“Don’t wreck their house,” was the last thing his dad said to him before he stepped off Egbert’s front step and walked back to his car, hands in his pockets, shoulders hunched. Karkat watched him go for a minute, then turned and followed John’s Dad inside, toward the warm gooey smell of fresh-baked cookies. John was in the kitchen, peeling the treats off the baking sheet and gently transferring them to the cooling rack, careful not to crumple or break them.
When John saw his friend, he set down the spatula and trotted over, stupid goofy grin firmly in place. “Hey Karkat!”
“John, your friend is going to be staying with us while his father is away on business.”
“Oh, man, awesome!” Egbert grabbed Karkat’s duffle bag and practically skipped off toward the stairs. Karkat forced a smile for the kid’s Dad and followed him, half-dragging his sleeping bag. “I just got a bunch of new movies so we can have like, our own film festival! Maybe I should get Dave over here, it could be like a party or something, oh man, so cool.”
Karkat dropped his stuff on the kid’s floor and tried not to sigh. “I don’t think Dave’s into your movies, Egbert. No one’s into your movies.”
“Nah, Vriska likes the ones with Nic Cage, man!” He flopped back onto his stupid ghost-sheeted bed. “Where’d your dad go?”
Karkat shrugged. “Killing some green douchebags, I dunno. He does what he wants.”
John cocked his head. “What, like the Felt? Isn’t Vriska and Terezi’s –”
“Shut up John.”
“But you and Terezi –”
“Can it.” He crossed his arms and scowled out the window. “We don’t fucking talk about it, okay?”
John just shook his head. “Sure seems confusing to me. Anyway, what do you want to do?”
Karkat looked around the room. “Let’s watch some of your shitty movies, I guess.”
Dave joined them after supper, halfway through Wild Wild West. Karkat didn’t mind – he actually was alright with Dave. The kid was just so cool, and their upbringings had been . . . similar. Single male parents with violent streaks, that kind of thing. It wasn’t much to go on, but the tentative bond had been formed and that seemed to work for the two of them.
“This is the shittiest movie I’ve ever watched,” Dave commented, ten minutes into The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, 2010.
Karkat nodded. “You’d think they might have been able to hire some decent actors, considering they probably didn’t have to pay Cage anything.”
“Hey!” John swallowed the mouthful of caramel corn and frowned at the other two. “Lay off Nic Cage.”
“I mean, he’s broke as hell, I think he’d probably work for fifty bucks and a gift card to Wal-Mart –”
Dave frowned at John. “You’re defending the man who was in Drive Angry, John. Unironically.”
“I don’t need to be ironic, he’s a great actor!”
“Just because you have a giant boner for Con Air doesn’t make Nic Cage a great actor,” Karkat pointed out, around a mouthful of cupcake.
“Con Air wasn’t even that good.”
John scowled at the other two. “So it’s a little rough around the edges, maybe not the polished spectacle we’re used to with the newer movies but that doesn’t mean it –”
“Doesn’t have a heart of gold?” Dave suggested. “You’re ridiculous, John.”
“Who keeps magical ten-year-containment urns just laying around where kids can knock them over or whatever? This movie is so fucking stupid.”
“Wizards do, Karkat! Great wizards.”
“Great wizards, just like Nic Cage.” Dave arched one thin eyebrow at John.
“See if you guys ever get to watch my awesome movies again.”
Karkat rolled his eyes. “Oh God, I don’t even know what I’d do. The cinematic masterpieces, denied; my life, purposeless.”
“Man, sometimes you guys are too harsh! What did Nic Cage ever do to either of you?”
“He made Ghost Rider.” Dave watched the screen for another second. “And this movie. That is what he’s done to me.” He and Karkat high-fived, without looking at one another, because looking at your high-five partner is the sort of thing John Egbert would do, and not the sort of thing Dave Strider would do.
“You guys are so close-minded. These movies are so much fun if you’d just let them be.” The beanbag chair hissed as he shifted his weight. “Contrary to whatever you two might believe, you are not too cool for Nic Cage.”
“Mmm,” said Dave.
Karkat nodded. “Uh huh.”
As much as Karkat had hoped Slick would return for him the next day, if only to spare him from further Nic Cage movie-thons, he wasn’t surprised when he didn’t. The Felt were a pretty hideous crew, and with the time traveling bullshit they pulled most scuffles ended with at least a little temporal displacement. Karkat figured half the Crew was probably stuck three weeks ago, while the other half was next Tuesday or something. They’d get back eventually, they always did.
He managed to convince John to watch something other than shitty movies the second night, and instead they spent an almost fun evening on Pesterchum. Karkat liked it doubly so, because via conversations with Aradia, Tavros and that douche Sollux, he figured out that they were all still waiting on their respective Crewmembers. Not that he’d been worried, just that it was nice to know.
No, he certainly didn’t feel better after talking to them, because he definitely hadn’t been worried. Slick had been doing this kind of shit since Karkat had been old enough to open the fridge and access the pile of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches the man would leave for him. He always came back eventually.
“Where’d your dad go again?” John asked, after they’d turned the lights off and gone to bed. Karkat rolled over in his sleeping back and glared at the ceiling.
“I don’t know, John, some stupid place after the fucking Felt. He never tells me where they are.”
John was quiet for almost long enough to let Karkat fall asleep. “Man, if that was my Dad, I’d be freaking out if I were you. I guess being a gangster is a lot different from being a street performer.”
“You fucking think so?” Karkat huffed. He flopped over onto his side, back to the other boy. “I’m going to sleep, Egbert.”
In spite of declaring his intentions of resting, Karkat struggled to sleep very much that night. Two nights was a long time to go without even hearing anything. No news reports, no phone calls from prison, nothing. When Egbert’s Dad got the two of them up and out of bed for school the next morning, Karkat felt as though he’d barely even rested, much less slept. He ate the danish Egbert’s dad had laid out for breakfast and sleepily tailed his energetic friend and the adult out to the car. The man had all of Karkat’s things – duffle and all – and he placed it in the back of the station wagon.
“I guess you heard from Slick,” Karkat observed, fiercely maintaining his apathetic tone.
John’s father paused, tailgate halfway down. “I spoke with his coworker . . . a Mr. Droog, I believe. Your father’s been delayed, he said. He’ll probably be back tomorrow. Nothing to worry about.”
Karkat’s eyes narrowed, suspicious. “What did Droog say mmnnurrfff.” Egbert’s old man shoved an éclair in his mouth before he could get the rest of the question out.
“You’ll be going home with your friend Tavros tonight. Come on boys, in you get.”
Karkat desperately wanted to grill John’s Dad on the details of his conversation with Droog, but he was too tired and too distracted by the scenarios he was creating in his own head. He was staying at Boxcars’ place tonight, which meant that the Crew was back . . . at least, Droog and Boxcars were back, anyway. And the wording . . . ‘he’ll probably be back tomorrow.’ Probably. What the hell was probably supposed to mean? What had happened?
Outside the school, on the playground, John’s Dad let them out, and told Karkat he’d be taking the extra things by Boxcars’ office on the way to work. Shit, Boxcars was already back at one of the casinos then. Karkat fought down the fluttering chill in his chest. Where the hell is Slick? But before Karkat could get the words out, Dad Egbert had stuffed both of their faces full of cupcake and pulled away.
“I hate baked goods,” John complained. He glanced over to Karkat, and quirked an eyebrow. “You alright?”
Karkat swallowed the cupcake and snarled at the other boy. “I’m fine. I just wish Slick would fucking get his shit together.” They turned toward the school and set off across the playground. “You can’t just leave your fucking kid for days at a time and expect everyone else to be cool with taking care of me, you know?”
“I hope he’s alright.” John meant nothing by it, Karkat was sure, but nevertheless a chill ran through him. He covered it with a sneer.
“Probably just passed out in some casino somewhere like a dipshit.”
“Hey, Vantas!” The boys turned as one, and Karkat’s mood was befouled even further when he saw who was approaching. “Hey, Karkles.” Vriska Serket made her way over to them, smug expression on display, hands in her pockets, half-skipping. “Hanging out with your human homo buddy for the weekend?”
“Shut the fuck up, Vriska,” the troll snarled, as John edged away slightly, raising his hands and smiling weakly.
“No, we were just hanging out, we’re not –”
She waved a hand. “Just kidding of course. I guess you have to stay somewhere, after all. Since your stupid guardian’s never around.”
“Vriska!” The shout came from behind Karkat once again, and he spun to face whoever it might be this time. Terezi drew even with the two boys, out of breath, leaning on her cane as she panted. “Leave him alone, Vriska.”
“Aw, sis, come to join the fun I guess?” She grinned broadly. “I was just about to tell Karkles here that I saw Sli –”
“Don’t say anything, Vriska!” Terezi warned, but Karkat’s eyes had already gone wide.
“You saw who?”
“Your idiot guardian, retard.”
“Vriska, stop it.” Despite Terezi’s protests, Vriska was watching Karkat’s confused expression with a sort of ravenous delight.
“Oh. I see. You don’t know, do you?” She laughed. “No one even told you yet!”
Terezi signaled John, and they each took Karkat by an arm. “Come on, Karkat, forget about her, she’s just being a stupid bitch.” She tugged at his shoulder, but he wriggled out of their grasp, stepping toward Vriska.
“I think you’d better get used to staying at other people’s places,” the multi-pupilled troll was saying conversationally, watching Karkat’s approach like a tiger. “Since your dumbass guardian’s probably dead in a hallway somewhere by now.”
Karkat froze. “What?” Around them, he was peripherally aware of his classmates assembling, forming a ring around the two. “What?”
“I mean, honestly, four guys against the entire Felt? It’s amazing Slick’s the only one –” she didn’t finish, because Karkat leapt at her and bore her to the ground. The circle broke then, and even as he wrenched his arm back to take a swing at her face a couple pairs of hands wrapped around his arms, chest and shoulders, pulling him back and off Vriska. The girl was laughing as others likewise hauled her away. “I can’t believe no one even told you!”
“Told me what, you fucking bitch?” he snarled. But she was being pulled away now, too far away to hear him.
“Relaxth, Karkat, the’th lying, Thlick’th fine,” Sollux was saying as the group pulled Karkat back and sat him down on the curb around the monkey bars. “Karkat. Hey. Lithen.” Karkat looked to him, through the haze of red. Tavros and Aradia were on either side of him, and he could hear Terezi just repeating ‘Chill, Karkles,’ as she rubbed his shoulder. “Thlick’th alive.”
“Well that’s fucking great to know but that shouldn’t be a surprise.” He was watching Vriska, who appeared only to be leaving the group alone out of respect for Kanaya. Nevertheless, the taller troll had put herself in Vriska’s line of sight, just in case. “The fuck is she talking about?”
The other three exchanged a look. “Well, uh, you know. Um. They took on the Felt. Uh.” Tavros rubbed the back of his neck and shrugged. “Stuff happened.”
“The hell kind of stuff?! How come everyone else is back and Slick’s not?”
Aradia held up her hands. “Take a breath, Karkat. Slick’s back too; he’s with Droog.”
“Is he okay?”
“Um. He, uh. He will be.” Tavros paled under Karkat’s glare. “Eventually.”
“Eventually?” He shrugged off Terezi’s hand and shouldered John out of the way, advancing on the bull-horned troll and grabbing him by the shirt collar. “What the hell does everyone else know that I don’t?” he yelled as the other boy flinched. “Why am I the fucking last person to know?”
“Becauth we knew you’d react like thith, thtupid!” Sollux shoved himself in between Tavros and Karkat, arms crossed. “Everyone knew you’d react like thith! We weren’t going to tell you until after thcool tho you wouldn’t get your fucking ath exthpelled!”
Aradia’s hand was cool on his shoulder. She patted him a little, redirecting his attention. “Slick’s hurt, but he’s with my dad. He’ll be fine. You’ll see him tomorrow after school – until then you and I are staying with Tavros to limit the possibility of Slick murdering anyone, alright?”
“How hurt?” He looked to her, watched her expression shift to confused, and then whirled on the other two. “How hurt?”
Sollux shrugged. “No one knowth. Mum’th the word, it theemth. Not hurt enough to limit hith homithidal tendenthieth, apparently.”
Karkat took a breath, swallowed the lump in his throat. “So what happened?”
The other three exchanged a look and then looked elsewhere. Elsewhere, Karkat realized, but the same place. He turned to the point of their focus.
Terezi looked very small. “I’m sorry, Karkat. My mom, your dad . . . they just . . . they do what they want. I don’t get it, neither do you.”
“Did you see what happened?” He bit his tongue then. “Smell?”
She shook her head. “I know what you mean. And no. But I’m sorry.” She squared her shoulders. “I don’t get why they’re so stupid, it’s the whole dumb kismesis thing but you know just as well as I do –”
Karkat closed his eyes and let his head loll back and her words wash over him. He counted to ten. John put a hand on his shoulder. “Terezi?” He looked to her. Her eyebrows shot up toward her hairline, mouth hanging open. “I don’t know . . . Please don’t talk to me. For the rest of the day. At least.”
“Karkat don’t be stup –”
“Please. If I ask one more time I’m gonna start yelling and I don’t want to get –” his face twisted “- exthpelled.”
“Well you don’t have to be like that,” Sollux huffed. “I wath jutht looking out for you.”
The bespectacled girl’s face twisted into a scowl. “Well fine. I’m trying to apologize but it’s not even my fault and you’re going to be a bitch about it. I taste how it is. Fine.” She flipped her bangs out of her eyes and spun on her heel. “Talk to you in a few days, I guess.”
The assembled group looked to Karkat for a while. John checked his watch. “They’re gonna want us –”
“Nobody talk to me,” Karkat snarled, before he stalked off toward the door to the classroom. The others exchanged a look.
“Um, well.” Tavros sighed. “I, uh, I think we should just keep, um. Keep Vriska away from him.”
Aradia rolled her eyes and exhaled deeply through her nose. “Naturally.”
The school day dragged, but once it was over, Karkat wasted no time in informing Boxcars of his wishes. “I want to see my dad.”
“Too bad, kid. Get in the car.”
Karkat crossed his arms and planted his feet. Aradia and Tavros slunk around him, ducking into the back of the Crew’s black box van. Boxcars waited a full three seconds before he sighed and grabbed Karkat by the handle of his backpack, bodily lifting him and setting him down next to Aradia. The door slammed shut.
“This isn’t fair!” Karkat howled. “Why won’t anyone tell me anything?”
Boxcars slammed the driver’s door and whirled on the nubbin-horned troll. “Because there ain’t nothing to tell you, kid. Boss is fine, you go home tomorrow.” He turned back around and hunched over the steering wheel. “Actin’ like he ain’t ever got hurt before.”
Karkat drew his legs up to his chest as the van lurched forward. He rested his chin in the notch between his bony knees and wrapped his arms around his shins. “No one’s ever acted like this before.” Aradia smiled at him, a pale shadow of her usual grin. “Stop trying to make me feel better.”
“Karkat, uh.” Tavros leaned forward, into his line of sight. “Karkat, he’s alive. Um. Why are you acting like you don’t believe it?”
Karkat didn’t answer. Instead, he muttered, “Of course I believe it.” And, despite Aradia’s and Tavros’s prompts, said nothing for the rest of the evening.
Boxcars didn’t try to force anything out of him either, and for that Karkat was grudgingly grateful. Not even the next morning, when he dropped the three of them off at school again, after Karkat hadn’t said more than five words in an eighteen hour period. He just pushed him gently out of the van and put his hand on Karkat’s head. “It’s gonna be fine, kid,” and Karkat noticed he didn’t sound like he believed it.
In the end, he didn’t say anything to the hulking gangster, and instead strode off across the playground, Tavros and Aradia not ever far behind. Sollux joined them, shooting a variety of hand signals to John and Dave, who intercepted Vriska midway across the playground. “Karkat?” Aradia ventured. Karkat just growled.
“He’s, um, been like this since yesterday,” Tavros informed Sollux.
Sollux snorted. “You haven’t tried to thnap him out of it?”
Tavros shook his head. “He just, uh, just wants to see the Boss, I think.”
“Honethtly. It’th not like he’th dead.”
“Right, well, um. I don’t know if, uh. If Karkat believes that, you know?” He shrugged. “No one’s said what’s wrong, or, uh, what happened. I mean, um, it’s not like we know,” he added hurriedly, before mumbling a little and trailing off. He looked to Sollux. “We don’t know, do we?”
Sollux smirked. “Dad actually managed to keep hith trap thut for oneth. It’th incredible.” They watched Karkat lean back against the wall of the school and slide to the ground, legs crossed. “Ith it bad?”
“I, um. I think so.”
He pinched the bridge of his nose and pushed his glasses up, wincing. “Of courthe it ith.”
By the time three o’clock rolled around, Karkat was practically vibrating in his seat. He barely managed to wait for the bell to ring before shoving his pencil and notebook into his desk and sprinting out the door. Aradia followed as quickly as she could, considering she had to pause to grab his backpack for him.
“Slow down, Karkat!” she called after him. He paused, looked back, noticed she had his bag, and stopped. When she finally drew even with him, she shoved the backpack into his arms, almost knocking him back. “Jesus.”
“I’m sorry, okay? I forgot, I’m a little distracted.”
A shadow loomed over the two of them. “I can’t imagine why,” Droog’s smooth voice diffused over the two of them. “Shall we set off?” Aradia nodded, brushing past Karkat. He went to follow her, when a hand landed on his shoulder. “A moment, Karkat.” He waited for the car door to close behind Aradia before he tilted Karkat’s head back and looked him in the eyes. “You will need to remain calm.”
Karkat’s lip wobbled, for the first time. He’d built a wall, something to keep everything bottled up and shut away, and Droog had cracked it with one sentence. “He’s okay, isn’t he?”
“More or less.” He guided him to the back door of the car. “In time, I think, he’ll recover. There will be some adjustments.”
Karkat’s voice cracked. “Adjustments?” But the door shut and Droog seemed unwilling to discuss anything else.
It was the longest car ride ever. Every light was red, every street jammed with traffic. Droog didn’t speed, didn’t hurry, and basically seemed utterly unconcerned. Aradia looked out the window, legs swinging, humming a little to herself. A block away from Droog’s townhouse, her guardian shot her a look and she trailed off into silence. Karkat was incredulous as to how she could be so relaxed, how she could simply not care. This involved her too, didn’t she realize? Slick was . . . Slick was the Boss. Slick was the one in charge of the Crew. If he was . . .
He’s not dead, Karkat assured himself, and somehow, he still didn’t believe it.
When they pulled up outside the townhouse, Slick failed to be standing slap-bang in the middle of the sidewalk, and Karkat’s stomach went icy. Aradia waited patiently for Droog to open her door, and Karkat restrained himself from scrabbling at the car’s handle. The door popped open and Karkat jumped out, glancing around the street for Slick, or his car or . . .
There was the car. Silver and chrome and black, parked on the curb a short way down the block. And there –
Droog said something, probably telling him not to run or some stupid shit, but Karkat didn’t hear, because he was already pelting off toward the skinny, oddly lopsided figure leaning against the car. Slick barely had time to brace for the impact before Karkat collided with his torso, wrapping his arms around him and twisting his fists into the man’s jacket like it was the last solid thing on the planet.
“Aw, fucking hell, kid,” he wheezed, flicking his cigarette into the street. “Could have given me some warning.” Karkat didn’t respond, just held his guardian and trembled. He frowned. “You’re not crying, are you? Dammit, Karkat.” There was a strangled little sob. “Karkat.”
The kid mumbled something into his chest, which he couldn’t make out. He was pretty sure he could feel his shirt getting wet. “Get your shit together, kid; this shirt was clean.”
Karkat leaned back, tentatively, not letting go of Slick’s jacket just in case he disappeared again. If he was surprised, he hid it well, or maybe he was just relieved Slick was still alive. “What . . . What happened to you?”
Slick scowled and shrugged his left shoulder. “Snowman.” Karkat wrapped his arms around his guardian again and this time Slick sagged, resting his hand on Karkat’s shoulder. “What’d you think, I bought the damn farm?”
He slouched back against the car. “No one fucking said anything?”
“Everyone said something. Except Vriska said you were dead.”
“Bitch.” Karkat nodded fervently. “The fuck does she know, anyway?” The troll shook his head. “Alright, that’s enough hugging.” Karkat squeezed tighter. “Let the fuck go, you little pansy,” he said, but despite the language it wasn’t unkind. Karkat stepped back, reluctantly letting go of the black jacket, and wiped his nose on his sleeve. His cheeks shone in the afternoon light.
Karkat looked his guardian over again and then smiled weakly. “At least you have two eyes and arms to start with. Had.” Slick scowled. “Sorry.”
“You know how we talked some wiseass comments being too soon?” Karkat nodded. “Well too soon, kid.” Karkat looked down, still smiling ever so slightly. Slick straightened, bracing himself against the wobbling that was still bothering him three days later – fucking blood loss, fucking lousy spleen or whatever the fuck organ was in charge of that shit, fucking depth perception – and shoved his hand into his jacket pocket. Keys jingled.
“We going home now?” Karkat looped his thumbs under his backpack straps and rocked back onto his heels.
“Yeah.” He pulled the car keys out and regarded them for a minute before tossing them to Karkat. The kid caught them, barely, not because he was shit at catching things, but because Slick had misjudged by about a foot deep and six inches to the right.
Karkat stared from him, to the keys, and back to him(1). “You want me to drive?”
Slick cranked the door open – it squealed and a groaned, just like always, and it was so achingly familiar – and eased himself into the passenger seat. “Probably the best stupid option, isn’t it?”
“I can’t drive, Dad; I never learned how.”
“Well.” The gangster reached across himself and grabbed the handle, watching Karkat with what almost passed for a smile. “No fucking time like the present.” The door slammed shut.
(1) NOW BACK AT YOUR MAN, NOW BACK TO ME. SADLY, YOUR MAN IS NOT ME OH WAIT THIS IS FANFICTION WE DON’T NEED TO HAVE COMMERCIALS.