idea of eating the cat makes your stomach roll.

You sigh and shake your head. You can see a losing battle looming in front of you and the resistance is token at best. "Nepeta, hunting isn't allowed around here, especially not in the spring. If anyone realizes what you've done, they'll bring trouble." You are beginning to fret until you remember that if rangers show up at your door, they are most likely going to see the trolls as human. That helps ease some of your worry, though the corpse hanging lifelessly from Nepeta's shoulders is still a sight to twist your heart.

You sigh, quietly and with great dignity. "Is cooked meat really that much of a problem that you have to hunt for your own food?"

Nepeta at least has the grace to look embarrassed. "No? But this was a gift? For everyone. A spurrprise for them since they had to come so far. We thought it would be nice, and beclaws we didn't have anything else to give them...."

"I don't have the slightest idea how to prepare a mountain lion for food, you realize?"

"Oh, I can do that!" Nepeta sees the walls of your resistance caving in and turns her million-watt smile to Kanaya. "Kankitty will help! She's meowvelous!"

You wince. "That pun substitution was terrible."

Nepeta answers with her most mature response yet: she sticks her tongue out at you.

"I will admit..." Kanaya begins hesitantly, sounding embarrassed to speak up, "that while the options provided have been acceptable to taste, I am not certain the nourishment necessary for our metabolism was quite present. It would be good to make an attempt with this beast, which would keep the death of the creature from being a waste."

Your resistance folds completely at that and you gesture for Nepeta to bring the thing to the back of the house. You know it's wrong and you could get into some kind of trouble if they find the corpse of an endangered animal in your back yard, and yet you can't quite bring yourself to care further. If your friends need fresh meat to survive, you'll happily sacrifice a wildcat or anything else to feed them. You just hope it won't be necessary.

Now onto more pressing matters. "Equius is with you? I hope he's hiding your trail." She'd spoke of herself in the plural so much you'd assumed she'd meant to include him, yet the troll has yet to appear. You aren't quite sure what to make of her facial expression as she turns bright eyes to you. "Of course we didn't leave a trail! That would be pawful. Equius is right behind us, he's just..."

She trails off and you start to worry again. You move with slow and steady grace from worry to complete and total surprise, with flashes of disbelief and horror alongside for flavour, as the troll in question appears. You cannot believe what you are seeing, and yet there is no way it cannot be true. You would not hallucinate this... this insanely.

Equius steps out of the tree cover with a black bear over his shoulders in a fireman's carry.

Kanaya has to place a hand between you and the solid, reassuring wall of your home as you begin to thump your forehead against it; your manner is somewhat overdramatic but you take comfort in it nonetheless.

 

==>Be Dave

 

"Holy shit."

"Dude."

"I think this deserves a bit more respect than that, kid. I taught you better."

"Dude, man."

"Better."

"What are you going on about?" Cane clutched in her hands, Terezi cranes her neck around in her seat, nostrils flaring to try to get a better picture of her surroundings and figure out what has you and Bro so appreciative. You don't think she'll quite catch it.

You knew Grandpa Harley had money - the man had a private island with a volcano, ancient ruins and a fucking radioactive dog. Okay, some of that had been a result if the game and timey wimey bullshit but nonetheless a man with his own fucking island implied more than rich. The proper term here would be closer to loaded. You knew he was setting you all up with plane tickets, but considering he was moving fifteen of you at once you'd expected to be sandwiched between a fat lady who smelled of cheese and wanted to show you her earwax collection and somebody's kid who refused to stop crying the whole flight and would probably hurl his pitiable snack pack of peanuts into your lap.

You've not actually flown before - but who needed experience when you had what mass media had taught you in advance? That's why it's such a shock, because you'd had a certain expectation when you'd hopped in the cab and Grandpa had shattered it like plate glass in a Bruce Willis movie.

Private airfield. Private plane. First class private plane. The whole thing is class. The fucking thing has a kitchen. You're almost afraid to touch anything. Bro's trying to chill back in his oversized and overstuffed armchair and you can tell he's just as shocked. This is the high life - and it's so foreign you can't say you even dreamed of it because it's so far out of your range you might as well have dreamed about being a fairy princess on another planet. The kind with a wand and a pony and sparkles and everything.

Your stewardess - there are five of you, a stewardess and a pilot - tells you to prepare for takeoff and points out the emergency exits with a thousand dollar smile, on the strange and unlikely chance you survive the inevitable crash and need to drag yourself from the twisted burning wreckage. What? Nervous? You? Never.

Terezi does her best to spoil the mood by licking the remote that's attached to her chair. You have to hand it to flight chick - her plastic smile doesn't move an inch. She demonstrates the personal television sets for Terezi and only wipes her hand discreetly on her skirt when she thinks no one is looking. It's something to know that the trolls read as human enough to pass airport security (though you barely had to do more than show your id, so much for worrying about the TSA) but their weirdness translates clear through. It would probably be better if you could do something about that strangeness, but yeah, you know a lost cause before you start it. Besides, there's something about how Terezi doesn't give a fuck about what people are thinking or doing about her. You respect that (and might maybe, though you wouldn't admit it ever, admire it).

The plane starts, the rumble of the engine traveling up through the floor and into your feet and shaking you to your bone. You're not gripping the armrest of your seat so hard you can hear the plastic crack. You're not staring carefully ahead at the TV screen in front of you, completely unaware of what it's even showing. You are not taking deep, steady breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth and pushing down on your diaphragm like the downward dog. You are not quietly grateful at the cool grey hand that covers your own and squeezes and that the owner doesn't point out all the things you are not doing, she just complains about how strange everything smells. You are Dave Strider, the fucking Knight of Time. You aren't afraid of hurtling through the air at a thousand miles per hour in a ten ton metal coffin you have no control over.

Strider's don't do fear.

++++++++++++

"Hey kid."

You've moved from the overstuffed armchair to one of the booths because you thought sitting at a table would maybe convince your brain that you were at a restaurant. It isn't working. You know that when this is all over you are going to hate yourself, but right now there's this ball of unfamiliar tension in your chest that you can't seem to shake and if you aren't careful your trembling limbs are going to fucking jitterbug right off the plane. You look up into Bro's shades as he slides onto the booth across from you and in an act of small mercy you aren't sure you deserve he doesn't mention the napkin you've shredded to a neat pile in front of you. (You keep trying to think of a cool reason to be committing napkin murder in the first degree, but you can't get past napkin murder and it's not nearly ironic enough on its own.)

"Hey," he repeats, head nodding and you realize he's got one earbud in. You can only make out the bass line over the sound of the plane and can't place it - maybe something new, maybe one of Bro's in-progress pieces. "You cool?"

"Dude, I'm so chill that when we land they better have security around, because fucking penguins are going to be swarming around, trying to get a piece of this ice."

"Is that so? Well make sure you're ready for egg duty, Dave. The boys are the nurturing half of that equation, or did you never watch Happy Feet?"

"Ugh, your taste in movies is almost as bad as Egbert's."

"A guy's gotta have his vices. Schmoopy movies, smokes, sick beats and booze keep the bitches at my feet."

You snort because that joke is one that never gets old - your brother hasn't been able to keep a girlfriend for ages and any bitches he may or may not have he certainly never brought home. He managed to suggest over the years with a smirk and raised eyebrow that he got what he wanted during his late nights out and you could never tell if that was sarcasm or sincerity and really didn't care.

The stewardess comes by and asks what you'd like for the dinner option - steak or chicken - and you go for the beef because it'll be a while before you feel comfortable eating anything with wings. Bro goes for the same and when the girl leaves he shakes his head. "Damn but Harley doesn't mess around."

"Yeah. Jade always gave off the filthy stinking rich crazy cat lady vibe. She talked about Gramps and all, but it's weird to see it."

Bro leans back, hands tucked behind his head, head nodding subtly to the beat in his ear. "Nice though. I could get used to this."

"Isn't that the plan? Get one of your mixes recognized and start your worldwide tour?" It was the dream, sure. His but yours as well - a way out and the high life all at once. Of course this is nice. It's fucking brilliant. It also doesn't feel real. Guys like you do not fly fucking first class and get offered wine with your beef or chicken meal that you are seriously suspecting will look like actual food and not some TV dinner.

"One plan, yeah." Bro stays silent so you go back to your napkin destruction, sparing no corner. Eventually the engine hum becomes a background noise and a little bit of the knot in your chest unwinds. Your brother is sitting across from you and if he's cool about all this you think you can manage to fucking fake it. It does make you wonder though...

"Hey Bro. You ever fly before?"

"No. Toured the desert to the west coast and back once."

That's news, something you've never heard him mention before. You're a little suspicious because it's the sort of thing you think he would have bragged about, you figure, sometime before. "What, you drove?"

"Naw, didn't have my license back then. Or a car." He holds up a thumb and wiggles it to show he'd hitchhiked the route, the sort of thing that you could apparently do when Bro was a kid but can't now because you'd just get killed by some sicko who'd wear your head like a hat through three states. Creepy.

You try to think why he'd have done it and not tell you 'til now, but come up empty of ideas except the ridiculous, involving drug cartels and chasing some legendary DJ or something equally stupid. You raise a lone eyebrow, bro-code for 'dish', and wait.

"I needed to get to Washington." A one shoulder shrug: bro-code for not the full truth, keep digging. Slouched with one arm slung over the back of the chair, the other flat on the table: uncomfortable subject, but not signalling to back off.

"What was there? Are we talking Egbert's Washington?"

Finger tap: getting close to something. Careful or you'll just piss him off and he'll turn it into strife to distract you. Strife on a plane is a bad idea. "Yeah. Where Egbert's from."

He ignored the first question: red flag, Bro never ignores questions. He deflects and lies and jokes and sometimes answers but ignorance is for losers in his book. Push forward; the bastard wants you to or he wouldn't be hanging around. "Why'd you go?"

Bro sighs. It isn't a sound he makes that often, complaining it's too common for his level of bigger-than- Lebowski cool. He shifts and rests his arms on the table and shit just got real because this isn't his usual air of disaffected cool bullshit. "I didn't know what the hell I was doing. Just woke up and grabbed my bag and thumbed it down 80, Smokey and no Bandits but a lot of bad food and one teen confused as all fuck until I walked into this pompous little cafe full of beatniks and lattes and met Amb- Ms Lalonde and Egbert - Ms Egbert - and Hass."

That takes a moment to process because it doesn't make sense, and when it does make sense you don't want to believe it. "What? What? Are you fucking kidding me? This is your attempt at distracting your little brother from the flying deathtrap he's stuck on? Let me tell you, Bro, it's weaker than Peter pre-spider bite. You are seriously-"

He cuts you off by lifting his shades, his red eyes piercing through the tinted lenses you are wearing like they weren't even there. "Kid, Dave, I'm being serious." The shades are replaced because no one can take a Strider glare for long, not even you, and you can count the times you've seen his eyes intentionally in the single digits. You shut up.

"I know it sounds fucking Twilight Zone here and trust me, I didn't believe the crap for the longest out of all of us. But you just saved the world and there's an alien girl who can taste colours trying to knock boots with you, I think I can put in a request for some suspension of disbelief here."

Your hands are fists on the table and you're not sure when you clenched them but you don't think they're unfolding anytime soon. It's just one thought that runs through your mind and makes your blood cold. "Are you saying you knew this was going to happen? And you didn't maybe think to tell me?"

"All I said was I met the other guardian-types on a harebrained trek across the country. Nice conclusion you're jumping to there."

The offhand disdain in his voice actually helps ease the clenched fists and the tension in your chest. It means your lungs seize up and make you choke when he continues.

"None of us knew what was going to happen, not for sure. We just knew something had happened and we needed to be ready when it happened again. It called itself a game, we knew that. We were pretty sure we failed when we played it." He shrugs and you have to remember to breathe. You want to reach over and punch him 'til those God damned anime glasses were a shattered wreck. You don’t because the plane is shaking from turbulence and love or money or hate couldn't move you at this moment and also, you know Bro. You know the little tells and tensions he carries and right now every part of his frame is telling you how much he hates this. Striders speak subtle, and Bro is practically screaming.

"What was I supposed to say Dave? Oh, by the way, at some point in your teen years you might get sucked into a game that will destroy everything and everyone you know and that if you win I don't actually know what happens but you probably save the world or something and if you die, well either you die or hell you might end up raising a kid and hoping he's better than you are? Tell me how I could have explained that to you, Strider. Please. It isn't like I spent years thinking about it."

You try to think of something to shoot that down with, an AK-47 of words in your hands and you've got nothing but blanks. What could he have said? Would you have even believed him? Even now you sometimes find yourself wondering if it even happened at all, and if you didn't have Terezi coating your face with saliva at least once a day you'd probably have more than passing doubt. If it wasn't so fucking complicated - private plane, private airfield - you would have believed it if someone told you this was all some hallucination and you were wrapped in cotton in a nuthouse somewhere.

You can't let it go at that, though. "You could have warned me somehow. You know, 'Hey Dave, do your homework; the world might depend on your knowledge of lava flows and frog genetics one day!' Something, fuck!"

Bro gives a smile that is all irony tinged with guilt and shakes his head. "I did, Dave. I did better than that." He holds out hands that are calloused and scarred, nicotine stained nails chipped and raw, endless years of holding swords and strife practice adding up. "I taught you to survive, didn't I?"

You can't respond to that because the last hundred hours of the session plays back in your mind like someone sat on the remote and each asscheek is pressing down on fast forward and rewind and fuck, you know he's right. You were the only one prepared for this shit. If you hadn't survived to jump back and create a new Alpha timeline you never would have made it out. John and Jade would be dead and you and Rose would have been left just waiting to die. You hadn't gotten the real details out of Davesprite because the flighty bastard couldn't manage much without getting all obscure on you, but you'd gotten the gist. Nevermind the Dead Daves. They'd been warnings all of their own.

"You kicked ass out there. Better than me. Better than I did, I think. You beat the fucking game and got everything back. I might be sorry I couldn't warn you, but I'm still glad I didn't. If I did and it fucked everything up it would have been worse."

Your brother has a point you really don't want to admit. If you'd known you know you would have told John. And then what? Timey wimey bullshit aside you know that just one event can change things pretty fucking drastically, you know it really fucking well. All it takes is the flip of a coin... You don't quite give him the verbal acknowledgement though, because you're stuck on one point. "You played Sburb? But Egbert said he made all of you the same way he made us - though I guess this is time bullshit again...”

"Yeah well Egbert was our expert on it. I got shortchanged on the memory department, but considering what Ms Lalonde went through I'm glad. I think we got stuck playing the same shitty game, but we lost. Don't ask me how or why because fuck if I know but..." He trails off for a second, hands snaking to his hair to rub at his temples and god, it is so fucking strange to see your brother act so damn human. You're used to him being invincible. "We all had dreams. Nightmares. I remember a desert that just wouldn't end and everything on fire, burning bushes that made me think maybe I just watched The Ten Commandments too many times. These creepy monkey things talking to me. Chess. We all fucking remembered chess was important." Bro's laugh is a little broken and that creeps you out more than the rest of the conversation combined. "It was such a trip to end up back there and see it all real. Like this was all some lie to just hold us over until you were old enough or something. Fuck.

"Look I'm just running my mouth now. The point is yeah, I'm pretty sure we played. Shame Egbert's gone because she was the best of us but we'll get Amber and Hass to sit down, see what we all remember. I don't know if that'll give us any answers about how weird things are being but hey, not like we have to keep it a secret any more.

"I just didn't want all of us dumping this on you at once. You deserve to hear it straight from the horse's ass."

Bro is staring at you and you aren't sure when you remember how to breathe again. The silence between you stretches and the realization that he's worried - that you can read him like an open book even with the hat and shades and perfectly flat expression - hits you like an oncoming train (from Seattle, 180 miles per hour). Bro's worried. He's worried about how you feel about him and the entire idea is so ludicrous you could spend a week at an open mic and still not have scratched the waxy surface to reveal the rainbow underneath.

Your Bro thinks you're going to hate him because he didn't warn you you were scheduled to save the world in between your Wheaties breakfast and After School Power Hour television specials.

Fuck that.

"You know," you drawl, voice painfully easy, "I think that's the most you've ever said to me in one sitting. Ignoring that Alanis Morisette is Not Ironic rant on New Year’s, because I promised to forget that ever happened."

"Dave..."

"Of course I'm pissed. But I'll get over it. You're right - you couldn't say anything without fucking it up. All things considered the shitty swords were damn good practice." You won’t do anything so cliché as lift your shades, but you might grace your brother with the rarest of Strider gifts. You smile. "We're cool."

"We're chill?"

"Dude, someone call Gore, this plane's carrying the cure to his global problems in its happy gas guzzling stomach. We're chill."

You seal the deal with a fist bump and it isn't a perfect ending because people like you don't get those (you’re well aware), but like hell are you making your Bro grovel for something when you're still too fucking happy he's alive to feel bad in the first place. Carrying a stupid grudge you'd resolve anyway is for the movies. You'd rather get this shit out of the way and focus on the more important things in your life. Like the fact you can live it.

You're a walking billboard to the slogan 'life's too short' and you don't care. Shitty concerned children’s agencies or whatever they were didn't even fucking know.

 

==>Be John

Flying first class is pretty cool. It's a bit more like Air Force One than Iron Man or Mission: Impossible, and so far you haven't seen any escaped criminals or poisonous snakes, but who knows! You're totally prepared for any eventuality. Okay, maybe not snakes, but you could totally handle the criminal element.

You just wish your suit jacket wasn't so hot.

"Why do you keep looking around, doofus? I have all the queens. Six queens are here." Vriska sets a pile of cards down on the table between you and her smile is all fangs in a way that is still a little creepy and a lot cool.

You shake your head and match her grin. "No way Vriska! I totally call that bluff!" You laugh as she shrieks in frustration and scoops up the whole stack of cards.

"You're cheating! You have to be cheating to see through my brilliant facade time and again you little wriggler!" She pouts and you try not to laugh harder as Karkat scowls.

"He isn't cheating. As hard as it might be for your tiny thinkpan to get used to despite numerous attempts to schoolfeed you, Serket, Egbert just remembers the thing you keep fucking forgetting." His scowl shifts and you are pretty sure that's Karkat's way of smiling. Almost all of his expressions are angry ones, but you are totally getting used to telling them apart. "Egbert remembers that human cards only come fucking four to a set, not eight."

You nod, attempting to look properly sympathetic. "Yup! You keep saying you have six or eight or something and that's so obvious I have to call you on it. Sorry Vriska."

"This is haaaaaaaard. Why can't we just add more cards so it isn't so stupid?" Vriska looks at you a little like the heroine who is totally about to ask the hero to do something important. "Right John? You'll take pity on me, right? Maybe you could take some of these horrible cards from me?"

Karkat starts that sputtering sound that signals he's going to do some really impressive swearing that always makes your ears burn when your dad is in hearing range (but he somehow is still ignoring it). You manage to cut him off before he gets really started because this time you totally agree with him. "No way Vriska! We already started the game; we have to play all the way through! Those are the rules - besides Karkat isn't having problems." The troll to your right scowls in a way you guess is victorious, and across from you Vriska's face is all disappointed for a second before she bares her teeth.

"Well of course he's better at the easier game. I bet I would totally make you both the 'asshole' if we played with a proper deck of cards!"

"We can do that next!" Oh man you don't want another fight not here especially since you don't think the windy thing and pressurized plane interiors are a good mix. Hollywood has taught you a lot about explosive decompression and you really don't want to have to find out if you're strong enough to fly while getting a world map view of ... well, wherever you were flying over right now. You aren't by the window to look and you haven't ever been that good about geography anyway. It'd be easier if the world actually had all those different coloured sections and lines and everything.

"We'll ask the stewardess if she has another deck! Besides, Assh- I mean President is a way better game if you play it a couple a times. That's kind of the point." Your laugh this time is pretty nervous but Karkat seems to notice that because he goes quiet and stares at his cards like he can see through them and if they caught fire suddenly you would not be surprised at all.

"Three aces." He sets down the cards and you're really grateful that he's not fighting with Vriska more. They really don't get along at all and Karkat has been angrier than ever at her since she tried the mind thing on you, even after you forgave her.

"Three sixes." You and Karkat are down to the last few of your cards, and it's pretty clear Vriska is going to lose this round.

"Three nines." You look at her smiling face but you're pretty sure she's telling the truth - she had to pick up a lot of cards.

"Four kings." Karkat - yeah, that is totally his version of a smile, even if he's mostly lineface and on anyone else it would be a frown.

"No way! I call that Vantas - do you really think you can lie to me?" Vriska is already pushing the card pile forward to Karkat when he flips his last four cards over - kings, all of them, the king of hearts with his sword in his head (that always seems so strange to you) looking up at her.

You manage to flag down the smiling stewardess and get a second deck of cards when the screaming stops, but it takes a while. Vriska is a really, really sore loser.

++++++++++++++

 

"Why do you keep yanking at your shirt, Egbert?"

You look over at Karkat and smile, embarrassed at being caught in the act. Your bowtie is already shoved in your pocket - it really hadn't lasted long at all. You want to take the jacket off and roll up your sleeves but that would mean Dad was right about this being silly and you might possibly be being stubborn about that.

"Oh, I'm a little hot." You don't admit that the collar is a touch too small and a bit scratchy too. That would be complaining. "It's okay though. We'll be landing in an hour."

"Why did you wear something so different?" Karkat looks at you in open curiosity and you realize he isn't swearing. Wow. "It isn't even blue."

You stare at your outfit and yeah, you feel a little silly about it but it seemed like a good idea at the time. "Well, we're flying first class! Only the really rich can do that and I was thinking it'd be cool to act like we were really important or something. I guess it's pretty stupid. And hot." You hadn't bothered with your dress shoes because they were stupidly uncomfortable so your sneakers peek out from your black slacks, yellow and dirty and out of place. You stare at them and make your toes wiggle, the canvas moving across them as you do so. "I'll get changed when we get in."

Now Karkat isn't looking at you, he's staring out at the landscape and scowling again - well, deeper than he was a minute ago. "Don't. It's nice to see you humans have some sense of fucking decency. It looks good on you, Egbert. Makes you look less like an idiot. Keep it - maybe we'll have to rely on you to get us out of some harebrained shitty scheme yet."

You give him a look of surprise that he somehow sees even though he's staring at clouds. "I've watched your movies, Egbert. You want the chance to be the hero again when some psycho clown from the wrong blood caste bursts through the floor and tries to kill us all, well be my fucking guest." He's angry - but you don't think he's angry at you. Of course Karkat is angry all the time, but this bothers you and you really wish you knew how to make it better.

"I'm not trying to be a hero... not like that..."

"Like what, Egderp?"

"Well, the way you said it... like... selfish. I don't really want something bad to happen just so I can do something cool." You hadn't ever thought about things that way, and now you feel shitty for even imagining snakes or convicts. You know exactly how not cool real danger is now. You don't even know why you thought it would be fun.

Karkat turns to you, his face all twisted up. "That's not what I fucking meant. Of course you're not being selfish, idiot. You're too grubbing incompetent to be selfish. Being selfish would take such a leap your thinkpan would risk never coming down again. You lack the ego to be fucking selfish."

...you really aren't sure if that makes you feel better or not.

"What I was trying to say - fuck it, nevermind. Just go, let Vriska beat you at your incomprehensible human games or whatever."

"No. We were talking and that sounded important, Karkat. Besides, we're friendleaders together, right? We have to be able to count on each other." You know Karkat doesn't like to be touched very much but you can't help yourself; you set a hand lightly on his shoulder and you think it's a victory that this time, he doesn't flinch away or punch you.

Of course, he doesn't look any happier for it either.

"Egbert, let it go."

You give him your best stern face and shake your head. "No way! Now I'm going to be curious and bother you until you tell me what's on your mind, Karkat. That's how friendship works!"

"If you were a troll I'd kill you."

You give him your best grin, the one that always makes you feel better just for giving it. "Then I'm really glad I'm a human. I bet you are too!"

Karkat's face goes flat, and that tells you that you said something wrong, because it only does that when he doesn't want anyone to know how he feels about something and since he's almost always angry about things it doesn't leave a lot of emotions he might want to hide. You don't understand it. Why would Karkat want you to be a troll? He was the one who talked about how lucky you were that you hadn't woke up on Alternia since you'd all be dead by now and you believe him. And if he wanted you to be a troll, did he want to kill you? Was this that black romance stuff again?

"Egbert, I was just running my protein chute because I gag at the idea if being forced to once again gather my vastly underused potential to deal with the God damned minutiae of your fucking shitty world. If some limbless reptiles or convicted but still surviving prisoners of your laughingstock of a justice system appear, I will let you handle it. You are clearly vastly qualified. You can call me when a God shows up and wants to eat our bloodpushers."

"I...what?"

"Pitiable fuck - if you can't listen to a properly prepared rant I am not going to fucking repeat myself. I answered your question, now leave me alone. I'm going to find some food."

He storms off towards the front of the plane before you can tell him he just has to ask the stewardess, and you stare at his back for a long, confused while. His shoulders are hiked up so high you can't even see his neck. He really is upset.

You wish you knew why. This wasn't how he'd been acting when you'd been playing cards, or before. You were wrong - he must be angry at you. Maybe he didn't like that you let Vriska win a round? But you'd both been beating her badly and she'd been really upset that her luck wasn't working and you hadn't wanted her to be sad.

You don't want Karkat to be sad either.

You're kind of glad that the stewardess asks you all to go back to your super comfortable chairs and put your seatbelts on. You're landing soon, and that means seeing the others. You're sure things will be better once you're all together again.

 

==>Be Equius

You are skinning and gutting a clawfurbeast, called a bear, in the back of Rose human's hive. You do not know what you are doing, not exactly, because you have never taken an animal apart to eat before. That was always the duty of your lusus, as was proper. You are very glad you have your moirail to assist you in the task, even if she seems to take an undignified amount of pleasure preparing her own kill.

You have found that it is somewhat similar to how you might prepare a beast for your own study, on Alternia. You certainly culled quite a few creatures to better understand their muscle and tendon and bone, layer pulled back by layer until you understood how they worked and were formed and you could replicate it yourself. Until you could build machines with muscles of fibrewool and tendons of steel, until they could move as gracefully as a hoofbeast - or would have, if you'd better understood how to program them, if you didn't so often ruin the most important, minute details so that when complete they would explode in your face. You always struggled with the fine details, with tasks that need a hand far lighter than your clumsy strength.

You don't need to be gentle here. It is a good feeling, to be able to act without the usual tension you must carry in your frame, to let yourself flex and pull and push and not worry about breaking anything, hurting anyone. This beast is broken already; you are turning him into something useful, and that is a pleasant way to spend the morning.

Your knife slices through fur and tissue with ease, your stomach churns at the freakish colour of the beast's blood. It had shocked you when you'd seen it and Nepeta had to remind you that all such things from Earth had this caste colour, one blood regardless of standing.

The thought seems highly inappropriate to you but you cannot insult your hosts by saying so. Especially not when it appears they are of a high caste themselves, the Rose human's own hive quite grand and well outfitted. It would be rude and you cannot debase yourself, despite your curiosity. You try not to dwell on ways you might do so accidentally, or perhaps inspire them to explain such matters unprompted.

Nepeta's creature is smaller than yours and carries less meat. You look at the pile of steaks she has managed from its carcass and quietly sigh. They are lopsided, uneven things, the stack decently sized but no two cuts of meat the same thickness. She is clearly pleased. Your own progress is slower but your meat is piled in sections as even as you can manage, large chunks that can be turned into steaks when they need to be used rather than a wild collection of meat. At least your moirail has managed to remain clean. Her coat is hanging over the back of the door to return to the hive, the only parts of her tinted garish red her hands, claws, and a small streak on her chin. She is cleaning her hands by licking them and you shake your head at her antics. She does not understand how to function in proper society and while it sometimes frustrates you, at times like this you pity the hunter who lived in a cave and needs her moirail to keep her out of trouble.

You leave her to her own devices for the moment – you will coax her inside later and the pair of you will get properly clean in order to be presentable when the others arrive, the Jade human and her lusus, as well as Nitram and Captor and the Highblood.

You are not sure how you will handle yourself when he arrives. Even after speaking with Nepeta about it – perhaps especially because of that conversation, your heart races when you think of him. You cannot bear to lose your moirail a second time. The question is if you feel capable of dealing with it.

In the meantime, you have a beast to prepare for a proper welcoming feast for your friends. The work is truly beneath you, but you don’t really mind. It is nice to be doing something constructive again.

 

++++++++++++++++

 

You are tense as the vehicle turns into the driveway. It swings wildly and screeches when it stops, dust spiralling sway from the back end. It seems ridiculously small, to carry so many people in it. You had imagined something far more grand. When the side opens and a human adult emerges you assume he must be Jade's lusus. He is large and shaped somewhat like an adult male troll, but he is too fat to consider healthy or a threat, and his skin hangs from him in a way that you hope must indicate age; it's very disturbing.

He moves to the back of the transport and you wonder what he is doing when the other doors open and your attention is wrenched away from the lusus and towards the highblood who is squinting into the sunlight. Gamzee Makara looks exactly as he has always looked, and it makes your knees weak and your heart pound and your blood burn. His expression is one of uncertainty, the painted smile of the Messiahs disguising it but you have always watched the troll, you had measured his face and the way sopor dulled his eyes and his voice but also his muscle control. How the way he poisoned himself changed him and you had hated it and been drawn to him and even now you feel like you are being torn in two, warring emotions battling for dominance in your mind.

You don't take your eyes off Makara, so you miss the way that the male lusus lifts Nitram out of the vehicle like a toy and sets him in a wheelchair not unlike the one of your own design. You miss how the human Jade guides Captor to her friends. Your attention is fixed on the highblood and he must feel the weight of your glare because he turns to face you - and he dares smile.

Nepeta yowls and runs to your side as Gamzee approaches and you want to send her away but you know she would not go. Instead you hold out your arm and she clutches at it, reminding you to keep your temper. She has her claws bared and she is hissing, soft and sibilant. To see her angry is a strange thing - she is beautiful like this, like a storm or a wild clawbeast, but she is also less troll, less the girl who is your moirail and you do not want to lose her to the wildness. You won't, though - not so long as she holds your arm, because she's making sure she won't lose you either.

You were made for each other. It is why failing her makes the bile rise in your throat, makes you sick and so full of self loathing you want to break things until you bleed, as if bleeding could release the anger and make you a proper troll again, as if bleeding would ever make up for what you had done.

You had died. You had died and you had enjoyed it.

Gamzee Makara stops in front of you both and the smile is still on his lips, his eyes unfocused and jaw slack from sopor poisoning. "Bitchin’ hive here too. Humans have the best motherfuckin’ ideas. How's my cat-sister and her main moirail?" He only half looks at you both and you think his eyes twitch but you after a moment you guess you imagined it after all.

You take a deep breath and imagine yourself made of steel, bone and muscle and skin hard and not quivering. You have thought on this, long and hard after you returned to the living on this strange world. You had thought about it in your dream bubble as well - but then the imagined circumstances had been different. Nepeta's weight on your arm holds you together, keeps you from falling apart.

"I think you should go away, highblood. I do not wish to speak to you or see you with my moirail." You are not sweating. You refuse to acknowledge the dampness that is trickling down your back and gathering on your hands and trailing, tickling down the side of your face. You are focused instead on the face of the highblood in case he takes offence, in case the subjugglator hidden under the sopor appears suddenly. You know Gamzee has not ever shown signs of it before and you don't care. He is a threat and you will not dismiss him for the joke you had once considered him.

Makara stares, looking startled, eyes flickering between you and your moirail. He shifts, settling his weight into a slouch, his hands finding a way into his pockets. "Whoa, buddy, what's got you so bitchtits tense for? I was just coming by to see you and the kitty. Share this whole motherfuckin’ miracle you know? We're all gonna be here...."

You gape, which is quite low of you, and struggle not to see blue. It creeps in at the corners of your vision and your breathing is ragged. You are soaked through; even managing this sort of insolence is an absolute struggle against the rules you have lived and breathed for so long. Only the fact of what Makara has done keeps you from collapsing entirely. You know you would not be strong enough otherwise. "Do not act as if we have forgiven you, highblood. Even if you were not acting as you wanted to, you still killed my moirail. I will not let you have a second chance." Your voice cracks a you speak and you are so glad for the glasses that hide your eyes and give you dignity in the face of this fiasco.

"What? I'd never hurt my little sister." Makara reaches for Nepeta and his hand is shaking. For all that his words are clueless his hand is trembling like a leaf in the wind, and he doesn’t touch her, pulling back when her hiss increases in pitch. "Kitty-cat's right here, gettin’ her hiss on, Equius. No one is grey and dead, we're all part of the miracle."

He spreads his hands wide to gesture to the alien surroundings and shoves his hands back into his pockets when he is done. You can hardly breathe, you are so furious. The very sinew of your frame is trying to tear itself from your bones. You shake Nepeta from your grip as gently as you can manage and you suspect you still hurt her but that is behind the brilliant haze of blue that has flooded your eyes. Your breathing is ragged but you force the words through your clenched teeth and ignore when you hear two snap under the pressure. "How dare you?" You can barely contain yourself and you could scream from the anger but you don't and the pain of holding yourself taut is good, is right, is deserved. "How dare you, you act as if you've done nothing? Hoofbeastshit!" You don't blush at the extremely rude language. You are in fact sad that you cannot think of something stronger to better express your fury. You wish you had consulted Vantas, perhaps. The way in which he destroys language is both lewd and poetic. You had never had reason to acquire the skill. Now you desire stronger words with which to strike.

Part of you, behind the anger, is aware that Gamzee is likely too high on sopor to remember what he has done. He had not been this Gamzee Makara when he had strangled you with your own bow. That rational sense is secondary to the rage, however, and is losing the pitched battle to keep you from making what might be a huge mistake.

The highblood - whom you are threatening, whom you are standing against and whom you will ignore if he gives you an order, yes you will, looks horrified. He whines. "I ain't gonna forget a thing like hurting my main sister. I wouldn't."

You haul off and hit him and you feel his cheekbone crack under your blow as your own knuckles pop. Makara goes flying, which gathers the attention of the others finally but you don't care. You would hit him again - you want to as he struggles to sit up - but Nepeta has jumped onto your back and you are too afraid of hurting her to move at all.

She is speaking in your ear frantically and you realize she has been speaking for some time. You had not been listening at all.

"...is all right Equius really you have to stop now please you're scaring me Equius you have to keep your temper Gamzee doesn't remember that's okay really please don't hit him again I know you're mad I am too but he doesn't remember Equius -"

"Nepeta." You interrupt and she stops, voice catching on the edges of her throat. "It is all right. I have regained control of myself. Thank you."

"Oh." She holds onto you for a moment longer. "You're done hitting Gamzee? I don't blame you but I don't think we should be punishing him and he was just talking...."

You huff and sigh, but nod. Your moirail is correct, of course. She usually is. There is a part of you that is amazed that you could raise your hand to someone so clearly your superior in the first place and yet you did - and the weak feeling in your knees has passed. Your clothes are still soaked to your skin but you aren't sweating anymore either. You hold still as Nepeta slides down your back and you give her a smile that has more gaps than it did an hour ago. Your teeth will grow back, your hand will heal. Makara won't bother your moirail again.

"What's going on?" Your human, Rose, asks the question as the group finds their way beside you. You try to find a simple way to explain and are stopped by Nepeta's gasp.

You turn to her but she's fine - you follow her gaze to Makara and expect to see him readying himself to retaliate, or perhaps find the face of the subjugglator over his usually soporific expression. Instead you find him sitting, staring up at you both with confused eyes and makeup smeared where your fist had connected - and as you watch you see three long gashes slowly draw over his face. They bleed purple sluggishly, like an old wound. You know those lines like you know the palm of your hand, the tools in your workshop. You look to your moirail, standing beside you, but her strife specibus is clean - she didn't touch Makara. They are from her claws nonetheless. You know the shape of their attack. This makes no sense.

Nepeta seems to agree - she is pale, her skin ashen and the green of her blood pronounced under her eyes and in the hollow of her cheeks. She looks like she has seen a culling drone and you must resist the desire to pick her up because the urge to protect her is strong.

"What on Earth?"

"Equius?"

You ignore the noise of questions to focus on your moirail, but eventually one voice cuts through because it says what you least expect to hear.

"Come on, Gamzee."

Tavros - brown blood flushing his cheeks and looking and nervous as he glances between the human and you and your moirail - holds his ground in his wheeled chair. "Gamzee? Uh, come on. We should look after your face... and, um, then you and I can explore the new hive. Okay? I'll need your help... the grass is pretty hard to roll on, by myself..." He sets a hand on Gamzee’s shoulder, and you see he’s done his best to put himself in the line between you and the highblood.

You look behind the troll at the welts he had made in the ground behind him - he had no trouble getting to Makara to begin with. You realize the reason for the lie as Gamzee’s eyes brighten and he unfolds himself from where he is sitting, long limbs still attractive even if your hate for him is entirely platonic now. He smiles and the wounds crack and bleed anew. He steps behind Nitram's chair and seems to have forgotten that the rest of you exist, that you had been close to culling him. He is as oblivious as he had been when you had tried to remind him of your death; it disgusts you.

"Oh brother, we are gonna get our motherfuckin’ explore on, fuck yes. Tav and Gamzee, slam beats makin’ our way though the human hive. Did I tell you how much a miracle it is? I been looking for miracles, Tavbro. They're everywhere..."

"I know, Gamzee. It's, uh, a good thing. I'm glad..."

You watch them walk away and find you think even less of the brown-blood than you once had. That he'd align himself so blindly with a troll who would one day turn on him - that he would try to fill a quadrant with Makara, and be able to ignore what the troll had done - would do - it was not pitiable. It was detestable. He was weak, even weaker with his legs of flesh returned, than he had once been.

"I do hope someone will enlighten me as to what on Earth that was?" Your human, Rose, asks this. Kanaya stands at her side, too close to be polite. You wonder if she shares a fascination with the humans Vantas seemed to in the veil.

"Why were you hurting Gamzee? He's been really nice and not bad at all you know!" Makara's human, Jade asks this. Her expression seems to be a cross between upset and angry, and reminds you almost perversely of Nepeta. "Just because he went crazy in the game doesn't mean he'll do it again. The game made everyone crazy."

"The wounds on his face. They were not there when he arrived. They appeared after you struck him." Maryam sounds as shaken as you are, despite her calm expression. She, at least, is focusing on the more important matters. "I witnessed it. Those were the same scars he carried in the veil, when I killed him. Why did they appear now?"

"If you're athkin thupid quethtionth, why don't you athk why Nitram got hith fucking legth back but ith thtill a cripple and my fucking teeth grew back perfect and my eyeth are thtill burned out and uthleth?" Captor, as impolite as ever to his betters (of which there are many) walks over, holding to the arm of the male lusus, clearly still blind. "For what it'th worth, Makara'th only been his normal miracle-thpewing annoying thelf. The thopor hath him calm. Better than Nitram and me."

Jade looks guilty and you follow her eyes to her guardian's bandaged arm. You realize she has a similar wrapping and the strange colouration under her eye is a bruise."I told you it was okay, Sollux. I didn't know waking you up would make you so angry! It doesn't even hurt that much. So stop acting so weird about it already, jeeze."

You are momentarily impressed. "You woke up sleeping trolls badly and survived? With only a flesh wound?"

"Oh like it’th very hard. I'm blind and Nitram'th only ath usthful ath hith armth reach. Don't give her that much credit."

You turn to Captor, blood still racing through your veins and he an easy target for the displaced anger. "Indeed. How could I possibly have given two lowbloods any credit for being able to injure a weaker, surprised human. I continue to be amazed you haven't culled yourself out of shame."

"Lithen, you hemothpectrum obthe'thed idiot -"

"While I hate to interrupt what looks to be a jolly good fracas, don't you think we should go inside and get ourselves settled? Strider and his boy should be here soon enough, and if the flights managed to stay on time the Egberts won't be far behind." The lusus interrupts you before it ends in strife, and sets his hand on Captor's shoulder. You're surprised the troll accepts it - he sags a little, relaxing. If the lusus had tried that with you, you would have been hard pressed not to break his arm. Of course, yellow bloods were notoriously calm in comparison to higher castes.

"We can certainly continue the discussion of strange matters such as our various states of being while inside Rose’s hive. We have prepared it for guests. I suspect we will need to explain the newest development to the others when they arrive as well.” Kanaya gestures and the lusus follows her, tugging Captor along. You watch them disappear and find the remaining humans are still staring at you.

“We didn’t think we’d have to do this until everyone got here and we could make it a big announcement and everything-“

“But clearly matters are forcing our hand.”

“It’s just that everyone is back and alive and that makes us really glad, because we didn’t even get a chance to meet you before most of you were dead...so you’re not allowed to kill anyone okay?”

Rose is smaller than you in every way, but the gaze she fixes you with makes you sweat anew, makes your shoulders tense and you fight not to duck your head. You have no interest in submitting to a human. “We realize some of you are in trouble with the others, and we will discuss that when all of us are together. In the meantime, while you’re enjoying our hospitality, we’re asking that you respect us and refrain from turning my house into a bloodbath.”

“So no fighting, fuckass.”

“At least until all of us are here and understand the situation better. Understood?”

Your heart races, you’re sweating profusely, and it’s all from a slip of a girl you could break with one hand. You do not understand your mind at all some days, and you reach for the anger that you still carry to prevent yourself from looking pathetically weak before her. “Of course I can control myself. It behooves me to agree to your requests for now as you have been kind to host us all. When the others are here they will discuss Makara. You do know he must be culled? Before he runs out of his pies again. Or you will be the first to die.”

“I don’t think he’s so bad!” Jade insists this, and it turns your stomach to nothing but bile. You hold out your arm and Nepeta latches onto it. It helps calm you instantly.

“I believed that once.” You admit through broken teeth and wounded pride. “I hope you do not have to die to learn better.”

You walk away, and because she is your moirail and would not leave you right now for any reason you can think of, Nepeta stays at your side.

You lied to the humans. You don’t feel wretched about it. Lying to your moirail has been far worse. The humans don’t really compare.

 

++++++++++++++++++++

 

==>Be Aradia

 

Airplanes have their own time. Flying inside of them feels strange, but you like it. Landing is very bumpy and a little scary but Mr Egbert holds your hand and tells you it’s just fine and you grin and tell him you know. Just because you know it’s going to be okay doesn’t make actually feeling everything shake not scary. Just less scary. He agrees with you then. He’s a very smart lusus and as much as you loved your own you kind of wish they had been as interesting and knowledgeable as Mr Egbert is. He’d asked all sorts of questions about your session and what you knew about John’s and it had been nice to talk to someone about it all in one linear setting, instead of jumping back and forth all over the place. It’s also a great distraction from Vriska’s yelling and Karkat’s anger and John being pretty clueless about everything. You are probably going to have to talk to him about things, which makes you laugh because you never thought you’d be a good auspistice but Karkat really, really needs one right now. You don’t think Kanaya will mind too much.

John’s phone chirps as you’re getting ready to get off the airplane and he does a little jump of happiness as he looks at the screen. “Hey! I think Dave’s here. His flight was late so they’re just getting off their plane too. We can see them early!”

No one really gets to reply because he’s running to the door before you get a chance to. You let Karkat and Vriska follow John rather than get caught in their arguments again, and wait for Mr Egbert patiently. You like that it makes him happy. You aren’t so sure about how he likes to pat your head when he says thanks, but you can tell he means it to be nice so you don’t complain.

When you get off the plane you see John was right. He’s a distance away, talking animatedly to Feferi and Terezi and Eridan. Dave is standing nearby, watching them all behind his cool kid shades, and his lusus is right behind him. It is funny how much they look alike. They even sort of stand the same way, like they’re always waiting for an attack.

When Dave sees you, he flashsteps his way across the spongy black ground and stops in front of you. He gives you the same nod he used lots of times as you met up in your sessions. “How’s my favourite Maid of Time?”

That makes you laugh. “I’m the only Maid of Time, Knight.”

“You got a point with that?”

You give him a hug, which he endures, and then tug him back to the others. You want to meet his lusus properly after all, and see how everyone is. Karkat and Vriska trail behind you and you realize Dave is tense right about the time they join the group. You realize why when you see he’s looking at Eridan – who’s trying not to look at Karkat and you can tell he totally is.

Eridan’s scared. You can’t help but think he deserves it a little, and doesn’t deserve it a lot.

“So.” Dave says, long and slow like he has all the time in the world. He always liked doing that in your conversations. “How long ‘til someone dies once we’re all together.”

You think about it for a minute, listening hard. The answer makes you frown. “Ugh. Only about fifteen hours.”

He stares at you for a moment in silence. “Dude, Megido. I was joking.”

“Oh.” You feel a little embarrassed now. “I wasn’t.”

He keeps staring. You can tell you’re blushing. “Sorry?”

“Oh fucking hell.”

Chapter Text

a toast, to second chances ♦ inner strength isn’t what it’s cracked up to be ♦ retreat is absolutely an option and fuck anyone who says elsewise ♦ kill the highblood ♦ at least it runs in the family ♦ just another set of scars ♦ and the girl said ‘we’re all mad here’ but no one listened

 

==>Be John

 

You see everyone as your dad pulls up to Rose's house and you don't wait for him to even park, you hop out of the car as it's still moving (and you have a second where you think about ducking and rolling but that would just ruin your suit) and you run to the group gathered at the top of Rose's super long driveway. Jade gets your first hug which she returns with just as much effort as you put in, squeezing hard as you smack each other on the back.

"John! You're all dressed up! I should have dressed up too!"

"That's Egbert, John Egbert" you say with your best James Bond impersonation and that makes Jade and Rose laugh, which is the best response and exactly what you wanted. You should have put your tie on so you could adjust it all cool like Bond, but it's too late now. You need to hug Rose next and she surprises you by beating you to it, wrapping her arms around you all fierce and strong. It isn't a Jade sort of hug, this is all Rose, and you wrap your arms around her back and hold on tight until she's ready to let go.

It's a long hug.

You break apart when you hear Jade squeal and she goes flying off the steps, running to Dave who has just stepped out of the car his brother drove in (right behind you guys) and Dave surprises you (and maybe Rose too, you think) when he steps away from the car and spreads his arms wide. Jade jumps and he catches he and spins with her arms around his neck and her hair and feet streaming behind her. She laughs and he laughs and you think how good a sound it is to hear Dave happy, to hear everyone happy. You bounce down the stairs and drag Rose with you and instigate a group hug to celebrate everyone being together again.

It's another long hug. No one really minds, but Dave eventually grumbles about how his cool is starting to get warm with all this physical contact and you take that as a sign to break off. You don't want to force Dave to refill his cool meter already.

Introductions take a while, but at the same time it isn't so hard to keep track of everyone. You hadn't met any of the trolls before Karkat showed up at your house, but somehow their names stick. It probably helps that they wear their colours right on their shirts and are really distinct people. You'd have a really hard time confusing Nepeta and Terezi, for example, even if they're both greens.

Rose has everyone come inside and wow, it's just as nice as you remember it. More nice maybe, since things aren't broken and moved around and everything now. There are a lot of wizard statues, and the giant one is kind of creepy.

Everyone is hungry, so the suggestion of sitting down to food and talk is a good one. You have a lot of talking to do, better to do it on a full stomach.

You're pretty impressed by Rose's dining room when you walk in, because the table is so huge you almost ask her if she'd alchemized it just for the day before you remember you can't do that anymore. It seats most of you, and she's pulled out extra chairs and some standing tray things for the rest of the guests. You were a little worried that there'd be fighting over that, but the fact that half the table is eating raw bear meat (groooooooosssss! And also really cool!) And the other half are eating Chinese takeout splits things pretty well.

It also isn't everyone. Apparently Gamzee and Tavros are taking care of things or being weird (depending on who was speaking about it) which is kind of strange but you're sure you'll see them soon enough. They'd gotten in a fight with Equius, who is sitting with Nepeta and looking serious and Doesn't Want To Talk About it - whatever it is. Actually, pretty much all of the trolls are grumpy and growling. They're totally happy to see each other - well, mostly - but they don't know how to appreciate a good group hug.

What's actually the best part of dinner is the fact that even with all the grumping and growling everyone is trying to get along. Karkat's not bugging you about leaderthings because he's sitting with Sollux and Feferi and he looks happy - actually he looks really happy, and that makes you happy too. You really want Karkat to be happy here, maybe the most out of all your troll friends.

Vriska latches onto your arm and the smell of raw meat is kind of thick but it's not bad, just weird. She drags you out of your daydreaming and to your seat - next to her, right at the spot where the humans and trolls split - and everyone sort of looks at you when you sit down and oh wow, you aren't used to being this much the center of attention. Even your dad and Rose's mom and Bro and Grandpa Harley are watching you.

Karkat's watching you too.

You grin at everyone - everyone alive and everyone okay and everyone together. "You all look like you're waiting for a speech!"

That makes them chuckle, which eases the tension in the back of your head and in your stomach. You're a friendleader yes, but you don't have to be perfect now. A mistake won't kill everyone. It's a really big relief to know that - that you have all this help and that together you will be unstoppable. No matter how strange things are, you'll figure it out together.

"Perhaps not a speech, but I think a toast is in order." Ms Lalonde's voice carries from her end of the table and she lifts her wine glass. "If you would be so kind, John?"

You reach for your glass immediately, because dad raised you to be polite. The trolls all look a little confused so you raise it up and smile to show them it's supposed to happen. "Well I haven't really made a toast before..." though you have totally thought about it. One of your favourite parts of movies is when the hero gives a speech right before something big like a battle. That's like a toast, right?

"Why do you have to make food?" Vriska sits with one arm on the table, head propped up on one hand to look at you. "You've made toast pleeeenty of times. It's what we ate for breakfast, John."

"Well this is different. It's like.... saying thanks for the things you're happy about!" You stand up, so you can better see everyone. What to say, what to say.... "Well I guess I want to say that we did it! We beat the game and everyone is alive and together again and that's great!

"And I know things are pretty hard right now and everyone has a lot on their minds and we only just got back together and everything, but I think we should all be really proud of ourselves! I mean, everyone helped do something! Even if you died in the veil, you had to survive to get to the end of your session first! And if you hadn't done that who knows how badly everything would have been messed up?" Wow, toasts are hard. You are getting off track and some of the trolls are looking kind of embarrassed. You don't want everyone thinking about sad things - whoops? "The point is, well, we're trying to figure out why things are so weird but no matter what the hard part is over! And if some new Jack or anything else tries to mess with us - we're going to stand together! We're united and... and we won't go quietly into the night! And we won't give up! We'll fight! We'll survive! We're free! Today is... um. Today and tomorrow..." You falter, because the ending in your head is really not going to work here. You raise your glass hurriedly. "So, here's to surviving and making new friends! Cheers!"

You sip from your cup and the grape juice is a little bitter but wayyyy better than wine. Everyone - well, all the humans raise their cups and they clack together instead of clinking because glass and trolls is a bad idea, and Rose learned that as quickly as you did. The trolls all sort of stare but then Karkat raises his glass to Kanaya and the pair of them toast and then everyone is doing it (some a bit more excited than others).

"I can't believe you paraphrased Bill Pullman at this group. Seriously, Egbert, I weep for your absolute lack of irony. You meant every word. I might have to punch a bunny just to balance out the mancred in this place." Dave's being nice though, since he says this under his breath to you.

You feel your cheeks get hot and laugh to hide your embarrassment. "Oh, I was kind of hoping no one would notice? Speeches are hard, dude."

"Not notice? That shit was your status for a fucking month."

"Well next time you can give the toast."

"No way Egderp. Striders only do that sort of thing at weddings of good friends when they're two drinks under, and funerals when they're four. Besides, you did good."

You stare for a minute because Dave isn't the kind of guy to give compliments and you know that when he gives a straight one he really, really means it. "I did?"

"Yeah. Think this is the first time I've seen this group not ready to kill each other out of spite. So good one. Now you just have to keep it up."

You want to ask what he means by that, because sure people are tense and everything but they're not that bad, and you're sure the whole Terezi thing will just be a misunderstanding, but Aradia pushes Karkat to make a speech for the trolls and then you have to join in convincing him to speak. He finally stands and grips his cup really tightly but it doesn't break and he stares at everyone so intently you go quiet.

"To second goddamn chances,” he finally says, voice quiet and harder than you really expected after all that cheering and laughing. Then again, Karkat hadn't been laughing. "To getting to do it fucking right this time even if it isn't how any of us wanted."

He takes a drink that is really more like a swig and before you can say anything it's Grandpa who answers, his 'hear hear' all gruff and sombre, and Bro and Ms Lalonde all click their wine glasses before the rest of you join in.

Dinner is a little quieter after that, but you don't think anyone minds. You have a lot of things to think about. You suspect the others do too.

 

==>Be Tavros

 

"And I am telling you no, God damn it! Get it through your fucking thinkpan already! How many times do you want me to say it before you grasp the concept I am shoveling down your protein chute? No fucking way are you pulling this shit."

"Karkat, we're not in the glubbing game! You're not the leader anymore! Terezi has a point if you cod just listen, and I agree with her."

"Of course you do! You don't fucking give a shit about any of the idiotic bulgelicking grubs you want to cull! And oh, that's just fucking perfect Piexes - I can be the leader when the shit is raining so hard on us that the actual filth is likely to choke us if the smell doesn’t do us in first, but the minute some decision making needs to happen you want a fucking vote? Go to hell. We're not killing anyone." A pause. "No matter how much they deserve it."

"Seriously, Gills, you need to back off."

"And you need to flipper off and mind your own glubbing business, Dave Strider!"

Well.

That doesn't sound very good.

You wheel your way into the meal consumption block carefully - Rose had done what she could to make the space easy for you to navigate, but you only just fit through the doors and if you don't watch you'll smash your arms on them and you hurt enough already you don't need more bruises. The room goes quiet and that's another bad sign right there.

"How's Makara?" Karkat asks you, actually sounding worried. You aren't sure what his relationship with Gamzee is - but you never complain because you don't really know what your own relationship with Gamzee is, sometimes. Most of the time, actually.

"He's fine." The lie is quick and easy to say - you don't even think about it, it just falls from your lips and hangs in the air. "He's, uh, had some pie. He's sleeping now. He's still Gamzee." These are at least truths. "I came... uh, is there any food left?" Your stomach growls as if to underline the point and you duck, embarrassed.

"Oh! Of course there is!" That's Jade, who moves like a whirlwind and smells like things growing under the ground and you really like her though you can't tell in what direction anymore so you decided not to worry about any quadrant at all and maybe you could find one with her later once you had figured everything out. She speeds around the table, collecting leftovers that are absolutely making your mouth water from the smell already. When she's halfway piled a plate, Vriska smacks her.

"Let Tavros get it himself, Jaaaaaaaade! The little wriggler won't get stronger if you help him like that!"

That hurts, because you have been working hard to get stronger and Jade has been helping you. You try to remind yourself that all of Vriska's plans for you getting stronger meant you ended up dead or badly injured. That only helps a little.

Jade helps a lot. "Vriska?" She stabs a big piece of meat with a fork and sets it on the plate and gives the troll a smile you haven't seen on her before. "Hit me again and I'll stab you with a fork. Now shut up, fuckass. You are officially on the not allowed to help list."

"What! You can't tell me-"

"Yup! I totally can! Killing somebody officially makes you a bad kismesis or a really really bad matesprit or a shitty friend. Take your pick! You're the worst no matter how you look at it!"

"Jade..." you start, because you don't want a fight over you and Vriska had only been doing what was normal for her. Even if you didn't like it at all, it was just... how things worked. She hadn't really been wrong.

"You shut up too, Tavros - about this, anyway. I want to help and helping you eat and rebuild all the muscles you've been using is totally a good thing. It'd be bad if I was going to try to like, feed you like a bird or something but that's kinda gross. Here."

The plate is lukewarm in your lap but you don't mind. You're hungry enough that you dig in right away, embarrassed that everyone is watching but not enough to stop.

"That’s the point, Karkat! They have to be held accountable! Justice shouldn't just be ignored because we aren't on Alternia!" Terezi is flushed and doesn't look well. She's clutching the table, glaring at everyone with all her snaggleteeth bared. "Tavros! Do you want Vriska to pay?"

She seems to realize the mistake in asking you the moment she says it but you rush into the gap before she can change her mind. "No, not really. I mean, you, um, already killed her once. Shouldn't that be enough? And Gamzee and Eridan died already too and they shouldn't have to die again just because people are still mad. If you're still mad that's your fault. You should, uh, learn to let that sort of thing go." You debate reminding her that on Alternia it wouldn't have been any trouble for Vriska at all, because she was so much higher than you were, but surely she'd remember that herself?

"Exactly! They died once already. If that isn't 'fair' enough for you, Pyrope, you can choke on your cane and I'll fucking help. You too, Peixes. This conversation is over!"

"You don't get to decide what happens Karkat! This is about all of us! Fine, if Tavros forgives Vriska, well they were kismesis. Accidents happen!"

Your eyes snap to Vriska and she's in your head, she's digging in and telling you yes, that's how it happened, you'd had a blackrom fight. A blackrom fight, not that you'd gone to kill her yourself when you'd discovered what she'd done. You want to speak, to call out - and you can't. You hate her so much when she does this, so very, very much. You can't sustain it - but when you're trapped like a bleat-beast, later doesn't really matter. Right now you wish you could tear her apart.

"It doesn't excuse Eridan from killing me and Kanaya, blinding Sollux, and destroying the matriorb." Feferi actually sounds a little like Gamzee on his bad days right now, and it's scary.

"But... maybe we shouldn't be blaming Whiskers for what Fishbreath did?" Nepeta sounds hesitant but she looks fierce, meeting Feferi's eyes in a way you wish you could. "Gamzee does seem better, if he has his pies..."

"I am not blaming Vriska or Gamzee for what Eridan did!"

Kanaya’s voice is so serene it’s like she’s not bothered by the argument at all. "I would say that you are, Feferi. You have continued to speak of all three trolls as one single individual, perhaps with three heads and six legs. Their actions did happen one after another but I do not believe they were working together and should be tried separately."

"Fine. Eridan's guilty. That's shore. Gamzee's crazy and I can't control him the wave the Condesce would. How do we know he won't do the same thing over again?"

Vriska tries to make you speak. Everyone looks between you and Equius and Nepeta. You hear Equius state that Gamzee needs to die, that the pies won't last forever, and hear Nepeta's agreement, however halting. She supports her moirail. Well you're Gamzee's.... something and and and he's dangerous and should be culled before he kills you you you scared little wriggler just say it say it say it say it!

"No!" You gasp for breath - you'd been holding it to fight Vriska's control and now your chest is aching. You rush to speak again before you lose your nerve or your newfound control. "Vriska! Vriska is the reason Jaa-ack!" Your throat closes and you freeze - you can't move you can't breathe and your mind is yelling at you - Vriska is yelling so loud you're crying and you can't even blink to clear your eyes. Everything is brown and you realize you’re not holding your breath, you’re suffocating - there’s an iron hand on your respiration sacs that won’t let go. The brown gets little fireworks around the edges of your eyes and then everything goes black.

When you come to, your aural sponges are ringing and you hurt even more than you did when you'd wheeled yourself in. Jade is looking over you worriedly, just far enough away to be out of arm's reach. "Tavros? Are you okay?"

When you nod - and don't try to gore her with your horns the way you had in the morning - she smiles in clear relief and gives you one of her typical hugs. "Oh I could hit her so hard for doing that!"

You look around. Vriska is no longer with the group and panic seizes your bloodgusher. "Where is she? What happened? You didn't cull her did you?"

She frowns at you, but doesn't follow up the annoyance with a strike the way the others usually did. She pats your shoulder instead, which is strange. "Of course not, silly. That would be stupid. We're pretty much agreed that no one is dying right now. But you need to explain what you meant about Jack; Vriska ran off before we could talk to her!"

"You agreed?" A glance around the room at everyone left doesn't really look like anyone is agreeing about anything. Everyone looks really upset and maybe confused but mostly angry.

"Yup! Well we had decided before, really, but Rose said it would be beneficial if we let you all argue it out for yourselves for a while. Except that really didn't work..."

"We?" You feel like she's having a conversation with another person. Maybe someone who knows what's going on, not a troll whose head feels like it's full of grubsauce.

Jade explains and your head sort of aches when she's done, because it's nice - really nice - that the humans are trying to protect everyone and don't want any culling but you want to tell her it doesn't work that way. Not for trolls. If Feferi and Terezi and the others have agreed to leave things 'be' for now, it isn't that they'll just forget about it. They're going to wait and watch and they'll pounce the minute they think they see a weakness.

You're going to have to stick even closer to Gamzee. That's... a conflicting thing. You'll do it though. Of course you will. You're good at looking after Gamzee.

Explaining about Vriska and why you had tried to kill her and why she had killed you instead - which is hard to talk about - takes longer than you'd like. Everyone has questions you don't always know the answers to and the point wasn't to get Vriska into trouble. You're not looking for revenge, there's no song sitting in your head, no make her pay like the Subjuggulators sing. You just want everyone to realize things were really even more complicated in the veil and also, Vriska might maybe have more friends than Gamzee and Eridan right now and maybe if they didn't want Vriska dead they'd leave Gamzee alone. It is not a very good plan, but you aren't very good at plans.

You aren't very good at anything. You settle for doing the best you can and hoping it will be enough. It never has been before, but you're an optimist.

 

++++++++++++

 

"Nice work, Nitram."

You are halfway down the hall to check on Gamzee when Dave's voice carries to you. You turn your chair - it moves very well, light and manageable and your mind can barely believe what Grandpa Harley had said about it being just 'a cheap thing' and he'd buy you a better one if you needed it. You don't know how it could be better.

Dave is looking at you from behind his glasses. He's curious, you can tell, but you're not that great at reading him. "Dave?"

"In the jumping-jack-flesh. Know you're sitting there blown away by the sickest dude you've ever laid freaky yellow troll eyes on but seriously. Are you avoiding me?"

He's gone from a compliment to asking if you're avoiding him and it takes a second to translate it. "Uh, no? I'm totally not... avoiding you..." Instead you were giving him space because every time you'd tried to pester him...

"See that hesitation? I can't tell if it’s that stupid-ass stutter of yours or if you're lying. Dude, you finally get a chance to meet One Dave Strider and I was thinking I'd have you way more up in my grill than this. Not that I'm asking for any sort of troll double-entendre here, my grill is happily occupied with Miss Pyrope thank-you-very-much. It's just a guy sort of expects that when a troll promises to show him his sick fires, there’s some heat to follow that up. Right now my life is devoid of fires. I am prehistoric man and I'm prepared to be disappointed but I thought you were going to be Prometheus here."

You only understand one sentence in two when Dave gets like this, but you've had practice picking the important bits out of the cultural baggage that you were only barely beginning to grasp.

"I thought you were mad at me,” you admit, hands twisting the fabric of your pants. It's still so strange to be able to feel that - feel it and still be helpless, feel it and still be broken and useless. Jade is sure you'll be able to walk again but sometimes you wonder if she's just being nice. "You were acting strange, um, on Pesterchum? And I didn't think meeting you like this was all that exciting... I thought you wanted to wait, ‘til I could walk again..."

Dave sputters and steps into your space, looking down with his arms crosses over his chest. "Dude. You think I'm the sort of asshole who's going to judge you for being fucking handicapped? Do I really come across like that sort of neckbearded dickwad to you?"

"N-no! I - we - you..." you are blushing furiously and you know it, but at least the hallway is dark and Dave is wearing his glasses. He won't see it. You have to take a breath and steady yourself because this is Dave, and you can talk to him. You think you can, anyway.

"We had all those plans, uh, for when we got out and you wanted to show me all your things and I bet I can't even reach your board, now, and I don't want to be a, well, um, a burden so -"

"Tavros, dude, seriously I have no idea what you're talking about. What plans? The last chat we managed was you laying down some decent lines and then running the hell away when you couldn’t take the heat of my rebuttal. Then you got your ass killed."

"Not in the session?" You feel suddenly, horribly sick. "When we were dead. Don't you remember?"

Dave is silent. So very silent.

"D-Dave?"

"I didn't die. I'm alpha. No omega or beta or anything else." He's speaking slowly, like he's trying to control his reaction, like he's thinking everything out as he speaks. "Sounds like you had a - a Dead Dave. Sorry to say their memories didn't end up in this fucking thinkpan when the universe sat up and shat us all out." His voice cracks, just a little, and you're stunned to hear he's upset. It takes a lot to make him visibly upset.

"Um, it's okay, Dave? We can still have that rap battle, if you want?" You hate seeing him upset. You hate that he doesn't remember. You hate that you and your Dave had always assumed that if things got fixed, the universe would fix everything.

You wonder if your Dave had ever worried about this and didn't tell you. It's the sort of thing he would have done.

"It's not about the fucking rap battles,” Dave grinds out, then pulls himself up so he can shove his hands angrily into his pockets and try to pretend he's not bothered. "It's the fact we had a whole fucking pool of dead everyone and somehow most of us came back. What, did all the dead me's just end up royally fucked and ground to dust? Are they just floating around somewhere cursing me out? Or is there a bunch of me walking around downtown Houston wondering why the hell the apartment's empty?"

Your bloodgusher is somewhere in your stomach and your hands clench in worry; this is how Dave sounded when he started blaming himself for everything, when he’d remember his lusus and then lock himself away in his dream bubble and not speak to you for days at a time. "I don't know... but Dave, it isn't your fault... I don't think they'd blame you. "

"Why not? I'd blame me and I am me. Of course they'd be fucking pissed about it." He drags his hand through his hair, trying to ease the stress, and sighs. He steps back. "Sorry, Nitram, don't mean to flip my lid at you. Looks like there’s still room on the weird shit that surprises me list."

He turns away from you and you want to catch his shoulder, turn him back, suggest a movie or a game or make him tell you about the skateboard trick that broke his arm again - but you don't. You can't reach him from where you are and he's already moving away. This isn't your Dave, and maybe you're a little (a lot) hurt about that too.

"I gotta go figure this out, Nitram. I'll catch you later." He stops before he's out of the hall and looks over his shoulder. "You know, I meant what I said at the start of this shit. Good job back there. We very nearly had a corpse or two at the table. You stopped it."

You try to tell him you didn't do anything, not really, but he's gone before you can speak.

 

==>Be Vriska

 

You are not fucking running away.

You are retreating to regroup. You are gathering yourself for a fresh attack. You are readying yourself against their stupid accusations and glares and total inability to understand what you did or why. You are not afraid. You are Vriska Serket and you are the best at everything you set your mind to and that might possibly include self delusion.

You stop outside the hive and breathe and breathe because your chest is tight and close and you don't understand why. You feel bad and you fucking hate it. It's weak and stupid to feel guilty (you're not guilty), and the last thing you will ever be is weak (because you are never going to die. Not again), but your body is a traitor and if you could smack some sense into yourself you would.

Stupid Tavros. Stupid stupid stupid. How dare he actually shake you off? Nevermind that you'd always wanted him to learn how to and he never did - not even when it was his life on the line. The fact that he somehow managed to for Gamzee makes you furious and jealous and sick. Stupid Tavros, spilling your secrets like they weren't yours and yours alone. Like he had any right to. Stupid troll. Couldn't do anything right, not kismesis or matesprit or anything at all.

Footsteps behind you and you grab your dice because you won't ever be unprepared but you turn and grin because you knew John would come and find you, you knew he would.

"Heeeeeeeyyyyyyyy- oh."

It isn't John.

She glows now. You noticed it before of course but at times like this your mind is tricky and likes to focus on stupid shit instead of what it needs to do, which in this case is not get chainsawed in half. You can't manipulate her outright which is one of the things you've always liked about her but right now you wish you could, but because nothing is ever easy life isn’t easy so you don't waste time pitying yourself: you jump right into saving your skin.

"Maryam," you smile because you won't ever show you're scared. Not of her, not of anyone. "Did they send you out after me, fussyfangs? Not very nice, sending a troll like you after a troll like me allllllll alone."

She doesn't even blink. Her lipstick tube sits in her hand but that isn't so much a direct threat - your dice are in yours after all. You'd think less of her if she'd come unprepared, really. She doesn't smile and she doesn't blush, instead she tilts her head, inclines it ever so slightly and is that - is that contempt in her eyes?

"Is Tavros correct?" Her voice is so fucking perfect, her face composed and still and you just want to tear it off. How dare she stand there and try to judge you? "Are you the cause of Jack Noir's rise to a position that rendered us incapable of killing him?"

Stupid stupid Tavros. "Is that what the little wriggler is saying? And you belieeeeeeeeve him?" You really wish you could think of a way to turn this to your advantage, but your mind is a tricky traitor and gives you nothing still. That's why you ran - retreated. Strategically. You can't think of a way to make this look good to the bunch of bleatbeasts you call your friends, and out of everyone Kanaya's always seen through your shit better than most.

She's still, like water, and you can't see what she’s thinking, not even with all eight eyes. She's been your friend for so long and she's standing there staring at you like she can see right through you and you have nothing on her. "I believe that Tavros Nitram believes it. I believe that it would take a force of several hundred hoofbeasts combined, chained to a very large stone, to change it. The stone being Tavros' ability to lie or desire to harm you."

"What?"

Now she has the fucking grace to look embarrassed. "I was attempting a metaphor. I suspect it was unsuccessful, judging from your reaction to it."

"Why the hell are you using terrible metaphors?" You are staring, you know you are, but Kanaya Maryam has always been incapable of anything but direct observation. Sometimes really long winded, dry as all hell and meddling direct observation, but still.

"Rose suggests that a clear understanding of metaphor and the variations of allegory will help me learn sarcasm. That is not important. What is important now is what you did, Vriska. You ran. Surely you understand that now you can only be guilty in the minds of the others?"

She is learning it for Lalonde. The jealousy that swells in your chest is almost exquisite, except that it also makes you want to tear her eyes out. Both of their eyes out, actually. The hurt makes you angry. It makes you stupid, makes you want Kanaya to look at you and only you and you hate her, you hate her so much; you pity her - at least you did, when she'd turned up like a monster silver bright and terrible and she'd killed Eridan and stopped Gamzee and she'd killed him later too, though you'd been too dead to see it.

"Are you here to cull me then?" Not that you're going to let her, no fucking way. You'll roll the dice and...and what? You'll run into the woods, away from John? To do what, make a life hiding from the only people on the planet who don't think you're a weak little bag of pink flesh? You aren't sure what's worse: getting killed by someone you're flushed for (even if it comes with historical precedent) or running away for real and living in the sort of cowardice you've always loathed

A least Kanaya looks upset about the question. In a show of trust you don't understand because you don't deserve it, not at all, she puts the lipstick away. You wonder if she doesn't think you're a threat to her - stupid stupid stupid because now the advantages are all yours again. She just shakes her head. "If I was going to cull you, I would have just done it without standing around and masticating on the thick insulating layer of a herdbeast."

The threat makes you feel better. Yeah, it's true: If Fussyfangs was going to kill you, she would have just done it. She was always good at just doing what she had to no matter how hard it was. And since you're not in two pieces.... "So whyyyyyyyy are you out here? Miss your old moirail? Want to ditch the party of wrigglers and have some real fun?" You want to point out that she'd been ignoring you pretty much since you'd settled in the veil, but that would just derail everything. You do pity her, even if you're far more interested in Egbert. The funny thing is how much you could hate her, properly, not just the jealous surges you get whenever something that's yours tries to squirm away. You'd consider her for a proper kismesis, if you thought she was even remotely capable of a proper blackrom. As it is she's barely better than Nitram.

"I offered to watch and ensure that you did not do something typical of your actions and therefore dangerous and stupid, Vriska. The others have agreed to put all discussion of culling, regardless of what might be deserved, on the rearmost heating element. The humans insisted." She's watching you like she expects you to run, you realize. She's so fucking perfect and poised and under her own control and you won't ever admit how jealous you are of that. "I did so because I wanted to learn why. I don't believe that you ever intended the outcome of your actions. It is not something you would do, if for no other clear reason than because you could not have had any belief you could control Jack Noir. So why did you run? Was it fear or guilt?"

You lash out, arms flying in an aggressive sweep that Kanaya is lucky to be out of reach of. "I am not guilty!" Why the fuck could she see you so damn well? Why did you put up with her? Oh, of course. She was one of the only friends you had who would bother to speak to you - and somehow you'd fucked that up too. "I don't feel bad or guilty because I didn't do anything wrong! At all! Sure it all went to hell but that wasn't what was supposed to happen! I was going to kill Jack! He was going to be so dead! The humans just messed it up!" You'd had it all planned out, all of it, and the fact that it didn't work was as much a surprise to you as Jack's ascension was to the rest.

But lashing out isn't the way to talk to Kanaya, not if you want her on your side, and you do. You need her, because she's a voice of reason everybody likes to listen to and if she's got your back you're suddenly playing with a full hand again. You cross your arms over your chest and meet her eyes full on, confident and certain in everything and wasn't that the reason she and you had been so good? Because you were always sure and you pushed her to take risks and chances and be certain about things - and sometimes she made you stop and think?

You miss her.

"Besides, it allllllll worked out! You can't say it was wrong when, if I hadn’t acted, who knows what stupid white text guy would have done? We wouldn't have known what we had to beat! Maybe he would have just done something else to mess with us. Everything being stupid was what he wanted anyway."

"Not entirely surprising, that was also John Egbert's argument. I did say that we are not intending to blame you, Vriska, and you are welcome to rejoin us in the room made for dining. I am asking because I wanted to know for myself. Your motivations have always been complicated ones, though at their very center, you are always selfish."

"Kanaya," you huff but you're not insulted because yes you've been selfish, of course you're selfish! They're your friends and you weren't going to let anything happen to them. Nothing you hadn't done yourself, anyway. There wasn't a lot that was yours but you'd damn well hold onto it with both fucking hands when you had it. Trolls included. "What do you want me to say? Want me to be soooooooo sooooooorry? Want me to apologize and cry like a wriggler?"

"No,” she snaps, and is it just a trick of the light or is she glowing brighter? "Because I would not believe it." She is brighter, and she's in front of you with her teeth bared, her fangs, and you remember a little too late that she's a rainbow drinker now. She's a rainbow drinker because she died and unlike you she came back, came back different and you wonder exactly how different she is now and maybe you should investigate that for yourself.

You don't get a say in the matter when her mouth is on your neck, and it hurts but not terribly; you've had trouble feeling pain for years, so many spiderbites you should be poisonous yourself. This could be bad, so bad you should push her away: you've never liked fangs and you have nightmares about being sucked dry and left a corpse in your own hive, but you don't or you can't, you aren't even sure which. The hive pressing into your back helps keep you up because your knees are weak and you're lightheaded when you realize your pitycrush is all black black black, fangs in your neck and her hands in your hair - but if it means keeping Kanaya for yourself, all yours, you are absolutely all right with that.

 

==>Be Equius

 

It is very late by human standards, though were you on Alternia you would have only been awake a few hours by now. The humans have all retreated to their spaces to sleep, as have the other trolls, now having adjusted to the humans’ strange diurnal sleeping patterns.

Most of the others are asleep, that is. The trolls who had arrived with the human, Jade, are accustomed to the human's time, and due to the strangeness of humans living great distances from each other they are suffering "jet lag". While the human and her lusus have settled to sleep without much issue, Nitram, Captor, and Makara are still awake.

And so are you.

Your moirail stirs and you hold yourself still, barely allowing yourself to breathe. It is difficult to sleep with another troll in your space - doubly so without sopor and a recuperacoon - but you and Nepeta had both agreed it was better than the alternative. You would rather wake up and aggress for a moment than wake and panic when you cannot see your moirail.

She settles once again, curling deeper into the plush pile Rose has provided for her. Only when you are certain of her slumber do you stand and leave the room. It takes a while because you must be silent - but silence you know. Grace you might not possess - that has always been your moirail's domain - but you have presence. You know exactly where every muscle, where every inch of skin on your body is and what it is doing. You escape the room and into the mealblock without disturbing her, and count the first part of your plan a success.

You hope the rest of the night will go as easily.

You glance into the main room and find Nitram watching the television with Captor beside him, looking annoyed. The glow of the device tints their skin shades of green-red-blue-gold before your eyes in a way that is incredibly debased, but you pull away rather than be distracted from your intention. Captor and Nitram are the only two awake in the house and that is exactly as you hoped it to be.

They're awake inside, but there is one more troll outside.

You slip out the back door, footfalls slow to be silent as you make your way around the perimeter of the hive. You see the highblood before he sees you; his back is to you, seated as he is and leaning on his hands to better see the sky and presumably the unfamiliar stars. He sits at the treeline, where the lawnring gives up its territory to the wilderness beyond.

You are conflicted, though truly that isn't very strange for you at all. Your life has been one of conflict, internal and external both, though rarely have you faced a moment of this importance.

That is a lie. You have faced this same moment once before, and you failed. You had not truly understood what you had faced. You had been too swallowed by your own base feelings. You had been reduced to nothing more than a lamed hoofbeast, quivering before the cull. You had failed, then.

You know better, now. You will not fail, now. You will do what you have decided you must because already it is clear the others will let history repeat itself. You will be strong.

The last few days have prepared you for this. Despite promises made to the humans and your moirail alike you will do what is best for everyone, and you will do it without assistance and you will allow no one to be harmed again.

You will kill Gamzee Makara. You will, as soon as you can force your legs to move forward. You will stop him now, while he can still be stopped.

Makara makes the first move. His hands slip in the grass and he falls onto his back, craning his neck at an impossible angle when he catches sight of you. "Hoofbuddy? What's a brother doing out here with the stars? You looked at the motherfuckin stars, bro? They're a whole fucking miracle up in the sky, whispering ALL their secrets to me."

He smiles, and you notice that it is not his usual doped expression. The muscles in his face are more taut, the line of his smile sharper. In this light it takes a moment before you realize he isn't wearing his greasepaint: it's been scrubbed off. Bits of white hang around the edges of his face, and the clawmarks are deep purple scabs, but they're clean. Nitram must have helped the troll care for his wounds.

"I am not here for the stars, highblood." He is insane. You must remember this. The subjuggulator has been hidden under the chemical thrall of sopor, but is waiting still. Makara will run out of pies. Humans have no sopor here. You will remember this and you must be strong.

"Aw come on brother, you know I hate hearing that hoofbeastshit. Let's be righteous and chill and sit on this soft grass. Look at the stars, bro. They're getting their twinkle on and it's bitchtits miraculous. Listen real close. They're singing."

You are not interested in the music of the stars, or the ramblings of a mad troll. You should strike him now, while he is vulnerable - but you cannot. He is prone and your superior and your hands make fists that crack as every joint pops to relieve tension but you cannot touch him. Not yet.

You realize that you need him to understand. If he understands, you can kill him properly.

"Makara. You will get up." Ordering him around is still a thrill, one that makes you want to empty your stomach and sit in the bathtub for hours until you are clean again. "Do you yet remember your actions in the veil?"

He climbs upright, but does not stand. He sits, long legs pulled to his chest and arms wrapped around them. He looks up at you and the muscles on his face twitch around his eyes. He is shrinking in on himself even as you watch, pulling smaller and closer as if to protect himself, shaking his head as he meets your eyes. "No brother. Those motherfuckin nightmares man, they don't belong here. They're no good for a troll. They get under your skin with their nothing teeth and claws and they stick. Better not to have them. That's what the miracles are for."

He is a highblood and you have admired him even as you have hated him over the years. He is a highblood and here and now he is a coward, and you are disgusted by him and angry, very angry. "Some of us do not have the luxury to forget."

He flinches at that: is it your tone of voice that causes it, or something else? You want him to remember. You want him to know why you are here. You cannot say you want him ashamed, for truly the subjuggulators were of the courts and beyond reproach when they fulfilled their duties - but he had not been assigned the deaths he'd sought out. He'd chosen to kill your moirail and without an empress and court to control him, you will not allow him to return to his bloodright and kill again.

"Shit. It's bad, motherfucker. These nightmares... a brother knows he did wrong, Equius, but I gotta keep them quiet, you know? Can't go digging up the voices. That'd make things worse. Better to leave it quiet."

He used your name.

You meet his eyes and they are clear. Sobriety does not suit him, you think, even as you jump back out of fear and instinct combined. It does not matter: Makara does not move, curled into a pathetic ball, hands clenched over his knees.

"What do you motherfucking want?"

The voice is strange, because it is unfamiliar. It lacks Makara's usual wavering lilt, but it is not the soft sharp rise fall of the subjuggulator. This is something new, and for Gamzee it is surprisingly.... flat.

It sounds, if you had no other word to describe it, tired.

You do not answer him, and Makara unfolds slowly, standing with lithe grace that you had always found beautiful and now find broken. His hands are fists and you raise yours because you must defend yourself. You must. He steps toward you and you remind yourself of your promises, of your sleeping moirail and the foolish humans you were going to protect, in thanks for their hospitality. You remind yourself of your death at the highblood's hands.

You remember it too well. Your hands are slick with sweat. Your heart is a galloping hoofbeast. Your body will not obey your commands. You are lost. Pathetic. Disgusting. You will fail again.

Makara steps close until he is right before you, looking down into your eyes and - and is that fear?

"Come on, Equius, brother. You gotta hurry this up."

"What?"

He shrugs, but his eyes are wide and you can see his chest rise and fall far too quickly. He is attempting to be strong, though he is failing at it badly. "You're so fucking blind, hoofbrother. You're here to cull a troll but you can't do it when he's good and got his sopor on, making him be a righteous motherfuckin preacher of miracles. Instead you keep trying to CALL the motherfuckin DARK carnival. You don't want this going dark, brother. Dark is where all those BITCHING nightmares are."

He looks in your eyes and he is shaking - you assume in fear, and assume wrongly. The wounds on his face are bleeding again, as if freshly made. When you don't move to take action the disappointment is clear in the troll's expression.

"Come on Equius. You called him. You made him all loud. I can hear the music and the stars can't even block it out so FUCKING CULL ME YOU MOTHERFUCKING NOOKSNIFFER before the rainbow starts all over again and starts with YOU blueblood." He stiffens, eyes wide, and for a moment he does nothing but shudder. When he blinks his face is slack again, the fear gone with the tension, and Makara looks almost embarrassed as he ducks his head and slouches enough that he must look up to meet your eyes. "Please, bro? I don't want to do that shit again. Just do it."

You are stunned beyond speech, beyond action, chilled to the bone by Gamzee's revelation (and by your damp clothing that is no protection against the harsh elements of the Earth night). You had assumed - as had everyone - that without his pies Gamzee was sober - and sober he was the subjuggulator. But this Gamzee who stands before you is clearly sober and asking you, ordering you to cull him.

You allow yourself one moment of thought as to how you might feel if the dark carnival awoke in you, if the music of the subjuggulators became the pulse in your head. You would be terrified.

You understand why Gamzee poisoned himself with sopor, now.

Your hands are wrapped around his throat before you even realize you've moved. You had planned on strangling him - payment for the death he'd given you and painful in retribution for Nepeta's death while not being unnecessarily violent. The others were going to be upset with you, you did not intend to give them more than the necessary reasons for it.

Violet tears sit in his eyes and before you tighten your grasp he forces out, "Tavros...promise you'll look after him? Not forever... just while my brother's getting used to his new old legs. He's gonna need help, and I'm gonna be gone."

Moirails. Nitram and Makara are moirails and perhaps more, if Nepeta's gossip is correct. You have little sympathy for the brownblood, but you understand Makara's noble request and you respect it. You tighten your hands and he gasps, hands flailing and catching at your arms but not pulling; he does not fight back.

You would not agree for the sopor drunk Gamzee, nor the highblooded demon who killed you, but for this Gamzee - the one caught between, who made the choice to drown the demon and would face you and what he had done with strength to be honourable - you can do this for him.

"I give you my word I will ensure your moirail is adequately looked after."

He relaxes at that, and suddenly you are holding far more of his weight and goodness he is leaning into you and it's incredibly depraved because he is smiling and oh is this how you looked when he'd wrapped your bow around your neck and you were going to need a towel - no, you needed a complete change of clothing.

You decide to break his neck in act of mercy. You can feel the fourth and fifth vertebrae against your fingers and it would take only the slightest bit of pressure to end it here and now.

You just have to do it.

Makara's lips are grey, his face purple. He is scrabbling to stop you now, hands clawing at your arms but that is normal and you do not hold it against him. All things strive to live and will fight when their life is nearly gone, be they hoofbeasts in the field or trolls trespassing on your land. You pay his hands no mind because they are weak against your steel resolve. The fact that even now a part of him resists - drags his hands down to lie still for a moment before they rise again as he slowly suffocates - it tears through you. You thought - you believed you knew this troll.

You knew nothing.

It is that indecision that is your undoing. You're so caught in your own internal thoughts as they gallop in your mind that you don't realize the significance of the troll going tense. You don't feel his hands moving with purpose until agony splits through you, and you drop Gamzee to clutch at your head as blood pours and pours through your hands. You're on your knees and swaying and when you look though the river of blue that is running down your face you see Makara standing before you, straight and tall and gasping for air and -

He's holding your horn, bloody and blue and dripping, in his hand.

Oh fiddlesticks.

Gamzee - no, no your already addled mind tells you, that's not Gamzee, that's the Highblood, the Subjuggulator, tries to equip his weapons - but he has none, and he stares at empty hands as his sylladex holds nothing offensive and curses, froth on his lips. "You DARED to BRING a MOTHERFUCKER DOWN?"

Arterial blood has soaked you. You are trying to hold the wound closed with pressure but it seeps through your fingers and they are going numb. You are dying. Again. A brief part of your mind thinks that at least this time, it won't be with most of your blood in your bulge.

The highblood moves to the side, by the base of a tree when you are not looking. You see him reach for a branch that will easily become a club in his hand and you wait for the first blow that will likely be the last, as weak as you feel right now.

You don't feel it, though you hear it crack over your head. No... beside you.

Gamzee's free hand has grabbed the tree and... slammed his head into it. Even as you stare he does it again and again and again and you wonder for a moment if this is Vriska's control, here to save you, but the ceruleanblood does not appear to take the credit. You begin to wonder when you can hear Makara's muttered speech that keeps switching between pleading and enraged. "Get out of my fuckin MIRACLES not no fuckin no no more the carnival's closed I'm findin my OWN MIRACLES no motherfuck I'll take us ALL DOWN lowblooded MERcy..."

The highblood screams, and the next time his head smashes into the tree it cracks like thunder and crashes to the ground. You hear shouts and you turn your head - you're lying down, when did that happen? Lights flicker on through the human hive like the stars coming out in the night sky. Perhaps stars are a sort of miracle. You still cannot hear their music, sadly. The world is already growing so very quiet.

The highblood crawls towards you, nose broken and face split over and over and over again, nearly a mess to match your own. He smiles and his face moves again like he's poisoned, like the sopor controls him, and you see he's missing teeth and there's a swell of something dangerously close to pity in your chest.

"He hates pain almost as much as the motherfucker hates pies, and hereallyhates pies."

He collapses next to you and shaking hands are on your broken horn, no, not broken - ripped out - and the pressure burns but in a dull way. You've lost too much blood, you think. This is an embarrassing way to die, but you find the second failure does not burn at you the way it should. There is some part of Gamzee that is in control here. That gives you some hope.

"Next time, don't take so motherfuckin long." Gamzee's voice is little more than a croak, his fingers slipping in your blood. "Just don't take me out of the pies. No nightmares. No motherfuckin dark carnival. Leave the miracles, brother. They're good. They're what it's supposed to be..."

He's unconscious by the time the others arrive. You think that's probably for the best. You follow his example moments later.

 

==>Be Dave

 

For ten bucks you would take every God damn troll and drop them off a cliff. In a sack. It is not the most elegant nor ironic statement you have ever thought, but it certainly fits your mood and exhaustion levels.

You are so so so damn glad there aren't neighbours around to call the cops, because the screams that have woken you up are bloodcurdling, horror movie levels of god-awful. John wakes up beside you with a start and casts around for his glasses even as you're throwing pants on over your boxers and running for the stairs. You can hear Egbert calling what's wrong as you race past the slowly opening doors and stunned faces and you take the flight of steps down two at a time, not even sparing them a glance or a word.

You know exactly what's wrong, and you're an idiot because you'd honestly let yourself believe you'd held off any bloodletting for one fucking night with a God damn conversation. Of course you knew trolls didn't work that way. You should have realized it was too good to be true. You should have kicked their asses just to be sure. You should have known Megido wasn't wrong about the time, even if just by a few hours.

Tomorrow you are locking them in their fucking rooms. If there's anyone left tomorrow.

The screams are more like wails and you stop in the living room to a scene out of Amityville. Grandpa Harley looks like he tried to Pollock with only two tubes of paint and there's purple and blue soaked into the shoulders of his blinding green silk pyjamas. Zahhak looks like a corpse, more blue paint blood and bruise than he is troll. Nepeta is sobbing, scratching and cursing like a ball of furious cat and you realize Grandpa has a decent amount of red added to his mix and that shit is not right.

You're about to catch kitty before her claws do any more damage when you almost trip over Nitram and Makara, who are on the floor and God, Makara looks like he fell out the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down and Nitram's bleeding orangeybrown onto the white carpet from half a dozen claw marks across his arms and shoulders.

Jesus fucking Christ.

It's pure chaos after that. Footsteps pound as everyone follows your trail and the living room hits critical mass of troll and human, your own little personal atom bomb ready to fuck you all over and everyone else in the blast zone as an afterthought. Tavros is growling and threatening to gore anyone who gets close to him with his horns, hunched protectively over Gamzee, and Gramps is shouting for a first aid kit, dammit. You want to tell him that no damn bandaid is going to help the amount of blood that's everywhere, but you don't dare. You look at the faces around you and the trolls know it too and it's Vantas who darts in and under the claws and picks Nepeta up and holds her as she cries.

That's right about the time Grandpa Harley Loses His Shit and the man is a ball of grey green fury that you can totally respect as long as you're far far away from it. No wonder Jade didn't ever want to cross him. He stands and points, hands stained blue, and his voice is a military bark that reaches down and into the monkey part of your brain and kicks your ass into listening. "All of you! Out! Out! Out! A man can't hear his own thoughts in this racket! Vamoose! Get! Begone!"

You don't even have the heart to argue, which is to say your feet have long ago learned self-preservation and they carry you out before the man turns his ire to you.

You end up back in the dining room, clusters of trolls spread out, and through the door to the kitchen you can see Bro and Mr Egbert and Ms Lalonde talking, but you can't hear them. Not over half a dozen conversations that twist and rise and fall around you, variations on the same damn theme, ranging from despair to apathy to fury.

You didn't really have an opinion on Zahhak. He'd been sweaty and abrupt and fucking dedicated to the idea of cutting Makara's head off and putting it on a pike, which hadn't exactly won him any points in his favour. You look at the tight line of Lalonde's mouth and you know she liked him and that's enough for you to feel bad beyond the stomach-sick knowledge that with one troll dead it was going to be too fucking easy for others to follow.

"Grandpa will fix it. He was in the war you know." Jade sounds so fucking hopeful it hurts your heart to hear it. "He learned to fix all sorts of injuries then. That's why he's so angry, he was trying to fix it and we were bothering him..."

You can't bear to tell her that Grandpa's old war stories aren't going to get him through this, but someone has to say something and it might as well be you when Nitram rolls his way into the room, looking shockey and pale, and he spins the chair like a champ to shut the door behind him, a fucking pindrop in the silence.

"Someone explain this to Harley because if I have to say the words while holding his God damn moirail I will tear my bloodgusher out right now and set it on fire because it would be less fucking painful." Vantas is still holding Nepeta, whose face is streaked with green, and he looks about as sick as Nitram. It helps you, a little bit, to know that some of the trolls aren't so in love with the bloodbath they'd be happy when a friend died. Then again, Nitram and Vantas had been strong supporters in team Let's Not Kill Someone Today.

No one seems willing to speak into the silence that follows. Nitram eventually clears his throat, looking at the back of a dining room chair rather than at anyone. "Grandpa Harley thinks, uh, that he can fix it. But Gamzee took Equius' horn, right out, at the root. That's usually....you can't fix that."

Surprisingly, Terezi looks upset. Or maybe just disappointed, it's hard to tell with her some days. "We should have taken care of Gamzee. Equius was right - it was just a matter of time before he killed someone."

"No!" Tavros seethes in his chair, from shy to furious in seconds flat. "He attacked Gamzee! Did no one look at him? I did! He tried to kill Gamzee and you think it's wrong that Gamzee protected himself? If it was anyone else you'd be talking about how wrong Equius was!"

Funny. The kid's not so nervous when he's angry. Of course, he's bad at being angry. He gets one look at just how many people are listening to him and he deflates, hides in on himself and shit. Maybe you could give him a pair of shades. It goes against your better judgement but it'd let the kid hide a bit and maybe give him some fucking backbone.

He mumbles into his lap, only half audible. "Gamzee's throat is all bruised and swollen. I think... Equius tried to strangle him."

That... seems to mean something to everyone else, because this room is so full of knowing looks it's like sitting in the middle of a chick flick where the idiot boyfriend is cheating on his fiancée and everyone is getting their "I told you so" on.

"If Gamzee attacked Equius -" Terezi starts, testing the waters. Vantas interrupts her and points out that it could have been Equius who started it - which you find pretty believable since the guy hadn't been easy to convince out of the idea in the first place - and then everyone is back to arguing and you can't decide if you want to put your own head through the wall - or everyone else's.

You settle for sitting at the table and folding your arms up into a pillow, pressing your forehead into the cool skin of your forearms and welcoming the tiny pocket of dark. You're tired and heartsick and there's no point in being angry, not when none of them see what's wrong with this picture. At least you can pretend to be bored and wait for Grandpa to come in with the bad news. You can't even consider going in to check on the man. All you can think about is how tomorrow - in the morning, really - you are going to witness your first execution. You'd had some damn good rhymes with Makara. You'd enjoyed trolling him, since he'd been so bad at it. It had actually been funny to see that the stoner persona hadn't been for show, the kid really was that far out of his own head.

The part of you that's always angling for a new hook, new line, points out he probably won't have one for much longer. You tell that part to shut the fuck up.

 

+++++++++

 

Grandpa walks in just as the conversation cycles for the tenth time and he's washed his hands even if his clothes are still stained. He looks nothing at all like the angry old man or his usual vintage Indiana Jones self. He just looks old, and tired. He manages a smile, though, and you don't even think about how much hope it gives you.

"Well it was a bit tricky but I think we're in the clear, not for lack of the boy trying! Can't say for sure because well, you're a bit not human and I'm a bit out of practice but he's awake, and I've been assured that if something doesn't kill one of you lot you'll just sleep it off."

The silence is so thick you could slice it with a sword and watch the halves clatter to the ground.

Maryam stands, folding her hands carefully in front of her. "Are you stating that Equius Zahhak is, in fact, still alive? Or are you instead speaking rather confusingly of Gamzee Makara? I am afraid it would be best to make the distinction clear."

"What?" Gramps looks confused and annoyed. "Lord have mercy do you think I'd forget to mention if someone died? Of course I'm talking about Equius! Poor Gamzee's going to have the devil of a headache when he wakes up, no doubt about that. Nasty throat too, but wasn't nearly so dire. Go see for yourself, just take it easy on big and blue and don't dare let him get up from that couch. Boy needs rest."

Nepeta is out of the room before he's finished speaking, Nitram at her heels, and the room starts to empty in clumps and spurts. You stay sitting for a second because you're so relieved you just want to soak in that unfamiliar feeling for a few minutes before you have to get up and rejoin Team Lets Not Kill Someone for off the clock overtime.

Vantas is standing in front of Gramps with his hands crossed over his chest, voice a growl. "That wound was fatal."

Grandpa shakes his head, all affable (stinking rich eccentric) old guy again. You totally prefer this version to the angry guy, even if angry guy gets shit done. "Well I didn't say it was easy! And we're not out of the woods yet, he lost a lot of blood and I can't exactly get him a transfusion now can I? But I think he'll be right as rain if he stays put and keeps out of the fight for a while, if you take the word of an ancient old human for it."

"You shouldn't have been able to fix that!" Vantas is... angry? Suspicious, yeah, but what he really sounds like is someone who just had their world rocked and they didn't like the taste. What, can the ball of rage not handle the idea that maybe Gramps could fix something he couldn’t?

"And I'm sure in your vast experience of - six sweeps is it? You know more about nasty wounds than a man of almost forty. Exactly how many wars have you fought in, young man?" Grandpa pulls himself up, all affronted, and he's doing a good job of acting like an old veteran, chest puffed out and imperious even in his stained pj's. "And which one of the buggers are you anyway? Can't expect an old man to keep all those damn foreign names straight!"

"Vantas," Karkat snaps, caught somewhere being pissed off and being embarrassed. It looks good on him, and you make note to bring it up the next time he's in your face about something. "Karkat Vantas."

"Well, Mister Vantas, if you asked me I think you trolls aren't exactly the experts in the medical arts you like to think of yourself as! I've had plenty of conversations with young Mister Tavros about that and maybe you don't want to admit us humans know a thing or two better than your Alternian selves, but the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Or in this case in your young friend being rather remarkably not dead, despite your assertions to the contrary. Now if you want that fact to change, it's up to you." He nods back to the kitchen - yup, all the parental types are watching you, silently (and judging). "We all agreed to let you figure that out amongst yourselves. I'm not going to be a part of it. I just did what I could do because I happen to think that's what a man should do if he walked into that mess." He nods to the troll who is doing a damn fine guppy impersonation, completely dismissing you both. "Now you'll excuse me, dried blood itches like the devil's wool socks!"

He heads into the kitchen and you and Vantas both get a good look at his back, the fabric long ribbons and crusted red. You remind yourself that just because she acts like a damn eight-year-old Pocky addict doesn't mean Nepeta's not fucking dangerous: all the trolls are. Vantas turns on you and scowls; you're the only two left.

"Not that I expect an answer from the kid who's mouth is so full of shit he can't ever close it or he'll choke on his own sewage, but what in the ever pitiable fuck was that?"

You laugh. You can't help it. You don't even take the weak insult as a cut, it's just Vantas covering for how damn much Grandpa Harley had just burned him.

"That," you answer, completely smug, "is proof that Jade Harley gets it completely honestly."

 

==>Be Bro

 

Hass makes it all of the way up the stairs and into the bedroom you both share before he stumbles and you catch his arm. He shakes you off and just because he's old doesn't mean he's lacking strength. He assures you he's fine and you cut him off before he's even finished, telling him fine is what you call wine not a guy with his back looking like Freddy used him as a warm up and you both stop because the banter is close, too close and too familiar and Hass turns eyes to you that might as well be behind shades, they're so unreadable. That's a skill and a half right there, really, as is the way he asks like it's not even important, not at all, if you remember.

You say yes, asshole. Now get your ass in the bathroom before I kick it there, and you know you've won when he just shakes his head and walks back out the door.

You'd grabbed the first aid kid before heading up and you pull out its guts now, ignoring the bits of blue and purple stained here and there on the inside. Trolls are fucking strange but you've got no room to talk and Hass strips off his ruined shirt and you stare at your own personal weird Benjamin Button or Dorian Grey or maybe The Doctor or you know what? This shit is too strange to label.

You propose going to an actual doctor when you get a good look at his lacerated back and he just scoffs and tells you to handle it or he'll manage it himself and you do because if you don't he will; you know he will.

You remember that.

He's always been green. Colour means a lot to the fucked up mechanics of the game and you'd all been defined by one. Hass was always green and in the fragments and echoes of memories you have from the version of you that played and lost (and died) it's the colour that tints the most of them, a young boy grinning at you and urging you on. Always urging you on.

He looks nothing at all like you remember, colourless and aged, even his eyes are too old to recognize. It doesn't matter. You knew him the second you'd seen him in that shitty cafe and you know him now. You remember more, a lot more, now.

You tell him this is going to scar and he laughs and asks when that has ever been a problem? His torso is a mess of them already; he's lived three lifetimes to your one and they haven't been quiet ones by the fire with his dog. You wish they had been.

You count the scars and then force yourself to stop when it gets too high; you feel like you should have been there to take some of them. That some of those wounds should have been yours. That you'd once promised to watch each other's backs, and you had meant it, and the scars are a sort of failure, a sort of insult to the you that you aren't anymore.

He doesn't put his shredded shirt back on after you've wrapped him up in polysporin and gauze. He turns on the toilet seat and gives you his thanks and for a moment you wonder if he remembers too, what you do, remembers being boys and being fools and a time when you didn't know how to shape your words into a sword and shield for protection and he was the one to convince you to take the risks you were too afraid to take on your own.

He shoos you out of the bathroom and you retreat to your guestroom which is nicer than ninety percent of the places you've ever slept and you don't know how to feel about any of this as you collapse down on your side of the bed.

Hass rejoins you in clean pyjamas and you debate pretending you're asleep. He settles into his side of the bed and then sets a hand on your exposed shoulder, just rests it there, and you know he remembers it too.

But he's lived three lifetimes to your one, and you're not the same people, not anymore. It's just a memory, tied up with feeling and guilt and pain; it's old.

"Not forgotten,” says Hass, like he can read your mind, like you're thinking the same thing. Well, you probably are. You don't have anything to say to that and he pulls his hand away and turns his back to yours, in the appropriate heterosexual way of two guys sharing a bed the world over.

It was a long time ago. A whole lifetime ago. It isn't you and it isn't him and it should be awkward but there's a part of you too relieved to see him alive again, no matter how changed, to worry about that.

"Hass?"

"Yes, Bro?"

"Good to see you're still the same ass kicking bastard, even if you're an old fart."

He huffs, but you can hear the smile he's rocking underneath that totally oversized moustache. "Good to see you finally learned how to swing a sword, you bloody idiot."

You're not the same people, but maybe it doesn't matter. You can still remember; maybe this is just a bit of respect for the dead.

 

==>Be Terezi

 

For the first time in your life, you aren't sure what the precedent is. You keep thinking over and over the cases you've studied but nothing comes to mind and your books and husktop are long gone. You have no law behind you, just the things you know to be right and wrong, and without them you feel... lost.

Gamzee Makara is sound asleep, Tavros Nitram guarding him pointedly but no one is interested in the maybe-subjuggulator (at the moment). Not when Equius is awake (barely) and informing you all that you can’t touch the other troll. You think you ought to be the most surprised at this, but Nepeta reeks of it, surprise and relief pungent and green rolling off of her small frame.

It's funny how much this world has already changed you, human ways slipping in and under all of your skin. If you had been on Alternia, Equius would never have let anyone see him so weak. Tavros would have been frothing at the mouth - well, maybe not Tavros but someone else in his place - to hide their matesprit from prying eyes. But now you follow the lead of the silly humans, who act like nothing is strange about this, who gather around to help and listen like their opinions won’t be changed by a simple injury, a showing of weakness. It's surprising how easy it is to accept and though Equius is clearly uncomfortable and forcing himself to sit to appear less frail - even if Nepeta is clearly holding him up – he’s accepting it too.

"Again, I attacked Makara. He... was defending himself. The fault is mine and if there is punishment it should be mine to manage." He’s telling the truth but you can taste the hesitation and lie hidden somewhere in his words, a little speck of black against the blue, and you wish you could seek it out, dig it up and watch it burn away in the light. Considering how much the troll smells like death you know your friends won’t let you do it, the wrigglers. If you try to be honest with yourself you don't really want to kill Equius anyway. He might have attacked Gamzee but that was all he'd done. Compared to those on trial, he hadn't done anything at all.

The problem is that with Equius and therefore Nepeta now on the side of the defence you are outnumbered. Certainly your word and Feferi's carry a lot of weight, and Sollux is backing you strongly, but three out of twelve - even with three disqualified and one not voicing a side at all - is not enough to call a verdict on your own. Dave’s made that quite clear.

It's frustrating because you all know the danger the accused present. The lives they take next might not be your own, and with fragile humans to care for you know they will pay when they next make a mistake, but that won't bring the dead back. You’ve seen Dave die twice now and the thought still makes your protein chute clench and your bloodgusher thud in your chest. You don't want it to happen a third time. You don't think you could live through a third time.

Equius is muttering almost incoherently to Nepeta when Dave and Karkat rejoin you and your not-quite-trial, a delicious bright cherry stormcloud of embarrassment and anger, and a deeper, more syrupy cherry behind with the strangest mix of amusement and worry. They're both so damn delicious and you're hungry but neither one of them will let you taste what you want.

"So?" Dave slides up to you, warm even as he acts cool, hands in his pockets and his usual shirt replaced with sleep garb. You think this one might say 'sunshine state' across it, but the letters are too faded and it's a guess at best. "What's the verdict? Do I need to start up the whole defence attorney shtick again? Get my Gere tapdance on?"

"Don't be foolish. You have always been a key witness! Karkat is the defence lawyer, and I can't believe you even talked me into letting that happen, stupid human ideas." You grin at him, all teeth, and you love the way his heartbeat picks up every time you do so, the way he leans into you even when you scare him. He is such a fool: he doesn't know how to back away from anything and you love to pity him for it.

"Still doesn't answer the question, Ace. I came out to a distinct lack of bloodbath and let me tell you it was a moment of near double rainbow proportions. Prove to me there really is a Santa Claus - tell me you've changed your mind and we're all going to try to survive the next bit of this shit with everyone breathing."

Equius interrupts you before you can properly reply. "No one is to kill Makara." He's been repeating the same thing, sounding feverish, though this time he properly qualifies it. "Until he runs out of pies. Tavros Nitram will know how many he has left."

Everyone turns to the troll still guarding his moirail more like a matesprit would - not that you think anyone is surprised. "He... he, um, has two and a half left. He's been, uh, trying to save them." He's defeated sounding and why hadn't you thought of that line of attack? Of course he would defend Gamzee directly, but now you think Tavros won't deny what will happen when the pies are gone. He hasn't yet. It’s an angle you can exploit, you’re sure of it. You just have to think of how Redglare would have approached it.

"Then when those pies are gone you will tell us, Tavros Nitram," Equius intones to the troll, and he attempts a look of challenge to you all. It falters when he gets to Feferi and that seems to be the last of the energy the troll has, because he folds up and collapses and it's Nepeta on the couch holding a lapful of sweaty Equius and she hisses at anyone who tries to come near.

Well, the humans haven't changed you all that much.

"So let's call that one a win for Team Lets Not Kill Anyone today, and we'll go back to your regularly scheduled murder talk tomorrow, after everyone's gotten some goddamn sleep. Sounds good?"

John is deep cherry like Dave, but it's brighter, mixed with lemon and more like fireworks across your mind's eye when he speaks. "That sounds good! Dave's right, we should get some rest, everything will be better in the morning." He is so naive and so very dedicated and it radiates off him in waves of goodnatured foolishness. It is easy to see why he is the leader, silly as he is. The others all turn to him when he speaks and you wonder if they even realize it. (You think Dave might, actually. Your cool kid has always been smart about other people, even if he’s terrible at himself.)

Dave shifts beside you, naming off the trolls under his breath and then curses, voice suddenly tight and sharp. "Hold up. Before everyone slips off to dreamland and a thousand sheep or whatever trolls count, where are Serket and Ampora?"

You hadn't even noticed they weren't present, because they'd ceased being important once you'd declared them guilty (even if the charges were looking more and more likely to be dropped). Now you can't remember when you last seen them but...

You're in front of Kanaya before she can move, breathing deeply. She has changed since the veil; if you had to choose a word to describe it, she would smell colder. Like the hint of death on an old weapon, or maybe more like the aftertaste of a storm, not the lightning or the rain, just the subtle fog of something no longer quite troll.

She also totally reeks of Vriska Serket.

Your cane is in your grip and you pace around her, hearing her breathing get shorter as you sniff, audibly, again. You wish you could tap your cane but the floor is covered in some sort of plush skin so you settle for smacking it against your palm. "Well well well! Someone decided to take the law into their own hands?" You wouldn't care except Vriska was yours, your responsibility and your kill to make, since Tavros would not. Kanaya should have gone after Eridan. You would have let her have him.

She blushes, so vividly you can taste it, and pulls herself as tall as she can manage to show she isn't intimidated by you. "Miss Serket is asleep and alive, or was at the moment I last left her and unless some very strange happening were to occur I believe she remains that way still."

"Left her?" Karkat asks, one part curious, one part warning. He's been attached to the idea of all of you surviving, trying to keep control in a world that has none. No control, no law, no life. You have no disillusions. Karkat might think you have something to strive for but there is nothing for you here. That thought sets your teeth so far on edge you want to bite someone in half just to relieve the pressure. You would kill - and that is not an exaggeration - for a proper night's sleep in a 'coon with sopor. Everything would be better in the morning if you had some damn sopor.

Kanaya apparently realizes how that sounds and shakes her head, hands cutting negative lines in the air. "She and I had... a discussion. She required rest afterwards to regain her usual levels of thinly veiled menace and self importance. She is well, though I cannot speak for Ampora. Perhaps he remained in his own given respite block during the night's disruption?" There's a pause and a shift in the contrast of white - she's smiling, to some degree. "I can assure you she is not responsible for his absence. She was... otherwise occupied."

That's about the time Nepeta whispers excitedly to Tavros about her shipping wall and how she has to update everything and you decide that whatever Vriska is doing to Kanaya, the jadeblood is smart enough to handle herself.

You catch another tang of cold death and you think - maybe more than smart enough, this time, and that it might not be Vriska doing anything to Kanaya at all.

Karkat and Dave go to check for Ampora, radiating burnt cherry and red liquorice as the others slowly melt away; back to their own borrowed blocks that they can't personalize and the smell of humans and dust and emptiness. They're all crazy in their own ways, you know - Feferi and Karkat convinced they're in control, desperate to prove that they can control anything anymore. Tavros - and now Equius - thinking there's something in Gamzee worth saving. You're crazy because you know the truth and it burns: this isn't a point to start again, it's the time you've been thrown out. You're on this planet to rot and wither and there is nothing for you here. You're a doomed timeline and no one else sees it yet but they will, and when they do you know things are only going to get worse. You want to scream it out loud but everyone is trying so hard to hide in denial you’re afraid, you’re actually afraid, of how badly everyone will fall apart. It‘ll make the veil look like a warmup, it’ll destroy Karkat, and you just try to focus on controlling the tiny bit of this world you can affect now. Make them focus on each other and on you and it’ll take all the longer for them to realize the truth of it all.

There is nothing for any of you here.

Dave returns, no sign of Ampora (you instantly decide the coward fled to avoid his fate. That must have been why he had been so unaffected by the charges. He had already planned his daring escape) and as the cool kid stands close to you – closer than he ever stands to anyone, so you can feel his heat and smell every move his muscles make - you remember that, well, there's almost nothing here for you.

You lick Dave's cheek, apple/anger/steel/cherry/worry an explosion over your tongue, and you don't even mind that much when he tells you you're going to help him track down Ampora before the forest kills him.

Well, he calls it a rescue. You much prefer the idea of bounty hunting. What was the phrase you'd seen researching Dave's terrible attempts at irony? Oh yes.

Dead or alive.

Chapter Text

==>Be Eridan Ampora

Your name is Eridan Ampora and unlike certain other manipulative bitch trolls you are absolutely running away.

 

Your name is Eridan Ampora and you are completely, perfectly fine. You are not out of your depths at all. You are handling matters and have the situation exactly the way you want it, the way you have been planning since Terezi and Fef looked at you like a hoofbeast to be culled and nothing at all like a friend.

 

Your name is Eridan Ampora and you are so fucked you aren't sure how much longer you can keep lying to yourself.

 

++++++++++

 

You have been climbing upwards since you left the lawnring and headed into the trees, faint trails to follow leading anywhere as long as it was up and not down. You had looked at maps and guides of the area in the spare moments you could steal onto Dave's husktop, since the system he had procured for 'the trolls' had been commandeered by Feferi and you had no chance to take it away from her. You could not create copies for yourself, not without risking notice, but the day you couldn't memorize a map was the day you deserved to give up and die.

Dave’s 'rescue' had helped, as depressingly insulting as it had been to have him see you brought so low by Pyrope, of all people. It had been a slap in the face to need help at all, but you’d taken it. He'd reminded you that you didn't want to die (no matter how much you hated your own existence) and dying like a stuck lusus - like the lusii you had killed for Feferi's to be fed - was not how you were going to die, fuck no. So you had taken advantage of the shelter Strider provided and ignored the disgusted bile in your stomach and you'd scraped moments to find out where Rose Lalonde's hive would be and you'd made your plan.

It was not the greatest military plan you might have hoped for, but it was deep enough you were confident it would suffice. The question of just how hard it would be to survive here was hardly worth consideration, though you didn't ignore it completely. You had taken what tools you could find from Strider and Lalonde's hives, whatever might be useful for you now. The lack of Ahab's crosshairs gnawed at you and made you feel beached, made you feel exposed and threatened, it was nothing compared to the clawing, clammy desire to pick up a wand again. Fighting against that urge took up most of the mental power you had to spare for weaponry, really. You would let the depths crush you before you ever touched the white sciences again.

You are heading up because these are mountains and the higher you go the lower the population density of humans. You are going up because these mountains are riddled with deep lakes and interconnected caves and you can hide, as cowardly as it is. You can hide and you can live and you've had to fend for yourself long enough that the concept of remaining alone forever isn't a stranger to you. Before you would have raged at how unfair it was. Now you know better.

Now you know you deserve it.

You are a contemptible excuse for a troll. You are beyond pity. You are beyond hate. You are something to be loathed, something seen as so pathetically beneath the others that dying once, split in half in blinding agony, sitting in your dream bubble holding a wound that would never stop bleeding and would never close - that wasn't enough. Worse, you cannot even blame them. You'd kill you in the same place and not feel a minnow’s shit of guilt. They aren't wrong.

You hadn't been much more worthwhile before you'd lost everything. No, before you gave it all up because this is your fault, you were the one to fail and fall. You hadn't been worth much; your own moirail using you, Karkat acting like it was all so fucking simple. You'd lost one kismesis and a second couldn't take you seriously enough to properly fight and you were so addicted to the colour of your own blood sometimes you were convinced you'd die in a pool of it and no one would even notice until they wanted something from you - or maybe never. You didn't have anything anyone wanted, after all, and no matter how many times you tried to show how good you were they refused to see it. Now you know it's because they knew you were rotten. They got what they wanted from you and they left you withThem, with your terrible Angels, but you don't blame them. Not when you went and proved them all right.

Your head aches. You’ve been walking for hours. You're cold but you push forward, not too worried. You can handle temperatures colder than this, your body is made for the depths and sooner or later the organ that regulates your functions when you're deep will wake up and make sure your blood doesn't try to freeze in your circulatory system. You can't afford to stop and rest though you're exhausted (sleep was just an invitation to be culled even with Strider trying to prevent it). You're not far enough yet; you have to find a lake. Then you can lose any trail you are sure you're leaving and keep the others from finding you. That's the plan.

You'll leave them behind because they don't want you. Not one of them wants you. Not one of them gives a fuck if you live. Having a few who don't want you to die for entirely selfish reasons that dry out to be that they just don't want anyone to die doesn't fucking count. You'll leave them behind because one day soon Terezi is going to get tired of waiting, or maybe Kanaya, and you'll be dead and you won't even have the pride to fight back. And if it was Fef... you couldn't. She deserves to kill you. No one would stop her and it would be right and just - but fuck that you want to keep breathing, even if you don't know why. You can give up on romance, give up on friendship, almost give up on yourself. You fight against yourself because you're worthless, miserable, contemptible - but you're still alive. You might deserve to be dead but you don't want to have to die to get there.

You have enough self preservation to run and enough pride that dying in the middle of nowhere on a stupid fucked up planet is better than being killed by the girl you're flushed for or the friends you'd once thought understood you. You'd hate yourself if you had the emotion to spare for it because right now you're a coward and acting like a guttersnipe lowblood but you're too tired to even bother hating yourself. You're just empty.

You keep walking up. You ignore the way your chest hurts or your hands tingle or the dull ache in your head, because after Their song it's hard to remember to care about physical pain. You keep walking. The others will notice you are missing eventually and you don't know if they will let you go. You don't intend to give them a choice.

 

++++++++++++++++

You are pretty sure you're lost. You can't quite find it in you to care. Everything looks the same here, same plants and rocks you'd seen half an hour, an hour ago, and while you've found rivers and sometimes followed them nothing has led you to any of the lakes you'd memorized and the actual maps in your mind’s eye seem a little waterlogged now. You're cold, too cold, and part of your still active brain tells you that you need to get into water soon, because banking on your sea-troll biology hadn't exactly worked for the best, but since you can see nothing but trees everywhere you ignore it and reassure yourself that you're fine. You're fine. The tide will come in eventually, you just have to wait. It's not so bad - you survived your land and the terrible whispersong of the things called Angels; you can handle Earth.

You're tired, so tired, so much that eventually you have to admit defeat and let yourself rest. The choice is now either to find someplace safe to rest or leave yourself to fall over and who knows when or if you'll wake up. If they set Nepeta and Equius on your trail you don't have enough distance yet, not even for five hours. You can let yourself rest for a few minutes, but that is it. You need to keep heading up.

You won't risk climbing a tree, your addled brain tells you, because you'll only fall out and risk becoming even weaker and easier to cull. You don't have the dexterity right now, your hands curled up and almost unresponsive, your arms numb. You shouldn't stop now but you aren't listening to that part of your brain and you look around until you find a large tree with spiked branches that are low enough to hide you from easy sight. Underneath it the moonlight is hardly visible and you press your back against the trunk, not even caring how your cape will come away with sap and stains. You wrap the thin fabric around yourself and promise that you'll wake up in an hour. You have to keep moving. Your mind is very definite on that. Find water and you won't be so cold. You're going to find water soon...

 

+++++++++++++++

 

You dream of Alternia, of hunting on your lusus to feed Gl'bgolyb. Underwater and on land, you move steadily. You never miss your shots, no matter how hard you try and with every pull of the trigger it's another familiar colour, another familiar face. You're crying and you know you are, fighting even as Feferi screams for you to stop, trident pointed to take you down and you aim for her heart and in the dream you smile as you pull the trigger and she dies in an explosion of viscera and tyrian purple. You scream in your head for someone to stop you but your dream self laughs and laughs and laughs.

It's not the worst nightmare you've ever had.

+++++++++++++++++

 

You wake up to voices calling your name and light, early morning dawn tinting the area gold and grey and you can't quite see, your eyes are reduced to shapes and movement, indistinct and hard to tell real from imagined. You need to hide - the sun will kill you if you're exposed but you can't quite move your legs, can't seem to get up from the ground. When you hear your name again it's from a troll in front of you, in your space, and you're so prone you panic badly. You growl and hiss and try to swipe at them but your body is sluggish and they catch your hand before it even connects and you scream because it burns, it burns and you're on fire and they're going to burn you to death. Hands on you are too hot and they hold you down, one voice that reminds you of Feferi and you think her fork will bury itself in your stomach, she'll kill you slow like you deserve, intestines poisoning you as you bleed out onto the dirt and you fight against them, fight not to let them hold you down because you don't want to die and you know you deserve it but you can't just give up--

A hand works its way into your hair, soothing, fingers trailing down your cheek and over your fins and you freeze, you whimper, you let yourself say no, please, because there's pain and there's pain and you don't deserve that. You don't, but you think they won't care. They'll just make you scream. They’ll laugh as you die, like everyone always laughed at you.

They let you go. You don't understand but hands help you upright and take off your cape and they force your arms to unbend. They're speaking the whole time and you realize it's human, not Alternian. It's strange and it takes too long to realize that you've been discovered by humans and that's good and bad but your brain is too cold to remember why. They wrap you in their clothing and the warmth burns but doesn't set you alight and you're loaded onto someone's back, arms wrapped across a chest by a neck you could break in a thought but you don't. You soak in the warmth and try to remember why you're dead. Why you're going to be dead. Heat sinks into your bones and all you want to do is sleep, sleep and never wake up.

It's so hard to not just give up. You have a hard time remembering why you didn't in the first place.

 

 

==>Be Jade

You are scared. You are scared but you refuse to let it get to you, because being scared now won't help and you need to be helpful because if you aren't you think maybe Eridan will be dead before you can get him back to the house.

You thought you had missed Bec before, but that was nothing compared to now when John has Eridan on his back and is trying to hurry but hurrying in the woods when you'd been looking for so long is hard and John has to be careful or he'll fall and that's no good at all.

At least you know exactly where you need to go to get back - John was worried about getting lost but you aren't worried at all. You know exactly where you are and you know exactly what way you need to go and it doesn't matter how you know this, how it helped you find Eridan in the first place, you just do. You lead the way and John follows and you're so glad for the daylight that makes it easier to see because the flashlight Ms Lalonde had found for you was good enough but the sun is far superior, even if the whole mountain is foggy from the clouds that have rolled in over the night.

Eridan's fallen asleep again and you want to wake him; part of your mind pulls up pages you've read about hypothermia and that sleep is a bad thing but Eridan isn't really cooperating and he looks dead already, just as bad as Equius looked when Nepeta woke everyone up. He's dull grey, like the newspapers grandpa used to have flown in to the island. His skin tents when you pinch it and you think that's more for dehydration but it's bad nonetheless and he hisses when you rest a hand on his cheek but he doesn't even try to bite you and even though you don't know anything about troll physiology you know that's a bad sign.

John huffs and bounces on his feet to settle Eridan higher on his back, carrying the troll like a pack with his hands hooked under Eridan's knees. Eridan's wearing your jacket and John's and you just hope that's enough because you're cold and you are going to end up in just as much trouble if you're out too long like this, you and John both.

 

You lead the way back down through the animal trails, setting a pace that John can follow and you're impressed that he can manage the extra weight without once complaining. You use your phone to tell Sollux that you found Eridan and trust him to pass it along to the others so they can head back and meet you. You keep an eye on the sky through the trees and cross your fingers and toes that the foggy, damp clouds you're walking through will go away as you go lower. Your sweater is already soaked and clammy and you're shivering (but you can stop if you try so that's good) and when it starts to rain you look back to John and you share a look that is all annoyed and determined. You won't let a little rain get to you.

Or a lot of rain.

++++++

John calls for a break when you find an old wooden shelter that's just a roof and three walls and you huddle beneath it around Eridan who just huffs and turns into your shoulder, automatic and not even conscious, breathing terribly slow. It really makes you wonder about trolls and their physiology. He's still too cold but you think he isn't colder and that's the best you can manage right now. You really wish you could start a fire, but with everything wet it will take too long.

"Do you think he'll be all right?" John asks, worried and uncertain and eyes bright against the grey ugly morning haze all around you.

You shrug, but you wrap an arm around Eridan anyway and John follows suit, the three of you a huddle of warmth. "I don't know. Maybe? We have to get him warmer and we need to keep from getting too cold ourselves or all three of us will just curl up and sleep and never wake up." You wiggle your toes in your shoes that are soaked through and they're all hurt and prickley but you're pretty sure that's a better sign than just numb. "It's too bad you can't fly."

John picks up a stick from the ground and throws it and a gust of wind catches it, carries it in a loop and twist before it disappears down the hill. "I think I'm getting stronger, but it's not fast enough. I was trying! But I'd just end up crashing us into trees or worse. I nearly took out the shed at home, and I wasn't even carrying anyone then." He sighs and stamps his feet against the cold. "We're going to have to make sure everyone stays alive. I don't want anyone to die just because the trolls don't know how to forgive somebody."

"Won't... work..." Eridan croaks, limp against you with eyes open and glassy. You aren't sure he can see you - he isn't looking at either of you and isn't really moving his eyes at all. "They'll kill... me... shore." He makes a sound in his throat that's a little like a chirp and he closes his eyes and doesn't open them again.

You shake his shoulder, willing him to stay awake. "No no, Eridan you have to stay awake. You're too cold and if you sleep you might not wake up again!"

You realize that isn't the best answer when his lips crack open and that might be an attempt at a smile, you can't tell, but his voice is wavering and soft and so sad. "Better dyin’ like this...don want them...me like...this."

You punch his arm, as hard as you dare. "And it's okay to let some humans see you all pathetic and weak like this? Is that what you think? Well fuckass, I am going to keep you alive and drag your sorry ass back to Rose's house and we're going to warm you up! And you aren't going to die because we won't let you and we won't cull you even if you're totally all helpless right now because we are humans and that's how we do shit! We do it our way!" You shake his shoulder again and his eyes crack open the tiniest bit. "And you know what? If everyone is being dumb then when we finish figuring out everything you can come back with me!"

You grab his arms and tell John to help you and he tries to argue but you won't hear it. You hoist Eridan onto your back and sure he's heavy but it's not impossible and your blood is racing, all angry and strong, and when he tries to slide off your back you take the scarf from around his neck and you tie him to you and keep moving. Nothing is going to stop you! Not fog or rain or cold or tree roots or slippery mud or really big deer or skunks or stupid trolls who don't listen to their friendleader when he says no killing and do stupid things like trying to kill each other and chasing each other into the woods to freeze to death. You beat the game and Jack and so many bad things that you'd dreamed about for years and years and you won't let a little bit of grumpiness ruin your celebrations. This is a new world, and it's for the living - not the dreaming or the dead.

You think maybe Eridan has fallen asleep again, his head against your bare neck and cheek like ice, clammy and sharp - well, his facefin things are anyway - when he whisper/croaks into your ear "...back with you?"

You roll your eyes and step over the deer shit that totally would have made you slip and stop at the edge of the river and wait for John to catch up. "Of course! I've got enough space at home, you can set up somewhere on the other side of the island and no one will bother you. And if anyone doesn't like it then they're not allowed on my island!"

You step onto the dead tree that crosses the river because it’s really too cold to wade (you had tried when you'd crossed it the first time) and you focus on one foot in front of the other for a minute because the wood is slick and slippery. It's a lot harder with Eridan on your back and halfway across you can tell you're going to fall a step before you do, know you're going to end up in the river and if that happens Eridan will probably die from the shock and John will have to leave him so that he can carry you back and it will make you both so sad and angry and you're frozen on the tree, unable to move forward or back but staying there isn't an option either...

Wind, cold but as solid as a wall pushes up against your sides and back, shores you up and makes you feel secure and safe, even while you stand on a wet old tree in the middle of a swollen river and John's a bit behind you but his voice is a call in your other ear, warm and bright. "It's all right. I've got this." He laughs and of course you smile in return. "Windy thing to the rescue!"

Thus secured you manage the rest of the stupid wet log and down to the other side of the river. You step into a puddle that soaks your left foot with freezing cold water and you shriek in surprise which makes Eridan flail for a second on your back, hissing and scared. You tell him that if he bites your shoulder you are going to drop him and kick him down the rest of the mountain and he whimpers and goes quiet and you feel a little bad for threatening him but you're really happy it worked.

Your fingers are cold, your everything is cold the game snow had never been this cold or you’d never felt it so badly as this and you tuck your hands into fists and keep them against your side, holding Eridan's legs above your hips with your forearms and determination. He is not dying and that's all you are focusing on right now.

 

When John figures out how to use the wind to keep the rain off it's really great and gives you another burst of adrenaline-fuelled stamina. When you see Rose's house through the trees you almost run the rest of the way. You nearly fall - but John's always there to help catch you before you eat grass and you know you can count on him to always be there. No more dreams, no more fears, no more dying. No one is allowed to die here because it's your world and you want it to be perfect, even if just for a little while.

 

John opens the door and you start yelling for people before you've even stepped inside.

 

==>Be Sollux

You have always appreciated duality, mirror images and matching pairs. You have always kicked ass at whatever stupid fucking task you'd set yourself to, or been asked to do. You are very capable - you were - of doubletasking, multitasking, handling yourself and your matesprit and even your work. Maybe you appreciated a little extra help when you were in one of your moods, but whatever. There was nothing you couldn't do, except when it came to certain ess sounds that were stupid in the first place.

It is almost impossible to do anything while this blind and you have been so angry for so long at this fact you have gone right past anger and you think you might be living in the land Karkat must have built, made of cursing and fury where everything pisses you off but the rage is an almost background noise, some hum you can tune into when you need it to power you like a personal sun but it leaves you otherwise functional. You're full of anger but you're surprisingly okay. Usually okay, actually - not so much right now, right now you want to break everything.

You can't complain too much - if you had your powers you might have destroyed Lalonde's hive in the last five minutes, the way you feel right now.

Though then you wish you had your fucking powers. This wouldn't be a problem if you had your powers - and your sight. You could have flown out and found Eridan and kicked his ass (without showing any interest, right now the asshole didn't deserve a kismesis or anything else) and dragged him back for Feferi happily.

Instead you're sitting in front of a computer with a paper map beside you and neither of these things are all that useful because no one besides Rose can really tell you where they are but someone had to keep track and guess what? That someone is you.

You think you've successfully hacked the communication network to show you where the small personal ‘cellphones’ Lalonde's lusus had given everyone are on the mountain. The little blue dots on your screen seem right, even if it's easy to see them and hard to see where they are. You need to run something to change the contrast and colour of this husktop's display. It's just too complicated to get a good smell off of, and Terezi is out with Strider looking for the watery asshole and no help right now.

You'd ask Feferi for help - not in so many words, of course - but she is pacing back and forth behind you and her agitation is so thick you can taste it even when you're turned away. (No wonder no one could ever sneak up on Pyrope, if you were all so... potent.)

"Have they flounder him yet? Ooooooh I barracoulda drown him for this! How dare he?" She turns and stomps and you twist in your chair to face her, a blur of salty purple and pink and blue and liquorice black flowing behind her. It's not now you wanted to see her, but you're grateful you can even have this, when you can remember to be grateful at all.

"I thtill thay it'th better if he jutht dieth out there,” you suggest for the twentieth time and aren't at all surprised at how Feferi rounds on you. She's fierce like this, driven and weak and angry and beautiful. She's obsessed and out of control and all you can do is your best to keep her from losing her shit entirely because seriously, this is getting to her way more than it should.

"I don't want him swimming away!" she tells you for the twenty-first time. "He was mine to cull and this wouldn't have happened if Dave hadn't interfinned!"

"And the humanth are a bunch of wigglers who faint at the thmell of blood but pithing them off when they're doing their weird friendthip thing and actually trying to help ith'nt thmart, FF, and you're thmarter than that." You beckon to her and point to the chair beside to you. "Thit down and relakth. They'll find him and bring him back and you'll make him pay, or they'll give up and let him run and he'll jutht die out there." You catch her hand as she gets close enough and pull her to you. She's trembling and that scares you - as does the way she hisses aggressively at you, hand grabbing your shoulder and digging nails in before she catches herself and cries in horror.

"Oh Sollux I'm sorry! That wasn't on porpoise!" The shaking gets worse and you haven't let go of her other hand so you pull on it until she's sitting beside you. You shift your chair as close as you can and relax a little when she leans into you. "It'th fine, FF. I'm not hurt - but what'th wrong?" That sort of aggression never should have happened. Not with Feferi and not at you, and you wish you could see her fucking face because this would be easier than guessing all the God damn time. "When wath the latht time you thlept?"

She giggles, sighing and letting herself calm down a little, and you relax with her, grateful to find she can relax at all. "Sleeping without sopor isn't real sleep," she explains, like you're a grub. "It's not even restful. All my dreams are daymares, they're horrible, Sollux. He keeps killing everyone."

"They're dreamth,” you sigh, and reach carefully to stroke her hair. Feferi's hair has always fascinated you and being allowed to touch it whenever you were close was a treat that being blind couldn't even detract from. "I'm not dead, no one elth ith and if the athhole trieth anything he'll be culled faster than KK can say fuck. Bethideth, it'th cold out there. If the otherth find him, he'll be dead. Then he won't hurt anyone."

Feferi curls right into you, sighing prettily and winding her arms around your waist. "If he finds water he'll be fine. The cold won't bother him, in water. Alternia's warm but the oceans get cold, colder the deeper you go. He's built for the cold there."

"Then I'll jutht hope he doethn't find any water then." You're smug and bitter, but the bastard cost you your eyes and more importantly killed Feferi and while you'd be happy to have him and your powers and five minutes alone you can't so settling for someone else or the wilderness killing him as an acceptable alternative.

You spend the next few minutes just curled like that, Feferi's head eventually in your lap, her arms tight around your waist, your fingers curling through her hair. She relaxes in inches, slowly but you can feel it and you feel like shit for not noticing how stressed she'd been before. You are so fucking sick of being blind you'd happily take the voices and headaches back if it meant you could see the girl you pitied. You want to help her, not be another burden for her to have to carry.

Just when you think she's settled properly, back to the girl you know and not this whirlwind of emotion you hear the incessant buzzing of your cellular communications device. The stupid thing is pure mechanics and has been a pain to deal with, not a single reasonable honeycomb to be found. You flip the thing open, annoyed at the hinge because it's an obvious design flaw, and it takes a second to hold it right way up to your auricular sponge clot. "Yeah?"

"We found Eridan!" That's Harley's voice, excited - which means he isn't dead. Dammit. You don't have to tell Feferi either because she's sitting up and vibrating again, you can feel her reaching for the device and you duck to keep it away from her hands. "He's super cold and I think he has hypothermia if that's what trolls get and he's not really conscious but we found him and we're bringing him home!"

She must expect some sort of answer from you beyond a sigh, which is funny because you are positive she doesn't actually want to hear what you think. "Sollux?"

"Yeah. Fine. You're coming back with one hipthter douchbag in tow. I hope you drop him down the mountain and kick hith athh the whole way here."

She makes her unhappy sound that usually preceded a fuckass and some sort of smack that never hurt (seriously, why the fuck did humans even bother?) but you cut her off before she can really start. "You're lucky I didn't tell you to jutht cull him and thave uth the trouble. I'll tell the otherth to turn their thtupid atheth back too we can get thome real work done thometime today." You close the device and end the conversation to settle back down at the computer, completely oblivious (or ignoring) the way Feferi is glaring at you.

You could call each of the groups back. Or give Maryam the task, if she's still around - but you're starting to get used to these stupid backwards idiotic systems the humans use and you think you can coax your husktop to send a single message to each of their devices that will save you from having to actually talk to any of them. Especially since you're sure Karkat is going to argue with you.

You're so focused on the system, their horribly inefficient (but not that difficult to grasp) binary and the challenge in front of you that you forget the girl behind you. She's growling, but your mind doesn't even register it. If someone asked you'd just say you knew her anger wasn't aimed at you so you were safe but the truth is you're so absorbed in the computer you wouldn't notice anything, no matter how important.

 

+++++++

 

You feel fucking proud of yourself as you breathe in another view of the computer screen in front of you and see all the blue dots returning to your (red dot) position. You can say this about human software - at least it's so hideously outdated and simple even a blind troll can figure it out.

You can hear Harley shouting orders behind you but you refuse to turn around and see what’s going on. Not because you don't care, but because you won't be able to tell and the headache of trying to sort out a bunch of voices and smells into separate people when in a room that echoes and smells of paper and dust already so strongly - you can't. Lalonde's lusus is somewhere, with Maryam and Aradia hovering and you're pretty sure that chemical tang is Gamzee which means Tavros too. You don't know why the fuck they're here but it's already too noisy to try a conversation or to even try finding them in this mess and getting an idea of just how bad Gamzee's hurt. You watch the screen instead, the blue dots showing Karkat and Lalonde (and why she had gone with Karkat and not Maryam is a question you wish you had an answer for) drawing closer and you brace yourself for the shouting match that's going to come.

You hope the human lusii above you are heavy sleepers.

Harley is issuing orders to help Eridan, things you're ignoring because fuck Eridan, let the troll rot for all you care. When the last blue dot arrives and Karkat starts shouting the minute he walks into the room you give up, the noise overwhelming until it's just that - noise. It makes you blind again as you lose any fucking sense of the room and you have to leave, leave right fucking now, before you do something monumentally stupid like bursting into frustrated tears or biting someone.

You fucking wish you could catch Feferi's eyes, have her see and come and help - but she's so obsessed with Eridan it could be a black crush, and while he's in the room she can't remember you right now. So you stumble up and out of the noise, relying on barely there walls of brown and white, chocolate and tin, to get you out of the block and into the cool quiet of the halls.

If anyone suggests you're running away, you'll kill them. You're exhausted - when was the last time -you- slept? If they go back to debating about Eridan again everyone already knows your stance on the bastard. You don't need to sit there and look pathetic and say it all again. You can barely breathe anyway. You wouldn’t manage more than a few words.

Fuck them all. You're going to have a God damn nap and if anyone interrupts you it won't be your fault when you gut them.

 

 

==>Be Feferi

Eridan is ashen, and it would be amusingly ironic if it weren't so frightening. It's a colour no living troll should be: a colour you've only seen in the bloodless corpses of those young trolls who fought to save their lusus against Eridan and lost. You forget that an hour ago you wanted him dead. Seeing him like this makes something far too close to pity settle in your heart.

Jade Harley has taken charge; what surprises you most is how everyone listens to her. By the time you'd received the message and returned she'd already set Eridan on the couch of the smaller reading room, stripped him out of his clothing and covered him in bladders filled with hot water and blankets piled high to
keep the heat in. All you can see is his head, tilted up on the arm of the couch. The light that falls on him from this angle makes his cheeks seem impossibly hollow; his eyes seem sunken in and bruised. He’s hardly recognizable, like this.

The room is full of noise: Karkat and Terezi are arguing with John, Jade is explaining something off of a computer to Dave, Tavros and Gamzee are in a corner talking (though quieter than the others, it still adds to the noise) and when Nepeta and Equius start pestering for explanations your ears start to ring. You want to ask Jade how Eridan is but you were his moirail and are a sea dweller besides. You already know. He is a purple blood: if this hasn't killed him yet, it won't.

You try to interrupt the noise politely but you can barely hear your own voice. Somehow Eridan hears (how typical) and his eyes lock on your face but you don't return his gaze. You are feeling conflicted about everything, and you really hate that. You do know what needs to be done to settle this and knowing that you act, because action is always preferable to inaction and you will never hesitate to make a decision that needs to be made. That's what you were born for.

The culling trident suddenly appears in your hand and commands the attention of most of the room: they probably don't mean to fall silent (and in a few cases reach for their own specibi) but trolls have a deep hereditary respect for the weapon. You don't usually abuse this fact - that sort of flagrant misuse of your position makes you feel sick - but there are times when it is useful to have your own way. Into the silence you smile to take the edge off the commands, but these are absolutely commands even if you say them nicely.

"If everyone cod please leave right now I'd be reel-ly grateful."

Half the trolls leave immediately, without a word of protest. The rest just stare, along with the humans who clearly don't understand what's going on. Your smile grows broad and wide and now you're flashing all of your teeth. "Eridan Ampora and I are going to talk. Alone. Are any of you going to challenge me?"

You can see their eyes on the trident. You aren't worried terribly: you might not be the strongest but you are fast and heal quicker than any other troll could hope for. The trident gives you an extra edge and you don't think anyone is willing to go against it, not for Eridan's sake. You were his only quadrant before the game: no one will want to protect him at the sake of their own selves, no matter what they might have argued before.

Karkat surprises you - Karkat always surprises you. Everyone else steps back and he steps forward, expression intent. You know how much he platonically hates Eridan and it's actually quite impressive, his dedication to keeping you all alive. Or perhaps it's just his selfish need not to lose face. Not that anyone will respect him for protecting a troll like Eridan, especially without quadrants to defend the action. But he'd argued against culling the troll before and now he stands in front of you with his sickles drawn and ready.

"Karkat. I don’t want to fight you; it’s only going to make prawnblems. Just flounder away, please?"

"Funny she says she doesn't want to fight and she stands there with her fucking culling fork out. I thought we settled this Peixes? Ampora's alive and he is staying that way. I think you're the one leaving now, or you're going to have the fucking problem. Are you going to challenge me?"

You don't promise anything so silly as not hurting Eridan. Karkat wouldn't believe you, and you don't like lying unnecessarily, but out of everyone Karkat's the troll you least want to fight. You also can't back down, not from such a direct challenge: you have your own pride. "Karkat we're just going to talk. I'm not planning on hurting him." There, it's a peace offering and not actually a lie, since you have no idea what you want to do to the troll at this very second.

Karkat doesn't believe you, drawing himself up and keeping his voice even. "Yeah well here's a novel concept that might damage your already feeble thinkpan - you can talk -"

"Karkat." Eridan cuts him off with a voice that's all growl and gravel, weak and tired. "Go. Fef and I are gonna...talk."

"Like hell you are, nookwiffer."

Eridan tries to lift himself from the couch and its pathetic, he’s so weak. "Are you tryin’ to tell me who I can speak to now, Vantas? Are you gonna be any fuckin’ quadrant and give a damn and deserve to tell me what I can do? Fuck off. It's nothin’ to ya now so leawe me with my cod-damned mo -- leave me with Feferi. I don't want your protection."

Karkat stares for a second and you decide to add some weight to the decision. The fork disappears and you give Karkat a more normal smile. "Please, Karkat. That was asking nicely, for Eridan."

The strange thing is it was nice for Eridan, and considering everything you don't know why he spoke up. He isn’t a terribly brave troll when all is said and done, and he knew you wanted him dead - he ran away, for clam's sake! But you'll figure Eridan out when you have some privacy. Eridan is yours to deal with and you don't want to leave him for anyone else.

Karkat curses violently but after a moment he puts his sickles away. "I swear to you, Feferi Peixes, you cull him I will come down on you so fucking hard these mountains will collapse from the shockwave and I will personally ensure you're crushed to death under the rocks even if I have to move them myself. I will make your ancestor regret ever looking at a God damned pail. Are we clear?"

"As water!" you chirp - and perhaps part of your amusement comes from watching him fume when he walks away and takes the others with him, but it’s only a little amusement and you promise yourself not to abuse it.

You turn to Eridan - and stare, a little put-out. The four humans are standing between you and him, an actual wall of pale (frail) skin. You might have no qualms fighting one of them, but even you have to admit that all four would be impossible. This is a time for politics.

"Fuck, Strider. Do I have to spell it out for you and your humans? Just leawe already." Of course, trust Eridan to spoil your plans, just like always.

"Dude, you are so not capable of making decisions right now."

"I don't remember askin’ for your shitty opinion!"

"So we're supposed to leave you alone so she can be polite and gut you in privacy? Fuck that noise." Even behind his mirrored, tinted lenses you can tell Dave is glaring at you. The other humans seem... quietly stoic and perhaps a bit confused. They're here for solidarity, you realize. What one does the other will too, like a school of fish caught in the current. You wonder what it feels like to trust other people to lead you the right way.

"Fef won't gut me," Eridan snaps, frustrated. "She's got more class than that. Strider, use your fuckin’ thinkpan for a second here. This is gonna happen whether you want it to or not. At least give me some fuckin’ dignity. You too, Harley. Thanks for draggin’ my ass back before I froze to death. Now go the fuck away."

In the end you don't have to say a word, Eridan does all the work for you. The humans leave in a tumble of complex emotions: Rose calculating, John worried, Jade upset, and Dave pretending that no one can read the anger that comes off him in waves.

You half decide not to cull Eridan right then just to vex Dave Strider more. You don't like how the human thinks he knows you. He's a Knight and he's built for fighting, not thinking; he knows nothing.

When the room is empty save for you and Eridan (though you can hear Dave and Karkat standing out in the hall, just waiting, you suspect, for Eridan to start screaming) you pull a chair forward so you can sit next to his head. He just watches you, the same damn way he's been just watching you since you'd all been revived. It was annoying at first, and then it was creepy. Now it's somehow become unnerving though you aren't sure why.

The reason hits you like a wave: it's still silent and Eridan hasn't said anything to you. Eridan hasn't really spoken to you at all, except when you cornered him, and even then he hadn't been willing to properly fight. Eridan Ampora, who could turn a two minute event into an hour long rant, who could never get to the point of a story because he was too in love with his own voice, who would never hesitate to put himself forward if it meant showcasing how strong or smart or right he was... was silent.

It was like watching the ocean burn dry. It just didn't seem real.

In fact it's so out of character that when he does speak you're so relieved you don't really hear the words; you smile before they register.

"It's okay Fef. You can cull me like you want. I know I deserwe it."

Your face freezes into a rictus of horror - not at the idea of killing him, because you have been very clear that he doesn't deserve to live after destroying the matriorb - but because those words do not fit, out of his mouth. They don't fit the shape of Eridan Ampora, your ex-moirail, and all you can do is stare in horror and wonder who the shell this troll is, to suggest you should kill him: to dare pretend he has any right to give you permission.

You grab his arm with nails that dig in and he doesn't even flinch. He looks the same, except Eridan would have looked after himself better. Would have styled his hair into the familiar pompous coif, would have changed the clothes that sit in a pile beside the couch the minute they were soiled - not continued to wear them. He would have hated the deep circles under his eyes, would have complained and raged at being rescued by worthless humans and would not be staring at you with blank eyes that hold no pity whatsoever.

You let go of his arm. This world is strange: what if Eridan is part of that strangeness? "Who are you? I don't believe you're reel-y Eridan at all." It's almost like someone is wearing Eridan's skin - a thought that makes you shudder. Someone else, puppeting him to spy on you?

Eridan almost reaches out for you at that - starts and then catches himself, scowls and drags his bare arm back under the blankets for warmth. "Is that how this is gonna go? Of course I'm me, Fef. Even if I fuckin’ hate it I'm still the bastard who killed you. I'm not some shitty ghost."

"You don't act like Eridan."

"Maybe because actin’ like that nookwiffer was what fucked everythin’ up." He stares at you with hurt in his eyes, tired and bruised and certain. When was the last time Eridan had looked at you with certainty?

Cod, this was the story of the maroon-blooded troll and the large predator. Next you would be commenting on his teeth and how sharp they were."Eridan wouldn't be so calm about being killed."

It gets a reaction out of him, even if it's just strangled anger. "What does it matter? Since when has anyfin I wanted actually mattered? I left and you fuckin’ dragged me back, why should I waste my breath? No one is gonna listen to a fuckin’ thing I say. If they did, I woulda had my glubbin moirail in the Weil and maybe she would have stopped me before I - maybe I would hawe stopped myself!" His voice cracks but he doesn't cry, and your ex-moirail was a troll who could cry at the flick of a fin, if he thought he'd get some pity from you.

He collapses in on himself again, like a dead cuttlefish. "If you're gonna cull me just do it Fef. Please. Don't drag it out. I know you don't hawe any pity for a grub like me, so hawe some mercy. If you ever even pitied me at all, for that, Empress."

The insult is a smack across your pride and you respond back by leaving a handprint against his dry ashen skin. His head snaps into the couch violently and he just blinks, only turning his head back to look at you, you think, when he has control enough not to cry.

Of course you pitied him. You always pitied him. The problem was that he was as detestable as he was pitiable and he had you trapped - your lusus had to be fed, and no one else could provide the way Eridan did so effortlessly. You had to be his moirail or trolls would die (more trolls, because they died when you fed their lusus to yours but the needs of the many outweighed them) and he was completely oblivious. You'd done your best, you really had. You couldn't be blamed for getting out the minute you could, for finding a troll who was so broken and weak you ached to see him sad, who never ever treated you like an empress apparent because he just didn't care.

Your lips move but you can't quite speak, can't admit he might be even one drop right about of any this. You scowl when you realize he's making you feel guilty. You owe him nothing.

Maybe you owed him an apology, before he killed you. You're still carrying a grudge about that, but the longer Eridan just sits and stares between you and the ceiling the harder it is to keep hating him. He's just pathetic now, and maybe you'd hate him or hold him in contempt, if he were begging, but he sits and just seems to be waiting for whatever you decide.

You watch his face for some sort of trick, some angle he must be playing at because Eridan's not smart but sometimes he's clever. Sadly he's back to staring at the ceiling and you can't find anything except resignation on his face. "Why?"

That makes pain flash across his face, brief but potent. "If I gotta giwe ya a reason to... I guess I was a worse troll than I ewen thought."

You shake your head, leaving the silence between you. You need to be calm, here. You can't let your anger get the best of you, because the others will judge that and while they will not blame you they will think you weaker for it. You breathe, until you feel most of your anger at this troll settling into something more calm, equal parts curiosity and uncertainty and maybe a bit of pity, though you loathe to admit the last. "No. Why did you do it? Kill me, Kanaya - the matriorb." You notice how he flinches at each word like you're hitting him and you remember Eridan was always far more hurt by insults and verbal attacks than any sort of physical injury. It wasn't a soft spot - it was a giant target hanging on his back for the world to see.

His voice is so quiet it's a broken whisper and when he looks at you his eyes make your skin crawl. This is not your Eridan Ampora - but maybe it is, just after a hundred years in hell. "Please Fef. Does it matter? Will it change anyfin at all?"

You pull yourself up straight and tall and fix him with an imperious glare. "I asked you why."

He mutters under his breath and clearly resents the order but he tells you - in brief starts and stops - about the Angels in his land and the voices They spoke with, the things They'd promised him, the way the Voices continued long after he'd killed every Angel he could see. He tells you of the ghosts in the corners of his eyes and the sleep that wouldn't come, of trying to find an explanation and being worried because Angels or not they didn't sound trustworthy. He tells you of feeling Them behind his eyes, grasping, and how he'd tried to find someone to see there was something wrong, tried to show you and Sollux, and how when he'd been sent running he'd given up and given in and by the time he realized what he'd done it had been too late.

He doesn't blame you and he could, you think. You remember that second last duel. You remember Sollux had been cruel, his mood foul and influencing yours even though you'd been trying to cheer him up. You remember being tired of Eridan's advances, of him refusing to understand you wanted no quadrant with him. You remember laughing at him, and you feel ashamed. He had been desperate and he'd come for help and you'd dismissed him. You'd treated him the way she would have. You were supposed to be better than that.

"I tried to stop I swear Fef, I did. They didn't understand, They wouldn't listen, They just wanted to kill ewrything. An I was so angry an that's what They wanted. I never would have hurt you on porpoise. Not like that. I just wanted someone to fuckin take me serious for once an I fucked up and I killed my best friend."

He's not looking at you and his voice is so distant you wonder if he even remembers you're here next to him. He's closed his eyes and the thin occular membrane is more grey than purple - he's warming up, finally, but it's a slow process that will leave him vulnerable and weak for a day, maybe two. "I know it don't mean anyfin atoll but cod, Fef, I'm sorry. I would a rather cut my gills off with a broken shell than hurt you."

You really want this to be a ploy. You want it to be Eridan's newest trick, his desperate attempt to win your pity. You want it to be so because it is far more comfortable than the suspicion that is flowing through your veins. You want to go back to anger and disgust because it is easier than the tangled seabed of emotion you're feeling now. You want purple blood on the end of your trident because that would be right... you just think now it would be wrong too.

Perhaps that's how the Condesce went mad, how she became more demon than troll. Because when two options sit in front of you it is easy, too easy, to reach for the simple solution. Killing Eridan would be simple. It would be easy - and maybe even that stops you, because no troll should ever just lie down and wait for death. It's as wrong as the sun rising in the south.

Maybe it's because you could not understand how a troll who had been so flushed for you could have killed you so... so easily. Maybe if you'd actually realized something had been wrong, if you hadn't been so tired of Eridan to notice a change. Too many maybes, too many uncertainties. There's no point on dwelling in them now. Now you need your certainties, your decisions, and they have to be the right ones.

"Eridan Ampora." His eyes open and they see the trident in your hand, the tines pointed up to the ceiling, and he freezes. He isn't even breathing. It helps that he's afraid, that for all he's told you he's ready to die he's clearly not. It makes this easier. "You are a giant pain and reel-ly annoying and I only wanted to make you pay for everyfin you did. And you're right you deserve it. But the humans are right too that it should be fair. If we're going to forgive Gamzee and Vriska for everyfin they did, we should forgive you too." You hate being wrong, hate being proven wrong, but maybe the better kind of empress - the one who wanted culling to mean something different - maybe that was the sort of empress who had to admit when she was the one who had been wrong. Sometimes.

"You're here with everyone else so that means you get a second chance, I've decided." You see the hope in his eyes and hold up a hand to stop him before he speaks, but you gentle your voice to soften the blow. "I don't forgive you. I don't know if I can, Eridan, even if it wasn't reel-ly just you who destroyed the matriorb. I'm going to need some time, all right? But you don't have to be scared anymore."

You bring the trident down, points digging into his neck and concentrate. This is hard and you don't have a lot of experience, but Eridan being too cold has actually happened before, when he'd tried to follow you too deep. It's the only bit of healing you're confident in, with the trident to help you, and after a moment balanced on the precipice of too little and too much, there's a feeling of a spark that jumps from you through your trident to the prone sea troll.

The change is instant. Eridan's skin is healthy grey, his eyes bright and aware and the sunken hollowness to his face almost completely gone. His ragged breathing evens out and his lips are their proper black, no longer near-white. You put the trident away and realize you feel better yourself, the bubbling lava in your veins gone along with the tension in your back and head. You smile at Eridan and tentatively he smiles back. It's a reconnection between you - one you're not sure you want or like, but it's there nonetheless.

You turn on your heel because you don't want to spend another minute here, your duties as former empress and ex-moirail complete. "I'm going to find the others. You should sleep." You need the rest too - healing always takes a lot out of you. "I'll tell everyone to leave you alone."

You ignore the lines of purple that are tracing their way down Eridan's face. You may have forgiven him somewhat, may have wanted him to be better so he wasn't trapped and prone for the rest of the day (and tomorrow too), might have decided it was all right to protect him - but that was the (former) empress, not you. That was politics, not pity. You're certain of it.

When you step out of the room and walk between Karkat and Dave who have been flanking the door and probably heard every word, you fix them with your brightest smile and refuse to even pretend they intimidate you. "If anyone tries to get to Eridan they'll have me to deal with. Oh, and since you're being such good guards you should keep an eye on him all day, just in case. I'll tell Rose to send lunch over to you!"

You giggle: you're giddy. It's another reason you don't heal others often; you're lightheaded and full of bubbles. You float away, down the hall to find Sollux and Terezi and tell them about your changed mind. Dave and Karkat might be laughing behind you but you're too far away to hear - or care.

 

 

==>Be Aradia

 

Everything would be fine, just fine, if it didn't hurt so much.

 

You can't stay with the others and when Feferi's fork comes out you think this is it and try to reach forward and see again because you had been certain, absolutely certain that you'd seen Gamzee and Equius dead but they're not and the only option is that someone else was going to die, because you could feel it -

Except even as the others start to leave the room the sense starts to fade and when you reach forward again the blinding, stabbing pain - green like the sun had been, shifting to a thousand colours and a sense of go away little girl - and you're pushed away. You’ve never been a seer but you knew how to look to the paths you needed to take and there’s nothing ahead of you. Worse, a part of that terrifying mess feels like you. What is future you doing, that she couldn't even give you a bit of help? What had been done to her? (What was this place, really?)

You stagger through the hive, clutching your head and having all the sympathy for Sollux and his headaches now. Well, even more than you'd had before. It's hard to see straight but you force yourself forward and towards something closer to silence, feet skipping across the carpet, sometimes not even touching it, everything grey and out of focus and you're lost in the forward and back of a world that is old and new and warping time around you because it feels so young -

"AA?" His voice cuts through the cloudy time and pain and brings you back down, sets your feet properly on the floor of the hive and lifts the fog in your head. You hadn't even realized how much you were trying to push forward in the timestream until you stopped and suddenly you feel like a troll again, instead of a bit of grub leather.

He sets a light hand on your arm - missing the first time - and stares blankly at your face; his eyes burned out and nose and forehead all scrunched up in concentration. "You don't thmell well."

That's funny because his hand is trembling and his eyes have deep bruises under them and he smells like sweat and exhaustion himself, his voice a croak. "You look even worse, silly."

"I'm fine,” he growls, and looks away. His voice is all thick, like maybe he's been crying or he wants to. You wonder if he can anymore, without his eyes.

You tug on his arm, wordlessly, and the both of you help each other stay up, taking the stairs one at a time until you're on the third floor of the hive, in the small room you'd been given when you arrived. Sollux's own temporary block is next to yours but you don't let him retreat there. You pull him into your space and sit both of you down on the soft mattress that Rose had called a rollaway.

It's instantly quieter and you both relax with matching sighs, something that makes you giggle and Sollux smile, shakily. He’s been breathing hard but he settles next to you. You press your shoulder against his, warmth to warmth, like you're young again and sitting in his hive, pouring over old books and whatever treasures you'd dug up on your most recent adventure. You loved those days the best, and even knowing how important it was for everything to happen as it did, it doesn't mean you don't have regrets. You just try not to let them keep you down.

"AA?" Sollux starts again, letting his head fall onto your shoulder without even a fight. He's down, you realize. His mood is sinking low and if you and the others aren't careful he'll go right to the point where he doesn't want to eat or move or even breathe much at all, until you pick him up and kick his skinny and very bony ass into gear and he swings up again. You’re out of practice for that – Karkat took over the job for you when you’d died. You should remember to thank him for that, somehow.

"Did you know thith wath going to happen?" He's so tired sounding you can't help but put an arm over his shoulder in a loose hug. "When you thtarted. When you were in the veil and thaid goodbye. Did you know?"

"I..." you wonder how you can possibly answer that, how you can say yes and no in one breath. "I knew some of it? But... not the details, well actually I knew all of the details, but knowing how they were going to work out was so hard it was like knowing nothing at all." You sigh; everything had been so hard but it had been so clear and now it's like trying to see through mud. Or maybe breathe through it.

"Ekthplain it to me," Sollux demands, his voice soft and sharp and... angry? "Were we all jutht detailth? What happened didn't matter?"

"I didn't say that!" You're hurt that he'd think like that. "I never thought like that. Not... not intentionally. When I was dead it was different. In the robot it was a lot better but it still wasn't all me. Not really. They wanted us to succeed. I just wanted everyone to survive and be happy again. So we had to win to get what I wanted."

"And that maketh it better?"

You pull away because as pitiful as he is he's hurting you, and Sollux never hurt you. But you have to remember that you were dead for a long time. Trolls change, and Sollux has had more reason than most trolls for it.

"I... I could see everything, Sollux. All the times we failed. All the times we died and fought and cried and died and failed over and over again and I had to sort through it all and sometimes it was just too much! I just had to find where we were alive and I kept making that happen and everytime we made a mistake I had to go back and fix it until..."

"Until you blew yourthelf up and then thuddenly it all went to hell and you left uth to get fucking thlaughtered."

You recoil, pulling completely away from Sollux and staring at him in shock and pain. "No! I had to wake up my God Tier properly and I couldn't keep up between the outer ring and the green sun and the rest of the Veil! I had to help co-ordinate everything."

"Tho we could end up thitting on a human planet. The latht of uth. We're going to die here and worthe we're probably going to kill ourthelveth. We're fucking utheleth here. I'm blind! When wath that part of the plan?"

You slip a hand on his knee and don't miss how his breath hitches. Poor Sollux. He's been going too long, he must be. You forgive him for hurting you because how could you not? "Sollux, I couldn't see this far."

"What?" He sniffles and you slip your arm back around him once more.

"All I knew was that our plan had an ending, and it felt... it felt like it could be a good one. I couldn't see what it was. I just had to guess. All the other timeliness felt... wrong. They were black or brown and hurt to try to look at. This one was bright. It felt right."

"Thith ithn't right."

Frustrated now, you smack his arm and he's even skinnier than when you last had a body to feel his arms with. He hasn't been looking after himself. (Of course he hasn't. He never did. You did. And then you died and he wasn't important anymore except in his coding.) "I know it's not right. I know no one wants to be here except the humans. I know. And it's all a big mess and there's no sopor or matriorb and I keep trying to see where everything goes and I can't, all I get are flickering little bits and now even they're wrong."

He's holding your hand, running his thumb over the tops of your fingers. It's intimate because it's been years since you were touched, since you had a body that was yours and yours alone and you refuse to even think of the disaster that Equius' disgusting robot construct had been as your own. You don't need revenge on the blue-blood but if he ever dares anything again you think you might learn how to send someone forward and back in time - in pieces.

"I looked, and Equius was dead. I saw it. And it was the only thing I could see so I thought it was fixed, that it couldn't be changed, because that’s how it works. And now he's alive and all right and I thought someone else was going to die instead but everyone's all right now and I don't think Feferi is going to kill Eridan because, well, he's still alive tomorrow. But when I try to see further now it's just all blocked off! And I think I'm the troll blocking me, at least a little."

"I gueth I'd be an athhole for blaming you for thith when you don't even know whath going on."

“Maybe a little.” You agree, but you keep your voice soft. You don’t really mean it. “It’s scary, Sollux. I used to know exactly what I had to do. They told me, or I told me, and I just had to make it happen. And it was hard and sometimes I made really big mistakes I had to fix and do over again and I died. I died a lot and I have to remember it all. But now I can’t hear anyone unless I’m trying and all I hear is go away and I’m pretty sure that’s me saying it. And things I think are going to happen don’t and all the big lines of time I’m used to looking for are just... one big one. It’s like... what if everything we do won’t matter? Because there’s only one timeline in this world, and we have to follow it?”

“Then you juth have to live life like the retht of uth who can’t thee the future or fuck with time. I haven’t heard the Voitheth thince Ampora blinded me and I like it. I fucking hate being utheless and blind and I’d take the Voitheth back, I think if I could thee. But If I’m going to die tomorrow I don’t have to know today and maybe thath not tho bad.” His hand stills on yours and his voice cracks as he suddenly changes the topic. “I never thaid I was thorry.”

You don’t need to ask him what he means, you just tighten the arm over his shoulder and press your chin into his hair, a sideways hug. It’s so so so nice to have a body that’s yours that you can feel in again. “Don’t be silly, Sollux. You said sorry so many times, and I heard them all. I just... didn’t understand why it was so important, when I was dead. It didn’t matter then, and now I’m alive and everything is going to be okay, I really hope it will be. But no matter what it wasn’t your fault and I always forgave you. Always.“

He turns into your shoulder and hides his face against your shirt and you rub small circles into his back as he shudders, knowing he just needs to get it out and he’ll feel better once he has. You wish you could promise him it would be better, wish you could see where this is going, wish the future which is green sun blinding would just let you peek. It’s all so very mysterious and you love mysteries but you love unravelling them, not waiting for them to unravel you.

You hope, as hard as you can (even if Hope was never your domain, poor ignorant Eridan), that things will get better. Because you don’t have to see the future to see how worse they could be.

 

==>Be Mr Egbert

It's been a bit of a task, getting used to someone else's kitchen - especially when you don't want them to know what you're doing and even morseso when you realize that half the appliances and utensils are for show, not use. It's strange to be sure, but you don't mind the challenge. It's for a very good cause after all, something that leaves you humming and smiling as you move through the space, empty for the moment as the children take care of their newest problem.

The kitchen is a bit of a trick in itself. You aren't sure why Amber has two dozen cans of pumpkin puree and not a single pie tin and no shortening, though you're certain she has a good reason for it. It takes a bit of digging to take proper stock but you decide she has enough of the basics you can make something appropriate for brunch - even if you have to search for a frying pan that doesn't still have the plastic shrink wrapped and you settle for biscuits because you can't find a loaf pan anywhere. (You knew you should have packed your baking tools. Well, hindsight is always 20/20.)

You don't bother with the dining room - it's too large and not intimate especially with how much the kids are using it (and you think someone is sleeping there, or would be if the children ever slept). You settle for the small bank breakfast table set at the back of the room, right in front of the window showcasing the backyard in the mid morning glow of what will probably - hopefully - be a beautiful day.

Amber joins you as you set the still steaming biscuits on the table, clutching the flower you left on her bedtable in one hand, the invitation to brunch in her other. You take the match to the flower from your shirt pocket - you'd clipped both carefully from the planters in the solar - and place it into an overwrought crystal vase on the table and gesture to her with a gentlemanly bow, pulling out a chair for her to sit at. "Good morning, Amber."

She looks at you and her face is still, expression closed off and distant. She looked like this when you'd met in the strange other world, the first time you'd met though not the first you'd spoken. You smile and wait - she'll make up her own mind, and patience is a virtue in real life as much as it is in cooking.

"What is all this?" She points to the table, set for two - with the nicest china you could find, proper silverware and linens, even if brunch consists of pumpkin pancakes, sausage links, biscuits and hot coffee.

"I wanted to continue our date," you explain and motion for her to join you again. "Our last was terribly interrupted."

"You mean we were killed. Painfully." She says it so flatly you'd almost believe it didn't bother her - but she doesn't move closer to you and her fingers tighten around your little note and dying with a person tells you a bit about someone, even if it's not nearly enough. You want to know everything about Amber Lalonde, if she'll only let you learn. You are absolutely all right with the hard work it will undoubtedly take.

"Well yes. I hope we don't make it a repeat performance! This is my lucky tie."

"It's not dinner." She steps closer, which you take as a major victory, and eyes your tie as if she can see why it might be lucky just to look at it.

"Well no, but I've been keeping an eye and ear on the children and think if we want to have any time to ourselves without a crisis interrupting we should really take advantage of the moment. They're quiet right now. Dinner will probably be another fight."

She sits down, finally, though she pulls her own chair in and doesn't let you help her, pointing with a regal finger for you to take your own seat instead. "The children can look after themselves. They've been quite clear about that."

You settle into your own seat and pour her coffee, surprised that she takes it black. Your own is one sugar and one milk, the spoon clinking around the cup with a cheerful tinkling sound. "Saying they can look after themselves is certainly easy." You agree, thinking about the two - no, three now - injured trolls recuperating in separate rooms through the house. It's only been two days and while you're perfectly positive John can handle himself, you're still worried sick about who will be the next person (or troll) hurt. John can handle himself. It’s whether he can handle everyone else that you worry about.

"I thought we agreed we weren't going to interfere." She sips at her coffee and the colour returns to her cheeks like magic. Ah. She's one of those ladies - just not quite herself until she's had her first cup. Considering how poorly you've slept the last few nights you aren't surprised she needs the caffeine. "They have enough to deal with, they don't need or want us meddling."

She's very bitter, a fact that surprises you. You reach to set a hand on hers, covering the perfectly manicured nails with fingers that still have flour in the creases. "Come now, Amber. They're still children - and they hardly have things under control as it is! I do think we should be letting them make their decisions, they certainly intend to. But there's no reason to act like our opinions wouldn't be useful to them. They're still looking to us. We don't have the answers; heck, I still don't understand what in the blazes happened! But we can at least do our darnedest to be there for them now. They might not want us, Amber, but I'd eat my best hat before I said they didn't need us."

She looks away at that, her hand tensing under yours, but she doesn't pull away. You consider that great progress and give her a charming smile. "Now have some breakfast before your pancakes get cold. You should never waste a good pancake, my mother-”

"Always said that." She finishes with you, her eyes bright and aware again and suddenly sad. "She loved to bake and cook."

"I always wondered how she knew you, when she'd talk to you on the phone for ages about the strangest things. I used to think she was just building an elaborate prank." You admit with a soft shrug. Your mother had always been a woman of her own mind - and it was always at least five steps into her next great gag. "She'd tell me different answers every time I asked - that you were old friends, that she'd met you in her dreams, that you were Cleopatra's reincarnation...." Amber laughs, bright and clear and it makes it easier to talk about your mom, because you still miss her and it still hurts, even now.

Even more now.

Amber starts in on her breakfast, one handed so she can keep her hand under yours. She doesn't lace her fingers with you or anything so sentimental as that - she just leaves her hand out and allows you the contact, you know, and if it so happens to make her happy to do so well all the better.

It's already better than your last (first) dinner date, where you'd sat and had tea as she tried to explain just what the devil was going on. Where she'd told you what your mother had only ever hinted at - that your boy was trying to, destined to, save the world. That this had all happened before with less...fortunate endings. Perhaps that's why Amber is so unperturbed by dying - certainly she hasn't woken with nightmares as you have these last few nights - she had time to be accustomed to the idea. She'd died before. You're still quite new to so many of these ideas you feel rather left behind.

You don't blame the others - the guardians, as they've dubbed themselves - for not warning you. You wouldn't have taken them seriously. Worse, you might have taken just enough for truth to hide John, to protect him somehow and instead could have ruined everything. He succeeded; he survived and brought you all back. Well. Almost all of you.

Amber interrupts your train of thoughts to ask what's wrong and when you tell her it's nothing she moves her hand at last - to smack your arm lightly.

"Don't be a fool. You stopped smiling. Something is clearly on your mind." She wraps her lips around her fork and another triangle of pancake in a... eye catching manner and then points the utensil at you. "Talk."

This wasn't where you expected this lunch to go, conversationally. You'd wanted... you'd wanted to talk about Amber. About her plans and her life and maybe perhaps if she'd be interested in a proper dinner date, at a restaurant somewhere once the children weren't quite so... excitable. You hadn't expected to be dwelling on your mother.

But Amber fixes you with a hard gaze and you doubt any prankster's gambit is going to get you out of the conversation, so you sigh and pour yourself a second cup of joe and give her an embarrassed smile. "I was wondering why the game didn't bring my mother back. I overheard Bro mention that Mr Harley was dead before the event and I suppose mentioning her now... well, my mind just started to wander. I'm sorry, I don't want you thinking you're a poor dinner companion."

Her lips press into a hard line and for a moment you fear you've insulted her, before she smooths her face back to her small, expressionless smile and it's her time to pat your hand, comforting. "I wish I knew why," she admits, her voice soft. "I would have loved to see her again. Mary - your mother - was very dear to me."

"John told me he'd brought her back. Somehow. In the game, called it a sprite." You want to scoff at the idea, but you know your son and if he says he did it must be true. After all you've seen it's hard to rationalize denial anyway. "I just keep thinking..."

"What you'd say if you could see her again?" Amber finishes the thought and the surprise in your eyes must be plain, because she gives you a smile - her first real one of the day, it reaches her icy eyes and warms them - "It's a pretty common thought for people who have lost someone close to them, or so Rose's magazines tell me."

You nod, but find you can't say anything. Your throat has closed in a most unmanly way and you need a second to clear it. That's all right, because Amber doesn't need a reply to continue.

"You'd tell her you loved her, of course." Her voice is surprisingly gentle, her eyes distant. She stands and makes her way away from you to the cupboard, clutching her coffee cup in one hand. She finds a bottle and tops the cup off with something potent, you can't tell what, and stirs by swirling the cup in her hand expertly. "You'd say you loved her. She'd tell you she loved you. What else is there to say?"

She doesn't sip from the cup. She drinks, heavily. It's barely noon - too early for this. But she's right and the knowledge burns through you - what would you have said? What could you have said? You should be happy John had the chance to speak to her, not regretting that you didn't get another five minutes to yourself.

You make your way to Amber's side, taking the cup from her hand and setting it gently on the counter. "You're right," you admit, your discontent settling and letting you focus on matters of now, of you and the beautiful woman in front of you who's such a brilliant mystery, a brilliant mind you want to get to know. "How is it you know exactly what to say as a man's mind tries to sabotage him? You were just as helpful in the other world."

"Practice and luck." Her lips twist to tell you you've hit another sore spot. "Not that I have the greatest track record. I suppose I'll be happy I was able to help you at all." She sighs, and reaches for her cup once again. "Perhaps it helps that I loved Mary, too. It's what I would have told her."

Your own mother must have been like a mother to her, you think. She must have grieved to lose her, which touches you deeply. You catch her hand before it picks up the mug again. And press your lips chastely to her fingertips, bowing over her hand.

"And if I said I think loved you, Amber Lalonde. What would you say to that?"

She fixes you with a glare that's so sharp it cuts to your soul. A moment later it softens, just at the edges, and you realize it was instinct more than a genuine reaction. You hold still nonetheless, breath caught in your throat and hopeful for the answer.

"I'd say you're finally showing where your madness comes in. You do realize we're all insane, I hope?"

You don't respond, because that isn't an answer.

Amber huffs, but a tiny smile works back across her features, fluttering and weak but there. "Well. I'd also say I'm not in the market for any sort of prince. Charming or otherwise. I've no time for romance."

You chuckle at that and straighten, meeting her eyes and tapping her nose with your forefinger, playful and light. Her eyes cross and you like that you can surprise her, that this woman who looks at the world as if it's all a day old newspaper doesn't quite know what to make of you. "Why Ms Lalonde. We've already died once, and this world just so happens to be remade fresh and new and unless you and the others are greatly holding out on me, there's no more strange obligations to fill."

Her eyes sparkle and you know you finally have her interest properly again. "Our children are not grown but I think it's safe to say they don't quite need us every minute of their day. I'd say the contrary, in fact. We are here, together, and planning what might become of the rest of our hopefully long and fulfilling lives. We have all the time in the world."

You move in to kiss her cheek, but Amber has other plans. She grabs your shirt at the collar and brings her lips to yours, fierce and breathtakingly sensual. The tang of whisky lingers around her breath and tongue, but you don't feel this is an appropriate time to complain.

There have been many ladies in your life to catch your eye, but you had John to worry over and even though you worry about him still you know he needs to handle things on his own as much as he can. And being kissed by Amber makes all of the other women seem like pale pastels, not even real compared to the stark shock of electricity in your arms. Sometimes you wonder about your own sanity - if you're not simply mad and safely locked away somewhere, or perhaps not, perhaps you're wandering the streets of a city, vagabond and frightening -

But Amber smiles at you when she breaks the kiss and smacks the back of your head. "I can hear you thinking. Stop it."

And then you kiss her, and of course this is real. You've never been a dreamer.

 

 

==>Be Karkat Vantas

This world keeps surprising you.

No. That's a shitty excuse for your own incompetence. You're so poorly prepared for this world, for these humans, that they keep catching you by surprise. The fault here is yours. The fault is always yours.

You're surprised when Equius attacks Gamzee - you shouldn't have been. You should have seen it was going to happen when you heard about their fight when Gamzee had arrived, when your best friend regained the scars he'd died with in the veil. You should have done something instead of thinking it would possibly be all right for one God damn night so you could maybe make a shitty attempt at sleep. Not fucking likely.

You're surprised when Eridan takes off into the night and again you know you shouldn't be. The troll was being smart for once in his miserable existence, except like hell are you letting him die out there and if this world is just some elaborate fake or scam you want every one of your group with you. You still remember that fucking prophecy and even if you want to tell the speakers to take their words of wisdom and shove them where moonlight should never shine, you'll hold onto any possible advantage, any hint, that you can.

You're surprised that the humans, blind and useless in the dark, bundle themselves in layers and hand you a coat despite your insistence you're fine and are ready to help you search for Ampora without even an order (or request) to that effect. You're embarrassed you need the help - your group should be able to look after yourselves - but after only one night your numbers are half strong - Equius, Gamzee and Tavros hurt, Vriska 'asleep', Nepeta unwilling to let her moirail out of eyesight. Factoring in that Sollux was still blind that was six right there. With Feferi staying with Sollux to keep track of everyone, it leaves just you, Terezi, Kanaya and Aradia to comb through unfamiliar woods in the chill. The humans double your numbers, double your chances of finding Eridan. You settle for being grateful and try not to be ashamed and promise yourself that when you find the bulgelicking idiot of a seatroll you’ll kick his ass all the way down the mountain to Lalonde’s. You don’t even think that you might not find him. He has to be found.

You’ve failed too many of your friends already.

The only thing that doesn’t surprise you is Feferi, once Eridan is found and settled and looking like a ghost on the dark leather of the couch. You’re arguing (again) with Terezi about guilt and judgement and God, she’s not well, you have to do something you just don’t know what – when that fucking Culling Fork appears and the silence that slams through the room is oppressive and thick and is trying to choke you on the memories of a thousand daymares. She does not fucking dare. Except she does and your sickles are in your hands, solid and reassuring even as she tries to smile and laugh and play it off as no big deal, just leave and let her gut Eridan the way she’s been carping about and give up every intention of being a leader, every one. Because if you let her do this you’re nothing, just a pawn to another fucking empress and who will be next, exactly? The humans are right that one death will just make the rest easier and you are not fucking letting that happen. Not again.

You step up to her and you’ll fight her if you have to – you won’t kill her but you’ll stop her and she sees it in your eyes when they meet hers and she tries to be so fucking reasonable. "Karkat. I don’t want to fight you; it’s only going to make prawnblems. Just flounder away, please?"

Those stupid come and go fishpuns, that godawful smile like she’s just asking for another grubcake or for a chance on the husktop. It makes your teeth crack as you grit them and spit out, "Funny, she says she doesn't want to fight and she stands there with her fucking culling fork out. I thought we settled this Peixes? Ampora's alive and he is staying that way.” You are not going to let anything happen to him. Because he’s part of your team and he’s your responsibility and he was your friend. You step in a little closer, knowing you’re challenging her just as much as she’s threatening you and you don’t care. “I think you're the one leaving now, or you're going to have the fucking problem. Are you going to challenge me?"

She doesn’t want to fight you – she tries to let you off, tries to promise that she’s not going to kill Eridan and you want to believe her but you don’t. You can’t make another mistake; you’re not going to fail Eridan -

But Ampora calls you out. He catches you because you’re not a quadrant of his and you might be willing to tell Feferi she can’t kill him but you know it’s a lost cause to say that the two can’t speak. Not if he’s fighting for it. Not if he’s so clearly intent to do so. If you have to stand guard over Eridan you’ll never be able to help everyone else. You won’t be able to talk to Terezi, speak to Equius, find something to help Gamzee.

Feferi puts the fork away and it’s not that you trust her – you don’t – it’s that if this conversation is going to happen you’d rather it happen under your own terms, your own rules, while you can remind her of the consequences. You’ll let it happen, because you’re the leader, and you’ll... be in earshot just in case you have to step in. You think it’s better to let them talk now than to be surprised yet again by another attack you should have been prepared for and weren’t, and Eridan is right – you don’t deserve to give him orders and expect them to be followed. You do it because you hope you’ll earn that right again.

Strider joins you minutes later, leaning on the opposite wall and watching you through his shades. You think he believes they make him unreadable or aloof but they just make him look like an idiot. You're about to tell him so, voice quiet so you can hear if Eridan calls for help (well, not for help. You doubt he'd sink so low. Calls out in general, then. In pain, probably), when he beats you to the punch.

"I'm disappointed. I mean, I know it's busy but hey, it's been a whole day and nothing. Don't you trolls have hazing rituals or anything?"

You stare at the human for a moment, and when an answer to what the fuck he’s talking about doesn’t magically appear you scowl and tell him exactly how much of a taintchafing idiot he is. "I am sure that statement made sense to your grublike mind, but if you're expecting an answer you should try for some fucking context, Strider. What the hell?"

He shifts a little, leaning on his shoulder against the wall so he can face you, radiating what he thinks is cool. "Terezi had me all hot under the collar, telling me you'd be reading me the trollish riot act for our interspecies sloppy makeouts or whatever. You know, act one: hurt her and I'll break your legs. Act two: make sure she's home by eleven..."

Dave's little inner monologue made verbal falters under the ice of your stare, until it's silent between you - the only sound the faint murmur of Feferi and Eridan in the room behind. When you are certain the idiot human is going to remain quiet you raise one finger to point viciously at his face. "While I should be blown away to see you standing there and thinking about yourself right at this exact fucking moment, I won't be, because we are all aware of how the world revolves around one Dave Strider and I'm sure all the little inconveniences that have kept us from speaking until now were all planned by the others just to piss you off."

He opens his mouth to retort and you don't even let him try. You can’t believe this is what he’s focused on. "There is only one act, you ignorant, incompetent nooksniffer, and I had no intention of reading it to you because I had held the clearly baseless fucking assumption that your tiny little mind could figure out exactly what I would do to you if you hurt her. I had actually given you enough credit to believe any such warnings would be unneeded and a waste of my precious time and breath, which clearly proves my own idiocy when dealing with your disgusting race over and over again." You glare until his mouth closes and continue, warming up to the subject now. "For the record, you are shithive fucking maggots if you think I'd stop at breaking your legs. I would tear them off and cauterize the wound to ensure you wouldn't bleed to death and then make you watch as I tore them into pieces, before shoving every morsel down your protein chute until you were gorged and only THEN would I move onto your whole bones, which you would be forced to suck down until they burst through your bile sac. I would stand and WATCH as the acid slowly ate its way through your body and left you screaming for the mercy that WOULD NOT FUCKING COME. I would ensure your last thoughts were how disgusting and worthless a creature you were for hurting her, and I would, no I will erase your name from all memory if you ‘hurt her’. Breaking your legs? You have to be fucking kidding me."

Dave's impassive. Immobile. Silent. The latter tells you you've scored a hit, the human speechless for once. He hopefully gets it. Terezi is important. She’s not something to just sit around and joke about, and if he’s going to be trying to court her he’d damn well better do it right. When he finally clears his throat it's with the visible attempt to clear the air too. "Right then. Don't fuck with Pyrope. A bit harsh, man."

You're deciding to let it go so he can keep some scrap of his dignity when Feferi appears, suddenly looking half a sweep younger and giddy - telling you to protect Eridan while she pats your shoulder and skipping down the hallway away from you when she's done. You and Strider look in on the room to see Ampora asleep on the couch. Dave meets your eyes behind his shades and informs you flatly “Trolls are seriously fucked up.”

You can't quite find the words to argue it with him.

You want to leave things at that - want to ditch Strider and curl up in a corner somewhere and just get a few minutes of rest until the next emergency, the next crisis. You know you can't. Was it ever this bad in the veil? Yes. You were just all joined by the common fear of getting culled and had the whole asteroid to explore and hide in. This hive might be large for humans, but you all feel cramped and closed in and it keeps everyone on edge. Even more on edge than they’d been there, before the killing started. Of course the problems are coming fast and furious. You just have to deal with them. Somehow.

Strider promises to keep an eye on Ampora. Since he has managed well enough so far you trust him with the task and move on to the next troll you need to deal with.

 

Zahhak and Nepeta are curled up in the back room that has become their block, Equius still clearly tired from his ordeal and Nepeta fussing over him for going to see Feferi in the first place. You straighten your back and step purposefully into the room and Equius looks up at you, his face a whorl of emotions you really hate that you can recognize. "Vantas." He greets you, always formal, with a little bow of his head and uncertainty in his eyes. You hate this hemospectrum obsessed musclebeast, at least in part because he's fucking pitiful, not to mention clueless and gross. But you owe him. You owe him more than you are ever going to repay, because your bad decisions, your desperation killed him and his moirail in the Veil, and then nearly killed him a second time by not realizing he'd go after Gamzee here - and then a third when you'd decided he was dead and couldn't be saved.

The pair are in a pile, Equius half buried and Nepeta curled and watching you with bright wide eyes. You try not to think about her corpse. She's alive now and you're going to keep her that way. "What happened with Makara, Zahhak?"

He tries to dissemble, burying himself a little deeper into the pile. "I don't wish to speak of it, Vantas." He doesn't meet your eyes. Sweat gathers at his temples, blue and damming.

You bite down on the urge to yell and you lean forward instead. You pitch your voice like the captain in your favourite drama ( ‘a tough fleet captain in an action drama’ might be better) and you don't gag at the sweat that suddenly covers his whole frame. "When did I ask you for your opinion, you frondpalming grub?" The blue blush that starts at his cheeks and slowly spreads across the rest of him tells you that you did the voice right. A part of you curls up and dies at the fact but it isn't important. You're not important here.

Nepeta makes a rare, tactful silent exit as you pace around Zahhak and his pile. She catches your eyes before she leaves and she smiles, which at least helps loosen the knot of self loathing that's growing in your chest. She knows her moirail best and she isn't stopping you and seems to approve. You aren't sure when her approval started to mean so much to you but it does. You silently promise to be worth it.

Equius needs prompting, wants it, so you play pissed off commander to the troll who would (will) kill you if he ever discovers your blood. He calls you sir and you drag the events from his lips and you hate that the one person who recognizes you as leader does it like this. it's almost a distraction from the horrific truth about Gamzee. You've never met the sober half, the part if the troll that saved Equius, at least not in person. You think you might have trolled him, in the in-between of Gamzee being his usual miracle spewing self and that point where he'd get fucking creepy. It's been bad enough to think of Gamzee having the subjugglator as a voice in the back of his head telling him to paint with your blood. At least Gamzee didn't seem to know it. He was almost his usual self. Trying to think of a part if him aware of what's going on, watching, the only thing he can do is eat his fucking pies...

You aren't aware of the way you're growling, low in your chest, until you hear Zahhak's breath catch and you look at him. He's watching you, every muscle tense like he's ready to fight, or maybe flee. He's almost vibrating except he's not moving, not at all, just sitting there and letting you loom over him and the realization is like a physical punch in the stomach.

He expects you to hurt him - he wants you to. He wants it because what he did was wrong, even if it was right, and that crazy honour code he lives (and died) by says that on Alternia he'd be hanging from his entrails for daring to attack a Highblood. Technically thrice. He wants retribution, more than what Gamzee paid him back, and you're his leader. It's your job. It's part and parcel of being Leader and you can't do it. Not while he's so fucking pitiful, not now. But you know he wants it so you sneer as he watches you and you turn the denial itself into the punishment and hope that's enough.

"You disgust me." Every time you walk around him his back goes tense but he doesn't stop staring straight ahead. You'd go mad, having someone like you at your back and not knowing what they were doing. He lets it happen.

"Sir."

"Don't 'sir' me. You barely have the right to call me that as it is, don't use it as some sort of rebuttal. If you're too incapable of an intelligent response, say nothing."

He says nothing.

"That's better. Now you are going to stop this culling nonsense and you'll obey your God damn orders and if you do that you'll be worth reprimanding. Until then you're just a grub." The speech is half stolen from a military movie but it works on Zahhak and that's all that matters. He wants orders. He wants to be told what to do. It doesn't matter that this isn't how you want to lead, what matters is this is how you need to lead him. It's time to stop expecting everyone to listen to you because you tell them to.

They'll listen to you because you're right. Because you know the way you need to speak to them, if you can keep a lid on your fucking temper. You can do this and so you will and no power in this whole fucked up cancerous universe is going to stop you.

Equius bows his head from where he sits like he can see the determination on your face, hear your thoughts. His one broken horn seems so out of balance with the other completely missing - you aren't even sure it will grow back. After a moment you reach out and fist a hand in his hair for just a second and he shudders at that small touch. It ought to give you a thrill of power but you know you still haven't earned it. You will though. You will. You pat his shoulder, not knowing how to end this, and your hand comes away damp. It still makes you sick, but maybe it's more of an annoyance than a clawing need to wash yourself right fucking now.

Equius looks up at you and you can see his eyes over his shades from this angle and no wonder he hides behind the dark glasses he's as obvious and open as a fucking book. He isn't even embarrassed, the way he would have been in the veil. Maybe it's because you came to him, did this without the usual runaround of him trying to goad you into it. Maybe dying changed him. Maybe he's just humouring you and your pathetic attempts at leadership.

"Thank you, Vantas." He holds your gaze steadily, like he can hear the loathing you keep loading onto yourself, and you end up nodding, choppy and short and awkward.

"Yeah well. Just remember what I said. I can't be spending all my time cleaning up everyone else's fucking mess here."

He smiles, small and crooked and missing teeth. "I don't intend to revisit my grievance with Makara. When his pies are done I expect you will deal with him. I have already proven myself incapable of the deed. Until such time, he will be allowed to live as he chooses. I give my oath on my bloodhonour."

You aren't so sure about the way he phrases it. For one thing it's not exactly the glowing recognition of your leadership you want to hear. But it's a promise at least - it's an oath and it's more than you've gotten from anyone else on Team Kill People. You know Equius will keep this, despite any promises he might have supposedly made before. This is honour and it's something the troll has always been good at, if nothing else.

Honour and robots and explosions, if you wanted to be specific.

The reminder about Gamzee - like you needed a reminder, except you did because you've been desperately trying not to think about it - makes you square your shoulders and nod again. This time a hell of a lot more solemn and focused. "I will deal with Makara when he runs out of pies," you promise, because out of everyone Equius deserves that the most. Maybe you'll be lucky and find some sopor, or some other way of keeping the troll under control. Maybe you'd reach God tier and just crush this whole world in your hand and start it all over. Stranger things have happened.

But if you can't, you'll deal with your best friend. You'll do it, yourself. Because you should have done it once before and failing him was always the point, you think, when it all went to hell.

Your name is Karkat Vantas and you are not going to fail again.

Chapter Text

==>Be Sollux.

 

You are running for your life.
You are not doing it very well.

Trees blur beside you as you wind between them, occasionally blasting your way through the thickest groups but you can't keep it up forever. Flying so close to the ground is harder than in the open air but the only thing keeping you alive right now is the fact that they don't know exactly where you are. Your bloodpusher feels like it's going to explode in your chest, you're so afraid, but you refuse to stop running, flying, not for a second. They only need a few seconds to find you, catch you: you'd rather your vascular system burst.

Nothing you do gives you enough speed, nothing is good enough and isn't that just the whole of your life? You're a miserable useless freak except for your powers and they're anything but a blessing. You know, somehow, exactly where the drones are behind you, tearing up trees as they go without slowing, even if their larger bulk should have slowed them at least a little. You know long before they touch you that you're doomed, that they'll catch you and take you drugged and helpless to be enslaved to a ship; nothing but a slab of meat with a brain they can use and Sollux Captor will die but you'll scream for years before your body will be used up and follow your soul and you can't you can't you won't you hate being helpless.

One oversized cold hand grabs your throat and you scream your defiance, fighting back even as you know it's hopeless. Your hands hit things that give - but drone armor shouldn't be able to dent at all - and then everything is blinding and you scream for a different reason, clutching your hands over your eyes and whimpering like a fucking grub.

"Sollux?"

The voice is quiet, uncertain, near without being close and you hiss in fear and anger, trying to move away and protect yourself when you're blind and sleep-confused and aggressive and you're not in your hive, you haven't fallen asleep at your husktop again. You're sitting on something soft, and there's a blanket wound around you and oh... torn half to shreds under your fingers.

It all sort of falls into place after a deep breath. You're in the human hive. In Aradia's respite block. There are no drones, no ships to enslave you: Alternia is gone.

You peel your arm away from your eyes and hiss again. It's bright and it hurts so much you can feel tears streaking down your face. "AA? Are you all right?" You'd fallen asleep next to her which you both probably thought was all right and clearly was a stupid fucking plan. Or at least it was for you - she hadn't woken you up by trying to kill you; she was probably having a better time of it.

"I'm okay. You startled me but I was reading so I got away in time." There's a smile in her voice you can hear even when you're this disoriented and there is so much about her you have missed. "I think the bed might need some fixing. And that blanket. Actually I think we can’t call it a blanket anymore."

You try to pull your arm away again, the pain still blinding and bright and present - but you have a suspicion now and your bloodpusher hasn't stopped racing since the chase started. Everything hurts. Your eyes are watering. They shouldn't be able to - they'd been burned out completely and crying wasn't a luxury you'd been left with. They shouldn't hurt. There was nothing left of them to hurt. You feel them with your fingertips - wet with your tears - and when you brush across your eyelids they’re not scarred and empty. The skin is smooth. You can feel one eye twitching like a bee under the skin. Both eyes. Restored.

They'd been melted out of your head. Now they are just... there. Like they’d never been gone at all. Complaining about the light seeping through your closed eyelids. You debate opening them only for a second, then say fuck it because it isn't like your life can get any worse and then you fall back in a pained cry because fucking hell that hurt (not as much as dying; you are pretty fucking sure that will always be the godteir of pain).

"Sollux?" Aradia asks again, worried now and still away from you. (Out of arm's reach, you realize. You asshole did you hurt her again?) "Sollux, I'm going to come down to see you and make sure you're okay. It's just you and me here. You're safe."

She talks to you like you're a wriggler and that's the final insult on a monumentally shitty night. You force your eyes open and you can’t control the hiss that escapes through your teeth and everything is shatteringly bright but above you - up and to your left - is a shock of black and pink against the dull walls of the room and you bite down on your tongues ‘til it's another stab of pain and the wavering hazy colour resolves to Aradia.

Sitting on top of a shelf, looking down at you cautiously, red bruise already blossoming against her cheek.

The fact that you can see seems to be unimportant against the fact that you hurt her again, you disgusting sack of shit. You don't even deserve to be called shit because at least waste serves a purpose. You'd be better off if you were shit. Instead you hurt her. You pitied her so damn much and God you'd hit her in your sleep. If you'd really pitied her you never would have. (If you'd been in sopor, a part of your thinkpan tries to argue rationally, you wouldn't have. You ignore it.)

"Sollux?" Her voice shifts, from happy to worried to... hopeful? "Your eyes; You opened them!"

The thin shreds of blanket are no replacement for a pile; a pile is no replacement for a sopor filled recuperacoon. Right now you wish you could dive in and hide under dreamless sleep until the world stopped fucking you over. You want to tell her to leave you alone because you're so damn worthless: you hurt her and she's so damn special and you never wanted to...

She's standing in front of you. You don't know how she got off the shelf. One minute she was there, now she's here. It's hard to keep her in focus: everything hurts and your eyes are tearing up no matter how much you brush them away and you're embarrassed to be found crying again she must hate you by now -

Her hands are warm on your cheeks. Her thumbs rub away the tears and when you try to tell her you're not crying you're not your eyes just hurt like they're on fire everything is too bright - she just narrows her own eyes and frowns for a second, then shuts off the small lamp that's been a sun gone nova next to your head. It helps so much you're embarrassed you hadn't realized it was the cause of your pain. "AA, I'm thorry, tho thorry. I didn't mean to -"

"Shoosh." She pats at your cheek and stares at you with a tiny frown, that wrinkle she used to get between her eyebrows when she was thinking hard still there after all these years. She comes more and more into focus as you blink and your body starts to remember what the hell eyes were for besides mindnumbing pain.

The longer she stares the more you wonder what it is that has her looking at you like she used to look at an old piece of bone or piece of found treasure. She turns your head in her hands from side to side and you let her, gaze guilty on the red bruise across her cheek and eye. "AA?"

"It's like they were never gone." She answers, finally letting go of you to put her hands on her hips, still frowning. "You don't have any scars and they look just like they always did. I thought if you got yours back it would have been maybe black and white like in one of the doomed timelines." She tugs on the hem of her shirt - black and with a pink creature on the front instead of her sign. She'd been the one troll to come without any spare clothing in her sylladex, you'd known that, but you'd still imagined her as you'd known her best, in her grey skirt and button up. The difference is... strange.

"Rose lent it to me," she explains, smoothing a hand suddenly self consciously across the design on her chest. "She didn't have anything with red in it..." the moment passes and Aradia shakes her head, looking at you from head to toe. “Can you hear any voices? Any screams? Any doomed?"

Oh God do you really want that to be a thing? Well yes, okay if you got your sight back for it you could consider it an okay exchange after all this shit. You'll hate yourself when the headaches start but it would still be better, so you can't complain about it now. It would be worth it to have the chance to fry Ampora’s ass all over again, nevermind actually seeing Feferi properly again. You’ll accept the hell in exchange for your sight, so you sit back and you listen and wait for the first wail - you're on a planet full of life, it should be screaming here.

You hear nothing but silence, your breathing, Aradia's. Somewhere in the hive someone is yelling, though it's muffled and unintelligible from here. You're sure it's Karkat.

Aradia breaks the silence when she sits down next to you. The soft, strange, foam reclining deck sags and tilts you towards her."You can't hear them." It isn't a question but you shake your head anyway and she continues, her voice thoughtful. "I can't hear any ghosts. I listened and looked when we arrived, all around John's hive. And now here too. I don’t think there’s a single restless spirit in this world."

"What doeth that mean?" It has to be important if she's talking about it like this; you've spent your whole life you think, listening to Aradia. Even so the significance of her ghosts is lost on you. She liked talking to them the same way you’d occasionally talk to one of your hives when it was acting up: you could hear one half of the conversation, in a way, but neither of you could understand what was actually being said. "Maybe our ghotht powerth don't work?"

"It doesn't feel like that. I still can look and see where they should be. They just aren't there. There's nothing." There's uncertainty in her voice and you are worried what it all means because you have your sight back and that should be fucking fantastic and it is it really is.

But it doesn't change that you're trapped on this shitty planet and nothing makes sense.

"Maybe they jutht don't have thpiritth here?" It's a bit of a stretch when even animals leave ghosts Aradia could talk to, well see really, but it's an attempt to make her feel better when you feel like shit. You think she appreciates it.

"Maybe." Aradia doesn't sound convinced in the least and you wonder what theories she has that she's not willing to say.

The fact that she says nothing more tells you they're not good.

 

==>BE TAVROS

 

Your name isn't really very important but you are Tavros Nitram and right now you are looking after Gamzee Makara because, well, no one else will. You're looking after him because someone has to and it is something you can do and since you can't do very much here at all it makes sense for you to. It makes you worthwhile. It gives you a reason to keep being alive in this strange world. It lets the others focus on the more important things.

Well, they could focus on things if they wanted to. They've been really busy just fighting with each other so far but you're sure they'll settle down eventually. You can look after Gamzee until then.

(You try not to listen to the angry voice that says that Gamzee won't last that long.)

You had been staying in the block full of books but now that's where Eridan is resting and you maybe don't trust staying anywhere where you can't shut and lock the door or at least block it really well. So now you are staying with Gamzee in a small room that only just has space for the two of you to stretch out in if you don't mind being close. There are shelves full of food all around you, in addition to the shelves and thermal hub full of food in the meal preparation block. It seems like too much for two humans, even if one is an adult. It's more food than you think even a highblood like Eridan would keep, though you don't know for sure. It's certainly more food than you have ever seen in your whole life, even after you died.

(You don't like the way that makes you feel. You try not to think about it too hard.)

Gamzee mutters in his sleep and you pat his cheek lightly. He turns in his pile towards you and calms a little, which makes you feel a lot better about sitting and doing nothing except watch him. It's boring. You want to move and find the others and play a game, talk about things with Jade and maybe stretch and try to stand and walk outside of your chair. You stay and watch Gamzee because to do anything else would be selfish and you don't want to be selfish.

Well no, you really do want to be. You just know that it's wrong and you maybe don't deserve to be selfish, here.

(It was all so much easier when you were dead. You don’t think about that too much either.)

You're still sore from Nepeta's claws but the deep lines she'd dug into your back while she tried to kill Gamzee are healing faster than you thought they would. They itch terribly and you wish you could wake Gamzee up and ask him to scratch your back but the reminder would just make him sad which really isn't fair. It isn't his fault Equius tried to kill him. Not... not like that, anyway. Besides, if Gamzee gets sad he'll start to get angry and when he's angry he loses his temper too easily. He grips to bruise and his claws sometimes break skin and he's always sorry, so sorry afterwards, but you still hurt. You'd rather itch than hurt more.

Gamzee says your name and you look at him in surprise - but no, he's still asleep. He's trying so hard not to make any trouble. He's trying so hard to stretch his sopor out so that he won't be in trouble. He's hoping - you both are - for the miracle he keeps asking the universe for. You don't have the heart to tell him you don't think the universe is listening.

When the door opens it catches you by surprise. Your shirt is off because you have it behind your back and between your hands and are using it to rub at your healing, itching back for some sort of relief. You are sitting on the floor next to Gamzee and you try to scramble to your feet but your legs just aren't strong enough yet. You have to just sit and glare as the door opens - but at least it can't open far. You'd jammed your wheelchair in front of it hours ago.

You hiss when Equius pushes his head through the gap between the door and its frame and for a second you wish you were strong enough to push it shut. It's just a stupid wish though - he's a highblood and you'd never beat him. You can't help but hiss and glare though, trying to put yourself between him and Gamzee even if it's pointless. He stares at you in return, looking surprised, and you want to ask him why? Hadn't you proven you were worthwhile yet? Hadn't you proven you were going to do anything to protect Gamzee?

Maybe he does figure that out, because after a second the surprise goes away and he looks serious again. "Tavros Nitram. I had wished to speak to the highblood. I did not mean to disturb you."

"Well, you could have knocked. Um, if you didn't want to disturb us." You are surprised at how bitter you feel. He is a highblood but so is Gamzee so it shouldn't have been okay for what he did. He made Gamzee sad and hurt and angry and it when Gamzee finally woke up he'd lashed out and it had taken a lot of time to calm him down again. That was Equius's fault, because Gamzee was trying so hard to be good here.

"I... apologize. I had not thought my actions clearly through. The highblood is at rest; I will return later."

He says he'll come back but he doesn't leave. He stares at you instead and you really, really don't like the way his eyes roam over you so you struggle back into your shirt and glare as soon as you're covered. You have gotten better at glaring, at least. Dave had been helpful for that. Dead Dave. "What do you want?"

He pushes the door and your wheelchair slides under the force until he can stand unobstructed and stare at you fully. He towers over you. You had thought you would get used to that when he made your legs, because he had kept you prone while he adjusted them and it had taken hours but he surprised you by never once hurting you on purpose. You'd actually liked him, a little, in the Veil. He had to work hard to be gentle. You weren't the same, of course, not at all: he was a real troll and you weren't a very good one, but you thought you could understand him a little. You had to work just as hard to be strong.

Now you don't like him much at all. You don't hate him, especially not since he helped convince everyone not to punish Gamzee for defending himself, but it was his fault that Gamzee was hurt in the first place. The way he towers over you now makes you feel so damn small and trapped and you hate it but there's almost nothing you can do.

"You have been guarding the Highblood since our arrival on this strange world. You have been caring for him." Equius states the obvious and you aren't sure why or what he wants. You settle for nodding since if he's talking he's not trying to hurt either of you.

(You don't even think about calling for help. The only person who ever helped you is asleep beside you and it's your job to look after him.)

"Those injuries. My moirail did not give them all to you."

Okay, you are really confused. "She nearly cut me in half. Isn't that enough?" Was he angry she hadn't hurt you more? You hadn't done anything wrong!. You just kept her from killing Gamzee. Equius had wanted that, hadn't he?

He's silent and you don't have anything to say. You can't tell him to leave because he's a highblood but if you're boring and dull and don't entertain him maybe he'll leave you alone. Gamzee stirs and you pap his cheek, embarrassed to be doing so in front of an audience but far too worried about Gamzee to do anything less.

When Equius breaks the silence his voice is quiet and thoughtful, as if he is trying very hard to hide how he feels about what he is about to say. "You do realize that should he remain sober, or if the call of the Subjugglators that runs through his veins becomes stronger than his will, you will be the first he culls?"

You look away from Gamzee's unpainted face, his scars healed but wicked still, his broken nose swollen and ugly from where his face has been pounded flat. You pity him more than you fear him, so much that you ache with it and wish you understood how he felt in turn, whatever you might not deserve. You look away and meet Equius's eyes evenly and you don't flinch and you think he doesn't like that at all. "I know." Because you do. You do know, you've known for sweeps, you've known Gamzee since he found you broken and picked you up and tried to put your pieces back together again. He doesn't want to hurt you but it sometimes happens no matter what he tries and that was – is - all right.

"He's, um, said pretty much the same thing."

"Then why do you still insist on protecting him yourself? You are not strong enough to repel him."

That is... not quite the question you thought he was going to ask. It really doesn't sound like Equius is asking why Gamzee should be left alone and not culled. He wants to know why you're here and not hiding somewhere, which is just strange, because the answer is so obvious you don't know how a highblood could miss it.

"Someone has to help him. And I - I um, pity him. A lot. And I'm not important. I'm broken and I can't do anything really, everyone knows that. So this way I can be useful."

"A moirail or matesprit should never hurt their partner. It is a gross violation. Unless you are... enjoying the pain?"

Oh gross, now Equius is sweating and looking between you and Gamzee and you really don't want to know what he's thinking. "No." You tell him as firmly as you can manage. "That isn't it."

You lightly push some of the hair out of Gamzee's face and his whole body turns in towards you. He always said he liked how warm you were, and when he sleeps you can see how much he likes it by the way the lines in his face ease away the closer you are.

It doesn't matter if he hurts you, by accident or on purpose. You're a lowblood. You've been lucky, so lucky to have anyone care about you at all and not cull you for being weak and useless and a burden. You try not to mind how frightening Gamzee can be when he's sober. You know you are lucky to have him at all.

"Could you, um, maybe leave or be quiet or something because you're going to wake him up?" It takes a lot to give Equius anything that even remotely sounds like an order but you manage it and even drag your eyes back to his face when you're done.

His expression is.... weird. Twisted and strange and you aren't sure if he's disgusted with you or angry or confused. He stares and eventually gives you this really strange bow of his head you don't ever remember seeing someone do except in the movies, and you can’t remember if it was an insult or respectful. Worse you can’t guess because Equius shouldn’t have any reason to respect you but you don’t think he is angry enough to insult you since you’re pretty beneath him anyway. You don’t know how to respond but you don’t have to - he leaves and shuts the door behind him. You wonder what that was all about but it's easy enough to ignore, so you do. You have Gamzee to worry about.

Your name is Tavros Nitram and you aren't good for anything, really. You were never very good at flarp and your quadrants are a mess and you couldn't beat Vriska not even when it was really important and you can barely walk and aren't smart enough to help everyone understand what is happening here. You don't think being good at Fiduspawn counts for anything either.

You lay down next to Gamzee. You're bored and wish you could wake him up so you could talk or play or maybe go for a walk because he likes pushing your chair through the bumpy woods, but you don't wake him. You watch the slow rise and fall of his chest and swallow a sigh.

You aren't good for anything. So you will make yourself be good for something.

Gamzee honks in his sleep. You stroke his hair until he's quiet again.

 

 

==>Be Rose

 

You are very quickly getting sick of sharing your space.

Your house is overlarge and pretentious and you have always felt there were more rooms than anyone honestly ever needed and you and your mother certainly didn't utilize them all. Now there is a troll seemingly stuffed in every nook and cranny (hrm, that should probably be stricken from your lexicon) and a human everywhere the trolls are not; you can't find a moment's real quiet or privacy anywhere.

You begin to understand Kanaya's original insistence that the trolls all have their own spaces. Tavros and Gamzee are currently in the pantry for goodness sake, but if it makes them happy you can't bring yourself to say no. The shy troll had clearly wanted somewhere to feel safe - and Gamzee was perhaps best out of sight and mind for a while.

None of which helps you. You're sleep deprived and haven't had to deal with this many people for so long a point of time before, nevermind the stress of keeping them all alive. Your respect for Karkat Vantas - not exactly high - does climb a few points. Considering what trolls think of as appropriate interactions between one another you are impressed he’s never killed anyone of his team directly out of sheer frustration.

You give up on wandering the house when every room seems to be occupied: the comatose Eridan in the library guarded in shifts by Dave or Karkat, Mr Egbert in the kitchen, Vriska in the living room arguing with Terezi, though they’re not being violent so you just ignore it for now. You decide to brave the outdoors instead. It's March and an unseasonably cold one - you wouldn't be surprised to see snow again yet - so you bundle up in the mudroom and stuff your feet into boots and wrap your coat and scarf around you and head out into the crisp air once again. At least this time you aren't on a rescue mission.

You wander away from the house, avoiding the area of Gamzee and Equius's fight, the snapped treetrunk and sticky bloodstains too disturbing a reminder for any sort of meditative thoughts. You just need time to think, for a while.

"Rose!"

For a moment you pretend not to hear, debate walking further into the woods and getting lost - from the others, at least - for just an hour or two. John calls your name again and you sigh and turn around instead. You've barely had time to talk to each other, not with the pure chaos the trolls have wreaked upon you all, and you can hardly refuse him now. You’re terrible at saying no.

You turn around - and there's no one behind you. You frown and turn again but your surroundings are empty. The only person in your yard is you. You start to examine the house - he might have called from a window - when you hear a giggle that is far too close to come from your home.

You look up and John is floating above you, grinning broadly. "Made you look!" He gloats, a frown of concentration flashing over his face as he wobbles in the air. This isn't his easy flight from Sburb- something he proves assuredly when he lands next to you and plows up a good two inches of wet earth - then falls onto his ass after a great deal of windmilling.

You can't help it. You laugh to see him "ass over teakettle" as your mother was wont to put it. You're overtired and overstressed and overwhelmed and your body takes the first chance at stress relief it can find. You laugh - and help him out of the mud, knocking the worst of it from the seat of his pants with a deft hand.

"As a landing I will have to give that an A for effort."

"But an N for Needs more practice?" He bends to knock the mud from his knees and his grin is the same as it has always been, bright even in the face of everything stacked against him. If anyone wondered why you’d gone after the fabric of the game itself, well, you know that part of the reason hides in his smile. You’d have torn the universe apart with your bare hands if it meant keeping him safe. Not that he needed your protection, but you would have done it anyway.

You don’t say any of this to him, of course. You just step out of the way of his mud splatters to keep your coat clean."I won't call it a complete failure. I can start a garden here, now that you've readied the land for me. I’ll get Jade to give me some pointers." You give John a smile because he's earned one from you and you don't remember if you'd ever had the time to give him one in the mess that was the Veil.

He doesn't realize the rarity or value of the gesture, not the way Dave would, but he throws his arms around you and hugs you fiercely anyway. God help you but he and Jade are both huggers of the highest calibre and there is simply no avoiding it, it seems.

"I see you have regained your flight abilities." You observe when he has finally released you from the circle of his arms, and if your voice is the slightest bit thicker than normal you’re sure he doesn’t notice.

"Windy thing!" he answers and corrects at once. "It's still really hard to fly. That's why my landing was so rough but maybe I just have to practice more. I was thinking that the air here would have been different from the Game so maybe that's why it's harder to get it to listen to me. It really wants to do its own thing."

You consider this with a nod. "Certainly the mechanics of our world could lead your powers to behave differently. Of course, it doesn't explain how your powers work at all. They can't exist here, or they shouldn't." Humans don't control the wind here. They certainly don't float on little gusts of it. Oh, you might have dreamed about such things but there is such a fact as gravity and surface area and weight to consider and John isn't the seed germination of a weed, to be blown across a field. The force of wind he needs to hold him aloft should be ferocious. You aren't even sure it can be done, mathematically. Not the way he holds himself upright and seems to be supported by his feet alone while he’s in the air.

And yet it worked, and it was a reflection of how strange your life had become that it was merely a curiosity now. You are far too busy with the aliens in your home to worry about some strange not-magic. Not with their current rate of near death and the tension that was starting to eat at everyone and draw your own shoulders tight and taut. It has been days and yet it feels like years which was why you’d escaped for some personal time – but you find you don’t mind the intrusion, when it’s John.

You think, with no small sense of irony, that you are too old for this. Part of you suggests this fallacy is a defence against the fact that you are, in fact, too young to handle this, but you ignore it with long practice. There was a platitude about burdens and people bearing only what they could take as given by some shadowy male deity, but you don’t put much faith in the occult these days. If you find out someone has set these tasks in front of you, a player setting knights and rooks and queens in front of a pawn, well, you’ve broken one chessboard already. You won’t hesitate to break another. You’ll make anyone who thinks you’re just a pawn to be used regret it. (You have to stamp down on the coil of anger that moves up from just below your stomach, cold and testing you, offering to help you do exactly what you’re thinking of, to grow long nails and powerful arms and to reach and rip and tear apart everything in sight until you know-)

You blink and focus on John who is staring at you worriedly, waving his hand in front of your eyes. "Earth to Rose? You went away there for a second. Is everything okay?"

The answer of 'no, nothing is all right or have you taken a clear assessment of our current situation' seems a bit callous in the face of his concern. You shake your head and force yourself to focus on him instead of the ice in your stomach, and it starts to warm as you do. "I'm all right. Just tired and prone to getting lost in my own head. You were saying?"

He relaxes to see you seemingly well and the easy grin returns. John doesn't see the problems, you think, because he believes he can work through them. He never really lost his optimism in Sburb. Instead the game hammered it down and turned it into something like sharpened steel. It weaponized it somehow, and John isn't even aware of how well he can chivvy you all forward in the face of his assurances that it will 'all work out'.

"Well I was saying since my windy thing is getting stronger, even if I have to work a lot harder to fly, then maybe everyone else will get their powers back too!" He looks chagrined for a moment as his head catches up with his mouth. "I mean, I'm sorry you didn't get to God Tier. But we could have Dave's time shenanigans and Vriska's luck and Aradia's time powers too! Wouldn't that be great?"

You feel like you have been punched in the stomach, suddenly short of breath, and as much as you try to hide it John notices and frets. "Rose? Rose what's wrong? Did I say something stupid again? I'm sorry you have to tell me what it was okay? I never know when I'm being stupid except when it's on purpose. Jeeze, I'm a real class act aren't I? If anybody knows how to swallow their whole foot when trying to be a good friend it's me. I'm the worst. I'm-"

"Babbling." You cut him off and force a breath though your aching lungs. "Quite well, but babbling nonetheless. You didn't upset me, John. I was simply... caught off guard." You curl your toes in your shoes because it is hidden and no one can see it as a tell or giveaway and the tactile feeling you need right now. You thought he knew. You thought someone would have said- but of course, Kanaya would have been discreet. "I'm afraid my powers have already made their appearance known."

John's face is comical to watch. He gapes and doesn't even think before he sputters "Cool!" and you can watch the gears spin as slow dawning draws across his expression - confusion: "I mean that's awesome but why didn't you say anything?" Followed then by realization. "Oh. Wait. Um. Yeah, wow. Sorry. But you're not all scarydark now, so it's all right, right?"

You have pointed out to him countless times how much easier his social interactions would be if he stopped to think before he spoke, but you are aware that such ideas do indeed fall on deaf ears. John is no more capable of thinking before he speaks than you are of taking another’s opinions at face value.

"It's fine." You lie with ease. "I had a poor reaction to the grimdark's attempt to possess me, and Kanaya was kind enough to help me remain calm after the event. The only casualty was a wall and some paint." The clawing disgust sits at the back of your head but you take another breath. You are not going to be upset. You can control yourself. You are certain of it.

It helps that the wall is already repainted, the bitter alkaline tang of paint far preferable to the charred lines you'd burned into the plaster.

"Oh. Well that's good. Seeing you go all dark was really scary. I don't want you to have to do it again." He slaps your shoulder which you suspect is an attempt to bleed off the need to hug you. He is respecting your bodily autonomy and your clear general dislike of contact and you are grateful even if you wish to hell he would just damn well hug you again and never let go. It's easier then, because you can hug him back because he needs the reassurance - it's harder when it's you who wants it. Harder to justify. Harder to be so weak and so needy.

"You know, Rose, you can talk to me always, right? We're friends. I'll always be here for you." His enthusiasm is something else all over again. For all you both know you're all dead in a complex and dissolving dreambubble and he doesn't care, he just faces you - after all you've done - and tells you that you're friends. In case you'd forgotten in the chaos that was destroying a universe.

You give up on being that strong and hug him. It's okay. No one else is watching. John's laughter and the way his arms close over your back in a way that is warm and comforting and not at all cold and cloying like dark water - it's worth it.

 

==>Be John

You have decided on a Cunning Plan. It was just a regular plan at first but you talked it over with Vriska and it's totally better as a Cunning Plan. You're really glad she wanted to help out. You were a little worried that she'd stay hiding forever but you totally should have known better than to think Vriska Serket would ever hide for too long.

She doesn't want to talk about it anyway, and you have decided that as much bad happened in the game the important thing is that you're all here now. If she hadn't messed around then maybe you never would have met her and Karkat and this way things really are better. And even if they aren’t better it isn’t like being angry at her or anyone else will actually change things, so you think you’ll just think of it as better anyway. It’ll really be better once everyone isn't so angry and upset and the trolls see how awesome Earth is. Earth is totally better than Alternia. There is no contest.

So you aren't going to worry about what happened before because everyone is getting to start over, even Gamzee and Eridan, and that means Vriska too. That's the best way to do things, and everyone - well, Rose and Dave and Jade - agree with you. And your dad smiled so you think he likes that idea too. (You also think he likes Ms Lalonde but you aren't sure what to think about THAT!)

You have a Cunning Plan, but you need help to accomplish it. Jade of course is super excited and Grandpa says he'll help which was sort of the most important part. Now that you have them you need Rose because she is good at convincing people and besides, this is her house and her town.

She'll know where the best places to go are.

 

You find Rose outside and you think you can't blame her. Everyone is super stressed and tired from looking for Eridan and worrying about Gamzee and Equius and it's only been a whole day! Outside feels a lot calmer, even if it's cold. You think if you can get Rose to agree then everyone else will too and then everyone will not only feel better, but they’ll learn more about Earth and see how great a place it is so they can stop missing Alternia. (You don’t know why they miss Alternia, it isn’t like any of them liked their planet very much. Trolls are weird.)

You get the wind under your feet and almost fall over a dozen times because it is super hard to balance everything here, but at least you aren't flying into trees or trashcans anymore! (You spent the whole morning practicing when you couldn't sleep again. You wished you'd thought to do it before you had to climb down a mountain in the cold carrying Eridan. It totally would have been useful then.)

You get up behind and above Rose and try hard not to laugh when she can't find you when you call. It's not really a prank - everyone is way too tired and upset and tense to appreciate a good prank and you know comedy is all about timing timing timing! But it helps keep your hand in, as they say, and it's worth the smile on her face even if you almost faceplant in the soggy ground.

It's good, too, to talk to Rose again. Face to face and without her being scary or scared, even if you are a total jerkbutt and end up reminding her of it all accidentally. You had pestered her of course, when you all came back, but things have really been too busy for talking with all the trolls and looking after everyone and the not-really-daring but totally cool mountaintop rescues. That's another reason for your plan, as cunning and awesome as it is. It will let all of you just hang out, the way kids are supposed to do. Because you are kids, even if half of you try to pretend you’re adults because it’s cool or something.

After a totally awesome hug you both end up sitting on the porch at the back of her house. Rose is sitting pretty and perfectly straight, her cheeks are red from the cold but neither of you want to go back inside yet. You are perched on the railing and kicking your feet, facing her. You take a deep breath before you can chicken out and blurt all in one go. "So I have an awesome plan!"

"John Egbert, we're far too young to elope." Rose says with a smile and you hoot with laughter, nearly falling off the rail.

"Not that sort of plan! Something to help everyone have some fun. Since everything has been nasty and everyone is all tense, I thought we should go out and do something not in the house!" You can see her objections before she even says them so you plow straight on. "See, no one sees trolls like trolls, we got to make really sure of that when we flew. So it'll be safe. And since all the trolls came without any of their things and they don't even know what a mall is I talked to Jade and Grandpa Harley and he said he'd take us on a shopping trip. That way we could get them new clothes and stuff and we could just all hang out at the mall for a while and wouldn't that be fun?" You suck in a deep breath and give Rose your most hopeful expression you can. You could go without her, you suppose, but it just wouldn't be the same.

She raises one of her eyebrows slowly, so slow that you bet she practiced it in the mirror a ton before she could do it without her face scrunching up (you used to do the same thing to teach yourself to wink). "You're suggesting we take a bunch of teenage aliens on a shopping spree through a mall. Paid for by our friend's eccentric and only recently reanimated grandfather."

You try really hard to see the sarcasm there so you can try to joke back, but you can't find it. You settle for shrugging. "Yeah, that's pretty much it. If you and Dave come along I bet we could get all the trolls, or almost all of them anyway, and our parents since someone has to drive us. How far away is the mall?"

"The only worthwhile shopping center is almost an hour away." Rose's eyes are crinkled in the corner and her lips keep twitching like she's trying not to smile. "You realize this sounds like the plot of a terrible children's movie? The sort of thing where escapism and wishful thinking are the major themes, but they shoehorn a message about love and family in the third act?"

You grin right back at her. "And that's a bad thing?"

"Touché."

"So does this mall have a joke shop or a party supply store?" Joke shops were probably asking for too much, but you could get some cool things at most party stores.

"Not at last visit. But they do have a Hot Topic, and who knows what’s been added since my last trip." Rose stands up and stomps her feet - you bet they're as cold as you feel. "Let’s go talk to Dave."

That means she thinks your plan is a good one, which is really a relief. "Oh Jade's talking to him now. I thought she would be able to convince him fastest." And you were being Cunning, which meant using your troops in the best ways. Even though your friends aren't at all troops, but it isn't a bad thing to just pretend. Vriska totally helped you understand that too.

 

==>Be Dave

You never thought you'd be a sucker for a pretty face.

Jade isn't even really pretty. She's kickass and has awesome hair when someone reminds her to brush it but she's got buckteeth and when she's really excited she spits when she talks. She might be able to bench press you if she really wanted to and she's terrifying with a gun in her hands and she really, honestly, thinks you're the coolest person ever to grace this mortal plane, but you can't call her pretty.

That second last bit probably has a lot to do with why you're letting her talk you into this plan of Egbert's. If you say no she's going to look at you like an honest to God dog and if that doesn't guilt you into saying yes she'll just twist your arm - and not in a metaphorical way. There are a lot of sharp edges in this kitchen – you really don’t want her pinning you against any of them.

The worst part, you think, is how much you really don't mind. Jade Harley could ask you to moonwalk across the wings of a jumbojet and you don't doubt for a moment you'd do it. You make a mental note to never mention this to her - since unlike John or Rose, Jade would probably ask you to if you put the idea out there. (You also don't know how to moonwalk.) It’s probably why John sent her after you in the first place. John you could have turned down, or at least pretended to for a bit.

"Tell me you don't plan on hauling all of us out to a damn mall after a night of next to no sleep and two and a half murder-suicide attempts, Harley. Even the cast of CSI get a damn break now and then."

"Noooo?" She says it thoughtfully - stretching the note out like she's thinking it over. "We want to go tomorrow! That way everyone has something to look forward to. And that way we can convince everyone to come if they need convincing. Besides, Grandpa didn't want to have to drive today." She frowns and the worried furrow between her eyebrows makes an appearance. "I think his back still hurts."

Ouch, yeah, you got an eyeful of that yesterday. The old guy had earned some downtime to be sure. "Okay so you want to go to the mall with a bunch of murderous aliens. So that your grandfather - sorry, rich-ass Midas eccentric-as-all-fuck Grandpa - can take them on a shopping spree?"

Jade meets your eyes and smiles like it's no big thing at all. "Right! I've never even seen a mall except on TV, Dave. It's probably totally boring for you but I think it'll be really neat experience and besides, a lot of the trolls don't have anything like extra clothes. They can't keep borrowing our stuff."

Well, they could. But you didn't exactly have an extensive wardrobe yourself and Eridan and Feferi both had outright refused to wear anything red. God only knew what the other's hangups were. Letting them handle themselves was actually attractive - nevermind that the movie-trope of new kids in a shopping mall was so many flavors of Bill and Ted and you could write a dozen Sweet Bro scripts off the shenanigans and damn it, you want to show Jade around just to watch her light up like a Christmas tree.

"All right. I'm in. But if you end up arrested for taking over the sporting goods store and scaring the locals, I'm not bailing you out."

Jade giggles and wraps her arms around your side in a tight hug. She looks up at you when you look down and you would swear to any God someone named that her eyes fucking sparkle.

"Of course you won't. You'll be right there with me."

You hate to admit it, but the girl's got a point.

You're about to deliver a sweet rebound about Striders and arrest records when you hear running and you're still too wound up from the day/night's adventure not to stick your head out of the kitchen and make sure (read: hope like fucking hell) it isn't another God damn emergency. Half the trolls are asleep, for fuck sakes, they should not have needed emergency anything for a damn nap.

Megido runs down the stairs, dragging Captor with her. The first thing you notice is that Aradia is sporting a very healthy black eye. Well, it's actually red and brown, that whole blood thing you guess - but it's swollen and sore and seriously you can't leave them alone for a second, can you? When you check Captor for injuries you don't see anything obvious but he's wearing stupid looking 3D shades you haven't seen before.

"Going to a movie are we? Remember to sit in the back so no one has to see your sloppy makeouts." You lean against the doorframe and try to look like you weren't worried at all. They don't look like they're running to or from any emergency. "Might want to ice that eye first, Megido, or people will be thinking Captor's your abusive boyfriend or whatever you call it."

Standing in the middle of the living room, Aradia just stares at you in confusion. Captor colours mustard yellow and shrinks in on himself. Aradia was holding his hand, you realize, to pull him down here. Now he extracts his hand like he's been burned. "Theriouthly, Thrider. Fuck you. Fuck your whole warped ekthithtence."

You try not to feel bad. If he did give her the black eye, he probably deserved the reminder. "Dude, couldn't be more original could you? What if I made you some cue cards? I could give you some comebacks, free of charge, for the next time I burn you? Something a little more inventive and plausible than Vantas's tirades - though we can skip the thinly veiled homoerotic themes Nitram's all over." You sneer but the effect you know is ruined because the mopey jerk is blind. "I'll even do them in troll Braille. Or have you learned enough of Pyrope's smell-o-vision yet?"

"You don't really stop talking, do you Dave?" Aradia grins at you and grabs Sollux's hand again - you're a little surprised he doesn't fight it. "That's why we came down. Sollux can see again! Isn't that great?"

You know, as surprises go it really is great. She didn't tell you someone was dead, dying, or missing; it didn't require any actual effort on your part and you might be able to consider it a good thing as long as it didn't come at some horrific price. This flies through your mind in a half second and then that particular train slams into the brick wall development of rational thinking and common sense.

"Wait, what? Did they grow back or something?" You get up close and personal into Captor's space and yeah, behind those stupid shades there isn't the blown out scarred remains you'd already gotten used to. Blue and red eyes stare - no, glare up at you - and an invisible hand that stings pushes you back, dead in the center of your chest.

"Get yourthelf thome thpace, nookwiffer, before I make thome for you."

You bite back your initial retort because there are sparks coming out of his eyes and between his horns and showing up against your chest and you are pretty sure he couldn't do that before. "Is that normal for you guys? You just walk around like an exposed wire? Because I am warning you, one of these start a fire I am letting you deal with the Lalondes. You don't get to hide behind being blind and stupid now." You leave the smirk since he can see it now, and it hides any nervousness you might feel about some magic shit you sure as hell do not understand. "Well. At least you can’t hide behind being blind."

Captor inhales and you're looking forward to what he's going to try to dish out at you. You've enjoyed baiting a lot of the trolls so far and another one can't hurt, but Megido interrupts. "Sollux is a psychic. His powers came back when his eyes grew back, which is great but eyes aren't supposed to grow back so it's really surprising. I thought we should tell Karkat about it but he isn't upstairs."

"He's guarding Gills in the library. Not that it's all that necessary, since her Highness pulled a damn one-eighty and has decided that nearly killing himself and dragging our asses out in the damn cold at ass early in the morning gets Ampora a second chance, but who am I to argue with royalty?" You really are glad Eridan's alive and Team Kill People seems to have taken a break, but that doesn't mean you're not bitter about how tired you are or how annoying The Little Princess has been. You can manage both emotions at once, anyway. You're a complicated guy.

"Oh good!" Megido beams and Captor scowls and the dude could give Vantas a run for his money in the bitter face department. "We should go talk to him! And to everyone who is awake. There really hasn't been any good talking yet about everything and I think it's really important we do so or we'll never figure this mystery out."

"What mystery?" Jade finally joins you, leaving the kitchen with a milk moustache and Oreos in hand. "Sollux, what happened to your eyes?"

To Jade he at least manages to take the acid out if his tone. It doesn't mean he's being polite, but you can hear the difference. "Dethpite everything elthe that ith wrong with your fucked up planet and my exithtence here, thome echo of good luck might have managed to find me. My eyeth are back, hurrah, now I don't need one of you athholeth to help me get to my own damn block."

Jade takes it all in stride. "I thought you'd be happier, to get your sight back?"

Sollux just scoffs. "Oh, thure, now I can thee just how ugly you hairleth primateth are. Watch me dive off the fucking roof in joy - oh, wait, why don't we wait to find out what thith cotht me? Nothing good ever cometh free."

Actually, when he puts it like that you can't blame him.

"And that's the mystery. Well, it's just another clue to the big mystery." Red eyelashes that are just so damn huge flutter between Jade and you. "There is something very strange about this world."

"About time someone noticed." A voice drawls, coated liberally in sarcasm. "Here we were wondering if we'd have to break the news gently to spare your fragile minds."

Your brother is standing in the doorway to the dining room, looking as smug as he always does - though that just means you can tell he’s feeling smug and everyone else probably sees him as the unreadable cool guy that he is. They haven't had your years of experience. "Oh?" You drawl back, tone for tone matching him. "Does that mean you have something to share with the class, or are you jumping up and down because Mr Egbert put a tack on your chair. No one likes a showoff, Bro."

"We're having a little chat. You all drag yourselves in when you think you're fit to speak to adults, now. Dave can wait outside, since we don't have all year."

You respond with a raised middle finger and Bro disappears without acknowledging the hit. He's distracted, you guess, which worries you. At least you're getting used to being worried. It's quickly becoming your baseline - everything else is just a step up from there, from annoyance to bone-deep-shit-yourself-terror.

"All right. If the grownups are done looking at each other with b-movie starry eyes, we should probably see what they're going on about. I'll get Vantas. You guys grab Lalonde and Egbert and whoever else is awake and not likely to fuck this up."

"Who died and made you the leader?" Captor has a world class sneer. You'd be impressed if you didn't want to wipe it off his face with your fists.

You resist the urge, in the name of interplanetary peace or whatever. "Elvis. Now do something useful or go mope somewhere out of our way. You don't have to do anything except not be a pain in the ass because dude, everyone else has beat you to it."

He starts to argue but you head for the library. Captor is Jade's troll and you caught the look in her eyes as you left. She'll handle him, and besides you've got Vantas you have to manage right now. Picking your battles here is totally a thing you have to do.

You sneak look into the dining room as you walk past and yeah, there's the guardians of this little venture. Sitting together and looking grim.

Fuck. What the hell do they have to say now?

 

==>Be Jade

It's hard to coexist with an alien species, but you think you might be getting better. Sollux only grumped a bit before letting Aradia tug him away and that was almost a smile on his face, you think. He really likes arguing with people but you didn't think you had the time for it right then. Maybe later.

You collect Rose and John from outside and Karkat comes back with Dave, looking as tired as you think everyone else feels. He probably should have gone to bed but he wanted to guard Eridan and you can't really blame him. You've barely even napped and you're starting to feel tired yourself, though admittedly you're still getting used to falling asleep normally and not just anytime. Once everything is settled, you think the change is going to be really great for your projects.

You all end up in the dining room, gathered around the table just like you did for dinner, except far less crowded this time. All the adults are sitting in their spots, with coffee cups in front of them. Everyone else takes a seat unless they're too cool to sit and admit they're tired or anything - so you and John and Rose and Sollux and Aradia and Kanaya all sit and Karkat and Dave lean against the wall and try not to look too much like they're copying each other.

You’re a little surprised Karkat doesn’t have Eridan with him, but John’s the one who asks about it. "I thought you'd bring Eridan along, Karkat. Since you're guarding him and everything. Is someone watching him now?"

Karkat scowls at John but you think that since all of Karkat's faces are angry ones, you will have to create a sliding scale for him, to judge if he's angry or just annoyed or even happy. It could be fun - you could get Dave to take pictures of Karkat first and use those to help you create a graph.

"No. The bottomfeeding masochistic pain in my ass is sound asleep from whatever the hell Peixes did. He's not going anywhere and since anyone with common sense is following the idiot's one good example and getting rest too, he should be fine." He looks at the adults and the scowl wavers but you don't know what that expression means. "I'd still appreciate if we made this quick, whatever this is."

Wow. You are pretty sure that was polite. Who knew Karkat could even do that?

Rose's mom turns her cup around in her hands, her lips pressed small for a minute as the other adults look at her. "Well. What this is... I suppose we could call it a briefing. You know that we've agreed to let you handle this on your own as much as you can, because - as Hass has reminded us - you're much more aware of what is going on between you and your trolls, so we've tried not to interfere."

"We've absolutely appreciated your restraint, mother. I know it must be hard for you." Rose smiles at her mom and her mother smiles back and for just a second you think of Bec chasing off a predator by bearing his teeth but then the smiles are gone and you don't know why you thought of your dog then. It must be because you miss him so much.

"The point is there's shit you ought to know now instead of later, in case this world starts falling apart like a diabetic kid in a candy store."

Rose's mom frowns at Dave's brother, who just shrugs and doesn't look sorry at all. She coughs into her hand and starts again after a moment. "Dave might have mentioned this to you, but we believe we played a session of the game ourselves. One that we did not win - and were not nearly so ingenious as to orchestrate the 'scratch' you engineered. We all - that is to say, Hass and Bro and I - all have memories, however faint, of our session. John's grandmother, Mary, was the one who remembered or dreamed the most clearly, and all of us spoke with her about it before she passed away. We don't know how we came to return here though Hass suggested we might have made a deal with someone for a second chance."

"Just a guess, you understand." Your grandpa frowns under his moustache. "Just from a feeling and some things Mary and I spoke of, years back. No guarantee I'm after being right now." He fiddles with his bowtie which is green, which has always been his colour and yours. The tie is almost your favorite shade but it's a bit too close to being neon for you. These days green that bright just reminds you of bad things - the green sun, Doc Scratch, even Bec. Though Bec is more sad than bad.

"Anyway." Rose's mom starts again, the spokesperson you guess though you're really surprised Grandpa isn't helping more. Dave's brother is probably too cool and John's dad maybe didn't know as much, but you bet your grandpa is just as smart as Rose's mom. "The first point is that we think - we're quite sure we were once involved with the game directly. And it was reset, since here we are." She gestures to everyone, which isn't necessary but maybe she just likes being exact. "Whatever we did, we ended being born again - and I do realize born is a difficult word here - with faint recollections of our own time spent in that hellish game."

"While this is absolutely fascinating to know that the game really has been fucking people over for longer than we ever considered, what's your point? We certainly aren't here as wrigglers ready to face the God damn trials all over again. How does your little stint in the hellish “fuck you” that was Sgrub affect us?"

You wish you were closer to Karkat so you could kick him for being rude - you're pretty sure that was rude - but getting up from your seat to do it would just be a distraction so you glare but don't do anything else.

Rose's mom at least isn't upset with him. Her lips are pressed flat but she doesn't even frown, she just looks at him with her face carefully blank and then says, slowly, like maybe Karkat is having a hard time understanding her, "The point isn't so much that we were reborn, but the fact that our world was destroyed as we entered the game, and yet we were returned to it - or something similar enough. Much like we have all been returned here."

"Yeah, but that's different." John speaks up, frowning a little in thought. "We broke the game. We blew up the green sun, we destroyed Doc Scratch and Jack Noir and..."

"And what? From what I understand you were not certain your actions would actually save any of you. Most of you were dead when you attempted it. Why would destroying the universe settle all of us - alive again - here? Why were the trolls so evenly split between you?"

"Oh finally, someone is actually asking questions! How about the fact we're all speaking your strange slurred language like were schoolfed it but none of us understand any of the other stupid human languages? Or the fact that Nitram got his legs back but he has to relearn how to walk on them, but Pyrope and Captor were still blind? Or how the fuck Captor's eyes just decided to grow back?" He glared at Sollux like it was his fault for getting better, which really wasn't fair at all. "Or the fact that John’s windy powers are 'just fine'" he tried to copy how John spoke, though he wasn't very good at it "But Serket and Megido's powers don't seem to have made any grand appearances? This whole thing is fucked up and I've been saying it since we arrived so if you dare act like this is all news I will cover myself in purple fairydust and declare myself the Twelfth Perigee's drone."

Everyone just stares at Karkat and you do too because up until now he's really not said a lot to any of the adults (Tavros told you he thought Karkat was afraid of them) and this was a whole lot of talking and swearing at once. Maybe he realizes that because his cheeks turn a little dark and maybe red if you squint and he runs his hand through his hair, making it even messier as he sighs. "Fuck. Sorry. I know you don't need the damn lecture but I am serious here. Are you going to tell us something we don't know or can I get back to ripping everyone's heads out of their nooks in the hopeless attempt to keep us all alive to face whatever the hell is coming for us?"

"Here now! I don't think things are so serious as that! It just might be that we're all after having a right home here, as broken as it might be. I don't think there's some dammed monster sulking in the corner or under the bed now." Grandpa tugs on his moustache which you are pretty sure is what he does when he's upset. Or maybe lying? No, definitely upset. Sometimes it's hard to reconcile the Grandfather you remembered and the one you kept alive in your head. "We all know that things just plain aren't right here and it might not be what you'd be calling home now for you folks, but there's no reason to be writing it off so quicklike. It's certainly not exactly our home if you want the truth of it, though it's doing a bangup job of pretending it is."

A bunch of voices all ask him what he means by that and John's dad surprises everyone by speaking after being quiet for so long. He does a good job too - he looks around and meets everyone's eyes one by one and the trolls seem to be happy with that. "That's why we wanted to speak to you. You know we've let you handle yourselves as much as we could. Well, while you've been settling in we've been trying to figure out our own part in all of this. You know we've all noticed some... well, strange things ourselves, mostly our coworkers really, and we wanted a chance to look into things in the... well, real world, I suppose I could call it. Not that your world is less real, but adults. Banks. Neighbours. Work. That sort of thing."

"Basically we're saying that everything is fucked up and it sure as hell isn't just our fine-ass selves. Egbert's work didn't know he worked there. Lalonde's lab was filled with idiots who didn't know what the hell they were doing."

"Even worse than usual, which is quite the achievement."

"And every gig I did before coming out here was handled by a manager I would have sworn was tripping out of their mind, and filled with zombies who sure as hell didn't know how to dance, or good music from bad." Bro sounds really disgusted, but mostly you think he’s upset at people not knowing how awesome his music had to be.

"Additionally, we can't get a hold of anyone else. Friends I've known for years don't exist - the banks still work, obviously, and we paid for our flights normally - but when I called to speak to my bank to see if they had record of the direct deposits I received from work, the people I spoke to didn't even know how to help me. And there's this."

He pulls out a large book, bigger than your encyclopedia at home, probably the biggest book you've ever seen. He pushes it to John who opens it with a bit of a smile. For a moment nothing happens, and then his smile goes away and he turns the page again and again and again.

"What's wrong? What is it?"

"Whath with the book? Why would you need thomthing that fucking big? Gonna beat thomeone to death with it?"

John's face is a big line of upset and you hate to see it look like that. "It's a phonebook." He tells the trolls and you, and you know what it is when he names it because you've heard of them before, but the trolls demand a better explanation.

"It's supposed to have the names and phone numbers of everyone in the city or town in it. So you can find someone you need to call."

"Dude, either tell us what's wrong or give us the goods to look over ourselves."

"It's all messed up, Dave." John pushes the big yellow book over anyway but he looks at everyone and isn't happy at all. "It just says name, and phone number. Like the actual words. Over and over and over again.

You are sure that's a bad thing, but you don't really recognize the significance. Maybe they just got a bad one? You look at Grandpa to see what he thinks and he meets your eyes for a second and then shrugs sadly and looks away. He doesn't know either.

Dave slams the book shut with a thump that echoes through the whole room and makes you jump and he leans on the table and glares at it through his glasses – but he’s standing perpendicular to you so you can see it – before he mutters under his breath for a second. Then he straightens up and puts his hands into his pockets, all cool again. “All right. So what the hell do we do now?”

Everyone is quiet for a moment and John breaks the silence by laughing, not a lot, just a tiny bit, trying to hide it in his fist and not doing it very well. “Well, isn’t it obvious? We already had a plan! We need to get a better idea of what’s going on for everyone who isn’t us, right? We should go and explore a bit and see a bunch of people to see how they act.” Everyone waits for him to finish and he makes his eyebrows wiggle up and down, like a pair of skinny caterpillars. “Let’s go to the mall tomorrow.”

 

==>Be Karkat

If you thought you hated humans before, it is nothing in comparison to the utter loathing you feel now. That hatred was like the tiniest candle, so weak it would evaporate in this malestrom, this inferno of platonic loathing that has consumed you. Pity the whole world? Did you ever think such a thing? You can’t believe Past You was such a freak. You are ready to call the entire species one giagantic waste of precious resources. You have never seen so much waste in your life.

If you ever manage to find any of your humans in this mess you are going to... well, all right there admittedly isn't a lot you can do to them, but you will make them regret this terrible fucking idea.

 

You look at the backlit, useless excuse for a 'map' that tells you 'you are here' in the worst shade of mutant red you've seen. Like pitiable fuck are you 'here'. They've clearly never made a map before and this one is far, far too simple to think of it as any use, but you grit your teeth and do your best with what you have, since that's the whole of your life isn't it just? There's no sense of scale and the coloured blocks just mingle with no respect to chromatic positioning (and you aren't talking about the spectrum, just fucking good taste) and since it doesn't get better when you glare at it you sigh and jab a finger at the lime yellow block.

"All right. We go that way, if this piece of blistering shit is actually correct, and we should be at the meeting place. If we're lucky we'll find some of the idiots there. Or all of them and we can get the fuck out of here already. They had better be done with their simple fucking mission." You try not to flinch as Gamzee drops his arms over your shoulders - he's forgotten everything he's ever learned about personal space and you haven't got the centuries you'd need to drill it back through his head. (Harley has been a terrible influence, you can tell.)

"Just take it easy brother. This place is all being up and miracle making without you being all bitching tense here. Ain't nothing that's going to go wrong, is there? We're just getting our shopping all on like normal pink soft humans." He pats your head and finally backs away from you to wrap his hands around the handlebars of Tavros' wheelchair. The fact the rubber cover grip things creak when he grabs them and his knuckles turn light grey as he squeezes doesn't help your unease, but all you can do is stick with him. "Nothing to be worrying yourself over best friend, you've got everything all nice and planned right? Don't have to worry about surprises here and if we do we can just cull any motherfucking assholes who think they can get in our way."

Fucking hoofbeast shit deep fried and put on a stick to give to wrigglers but he's worrying you. You shouldn't have brought him along - except everyone else besides Ampora was coming and Equius strongly suggested you didn't leave Makara and Nitram alone at Lalonde's place. And no way in hell could you consider Ampora any sort of chaperone. So that meant you were playing lusus since you didn't dare leave him with one of the others and Nitram wasn't coming without your best friend in tow. (You ignore that voice in your head that tells you what a shitty best friend you are because it doesn't understand anything. You’re a leader now.)

The worst part was how sad John had been when he realized he wasn't going to 'lead' your group. Like hell you needed a Lusus to guide you through this human shopping destination. You can handle yourself and Tavros and a half sober Gamzee in your sleep, and you told him so yourself and tried not to feel anything at all when he looked disappointed. You just didn’t want to admit that you didn’t want to have to keep your own temper with Vriska while handling Gamzee.

No, you realize as you follow Gamzee and Tavros as they make their way through the people - there's far too few to be a crowd - the worst part is how creepy this all is. That crawling sensation of wrongness is all over your skin and it isn't doing your powers of decision and cool headed leadership any good.

And okay maybe it is your fault for agreeing with this in the first place, but it had seemed like a good idea when they'd brought it up yesterday - the sheer force of personality the four humans and their guardians presented addled Past You until he'd agreed on this asinine excursion because the idea of scouting for information was a good one. And yes you were already tired of doing laundry and you had only one spare pair of pants in your sylladex and despite John's best efforts you can't wear his clothing even if you wanted to. Which you don't. So the chance to order something new (really new, not scrounged or stolen, something that was yours and meant to be because you'd paid for it not because you'd hidden and lied and scraped and saved) was attractive.

You can't even be offended by the seeming charity since Jade's Lusus adult cares so little for his boondollars or credits or whatever they're called. He'd just handed you all envelopes and told you with a twinkle in his green eyes not to spend it all in one store (for reasons you can't understand) and you don't like or trust any of the adults but he bothers you the most. Too old and too happy after everything that had happened and he was too good at dodging questions. Nevermind that as an adult he was rather disgusting. He was short and his skin was starting to hang off of his frame; there were tufts of hair on his face that he pulled on randomly and while he clearly had muscle once, it was now mostly turning to fat. His stomach pushed out and if his mind and tongue didn't seem as sharp as a razor you'd say you don't know how he survived in the session to begin with.

The other guardians at least look like proper adults - you know Strider's guardian can fight and Lalonde's is apparently a good shot with her riflekind. Egbert's is unsettling because he's caught somewhere between the two extremes - not a fighter but clearly strong. The worst part about him is he keeps trying to make you like him, or at least that's what Egbert calls it. You wish he'd stop.

But you'd agreed and you'd found your metaphorical 'coon so now it was time to sleep in it so you tackled this 'mall' excursion like any battle. Which might not have actually been a good idea but it was the only one you had which is why you're walking down an aisle the width of a street full of humans of all shapes and sizes, grubs and adults and every age in-between. You're making your way back to Lalonde and company (which would probably include John but that wasn't why you'd chosen to find her instead of say, Strider) but you sure as hell aren't retreating or running away.

Because the back of Nitram's chair is loaded with bags. You might have been creeped the fuck out and your skin might be trying to abscond away from your bones, but there is such a thing as being practical. You'd purchased clothes because that was the fucking mission and you sure as hell weren't going to fail at that, and Nitram had found some sort of card game that set him over the shitty pale moon. You'd both talked Gamzee out of buying the oversized clubs he'd found and for a moment you'd been worried he wouldn't listen at all but then he'd just set them down and wandered away, distracted, and his next purchase was a human noisemaking device that was plastic and sounded like a dying long-necked leafeating beast but was about as lethal as toast so you'd let him have it.

(You'd made a note to ask John what sort of sport used these ‘baseball bats’. They looked painful - bludgeoning tools were always the worst in a fight because they'd kill you the slowest.)

Now that you've achieved clothing (you hadn't found anything else to interest you. What you wanted John already told you humans wouldn't have), returning to Lalonde and the others was the plan. You'd proven you didn't need them which meant now you could go and find them without it being a blow to your status as leader or your own ego. You are rebuilding your leadership one step at a time, and this time it was listening to the humans and looking after Gamzee. Now it’s recognizing that some people would have better answers than you were going to find on your own. You had some questions you needed to ask Rose and John because they would have to know about their own damn race, that had been part of the point of coming here hadn't it? And they had to tell you the humans here were broken - they had to be.

They were broken, chittering, idiotic copies of what humanity was supposed to be. Either that or everything you know about their race is a lie.

 

==>Be Rose

You are standing in front of the counter at Hot Topic and cartoon faces stare down at you from behind and above the head of the cashier, grinning and insipid. They really do seem to be mocking you and it says quite a bit about your mental state that you are taking the glances of screenprinted mass produced inanimate t-shirts to heart.

It says something too, that you want to cry for the first time since returning to Earth. Cry or grab the display of bright neon piercings next to you and smash it against the floor - except the store is so tightly packed with displays and merchandise it would probably fall against the shelf of jeans and make hardly the sort of mess or noise you're looking for. (You wish you could be surprised you'd had that thought: had it and examined the case and followed through the course of action in front of you. You're not at all. You've always been about the details.)

You want to smash something, more out of frustration and despair than anger - though the anger is there oh yes, yes it is and it keeps trying to claw through your chest and crawl up your throat and inky swirls cross your vision. Every time you hear someone laugh it gets a little worse because how dare they how dare they laugh and pretend there isn't anything wrong that this is right that everything hasn't been a huge fucking joke at all of your expense.

You keep checking yourself in the mirrors, waiting to see your eyes in the blank white of death, surprised that they don't change when you know what is wrong, now. You think they'd turn black - that you'd let the boiling, roaring darkness inside of you out - if it weren't for Kanaya's hand on your elbow.

She doesn't know why things are bad, but she can tell they are and her support, her presence, reminds you to look past your own selfish head and to your friends who do need you, and don't need you to fix things when you don't yet know how to. You can't just try to tear this world apart to find the answers.

Yet.

John and Vriska are of course enjoying themselves. Their stack of clothing is piled by the register and the cashier with his lip piercing and his gauged earlobes and sprawling tattoos is the last person you should be seeing giggle. But he is.

"Okay! That one was really good so that's worth two shirts. Now another!" He folds up the clothing and puts it in a bag and the pile gets smaller. Vriska had complained about everything you'd shown her in the department stores, insisting she be taken somewhere cool and you wanted to laugh when she'd lit up inside a Hot Topic of all things, but you were already too stressed out to do it. And you didn't have the heart to tell her that her ‘unique look’ would be the same as a dozen other kids in the vast wonders of mass production. And then again, maybe it wouldn’t be at all.

John leans back and seems to search his mind for a moment then leans forward, as if laying some great secret down for his audience of one."All right. Um. Did you hear about the cat who swallowed a ball of yarn?”

“No! Oh man, is she okay?”

“She had mittens!”

The cashier hoots and howls and makes this strange croaking sound and stuffs more of Vriska's purchases into her bag. John is paying for them in atrocious jokes and doesn't see the problem. The register is untouched - you don't think it's even turned on. Jokes. You have an envelope of cash, of course, but he wants jokes.

 

In the department store you'd come from, the cashiers had argued over you. Not immediately - you'd been left surprisingly alone and the store had been shockingly empty, but you'd taken that as a stroke of luck and not questioned it. You'd all explored together, John and Vriska tearing off at first to 'do their own thing'. Kanaya had found 'a few human pieces for her own wardrobe' since she had been the troll to come most supplied with clothing. Aradia had nothing but the clothes she'd arrived in, and Sollux hadn't much more himself, so they'd both needed replacements. You'd thought that the access to different fashions might mean they'd take forever to find what they'd like, but apparently the lack of interest in fashion really was more a cultural thing than supply and demand. The pair had found tops and bottoms in black and grey, tried them on until they fit, then bought multiples of the same things. It was faster that way, they'd both agreed, and you'd understood Kanaya's quiet sigh and Vriska's eyeroll when she'd returned emptyhanded (and looking at John mildly annoyed).

When you'd reached the cash desk there were more salespeople standing there than you'd seen in the rest of the store combined. They all had scuttled to their registers - and it had been a scuttle, more than anything else, they didn't walk properly at all - and then they started yelling.

"Over here! Everything you have for a single boondollar! Best deal in the city!"

"Don't have boondollars? We'll take plain dollars! Twenty dollars an item, today only!"

"Twenty? How about ten! Ten dollars an item and we'll throw in the tenth item free!"

You'd asked them what they meant, of course, and they'd laughed in a terrible, inhuman sort of way. Pointing out the price tags - or their registers - didn't help. They bickered and bargained between themselves and eventually agreed on ten dollars an item. Which meant Kanaya walked out with a hundred and fifty dollar jacket for just ten and you'd momentarily wished you'd stopped to look for something for yourself - before you thought to yourself that if you were dead, it didn’t really matter.

John had asked the one cashier about boondollars and she'd looked at him and glared. She didn't have any to give, she’d told him, and even if she did she wouldn't - but if he found one he should come and talk to her, and she’d give him a huge treasure. As soon as she found one.

The trolls didn't realize just how incredibly messed up things were – how could they know? They had no reference, no experience to see that things were wrong. But John should have - and watching him bargain with jokes just makes everything that is wrong stand out in stark relief. You're all dead, clearly, and this is some sort of warped dreambubble. Maybe they weren't meant to contain this many psyches and the strangeness is a direct result of multiple minds - quite a few being alien to one another - melding with one another.

"Hey." Dave sneaks up behind you and you jump, scowling at him only for a moment before you've settled yourself. You don't want to yell at him for surprising you because that means admitting he did - but you also don't like how easy it would have been to fry him alive with lightning, the spell just sitting almost innocently in your mind. (There is nothing innocent about your powers or the way they want to control you. Nothing.)

Maybe he sees something of that fact in your face because the next thing he says is "Sorry," with a shrug and a twitch of his lips that's too fast to read. You wish he didn't hide behind his sunglasses but you certainly understand why he does, as repressed and desperate for the shelter they give him as he is.

You don't acknowledge any of it, of course. You nod at him but don't feel like you can properly muster the appropriate tonal control for an ironic ‘'sup’. Instead you look past him to Terezi - who's already honed in on the nail polish bottles and is sucking on one like a lollypop. "Find what you needed? I'm surprised Terezi hasn't been chased out by security yet."

There's another twitch on Dave's lips that might be a grimace and he looks around the shop with a forced, lazy affectation. "Naw. Most of the masses don't even notice she's up to no good, and the rest..." he gestures to John and Vriska and the Goth Punk salesguy and all three cackle as if on cue. "Don't know if you've noticed, Lalonde, but we're not in Kansas anymore and the patients are running the asylum."

"They haven't exactly been subtle. Did you have to trade jokes for your purchases as well?"

"Actually, the frogs are bartering. So we swapped them Terezi's clothes for a pack of gum and one of her stuffed monster things. The nakadiles wanted real cash for the chalk but they turned a bargain, what with me being the king of their damn castle."

You stare for just a moment, waiting for it to all make sense - or for that last minor bit of information to present itself so you can make the missing connection. It doesn't come. "What?"

"Oh come on Lalonde. Isn't it obvious?” There’s an edge to Dave’s voice as he slashes a hand through the air between you, sudden and sharp. “They're our God damn consorts. They're wearing human fucking bodies but they're not human. They're... just playing."

You are actually glad you can't see Dave Strider's eyes right now because he is trying so hard to hide how upset he is and it seeps through the cracks in his voice. If you could see his eyes you don't know how you'd be able to pretend you don't notice it there too.

"Are you sure?" You ask more because you're still trying to wrap your head around the impossible than because you doubt his assessment. "That shouldn't -"

"Dude, Lalonde, if we get into what should and shouldn't be possible we ought to put aside the whole fucking day, because it's going to take more than a cup of tea and singsong. Our whole problem since we arrived has been looking at this place and trying to figure out what's wrong."

He can't keep the careful monotone he loves to use so much and his voice is so very bitter it reminds you of memories that aren't even yours, of the session Terezi doomed when she killed John and you're swamped with the emotion for a long moment, rocking back on your heels. Your vision clears when your mouth fills with blood and you feel strong, cool hands on your shoulders. Kanaya hasn’t left your side and you still don’t know how to thank her, though a tiny part of you is still trying to figure her out. "Rose?"

You shudder, and swallow the blood from your bitten tongue. "I'm all right." You assure her and force yourself to lock your gaze on Dave, daring him to comment.

He ignores your episode almost completely. "Exactly," he answers instead, without further digging. "What we should have been asking is why the fuck we expected things to be right."