Chapter 1: Introducing The Cast
[now that all the (main) cast have been introduced, we've put them into a single post for easier reference. some details have been edited to reflect the current storyline and to expand on the earlier biographies.]
KARKAT VANTAS (RESIDENT)
Institutionalized 1 week prior to story beginning after a public meltdown led to him beating up a wall at his school in front of everybody. Anger issues, panic attacks, depression. Insomniac. Got in a fight with Gamzee Makara his first day but has calmed down. Refused to leave his room the first week but John Egbert managed to drag him out.
Indian-American. Short. Hair standing on end from being pulled more or less constantly. Needs his iPod to survive. Wears large pair of noise-canceling headphones to project an attitude of DO NOT TALK TO ME DO NOT LOOK AT ME GO AWAYness, which doesn't work. No tact whatsoever.
Tries to act tough but he's mostly harmless.
"YOU GOT SOMETHING TO SAY TO ME, SHITPIRATE?"
SOLLUX CAPTOR (RESIDENT)
A frequent visitor to St. Lobaf due to treatment-resistant rapid-cycling type 1 bipolar illness. Most recently admitted by his fathers as a transfer from the county hospital following his latest overdose. Forgot to change out of the hospital gown before he left and ended up wearing it (and not much else) for several days at St. Lobaf. Tall. Painfully skinny. Bitter because he should be at MIT but instead he's wandering around a mental hospital raving about the apocalypse and talking to himself. Flips his bifurcated lid and any nearby tables when people bring up the mysterious Aradia in conversation.
Still waiting patiently for his glasses and body jewelry privileges to be restored.
Reclusive or obnoxiously social depending on mood.
Current holder of the Fucking Ugly Stuffed Bee.
"ii am 2o not iin the mood for thii2."
JOHN EGBERT (RESIDENT)
Admitted six weeks prior to start of Brainbent. Signed own admission slip accompanied by father. Tells anyone who asks that he is here because his "prankster's gambit is at an all-time low". The general consensus among other residents is that he thinks he's a character in a video game. Plays jokes on staff and other residents and has a contagious giggle.
Was the first resident to persuade Karkat to leave his room via cruel and unusual application of CELINE DION.
"hahaha, yeah. that was pretty funny."
EQUIUS ZAHHAK (STAFF)
Live-in supervisor for the male dormitory of St. Lobaf. Breaks up altercations and gives STRONG assistance as needed. Has been voted 'silkiest hair of the entire staff' every year since he joined the faculty. Trained nurse with 5 years paramedic experience before that. Police academy drop-out.
A little bit on the off-putting side in terms of personality. Virtually no sense of humor, and a strictly by-the-book enforcer of clinic procedure.
The mere thought of his powerful and slightly damp embrace is often enough to calm the most volatile temper tantrum.
"D --> To whomever is hiding small containers of chicken nuggets in the bathroom vent: you will stop."
TAVROS NITRAM (INTERN)
St. Lobaf's newest staff addition. Doing an internship between semesters. Majoring in child and adolescent psychology with a goal of becoming a crisis counselor. Active in local PFLAG and survivor communities for the past 4 years.
Paraplegic following a T12 spinal cord injury. Unironic believer in fairies and the power of positive thinking. Lifelong Minnesotan. Loves to cook. Forbidden to attempt to rap on campus grounds due to risk of mass resident mutiny. Excellent with younger people, even if they think he's a bit of a dork.
The originator of the Fucking Ugly Stuffed Bee (Which he attempted to name Beeatrice, but was promptly overruled and no one remembers it).
"dO YOU MAYBE WANT, UH, TO TALK ABOUT IT?"
DR. TEREZI PYROPE (CHIEF OF STAFF)
The youngest head of faculty in the history of St. Lobaf. Staff psychiatrist with part-time therapy duty.
Old high school D&D club empress for life and 1999 FLARP championship survivor. College nickname: Tiny Asian Doogie Howser. Current nickname: Doctor Tongue.
Legally blind following childhood accident. Synaesthetic (smells and tastes colors, shapes and certain sounds). May or may not have once licked a resident. Thinks the rumors are pretty much hilarious. Favorite color: candy red.
Wanted to be staff art therapist on top of regular duties but was quickly replaced when housekeeping bills became prohibitive.
Presently embroiled in a friendly rivalry with young ingenue of the psychology world and aspiring therapist Rose Lalonde.
"H3H3H3H3, YOU C4NNOT 3SC4P3 TH3 TH3R4P3UT1C CL4W OF 4 TRU3 S33R OF M1ND."
KANAYA MARYAM (RESIDENT)
Admitted herself 6 weeks prior to Brainbent for intensive therapy for anxiety and obsessive-compulsive behavior. Garden aficionado who runs a farmer's market stall every summer. Hobbies include buying and 'remixing' vintage clothing, original fashion design, and performing podfics of trashy supernatural romance fiction. Works part-time as a hairdresser.
Bugs, fusses and meddles from time to time, but gives excellent advice.
"Oh No Is It Supposed To Be Smoking Sollux I Am Not Good With Computers"
JADE HARLEY (RESIDENT)
Came to St. Lobaf as a last step of reintegrating into society. Lived with her elderly paranoid survivalist grandfather in his mountain cabin since early childhood. Was never exposed to other people in groups larger than the occasional hunting party.
Grandpa went to town alone until his health failed. After his death, Jade lived alone with her dog Becquerel, eating the rations from the bomb shelter. Jade eventually became lonely enough to follow Grandpa's map down the mountain for the first time in her life, and walked into a police station asking to speak to "the authorities".
Was very surprised to learn that the world isn't actually on the verge of nuclear war after all. Has decided to stay in the 21st century because it's really really amazing!!!!!!!
"im not a feral child, asshole. jeez! :P"
GAMZEE MAKARA (RESIDENT)
One of the longer-term residents. Has been at St. Lobaf for just over a year, dealing with major perception and depersonalization issues. Perpetual lost boy with long history of drifting around the country. Most recently joined Juggalo subculture, looking for meaning and family. Wants to be a pastry chef and wear one of those fuckin epic bitchtits hats and decorate cakes for little kids with like flowers and smileys and shit. Everyone's best friend :o)
"NaH mAn, It'S oKaY tO lOoK. eVeRy MoThErFuCkEr GoTs sCaRs."
VRISKA SERKET (RESIDENT)
Pictured here in the costume she wore to her last Halloween party. And to her Junior Prom. And sometimes in public whenever she's bored and the rest of her clothes are in the laundry. You know, whenever.
Came to St. Lobaf two months ago, has been causing trouble ever since.
Hellraiser. Drama queen. Pain in the ass. Pushes people's buttons whenever possible. Self-identifies as a slut. Self-identifies as a crazy bitch. History of behavior indicative of borderline personality disorder. Possible sociopath. Oppositional-defiant. Histrionic to the max. Will gleefully invoke her various (and conflicting) diagnoses as needed when she gets caught misbehaving, which is often. Secretly thinks psychology is a load of horseshit.
Lost left arm and left eye in a motorcycle accident last year. Shows off her skin grafts and road rash scars to anyone who stands still long enough. Laughs like a hyena anytime she gets a rise out of someone. Feels empty when no one's watching.
"What!? It's not my fault you're a pussy!"
FEFERI PEIXES (DORM SUPERVISOR, FEMALE WARD)
Worked at St. Lobaf for the past 3 years as support staff. Has recently taken over role of dorm supervisor after Ms. Paint's semi-retirement and art therapy room takeover.
Saltwater aquarium enthusiast and respected breeder of butterfly koi in her off-time. Keeps small freshwater aquarium in staff room. Designed and dug the St. Lobaf duck pond. Got permission to install said duck pond the morning after it was completed.
Has been described as a cheerful little drill sergeant. Once encouraged Tavros Nitram to create a designated comfort object "like a cute little stuffed dolp)(in or somet)(ing like t)(at!" to offer lonely residents. This innocent suggestion later led to the creation of a certain plush eldritch abomination that has haunted the dorms ever since. Do not piss her off.
Occasionally sneaks really shitty fish puns into conversation. The condition is contagious (see also: Eridan Ampora). Seriously, do not piss her off.
")(-----EY!!!! You make it sound like I have anchor management issues!" 38O
DAVE STRIDER (RESIDENT)
The youngest person at St. Lobaf, which means he's clearly some kind of coolkid prodigy.
Removed from his brother's custody last year at the age of 13 after a number of visits by Child Protective Services and following his brother's incarceration on unrelated charges. Moved from foster home to institutionalized care eight months ago due to his behavioral issues. History of self-injury. Had the worst birthday ever in December when the courts agreed to extend his stay in the foster system another six months.
He has been at St. Lobaf for five months at the start of the story, and remains largely uncooperative with treatment. Actively participates in Dr. Pyrope's daily "blind lessons" to help cope with his low vision and lack of depth perception because tripping over shit all the time is uncool as fuck. Had only recently begun speaking or interacting with others after months of being "on strike" when Bro lost his appeal for custody. Has stopped talking again.
Has excellent hair.
NEPETA LEIJON (RESIDENT)
Measuring in at all of four foot ten, Nepeta is nevertheless a STRONG kitty! :33
Came to St. Lobaf the same week as Jade Harley. High-functioning autistic with sensory processing issues. Currently on leave from college after the stress of her freshman year led to a total meltdown. Loves the comfort room's light box, the texture of fur, and watching cartoons. Wants to be a vet and work with horses and cats. Hero-worships Dave Strider. Completely in love with Equius Zahhak's beautiful girl-hair and muscles.
Rose has inspired her to practice her interpersonal relation skills by observing the interactions of other residents. This has, somehow, spawned the creation of Nepeta's Famous Shipping Wall. Kanaya X Doctor Pyrope?
She ships it.
":33 < i would be lion if i said i didn't! h33 h33 h33!!!"
ROSE LALONDE (RESIDENT)
Upon initial observation, Ms. Lalonde appears indistinguishable from any other individual comprising the vast majority of her peers, albeit a bit on the grimdark side. Closer investigation by a careful observer, however, is quite likely to reveal hitherto unexplored glimpses at a personality not entirely unlike the multifaceted surface of a specimen of museum-quality bism--
Smart as a whip, high-achieving, a slightly smug bookworm with an introverted personality, Rose Lalonde comes from a perfect household, wanting for nothing. Her mother is perfect. Her home is perfect. Everything in her life is perfect, actually, except for Rose herself. She hides her insecurity behind a wall of sarcasm and acerbic wit, but her knowledge of psychology and excellent insight recently convinced her to ask for help, with or without the approval of her family.
Rose is determined to remain at St. Lobaf doing intensive therapy until she is ready to confront her outside life (and her family) without relapsing into her illness.
Current project: analyzing and neutralizing her urge to compete with her mother, especially the part with the excessive drinking and rampant self-image issues.
"I see you've neglected to include any mention of my penchant for knitting in your biography. What a shame."
ERIDAN AMPORA (RESIDENT)
Admitted in May after a certain notebook full of disturbing fictional stories and elaborate plans for a graduation day school massacre made it into the hands of the school administration. Voluntarily entered treatment at St. Lobaf in exchange for the terroristic threat charges being dropped.
The shyest resident. Spends most of his time writing his stories and brooding.
"if you say you nevver thought about it youre a fuckin liar"
PENELOPE MESSENGER (STAFF)
Head nurse. Rules the front desk with an iron fist, doles out evening meds and brings the mail to the residents every afteroon.
Collects stamps and postcards from around the world and chairs the St. Lobaf Penpal Society (membership at last count: 3). Only staff member to ever be proved capable of taking Feferi in a fight. Still has a bit of her German accent.
Also there’s something going on between her and Dr. WV, hmmmm! They met at a Firefly convention.
"Oh, look! Another of those pink glittery postcards from Dave's brother."
DR. WILLIAM VALENTINE (STAFF)
Child and adolescent developmental psychologist working under Dr. Pyrope. Specializes in anxiety disorders and trauma counseling. Fought in Desert Storm in 1991, where he developed a special interest in the treatment of PTSD. Has decided to run for mayor of Northfield once his term on the school board is up.
His office is a giant toy box. All ages of client will be offered at least one doll during their session. At least half will accept without ever quite knowing why.
Can't dress his way out of a wet paper bag. Tries anyway, to varying effect.
"PM is the bee's pajamas!"
Sollux's platonic better half. Archaeology nut. Anthropology fan. Music box, fossil and memento mori collector. Persian-American adopted daughter of the saxophone player for the Midnight Crew.
The Droog/Megido household is also the Northfield Serenity Funeral Home. Sollux is scared shitless of the place, and has always been totally creeped out by AA's casual and occasionally downright chipper attitude towards her family business.
He is convinced the place is haunted as fuck.
"Oh, come on. They're just dead people, they can't hurt you. You might as well get used to it--after all, we're all going to die someday! 0u0"
Chapter 2: Karkat - Tinnitus
He stares out the window instead of looking at his mother. She's too busy navigating the torn-up street, saving the undercarriage from murder by potholes (the fucking rats could drown in these things, jesus) to notice him giving her the back of his head and tuning her out in favor of yet another block of overflowing garbage cans. The sanitation engineer strike is almost through week 2 and a humid jungle stink clings to the entire neighborhood, maybe the whole city beyond. He rolls the window down anyway, daring her to say something, but she's on a roll. Fuck.
"--just get used to it, you're not going to--"
"--respect me, at least think about everything I gave up for--"
"--egging him on and you know he has a temper, can't you ever--"
"--teenage rebellion bullshit, he deserves better than your constant--"
Yeah this is just another rerun and he never liked the show much anyway. He digs out his earbuds and screws them in with more movement than he really needs, hoping to catch her peripheral vision. Almost instant results.
"This is exactly what I'm talking about," her voice rises to that frantic trembling whine that is the default when she's on the verge of cracking him one across the face. "You don't listen, you don't give a shit about anyone but yourself, you never fucking--"
The crash of brass ripping into a high-tempo number drowns it all out and he turns the volume as high as it will go. Already he's losing his high range hearing and good fucking riddance, maybe she'll never be audible again if he blows enough cilia, maybe he'll spend the rest of his life hearing the constant whine of tinnitus instead. At least tinnitus never calls anyone a worthless fucking accident or sits on the bed drunk and bawling at four in the morning about how maybe it should just go jump off a bridge somewhere.
He closes his eyes and smells the swollen rotting animal stink of a million split-open bags of festering trash half burying the sidewalks like a drift of black and white plastic snow, imagines the rats drowning in the potholes, and it's fine. It's fucking fine.
Chapter 3: GETTING KARKAT OUT OF HIS ROOM
STRATEGY ONE: THE DIRECT APPROACH
result: pretty much a complete fuckarow. i was forced to retreat and rethink my strategy, and also to surrender my evening apple juice to Dave as payment for indirectly causing his eardrums to be assaulted for the next ten minutes or so.
conclusion: round one to the stubborn mr vantas, but i had not yet begun to fight!
STRATEGY TWO: BRIBERY WITH TECHNICOLOR BAKED GOODS
result: karkat got infracted for throwing footwear, the cupcake turned up a week later in the linen closet, and now dave is calling me betty crocker. fuck my hot life.
conclusion: karkat 2, egbert 0. it was definitely time to step up my game!
STRATEGY THREE: STINK BOMB
result: smell of designated prank fluid (Brand name Liquid Ass) lingered for 3-5 days throughout men’s dorm. surrendered the next three weeks’ ration of apple juice to dave in partial payment for ungodly rectal reek and for accidentally framing him as the culprit. infracted for chemical warfare in defiance of geneva convention. prankster’s gambit now in the red. karkat claimed to no longer even notice fetid aroma when questioned, and remained stubbornly in his lair.
conclusion: i had underestimated vantas. it was obviously time to call in the big guns.
STRATEGY FOUR: FEIGNED SURRENDER
mission accomplished, bro.
Chapter 4: Nepeta - Spaceship
She thinks maybe they've got a club where all the other kids go when she isn't looking. That's where they learn what words will be cool this week, what shows you don't watch, or you do but you say you don't, how to dress, what kind of songs to like.
She thinks this because she can't figure out how else it works. She watches carefully, the way the kids talk and joke and sing on the playground, songs she thinks are stupid but doesn't say so because she is already weird.
She is aware that there is a culture happening here, possibly right under her nose, but she can't quite see how it works. She is fascinated by it, and frustrated when she can't figure it out. It's not like her puzzles at home, the really good ones with no pictures, just blue or green or red (but never ever purple, purple is a horrible sharp color that makes her want to barf) and she spends hours sorting the pieces by shape and then building the puzzle from the edges in. The edges are easy so she does those first. She doesn't understand the culture but puzzles always make sense, no matter how hard they are.
One week everyone likes a band, and then they're so uncool the next week and people say they never liked them at all, and she remembers that they did, but it's not polite to contradict other children. Her mother is very firm on issues of tact, which is okay. Rules are good. They help her not mess up when she doesn't know what to do, so she won't feel bad or panicky. That's called a meltdown.
She likes the way her crayons smell, even though she thinks she might be too old for crayons really. People let her get away with it because she draws for them. They always ask for Tweety Bird, so she learns to draw Tweety Bird even though she hates his huge stupid head. She likes making the other kids happy, because then they're her friends.
She knows they're all getting older, almost ready for middle school, and it's starting to feel like she isn't growing up with them. They're starting to think she's strange when just last year she was the most popular kid because she was so funny. Now there's stiff sprayed haircuts and smeary pink lip gloss and gross slimy eyeliner on half the faces that used to be pulled into silly grins while they pretended to be zombies attacking the boys on the monkey bars. Which she still does, because it's fun. Yelling BRAAAAAIIIIINS is hilarious.
Sometimes her friends laugh and say "Nepeta, you're such a weirdo" and she feels like a cute housepet being scratched behind her ears. She thinks maybe she's like a cat to them, a nice soft tabby kitty who rubs against everyone's legs and then goes off to sleep where the sun stretches across the floor, curled up beside a half-finished puzzle that's a picture of the sky with one single cloud in the very bottom left corner. Those are the best puzzles, the ones with the thousands of pieces that make her father whine like a little kid and pretend to die horribly, which makes her giggle until she feels like she might die too. He buys her the puzzles that make his eyes cross, he says, and she fills a closet with them as time goes by. It's the best place for any cat, the clean bare hardwood of the floor in the room where her puzzles live.
The unused pieces will be arranged perfectly all around her and stacked so carefully that she will always be able to find the exact shape she will need, and her father will kiss her on the forehead and call her his little artist, even though she never drew this picture. It's a photograph and she wishes she could draw a puzzle of her own and hang it on her wall in a frame.
She would draw every piece one by one, and then put it together, and it would be a picture of the spaceship she thinks must have dropped her off here by accident.
All the aliens will be weirdoes too, and they'll ask her if she likes purple and she'll tell them purple can kiss her ass, and they'll laugh even though that is such a rude thing to say, and it will turn out they were just testing her and they already knew that purple sucks. And also the seams on thin white socks, awful clumpy hard seams that make her toes squirm in discomfort (one time before church she cut the seams off with the big scissors, and got in trouble). And they'll all swing on the swing for hours, even when her friends decide to go in and tell her it's getting late.
She will be a cat alien and she will paint every day, she decides. It's not like she's missing much at the club where everyone else goes to learn how to be a normal person. She bets it's boring compared to being a cat.
Chapter 5: Rose - Feeling
5:55 am: Wake up five minutes before alarm. Check weather on smart phone. Double check weather by looking out of window. Snowing again. Today isn't the day after all. Get out of bed, put on slippers and dressing gown, shuffle to bathroom. Shower. Brush teeth. Floss. Stare at face in mirror. Is your hair getting too long? Blackhead on top left corner of mouth. Are you putting on weight? Check bust size by turning sideways. Pinch flesh on belly. Resolve to add twenty minutes of cardio to this morning's regimen. Feel saintlike.
6:30 am: Breakfast with Mother. Grapefruit, cottage cheese. Bagel with low fat yellow lipid substitute of the sort that can double as engine grease in a pinch. She reads the latest New Yorker and does not laugh at the cartoons. You blow bubbles in your milk with your straw and dare her to say something. She rolls her eyes. Feel victorious.
7:00 am: Cardio and strength training. You've given up the ballet, the swimming and the horseback riding so you spend half an hour running and walking at intervals. At the end you slow to a walk to cool down, and reach to turn off the treadmill. Sweat makes your hair cling to your forehead. Definitely time for a trim. You think about how she poked your midsection yesterday and gave you her most sympathetic knowing look. Set the machine for another thirty minutes and pretend you're running away from home. Shower again. Feel ugly.
8:30 am: Tutor. Boring. Learn about the economy of somewhere you'll never visit. Maths, composition, literature. Boring. Boring. Boring. Homework. Wave goodbye to tutor. Fall asleep over essay on the sociopolitical ramifications of gay marriage. She says even if you decide to be a dyke she'll still love you anyway. Catch glimpse of self in mirror during walk to kitchen. Cheeks flushed, eyes bright. No makeup and hair still tousled from second shower. Feel beautiful.
11:30 am: Decide to say "Fuck the police" and eat Mars bar. Feel awesome. Make mental note to practice for recital, then decide not to bother. It will be amusing if you screw up, especially if she bothers to show up and is forced to see you do it. Write 500 word flash fiction about wizards on laptop while Mother drifts through the room making plans for a dinner party on her phone. Feel superior.
12 pm: Door slams. Watch her get into her extra-shiny Focus and drive over the edge of the lawn, almost stalling on the deep snow there. Feel almost disappointed when she doesn't get stuck. House is now empty. Liquor cabinet beckons. She'll know when she gets back and smells your breath, unless you brush your teeth. Feel spiteful.
1 pm - 8:30 pm: Feel nothing.
8:30 pm: Wake up to angry interrogation. Respond to indignant parental figure with a number of statements about her parenting specifically designed to wound her pride, many of which are accurate and all of which strike the intended nerves. Her own fault for leading by example and letting you take those psychology courses online. Get threatened with boarding school again. Inevitable suspension of social privileges. Don't care. Spend rest of evening in room. Feel lonely.
11 pm: Try to sleep.
1 am: Try to sleep. Nod off. Dream of being unable to fall asleep.
4 am: Try to sleep. Startle awake from dream of falling off high building. Make largest decision of your life there and then, with taste of vodka sour in the back of your throat. Throw up twice. Rinse with mouthwash.
5:05 am: Turn off alarm and fall asleep.
2 pm: Wake feeling rested for the first time in weeks. Check weather on phone. Check window to confirm that snowfall has ceased. Spring has sprung at last. Realize that this is it. Today is the day it all changes. Experience pounding heart, nervous tremor in fingertips. Feel determined.
2:10 pm: Bathroom. Pee. Stare into mirror. Another blackhead. Don't even care. No shower. Don't even brush teeth. If you start today off like every other day, it'll end like every other day. Ignore siren song of routine.
2:15 pm: Retrieve smartphone. The number you programmed into your contact list over a month ago comes up immediately when you press H.
3:20 pm: Finish crying, hang up phone. Pack small bag of toiletries, suitcase, laptop bag. Nothing sharp, nothing toxic. No buckles, pins, edged metal items. No expensive jewelry. No lengths of cord, shoelaces or belts. Slip-on rubber-soled shoes, favorite skirt, worn-out Squiddle shirt suitable only for exercise and the totally unlikely event of finally running away from home. Minimal makeup. Brush hair.
3:40 pm: Leave note for Mother, who is sleeping off a very fashionable hangover in her cavernous bedroom, explaining where you have gone and why.
3:43 pm: Accept that your life has become unmanageable. Oh god. Oh god. You don't know if you can do this. You have to do this. You can't do this.
3:45 pm: Taxi pulls up to the curb of your perfectly plowed private drive. Everything inside screams to send taxi away with a hefty tip for the trouble.
3:45 pm (continued): Get into cab anyway.
3:45 pm (continued): Feel profound sense of relief.
Chapter 6: Jade - Shelter
Mess kit, MREs for the next five days, extra socks, water purification pen (ultraviolet), toilet paper, small foldable saw, sandwich bagged tinder with magnesium striker. Multitool with sharp blade. Collapsed water bladder. Condoms (unlubricated), candy bars, signal mirror. Kerchief. Bug spray. Toothbrush and packet of salt. Hairbrush. Spare ammo. Coffee filters. Fifty feet of parachute cord, the good kind that won’t fray if cut. Large kitchen matches dipped in wax to waterproof. Fluorescent green duct tape (half-roll). Emergency blanket (reflective foil). Small bundle of 50 gallon black garbage bags for improvised rain fly and miscellaneous other uses. Family bible securely wrapped in plastic. Candy bars for energy. Compass. Hand-drawn map. First aid kit. Plastic beadless whistle (on second thought, this should be worn around the neck rather than packed). Keeper for female necessities. Small rock of crystal deodorant (on second thought, discard this, it doesn’t work anyway). Chapstick. Tinted lenses to clip onto prescription glasses. Hat with brim. (Reconsider these last items and decide to wear them as well, it’s getting bright out already). High-test fishing line and hooks for improvised fishing. Bedroll, securely strapped to frame of pack.
She checks her BOB one last time. What is she forgetting? She runs over the list again. Of course! She climbs back down the ladder to the bunker and picks through her scattered pile of discarded items until she finds her spare glasses in their plastic case. The lenses remind her that she’s forgotten to pack a firestarting lens, but then again, she does have the lighters and the matches. Her bag is pretty full already, and with her bedroll she’s getting dangerously close to overpacking. She leaves the lens and takes another small bag of oatmeal cookies instead. She can always eat them first and she may need the calories. Back up the ladder, she closes the shelter hatch and rolls the old rug back over it. No one is going to come and rob them, she knows, but Grandpa would not like her to leave it gaping like that. Like a grave. The thought makes her sad, but then she thinks about Grandpa’s remains feeding the wild garden and becoming part of the earth, and she smiles. He will live forever in the tree she planted above his head. He asked for a corkscrew willow before he passed, and she took care to plant the best sapling from the grove.
Oh, she will miss this place. Its safe dim corners, the library with its dusty old books, the garden. She released the rabbits earlier this morning, and their hutches stand empty and fuzzy with shed brown fur. That was the closest she came to crying, the moment her rabbits vanished back into the underbrush.
She won’t miss the bomb shelter. She always privately thought that when it all happened, she would prefer to be up here with the books, incinerated by the blasts or fatally irradiated, or poisoned by the toxic gases, than down there where there would be no windows. It would have been bearable with Grandpa for company, but being alone? No, she really would prefer not to survive under those circumstances. Which she has never said aloud, because it would have made Grandpa worry. He worked so hard to prepare a shelter to keep her safe. She was all he had left to protect.
Bec’s pack is full—several cans of high-protein food in each pannier, home-baked dental treats, one small squeak toy, and of course the extra water (ionized). Bec is a large dog, and carrying the water will be no problem for him. She checks the harness to make sure the straps won’t rub the spots behind his forelegs (dog armpits?) and give him blisters. He swivels one ear at the sound of the plastic snack wrapper, but remains in position. He’s well-trained. His tongue lolls out and he looks eager to be off. She pats him on the side of his white neck, gives the spot behind his ear a scratch, and shrugs into her pack. It’s heavy, but she’s distributed the weight well, and the straps are perfectly fitted to her narrow shoulders. Last of all she hooks the strap of her rifle over her shoulder. It smells of fresh sweet oil. She cleaned it this morning, even polished the barrel (for something to do, more than any real need). Putting off leaving, perhaps.
Everything is in order.
Time to go.
“Come, Bec,” she says, and pats her hip. He is at her side in a flash of snow-blurry ears and high wagging tail. She slides the deadbolts and opens the door. Cool mountain air lifts her shaggy black fringe and throws it back across the brim of her hat. A fine morning for an adventure.
She can’t lock the door from the outside, but she doesn’t need to. Let the cabin give shelter to some weary passing traveler. There’s plenty of food that wouldn’t fit in her pack.
She looks down at her companion, who leans on her, claiming her as his own in mute canine certainty. He looks up at his human and those eyes seem to be asking “What now?”
She smiles and points down the mountain, toward the river she will follow to town. “We are going walkies.”
Chapter 7: Sollux - WTF
You have this little box where you keep your pills. It’s one of those stupid seven-compartment boxes with the days of the week stamped on and little braille nubs on the edge of the lid. MTWTFSS.
You thought it would be stupid to divide everything up by the day. You don’t want to think about how fast they go by. So you dump one bottle into each compartment and just go down the line. Your own tiny little rainbow-hued salad bar of pharmacological assistance.
Last week you took a paint scraper from the toolshed and scratched off the paint on the days of the week. So now it just says WTF. Those are the three compartments where you keep the pills you hate the most.
First time out, they put you on fluoxetine. That was the time aa said she’d sit by the phone until it kicked in, all month long if that’s what it took, if that was what you wanted. You told her you hated her and to get out and she went away crying. The worst thing is you didn’t even care.
You wanted her gone so you wouldn’t have to talk to her anymore. She reminded you of everything you couldn’t have. You wanted her to leave you alone because you wanted to give up and you couldn’t do that with her standing there talking about things you’d miss, things you’d never get to do again if you did it.
You told her you didn’t want to die exactly. It would just be so nice to go to sleep and never wake up. She said you were scaring her and you told her to get out.
You thought she was gone for good but she went straight to your dads with her face all blotchy and her eyes swollen from crying and snot all over her face and told them what you told her. Everything you told her.
They ambushed you after dinner. Were you thinking about killing yourself? Did you have a plan? You didn’t want to talk about it. They packed you a suitcase. You didn't care. They had a list of things you couldn’t take with you. You didn’t care. The next day you took that first ride to the hospital and you maybe cared a little, enough to think about opening the door on the freeway and just stepping out onto the road and going spinning along with bits of you flying and grinding away on the pavement and getting run over by the other cars until you were a smashed-up pile of meat on the side of the road. You could do it easy.
Instead you just let things happen. That was even easier. You didn’t even bother talking for most of it. The last thing you had to say, you said to aa already. Everything else was just epilogue.
The rest of that weekend is fuzzy, but you got over it. They didn’t keep you long, just put you on something that made everything spin a little and your fingers twitch in the mornings, but suicide started to seem boring and a waste of effort like everything else. It was one long drawn out “whatever.”
Sometime later that month, the meds finally kicked in and you felt great. It was like flipping a switch. You woke up one morning and your heart was beating again. Your head was clear for the first time in months. You saw the mess of scattered laundry and books across your floor and were appalled. You cleaned it up before you bothered to put your clothes on. You hugged your dads at breakfast and told them you were better. Way better.
You picked at your food, took your pills and went for a walk. The sun never felt so warm. The sky was blue. Every leaf on every tree was perfect and in tune with the rest of the world. You could see how it all fit together. Harmony. Perfection. How did you not see this before? You wanted to put your thoughts into words with a poem but you suck at creative writing and you didn’t have a pen. So instead you emailed aa.
You apologized for everything. You weren’t right in the head when you said that shit to her. You were the worst friend. You told her about the walk you took, and how you realized that it was all important, every blade of grass and every cloud in the sky was suddenly a reason to live. You begged her to not hate you. You asked her to come over and you would apologize properly. She was right. The medicine was working and you felt so much better.
She came over and you talked. You talked a lot. She mostly just listened and nodded and looked confused. You told her you must have had all these ideas stuck behind the wall of depression for all that time, and now it was like they were all spilling out in a flood. You were so happy to share it with her, this special moment when everything made sense at last and you were so glad she saved your life. She hugged you and said she would never, ever leave you alone. No matter what. You told her she was beautiful and you kissed her and she blushed and kissed you back. It was the best day of your life.
You kept sending her emails all that evening after she went home. Telling her about anything that came into your head, like when you first met her and you couldn’t shut up to save your life. Maybe it was too early for a second childhood but you were on a roll. You had this idea that something was happening. Maybe it wasn’t even the medicine, maybe this was something else. Something important and wonderful. Like the things you saw in such perfect clarity of detail were there specifically for you to notice. People kept looking at you like they knew something was going on. Maybe they sensed what you were feeling. Maybe it was contagious. you checked the mirror and you looked the same, except your shirt was kind of wrinkled and you had grass stains on your knees.
Birds started singing and the sky got light as you poured yourself out onto the keyboard one concept at a time. Your hands were moving so fast on the keys that it was like they weren’t even yours. You didn’t have time to think the words before they appeared on the screen for you to read. Like an echo. Like your hands were possessed. Was this what people called automatic writing? What was controlling you?
Something amazing was going on.
It went on for hours, your brain fizzing and sparking and roaring along. You stopped long enough to shut off your alarm clock before it could go off. You started another email to continue the thoughts from the last one and imagined her waking up to read your novel-length epiphany.
It made you giggle, which sounded so girly and goofy and just plain weird you ended up laughing at yourself. Which was even more absurd, and started a whole recursive chain of hilarity. You woke up both your dads laughing, and got lectured by both of them at the same time, and tried to put on a show of repentance. They left you alone and you got back to work.
Hours later the phone rang. There was a lot of mumbled conversation in the hallway, which you ignored. You were still feeling that echo effect, grooving on this burst of inspiration, unclogging the drain of your mind after so many months feeling dead and lost. You were about to send the latest message when Dad 1 knocked on your door. You said you were busy and kept working. He said he needed to come in and talk to you. You said fine, but make it quick.
He came in and just looked at you. He asked if you slept last night. You said you didn’t feel tired. He asked if you ate anything for breakfast. Not hungry at all. He asked if he could see what you were writing. You said sure, and went to take a leak while he read the email.
When you got back to your room they were both sitting there on your bed. Dads twofold giving you the old stinkeye. Your computer was right there, waiting for you to get back to work, but you figured you were in trouble and had to deal with that first.
You broke the silence. Was it the dishes?
Did you break something?
And Dad 1 sighed and said the phone was aa’s mom, that aa had told her about some emails and that she was really upset.
Okay, yeah, you emailed her a couple times, you said. You always message back and forth, neither of you likes using the phone just to chat and you had a lot of stuff to talk about and she was asleep and you were inspired.
Dad 2 asked how you were feeling.
Not like killing yourself, that's for damn sure. Everything is great, better than great, you honestly haven’t felt this good since you can’t remember when--
We hoped like hell this wouldn’t happen, Dad 1 said. I’m so sorry, kiddo. Dad 2 gave him a hug and then they both hugged you and Dad 1 said you’d all three figure something out together, and that the important thing was that you’d be okay.
You started to wonder who died because it seemed like they were about to start crying all over you, and it was really bringing you down. Dad 2 said he would go make an appointment and Dad 1 told you to go ahead and finish this email up, and then get dressed because you were going to see another doctor. This was, you pointed out, a total waste of time. You felt great. But Dad 1 insisted, and you shrugged and said whatever, you could always bring your mobile and work from there while you waited around in the lobby for your checkup or whatever.
You sent off the last message and felt a complete and total sense of inner peace. Someday you would look back on today and see it as the start of a long philosophical journey. You would change the world, and it all started here. You wondered how it would feel on the other side of this memory, looking back and remembering yourself thinking about yourself in however many years. You made a mental note to remember thinking this stuff, and to say hi back when you got to be future you. It was like time travel. You waved at thin air and knew that someday you’d think about doing this, and wave back at past you, and it would complete the cycle. So amazing. It was like magic. Important.
Your head was just so full of these ideas and revelations. Ways you could set up behaviors now and then react to them later, pinching time and space together by sheer willpower alone.
It’s the start of a new philosophy, said this voice that wasn’t yours, but when you turned to look, you were alone in the room.
You’ve got to work harder, Sollux, another voice said, you have to prove you’re ready for this.
You’ve got to prove you’re worthy, the first voice said. This is too important for just anybody. You have to earn it. You have to be strong. You have to do all the right things or everyone will suffer. They might all die. But you can stop it. You know what to do. It’s in the emails.
Wow. Shit just got supernatural. You were in awe. You never believed in God before, and now there were these two angelic voices guiding you.
You asked why they chose you, but before the angels could answer, your door opened again (without a knock, how rude is that) and Dad 1 had your shoes and a coat and was saying it was time to go to the appointment, and he looked very tired.
Now it’s just you and your little box of pills, WTF on the label, thinking about the time you thought you were going to save the world. You haven’t been on the fluoxetine since the first time it made you go psychotic. You don’t even know some of the names for the pills you take instead. After the first few changes it all sort of mushed together. WTF though, that about covers it.
You take your pills for today, even though there’s this little voice deep down saying you’re cured and you don’t need them anymore, they’ll make you a zombie anyway.
It gets a little louder every morning. You’ll bring it up tomorrow in therapy, you think.
Chapter 8: Dave - Whatever
You have these new shades, they cost everything you had saved up but they’re black and they keep the light out and you never take them off. You’d sleep in them if they weren’t expensive as fuck.
You could have gotten a pair of tinted glasses on prescription but Bro never renewed the Medicaid. Besides, Striders don’t wear birth control glasses like you get on the government’s dime. And it’s not like you need your long vision when you don’t really go outside.
You slept in again today, but you don't have to be anywhere so it's cool. You’re cool. You put the shades on before your pants, even.
Then the phone rings, and you’re off and running. If it’s Bro and you don’t answer on the third ring, god help you.
He’s got his equipment spilled out across the floor in a pile. The rack where he keeps the turntables and mixers and keyboards is gone and there’s a new one instead, bigger and only half-assembled. Lots of room on this one for new gear.
You try to step over the turntable, carefully, but you miss and your foot comes down on it anyway.
Your depth perception is still a little fucked even after years of strifing. He started you young to work on your hand-eye coordination, teaching you his weird Texas ninja shit to give you some skills.
Which is why you don’t smash the turntable to bits under your foot. Sure, you have to do a retarded little skipping dance into the doorway and plant both hands on the oven range to catch yourself, but it's not turned on, so no harm done.
You recover your balance pretty quick. Your reflexes are better than Bro’s, even he admits it. Speaking of Bro, what the fuck’s he think he’s doing leaving his shit on the floor and just disappearing all day?
You wipe grease and nasty shit off the palms of your hands from the stovetop. Gross as fuck. You’d clean if you cared, you guess. Whatever, it’s not like you ever need to cook anything on there.
Okay, fine, you’re slow. Fuck it. You snatch the phone off the cradle. “Sup.”
“Took you long enough. You busy jerkin’ off in the shower or what?” His voice is a little too composed. Like he’s hiding a slur. Jesus fuck, it’s not even five and he’s already sloshed. Fine, who cares, you’re not all that up for the company anyway.
“More like playing catch-me-fuck-me with a huge pile of murderhappy electronics. What the fuck, Bro.”
“Yeah, well. Got a new rack.”
“I noticed. Too bad nothing’s actually on it.”
“Weh wehh wehh.” Bro parrots your tone of voice back at you. “Your own fault for not watching your step, twinkletoes. Hey listen, I gotta be out another couple hours. Don’t burn down the fuckin’ apartment, cool?”
“Burn down the apartment. Got it.” you say, and hang up on him. You’re ten years old and feel very clever whenever you get the last word in.
You dig a box of radioactive orange crackers out of the broom closet and head into the living room for breakfast. Bro’s got this enormous fucking television setup, you don’t even want to know what he had to sell to afford it, and when he’s gone you can watch whatever you want in high definition.
Things crackle and crunch under your feet in the living room. Probably old popcorn or bags of chips from the sound. Some days it’s like wading through an ocean of junk at low tide just getting around in here. Whatever.
You sweep an x-rated wave of porn DVD boxes and freaky stuffed animals onto the floor in front of the couch to make a spot to sit. But then you realize the hard lump right behind your ass is, in fact, a purple dildo, and jump off the couch to knock it onto the floor with the rest of the junk.
You locate and excavate the remote, and sit back down to read the program crawl. Something with explosions would be nice. Animal Planet would also be cool if you still had the tier 2 cable package, but shit happens.
You’re still craning your neck to read the scrolling text (why does it go so goddamn fast?) when there’s a rattling at the front door and Bro comes stomping in, smelling like winter cold and cigarette smoke and that weird smell vodka gets when it comes back out through your breath and skin.
“Change your mind?” you ask, without turning around.
“Huh?” you hear him kick off his shoes and come padding across the kitchen. then the random noises of trash underfoot as he reaches the couch.
“What did you do, call from the stairwell?”
“What?" Bro flops down next to you on the couch, not minding the crap he’s smooshing, and gives your hair a clumsy scruffing. “Goddamn, I’m tired.” he sighs. “What are you doin’ still up? Isn’ there school in the morning?”
“Christmas break, dumbass,” you tell him. “And who even goes to bed this early?”
“Oh, wisdom!” Bro caws, and smacks you across the back. “From the mouths of goddamn babes, check this shit out! We’ll watch the goddamn dawn roll in, little brother, just you and me.” He raises an invisible forty to toast you.
“Christ, what’s on this late?” he examines the screen. “Something with explosions would be nice, but it’s all infomercials and bible thumping. Jesus fuck, kid, I’m still high as a kite. Gimme some of those crackers.”
You pass the box over, thinking something isn’t adding up here, something isn't right. “What time is it, Bro?”
“Fuck. Like three?” he digs into the box of crackers and doesn’t see your face when you figure it out. “Three thirty? Jesus these things are nasty. Like eating out a dead whore.”
Okay, whatever, so that thing happened again. The first few times, you worried it was a brain tumor.
“Cherrilynne’s coming over tomorrow,” Bro tells you. “She’s the one with the green hair. Wanna hang out, maybe see a movie?”
“Sure,” you say.
“Cool. Now gimme the remote and go to fucking sleep.” Bro stretches out across the couch and adjusts his hat so the overhead light won't shine right into his face. He has the same shit wrong with his eyes as you, but he still buys those eight million watt bulbs that could flash fry a moth.
You hand the remote back over and abscond, taking care not to trip over the mixer on your way back to your bedroom. You’ve already decided to come down with a mysterious case of the flaming shits just in time to miss hanging out with Bro’s latest conquest. She’s dumb and smells kind of like a sack of assholes and she keeps petting your head like you’re this cute little dog. And that one time she showed you her tits but it's cool. Whatever.
You fall back onto your bed with your shoes still on and your shades still on and your poker face still on because it’s all good and you’re just so goddamn tired that there’s no real point taking anything off when you’ll just have to wake up in a few hours and put them all back on again.
You fall asleep thinking about the crows outside your window, blurred black shapes swooping and diving through the air and always seeming to say fuck gravity, fuck progress.
Tomorrow you’ll give them some or your crackers if there are any left, maybe. See if you can get one to come up and land on the windowsill, close enough that you can see it better.
Chapter 9: Dave: Take a Walk
In which Dave and Terezi are low vision buddies.
Okay, you can do that. It's bitch-ass cold out and and you don't have any gloves, but whatever. That's what pockets are for.
You pass Kanaya and Nepeta in the hallway. Nepeta's barefoot and stalking around on tiptoes as usual. Kanaya's wearing some flowy green-and-gold Indian-looking thing with a shawl as wispy as smoke. They're talking about something they saw on television in the rec room. Something about vampires. Kanaya offers to lend Nepeta a book. They both look up and greet you as you pass but you reprise your "I'm on strike" routine and ignore the both of them. Nepeta makes a little disappointed cat noise as you leave them in your dust.
You're not sure why you did that. By the time you decide it was because you're a dick, you're around the corner and almost at the nurse's station.
It's sort of embarrassing how you have to get permission to go outside. Time was, you took care of yourself just fine. Bro was gone a lot but you were the one with the EBT card. You'd walk to the gas station on the corner and load up on chips and sodas and maybe a can of soup if you were feeling adventurous, standing with your face four inches from the labels to make sure you picked up tomato instead of that miserable anemic slime they call vegetable-fucking-beef.
Usually you kept your music on so you could ignore the street people. They made you nervous because you figured someday you'd be one of them. Once some scumfuck pulled up and tried to persuade you to get in his car but you just looked at the jittering beige moon of his face through your shades (the old cheap ones with the red rims that you got at a sidewalk sale for two dollars) until he stopped muttering about his lost puppy or whatever the perv's story was and rolled up his window and rumbled off down the street in a cloud of burning oil fumes from his shitty car.
You learned early that people hate it when you just stare. They think you're some statute-still little judge passing on a sentence and they pull themselves into pieces thinking all the things you must be seeing in them. You don't know why it's so interesting to watch someone fall apart like that. And you don't know why it stopped working when the nazi thugs put you in the foster system. Maybe you wore out the effect by overdoing it.
All that independence when you were practically a fetus and now here you are, about to be fifteen years old, nearly an adult, and suddenly you have more babysitters than you know what to do with.
You have to get someone to go with you. That's just shaming. Usually it's Tavros or one of the batallion of staff. Whoever's not busy chasing Captor through the rec room (Jesus that guy is a spaz). Today you happen to run into Doctor Pyrope, who likes it if you call her Terezi because she says Doctor Pyrope is her mom.
She smells you coming. Like, literally.
"Well, well. If it isn't my favorite coolkid." She says it like that, all one word, coolkid. You thought she was fucking with you when she first called you that but she wasn't.
She says she sees the world in smears of color, if they're bright enough, and even then only in one eye. She wears shades too, because her eyes are kind of messed up looking. She asked you when you first decided to speak to her (and only her) why you wore your glasses and you said duh, fucking albino vampire here. Which isn't strictly true, but it takes less time than whipping out the biology lesson.One time Terezi asked how bad it was and you told her, all the while feeling like a tool because at least you don't need a cane to get around. And you have no real reason to complain to her of all people about how much it sucks needing to tilt your head like a goddamn dog sometimes just to see straight.
There's this one sweet spot that you can find where shit doesn't move around so much, but the downside is it makes you look like a bird. Birds and dogs. All the animals looking confused, that's you trying to see shit. But that's still better than tapping along with a goddamn cane.
But she gets it. Which is maybe why you decided to make an exception for her back when you were still on strike and pretending not to notice people.
Those were the days. Lousy stupid goddamn slippery slope, once you were talking to her you had a harder time ignoring everyone else and now all of a sudden you're chatting with anyone who rolls up looking bored.
Not that it really matters since you won't be here long enough to deal with the resulting drama anyway. You only have to make it a few more weeks and everything will be okay again.
"Sup," you say back. Terezi homes in on your voice and appears to be looking right at you. She's good at hiding it. She's pretty decent as a teacher, too. Stuff like putting your finger on the inside of a cup to make sure you don't overfill it. Bro was great for things like "how to fall without breaking your goddamn face" and keeping your cool, but he didn't know shit about things like the little video magnifier that lets you read the fine print on the fast food menus.
"You're out and about," she observes. "What's the occasion?"
"Karkles set my ears ringing, so I thought I'd take a stroll while he collects his shit."
"That boy," she sighs. "It is a mystery that his vocal cords have survived his adolescence. Was there roommate drama?"
"Nah. I mainly piss him off by being there. It's cool, he'll get over it."
"In the meantime, you are giving him space. Very wise, coolkid. Would you care to accompany me on a stroll around the perimeter? It is my lunch hour and I feel the urge to explore."
"Sure, that's cool." It's strange how you can't go out on your own, but if you decided to bolt from the tiny blind doctor there's no way in hell they'd catch you. But she's enough to get you out the door, which leads you to question the security in this place.
The problem is, where would you go? Maybe they figure you're at least smart enough to have worked out how very bound to this place you are. It's somewhere to chill while shit works itself out.
Bro's last advice for you was to keep your head down and wait til it blows over. You've been through hard times before, like when Bro lost his job and couldn't find work for six months until you were basically eating dry ramen in the dark. Or the occasional girlfriend who got the wrong idea and reported you, which eventually led to this mess you're in now. Every time, you came out fine. You'll be okay this time too.
So you take a walk along the path, and Terezi (being something of a smartass in her own right, something you secretly admire in her) asks you to describe the grounds.
You make shit up, and she smirks and pretends like she believes you. Some dude hanging by the neck from the big tree Jade once told you was called a sugar maple. A couple of nutjobs in hockey masks up ahead, wielding baseball bats. She brandishes her cane and says "Bring it" and you can't avoid a smile because she's the one person in this place who you'd trust with your back in a real fight.
"So Dave, how are you feeling about life on this freezing but lovely afternoon?"
"It's cool," you say, and shrug even though she won't see it. "Bored."
"My sources indicate that you have been spotted smoking with Vriska and Eridan on the porch."
"I'm trying to stunt my growth. Be like one of those yappy toy purse dogs, only Dave-shaped. Shit will get me play like you would not believe."
"Your amusing choice of adorable pet simile will not distract me from the topic at hand, Dave."
Yeah, yeah. You're just getting it from all sides today, aren't you? "I appreciate the concern, but I want to enjoy this sweet nature walk."
"An acceptable proposal, as long as you continue to narrate." And that's why you like Terezi. She doesn't push, but somehow she still gets under your skin and you find yourself wanting to bring shit up. No idea how it works. Maybe it's like the reverse of how you stare at people with your black bug-eye glasses until they dissolve. Like, she can't see you so you feel like putting yourself together?
Which is a weird thing to think, so you stop.
The pair of you stroll past three dead hookers and Mr. T doing the caramelldansen before you loop back around and find yourself back at the main doors.
"Ride's over," you inform her. "Please watch your hands and feet while exiting the Stridermobile."
"An excellent diversion, all in all," Terezi says, and you exchange a carefully coordinated fistbump. "Now go mend fences with Karkles before he has a rage aneurysm."
"I guess I can do that." What you'll say you have no idea. You settle for "my bad" and prepare your eardrums for imminent destruction.
Chapter 10: vriska: watching
First of all, this story isn't about you.
You're one of the cool kids. Everyone likes you and you have about a million hobbies, all of which you are at least passingly good at. Not to toot your own horn or anything, but you're pretty popular, and unlike some people you could name, you earned it by being smart and nice as well as gorgeous. Some people just have it all handed to them at birth, and you're one of them.
You admit this privately to yourself, and then feel like a narcissist.
But there's this one girl at school who drives you crazy. You see her around school sometimes, when she's not home sick. She's the shabby Bible-toting one with the long stained shapeless skirts and baggy gray smock tops that don't flatter her figure at all, not that she has a figure. Like how a girl in a religion that doesn't allow you to ride in cars might dress. The best thing you can call this girl is unfortunate.
She wears her hair in this lopsided bun with smiley face and peace sign barettes. She wears glasses as clunky and square as yours are chic, and she's stuck little Lisa Frank decals in the corners of the lenses so when you talk to her you are talking to a rainbow dolphin and a unicorn, and not to her wide empty eyes at all.
She carries her books in front of her chest and her shoes are filthy and always only half-tied. She smells a little bit like sweat and a lot like dirty clothes and cigarette smoke. And she's pious. She salutes the flag before anyone else does, says the Pledge of Allegiance louder than anyone, reads the Bible at lunch and sits silent and wary with the church kids who all signed up for Church Release about ten seconds after somebody in the district pointed out that praying inside the actual school for thirty minutes every Friday was kind of not okay.
So now on Church Release days they all get let out before everyone else, and that's probably for the best. You've seen people throw nickels at her if she's not out of their way by the time everyone lines up for the buses. It at least gives the poor thing a head start.
You watch her, kind of out of the corner of your eye, cringing all the times she doesn't explode when she really should, biting back your own exasperated words when she tells someone "God bless you" like they didn't just tell her she's a freak and needs to take a bath.
You wonder why she's never willing to just act right. You could tell her how to wear her hair like yours so it's black and glossy instead of stringy and plastered down by its own grease. She could get braces and start wearing nice clothes that fit. You could help her because you know all these things. You're good at these things the way you're good at everything.
She's such a pushover. You could make her stronger. People respect assertiveness, good posture, clean faces and confidence. You know how to give her all these things, but you don't.
You could help her stop being such a victim all the time, but you don't.
It's possible you could even make her your friend and she would stop driving you crazy every time you see her picking up her books from where they're scattered across the hall floor, ignoring the laughing and the sympathetic looks because neither one ever gets close enough to really touch her where she lives.
But you don't.
She's doing this to herself, you think.
She's making herself a target, you think.
Those are bruises on her arm when she's changing into her gray shapeless track pants and tent-baggy shirts, you think.
She clings to the other religious kids like she clings to her Bible and you just want to shake her until she stops being so maddening. You want to tell her how people would like her better if she'd stop acting like this. People would accept her if she'd wear deodorant and stop telling people they're going to hell.
She prays where everyone can see it and cries when people push her around but she never says anything back. Sometimes the teachers step in, and sometimes they don't. No one really knows what to do with her, not even you with your upper-echelon brains and college already picked out in the eighth grade.
No one wants to blame fate when a girl like this gets singled out and people desecrate her locker. Nobody wants to think that someone could be this messed up and not have it be their own fault. It's got to be because of how she is. How she breaks down crying after swimming class some days. America is in crisis, she says, and doesn't say why. America is under attack from all sides.
They pray at the flag and she has the script down but her eyes are wrong and no amount of primary color unicorns in the lenses can make you unsee the way she mouths the words with something like desperation.
She says America is hanging on by a thread.
She says America is lost. America has been invaded. Attackers on our soil, moving in the night.
She says please God, please forgive them, they know not what they do.
She finally gives up one day, one grubby finger tracing a line along the word SLUT where it's been hacked brutal and deep into the surface of her study hall desk by some long-departed vandal, and whispers that America is overrun and dead and there is no God.
You don't know who she was talking to, but you heard what she said, and you thought she was talking about politics the way you all thought she was talking about God and Jesus when she really never was talking about any of those things.
And the next day it's just an empty desk with filthy words carved on it, an empty spot at the lunch table where the church kids sit, solemn and reduced by one. She just never comes back.
She misses the next six weeks of school and that's the last six weeks before the last summer of your last year of middle school and you forget about the frustration of being around her and watching her just refuse, day after day, to protect herself.
Then it's fall and you're starting out as a freshman at the high school across town, getting ready to dive into four more years of soccer and drama club and long evenings at the movies with all your friends, all the things that make this the best time in your life if you believe the television, preparation for a lifetime of being pretty much awesome at everything you do, which will be a lot.
And the next time you see Vriska Serket you cannot believe your fucking eyes.
Chapter 11: John - Rise Up
Up here it's all colors.
Swirling blues and pastel pinks and yellows all fading into each other like the skin of one of those fruits that cost like three dollars a pop at the grocery store.
The sky is the limit, they say, and here you are. Tips of your sneakers barely skimming the highest wisp of cumulus as you hang over the planet so high you can see the curve that goes on and on til it's the whole world in one huge circle of color and joy and above it just black like nothing you can find in a paint box, dotted with stars like the eyes of cats in the dark, stars looking down at you with no malice, watching to see what you'll do next.
You rise up.
You've got thin icy winds pushing your hair across your forehead, blowing your sweaty skin dry and cold. Up here where the air is almost gone you can't really breathe without the Breeze. You should be iced over and falling back to earth like in that bitchin' scene from Iron Man but you're not, you're up here looking down, feeling no pain, practically over the moon.
Hey. Hey. Could you actually do that? Can you bring the Breeze into space with you? What if you just sort of flew up, and...
The Breeze stays behind and now you've got no air at all, but you're a little surprised to discover that you don't need to breathe. Up here in the dark, looking down on luminous sunset supermarket fruit colors and the little swirls of ice cream white cloud, you think you could reach down and touch the tiny ocean and your hand would come away wet and every drop that flew from your fingertips would be full of microscopic dolphins and cthulhus and fishing boats.
Jeez. That might cause a tsunami somewhere. And besides, you're not the Space guy. You're in space, but that's not the same thing! Your role isn't to bend reality around you or manipulate time. You speak to the wind and the storms and that's what you are, not just what you do. You're the hurricane. It's you.
This is space for real now. Past where the satellites circle and bounce their signals back down to the marble-sized planet. Long past anywhere anyone could go without the hood on and still expect to survive. Out here is undistilled forever, and it curls around you like a blanket of pure absence.
The moon doesn't seem much closer so you put a little kick into your upward movement. You're going where little kids think their lost balloons go, up into the dark. Toward that silver coin with the face on it and the hidden side no one's ever seen at night, ready to check it out for yourself, no observatory visit required.
You're totally itching to set foot on the pitted surface and see just how far you can go on a single low-gravity jump. You won't put a flag down. You just want to see if it's as pale and mysterious standing on top as it looks from Earth. Maybe kick some dust around or write something rude in the dirt for those weird dudes with the telescopes to find in twenty years. DAVE STRIDER IS A BUTTHOLE in ten-foot letters. Take that, apple juice terrorist! Dissed and dismissed!
But nope. You're not bored enough for that yet. You want to move.
You play on the moon until you're tired of being cold. You'd be out of breath if you needed air. Your tongue tastes like moon grit and toothpaste. You're getting a little bit hungry.
So you rise up again and whip around the moon in a Superman orbit, pick up speed until you're just right to make a gravity slingshot that will shoot you back home at dizzying speed, stars-turning-into-streaks-of-light speed, the kind of speed that gets your eyes watering with exertion and pulls your entire being into one long scream of movement that burns like a sky colored comet with the pure joy of exploring your limits.
And you descend.
In a moment you'll feel your rubber soles skip across the lens of atmosphere and finally bubble and melt a little bit from re-entry. You'll layer yourself in the waves of the patient Breeze where it's been waiting here for you since you left, spin sunlight and air and adventure into a cloak and pull it around yourself and plunge down like a dart until the curve of the world disappears around you and all you see is green and brown and clouds almost motionless on the other side of the sky.
Once you're back where airplanes can still go, you'll tuck your body into a cannonball and go end over end like a cartoon dude falling off a cliff, screaming and laughing like a deranged skydiver with no parachute, terrified of the spinning but also knowing that no shitty amusement park roller coaster can ever make you feel like this, not anymore, not after you've been up in the sky.
You'll get home and you'll be the first person who ever did a handstand on the dark side of the fucking moon, and you won't tell your dad. And if someone asks how you spent your evening, you will smile and say "homework" and leave them wondering what's so exciting about algebra to make you grin like an idiot, and you'll never let on that you've solved story problems in places they don't even know exist. No need to brag about what you've seen and where you've been.
Just because you're a god doesn't mean you have to be a dick about it.
Chapter 12: Dave and Jade: watch shitty movies
GG: why do the women in these things always run towards the danger???
TG: dude she cant hear the spooky music give her a break
GG: also, who even wears a thong camping? you'd saw yourself in half from the butt up the first time you went on a hike!
TG: i dunno its sexy i guess
GG: see, i don't get that! strings up the tuchus and a bra that squishes your bosom up into your throat. and shaving and waxing off all your hair. and tanning beds! people actually use tanning beds!?!?
TG: whatever it takes to get off i guess i mean some people are into getting glued to stuff and having their car run out of gas
TG: dressing up like horses and kicking each other in the nuts
TG: brb fapping forever
GG: i don't understand a single thing you just said, but it sounds CREEPY! Do people actually enjoy this stuff?
TG: you should see what my bro gets paid for the puppet thing
TG: nah on second thought im not gonna be the one to tell you about the internet
TG: it would be like finding the only unicorn in existence
TG: and breaking its horn off
GG: i get the feeling you are doing my brain a huge favor, so thanks!
GG: hey dave!! is there a manual or something? modern sexuality 101?
TG: yeah his names sollux captor you should go talk to him
TG: hes also the local panty expert so you can bring that up too
GG: sollux? i thought he liked guys!
TG: panty and boxer expert i mean
TG: dude has a double major
TG: all flavors of the hormone rainbow are his to sample its kind of impressive actually
TG: how he finds the time i will never understand i mean i hardly have enough hours in the day to peel a single layer of bitches off my swag
GG: so there are indeed bitches in your swag?? :D
GG: that bad, huh?
TG: what no i get more play than tetris when i want it
GG: play is gangster for sex, right?
GG: so do you have a girlfriend??? :D :D :D
TG: no time for love doctor harley
TG: i am a man on a mission
GG: a boyfriend, then? >:D >:D >:D >:D >:D
GG: pick one or i'm going to pick for you!
TG: jade cmon
TG: let me focus on my shitty edited for tv slasher film
TG: before i miss a plot point
Chapter 13: Sollux: Face the Music
(this takes place the morning after Sollux and Karkat have a fight in the rec room.)
>Sollux: Face the music.
Yeah, there’s pretty much no way that’s not going to happen at this point.
KK isn’t exactly perched on your bed like a hungry vulture but he’s walked past your open doorway a few more times than is strictly necessary. Either he’s got a bladder the size of a garbanzo bean or he’s hovering.
This is going to suck so goddamn hard.
The thing about going into raging asshole mode is that after you’re done punching out the shy rude kid and trying to abscond through the shatterproof windows of the day room, your exhausted and guilty ass still has to stick around and deal with the fallout.
Like the cute little autistic Chinese girl you scared shitless because you socked the guy she’s crushing on right in the fucking face.
Or that one nurse you bit. He didn’t have that coming. You aren’t even sure why you did it, except that you wanted to get the fuck away and he had other plans.
So yet again you found yourself hazily observing the little fake brushstroke tiles on the seclusion room ceiling, completely baffled as to why you just did what you did and really, really wishing you hadn’t.
Someday you’d like to say you’ll learn from your mistakes, but you know better. You practically have reasons not to throw a tantrum falling out your ass by this point, and it’s done jack fuck so far to slow you down. “Reason” doesn’t really apply when you’re like this. It’s great to go on about being responsible and managing your temper, but if you could do that you wouldn’t be in the goddamn nuthouse, would you? Fuck.
There’s got to be some trick to it, so you don’t wind up where you are right now, eyes all gritty and the insides of your cheeks bitten to hell from god knows when, pretty sure the entire world hates you and half-convinced they’re right.
You’re supposed to acknowledge when you’re thinking like this, getting down on yourself, and okay, yeah, you guess you can do that. You can also go tell a tornado all about warm and cold fronts and updrafts and wall clouds and the Fujita scale, but it’s still going to trash that trailer park.
Look at you, indulging your disease when you know better. Fine. Whatever. One more thing you’ve fucked up this week. You add it to the list.
Item #45: Trample Karkat Vantas, bearer of bad news, into flaming ruins. Can’t be tamed.
Item #46: Can be sedated, though.
Item #47: Welp.
Depression is fucking stupid. It’s so boring you get sick of listening to yourself think the same old rerun thoughts about how you’re not good enough, how you’ll never be good enough. Then just to shake things up there’s this topic change about how you and Aradia aren’t like that at all, and he should have shut up when you told him to, and then he kept on talking and finally said that horrible thing that flipped your switch all the way over from “down in the dumps” to “this week on COPS.”
Then that look on his face. That’s why you ran after you decked him. Just that hurt naked look. He was splayed out on his ass with the palms of his blunt little hands upraised to fend you off. The way the poison attitude illusion just fell apart and you saw through it, saw Karkat Vantas trying to understand, just before his nose started to bleed. And you couldn’t take it back.
This little Aradia-voice starts to bitch at you from the ether. It’s not the usual doom and gloom bullshit that drags on and on during days like this. She sounds sort of exasperated, like she wants to reach out of nowhere and shake you by the shoulders. Fair enough. You’d do the same thing in her place.
“Face the music, Sollux,” she says. “What will he have to say that’s so much worse than what you’re thinking right now?”
And just like that, the wind’s out of your sails, and the SS Self Pity finds itself becalmed in shark-infested waters.
You fucking hate it when she’s right.
Chapter 14: Karkat: Be Miserable
Continuing the story from the previous chapter.
Karkat: Be miserable.
No problem. You can do that. Your heart feels like you’ve been kicking it around like a football all morning. In fact, if you want to be completely honest, you are downright fucking disconsolate. The problem, simply put: Karkat Vantas is a fuckup. At some point, a mistake stops being something you make and starts being something you are. And you feel like you may have reached that point.
Somewhere in your head, cubicle slaves are shuffling papers, stapling shit together, collating (whatever the fuck that means) your year’s record of sins and misdeeds. Filing your failures and your petty grudges and tantrums and all the times you ended up being a complete asshole to people you wanted to just talk to. It’s kind of a big project.
Your office metaphor is efficient and methodical, and you’re proud of it. You like it when shit lines up just right. Drawers completely closed, paperclips in the paperclip tray, sticky notes and pens in the same compartment. Organized. It makes so much more sense to keep your mind the same way, even if all you’re doing is eating yourself from the inside out.
A few months ago you were doing this same soul-searching mental office work in the middle of shop class, and at the exact moment you reached the obvious conclusion to your existential dilemma, the bell rang. You don’t even know what set you off. Maybe someone looked at you funny in the hallway. Maybe somebody bumped into you while you were admiring the simple fucking elegance of the phrase “I should never have been born.” Or a little support cable in your brain might have just sproinged loose all by itself at just the wrong time. All you can be sure of is that you suddenly had to beat the shit out of something or go crazy, and you ended up making worst enemies with the cinderblock wall by the lockers right in front of the cafeteria.
Frankly, you waled on that fucking wall. Screaming you don’t even know what, spitting all over the place, you punched that motherfucker until you were stamping bloody fist-prints over the blue latex paint surface with every blow, and it still wasn’t enough. You were gunning for the little broken-twig snaps from your brutalized knuckles, or for the wall to collapse, just… something to happen that you wouldn’t be able to take back. Something permanent, you didn’t even care what, just as long as everything stopped.
You were completely offended when somebody darted out of the gawking silent crowd you hadn’t been aware of drawing and wrestled you to the floor. Some fucking jock asshole you never saw before, trying to impress people by taking the initiative like he was so much better than the rest of the staring sheep. You yelled at him for daring to help, but all it got you was pinned facedown on the shitty scratched-up linoleum in about two seconds. You were on a roll and the dipshit was interfering. You desperately wanted to kick his ass but instead you kissed floor like a good little worthless piece of shit until the cops came.
Now you’re here, in a goddamn loony bin where they don’t let you have your own goddamn mp3 player unless you ask for it at the desk. You don’t see what was so committal-worthy about one lousy fucking flipout that didn’t even break any bones, but whatever. Maybe it’s because you refuse to sign their stupid lame-ass bullshit contract that says you won’t try to off yourself. Doctor Tongue attempted to foist that shit off on you your first three days and you handed it back smeared with blood from your healing knuckles and no signature.
You told her you reserved the fucking right to do whatever you want to yourself at any time, and apparently that’s one of those things that, when you say them, people in the psych profession aren’t allowed to let you back on the street.
You thought you’d do your time and get out, but you can’t fucking deal with this. You are surrounded by people who drive you crazy.
Your roommate is this semiferal Texan who steals food and hides it around the place. Any time he talks about his sainted older brother he says something that gives you the fucking creeps. At least you’re open about how fucked up your family is. You can’t deal with how he sneaks cigarettes and puts them out on his arm and jokes about how he’s doing it ironically, whatever the fuck that even means. Like being mental is some big joke he’s playing along with since he’s already here anyway. You can’t deal with how he thinks he’s getting out of here in a couple of weeks.
You can’t deal with the sweet little boy scout with the buckteeth and the blue pajamas who never comes down out of his fucking magical fantasy world long enough to be pathetic and lonely like everyone else. You can’t stand the way he tries to make you laugh. You can’t stand the way he tries to bring you all into his weird game where everyone has super powers and saves the world. Like he doesn’t know you’d poison a place like that just by being there.
You hate feeling sorry for him. You hate envying him. You hate not knowing what to feel when he tells you you should smile more.
But more than anything else, you can’t deal with Captor. He’s an annoying crazy asshole, but so is half the population of the loony bin. Yet you want to deck him, specificially, every time he opens that weird mutant fanghole and starts lisping insults at you.
It’s not like you have anything against people acting like faggy stereotypes if that’s what they want to do. Or like snotty computer geeks. Or… shit, whatever other cliches he picked up out of the bargain bin on his way out of the personality warehouse. Maybe you’re pissed that he has two dads and neither one is an asshole. One of them is even in your favorite jazz band, how’s that for fate pissing in your face?
Here you go, Vantas, check out this skinny kid who’s better than you in every meaningful way. No bitch mom riding his ass calling him a worthless ugly little faggot. He probably had his MIT admission form filled out while he was still in his fucking Thomas the Tank Engine footie pajamas. He’s even kind of good-looking, those freakish teeth excepted. Captor won the motherfucking life lottery, and he still tries to off himself on a regular basis. What does that say about you?
Last night you did something immensely stupid and insensitive, as has been explained to you at some length by three other residents, Doctor Tongue, and Tavros fucking Nitram. You imagine if there was a janitor on staff when Captain Spazztastic flipped his bifurcated lid you would have gotten his take on the situation too. End result: you are sick to fucking death of talking about this fuckup and his obsessions. Which makes it extra hilarious that you’re here, now, getting ready to do just that all over again.
Like it’s your fault nobody warned you the guy goes psycho if you bring up his precious Aradia. You’ve never even met this girl and you already hate her a little bit. You were just trying to give him some advice, but like always you went and fucked it up in that special way only truly worthless bags of fermented puke can even hope to manage.
You’ve had eighteen years of practice but this is the first time you’ve successfully driven someone batshit insane. Even if he was already sort of halfway there before you had to open your big stupid retard mouth and make things worse. It still counts.
You are heartily sick of feeling this bullshit lump in your stupid fucking stupid throat and not knowing what the fuck to do about it. So now you’re sort of haunting the hallway outside his room, waiting for him to get up so you can get this shit over with and go back to being merely normally miserable.
You hear him muttering something through the doorway. Oh, fuck. He’s awake.
Chapter 15: Karkat and Sollux: Face the Music, Miserably
Last chapter of the Karkat/Sollux fight.
Sollux accepts that Karkat is never going to take the initiative, so he drags his ass into a sitting position on the bed and says “Yes, you can come in.”
Karkat quits flitting around the doorway and slouches in. His hood is up and underneath it his face looks as pissy as ever. How wonderful, they’re going to spend some quality time glaring at each other. This is exactly what Sollux needs right now. More drama. He gestures at the empty half of the bed and Karkat slumps down and stares down at the floor.
“I seriously don’t like you,” Karkat says, breaking the silence.
“Well fuck, don’t hold back or anything,” Sollux snorts. “Tell me how you really feel.”
“I feel like you’re a dick and you punched me in the fucking nose.” Karkat growls.
“And it still hurts, by the way.”
“Fuck you. It bled for like fifteen minutes.”
Sollux takes a moment to appreciate this. “First punch I ever threw,” he admits. “I guess I got lucky.”
“Yeah, and I guethh I got to gag on red snot for the rest of the night,” Karkat says. “Fuck you and your beginner’s luck. You are an asshole of the highest caliber.”
“Yeah,” Sollux says. “I kind of am.” He fishes around in the blanket until he has a handful of bee-leg, and drags the stuffed animal into his lap. Karkat winces.
“Clever move, dickwad, agree with the insult and distract with the hideous toy so I run out of steam. Not gonna work.” Karkat wrinkles his sore nose and remembers where he was going with this train of thought. “No, but I’m serious. You fucking piss me off.”
Sollux rolls his eyes. “Tell me something I don’t already know.”
“I’m sorry.” Karkat says.
“I said, you half-deaf fucking dipshit, that I was sorry.” Karkat enunciates carefully as if speaking to a very stupid child, still staring down at the battered tips of his red sneakers. “In response to your snippy fucking comment. And by the way, fuck your sarcasm forever. I was trying to apologize and you keep fucking up my train of thought. I really am sorry for pushing your weird freaky girlfriend obsession button last night.”
“Apology accepted,” Sollux shrugs, staring down at the walleyed gaze of the bee. “I’m sorry I hit you for being a douchebag. I should know by now that’s your way of being nice to people.”
Karkat sighs. “I was trying to. Kind of.”
“Trying to ‘kind of’ what?”
“To be nice, fuckface!” Karkat finally looks at him, glowering. “I mean I’m sorry I pissed you off, but I stand by what I was trying to say. If you just… if you just make your life all about other people, they fuck you over.” He swallows. “Maybe I should have just said it like that last night.”
Sollux shrugs again. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
“I don’t even know your friend, but I think she’d probably agree with me if she’s as great a person as you make her out to be. It shouldn’t be her job to save you from yourself all the time. It’s not fair to her even if you’re praising her to the skies.”
“Don’t go nuts again, okay?” Karkat asks. “I just mean… you set the bar so high when you do that to somebody.”
“What the fuck is the bar, anyway?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s a ballet thing? Anyway, fuck you, you know what I was trying to convey.”
“Christ. Okay, yeah. You have a point.” Sollux picks at a loose thread on the bee’s magenta left foot. “I am not unaware that I sort of… over-identify with aa.”
“And the lispy kid graduates to sidekick for Captain fucking Obvious. Could you not have sort of thought of this last night, sometime before you started flipping the goddamn tables?”
“Fuck you, Vantas. I’m here for a reason.” Sollux resists the urge to whop Karkat with the bee. “Maybe you caught me at a bad moment. Maybe I was already kind of thinking what you were saying, and I didn’t want to hear it from yet another goddamn voice to go with the ones in my head.”
“Oh.” Karkat grimaces. “I guess that would sort of suck.”
“You think?” Sollux lets out one of his dry nasal laughs. “Fucking… Karkat Vantas, master of the understatement, king of the douchebags.”
“Do you really hear voices?” Karkat asks.
“Do you really think anybody buys your prickly little lone-wolf act?” Sollux shoots back.
“I don’t know,” Karkat says. “I don’t even know if it’s an act, and I’ll fucking deny it if you ever tell anyone I said so.”
“Fair enough. And yeah, I hear fucking voices. It’s more annoying than you would imagine, since they’re all me so they all know where to really stick the knife when I’m in a bad mood.”
“Great, so my parents live in your head.”
“I guess. Is your mom the one who’s always calling me a waste of space and telling me I’m going to be the next Hitler?”
“Sounds about right.” Karkat’s mouth is a thin line. “If she throws in a few lines about how you were an accident and probably a fucking homo, that’s the very bitch.”
“My fucking condolences,” Sollux says. “That one’s my least favorite of the entire bunch.”
“Do you have one that tells you to beat the shit out of people?” Karkat asks.
“Nah. I came up with that one all by myself.” Sollux laughs again, bitterly. “Pop the bearer of bad news in the face and then go trash the rec room. I am nothing if not a master strategist.”
“I do,” Karkat says. “The one that says to beat the shit out of people, I mean.”
“I’ve only ever seen you fight with GZ.” Sollux says. “When he hugged you that time.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t go around throwing punches at just anybody. I just don’t like it when people grab me, okay?”
Sollux shrugs. “I guess that makes sense. Even if Gamzee is about as threatening as a Great Dane puppy.”
“It’s not like I was thinking straight at the time. And don’t let that puppy shit fool you, he hits like a fucking freight train. My eye was black for two weeks.”
“God,” Sollux says, and laughs. “Look at the two of us.”
“What do you mean?” Karkat tenses.
“You and me, man. Bad impulses out the fucking ass. Piss us off and we go flailing around like blindfolded idiots whacking away at a pinata. You get hugged and you try to beat up the gentle giant. I get genuinely good advice from a friend and I throw a bitchfit. You and me? We’re so screwed up. Poke us in the soft spot and watch us lash the fuck out.”
“Oh.” Karkat thinks about this. “…Shit.”
“Yeah.” Sollux nods. “Shit is just about what this is.”
Karkat clearly wants to say something, and Sollux decides to wait as long as it takes. They sit there for a full minute before he finally manages to spit it out.
“Are we really?” Karkat asks.
Whatever Karkat’s trying to ask, it’s enough to wipe the scowl off his face. He looks a lot younger without it. Kind of bewildered. He has really nice eyes. Sort of like an emo kid as played by some tousle-haired Bollywood star.
Which is something he will never, no matter how how flimsy the border between thought and shouted observation might become in the heat of mania, say out loud in Karkat’s presence.
“Friends.” Karkat finishes. “Are we friends?”
“I think so,” Sollux says. “I mean, I just sort of assumed—”
“Oh,” Karkat frowns again, but it is a completely different frown from his usual one. “I wasn’t— I mean, I didn’t—”
“Asshole,” Sollux says, and uses the bee to shove Karkat’s shoulder. “Of course we’re friends.”
“I don’t get it,” Karkat sounds skeptical as he uses one finger to push the bee away from himself. “You piss me off, I piss you off. That makes us friends how, exactly?”
“Serendipity, fuckhead,” Sollux informs him with a smug grin. “The grumpy douche and the moody kid who hate each other because they’re too much alike. It’s perfect material for a shitty buddy movie.”
“Jesus,” Karkat blinks. “I never thought of it like that.”
“See? We’re good for each other in all the worst ways. That’s what we’re putting on the posters to sucker poor idiots into coming to see the cinematic clusterfuck that is our lives here at Lobaf.”
And the moody kid pats the grumpy douche on the shoulder, forgetting for a second that he hates being touched. And instead of getting a smack for his intrusion, Sollux gets to see Karkat Vantas fighting back tears.
“Jesus,” he groans, watching Karkat disappear into his hoodie. “I hate feelings.”
“Fucking signed,” comes the muffled, oddly nasal voice from under Karkat’s hood. “I’m going to go take a leak. See you at breakfast.”
Sollux takes a few minutes to find a clean shirt and some socks, then shuffles off to the cafeteria. There he discovers that a double miracle has occurred. Karkat Vantas sits hunched over two trays at the table in the back corner of the room, clearly trying to be low-key about waiting for Sollux. And it’s fucking pancake day.
Chapter 16: Dave: Receive An Encouraging Letter of Broptimism
Bro sent you another of his asshole pink glitter gel pen letters again. On pink paper.
Yeah, this is gonna be a bathroom stall job. You hate the way people act when you're trying to read letters in common areas. At best they pretend not to notice how weird you look. The worst is when they want a walkthrough on how Dave Strider gets his correspondence on.
You mostly read with your left eye and a magnifying lens, and even then it's hard when assholes go out of their way to pick low-contrast ink colors and write as tiny as they can. This is his way of reminding you to always be on your toes. His vision's almost normal with glasses so you can't even feel smug about how hard this thing must have been to write.
So off to the bathroom with your letter, which you figure has been previewed (the envelope was open already) to make sure nothing in it will set you off.
Psh. Like that was Bro's fault last time. He's like fifty miles away in jail.
You pick the stall with the best light, pray nothing gross is on the seat, and sit down to see what Bro's got to say this week.
hey little brother
i hope you got my letter last time about the hearing, my court appoint guy says youll be there with the kid advocate or w/e they call it, but we probably wont be able to talk to eachother because of the restraining order bullshit which he tells me is just a precation they do for families with problems.
even if we cant talk i look forward to seeing you again kiddo, i hope your ok and not doing anything stupid to piss people off. gotta be mellow bro, its almost over. eat your fucking vegetables, dont swim past the bouys and stay calm when the red tape gets sticky.
i have been seeing the counselor here and studying for my GED all month. when i get out i guess i can get my diploma and hang it on my trailer wall for all my fine bitches to see.
i hear they keep you up with your school in the hospital. you better be studying your ass off. just because im not there doesnt mean your allowed to fuck around with your future. your smart and you have potentiel so dont waste it like i did.
my counselor has the biggest titties dude. you would not beleive the shirts she wears to come see us guys. we call her miss blue ball. shes trying to put me in touch with some kind of parenting group or something. bunch of shit but w/e it takes to get us all back home together like we were. i wont fuck it up this time i swear to christ. i know i fucked up before. i was a shitty guardian to you and now your sick and i cant do anything from where i am or even see you or call. at least they let me write. you better still be reading this, bromo. put a little effort into it.
im just kidding dave. you know i only fuck with you becaus i know you can take it.
listen, fuck, im so sorry for everything i put you thru little brother. hurts my heart when i cant find out how your doing in there. thats probably the gayest thing i ever said but idc as long as you know im thinking of you and wish i was less shitty at raising a kid. i miss you.
dont lose hope no matter what happens on the 3rd. even if it goes bad your still my blood and i wont bore you with the legal shit becaus im not supposed to talk about stuff that will upset you, but i know your being taken good care of where you are and getting better. keep on keeping on baby brother, and dont let anyone tell you your crazy. love you dude but not in that way.
PS - over ---->
You aren't really sure how to feel when you finish reading. Your stomach hurts and you feel sort of lightheaded. It's weird as fuck when Bro gets all sad and apologizes for shit. He's not supposed to feel bad about this.
He can't be regretting the way he raised you. That judgemental bullshit is what got you pulled apart in the first place. If he thinks he fucked up with you, does that mean you came out so wrong you can't even hide it anymore? But that's not the worst part.
The worst part is Bro's the good guy. He's supposed to be in control and now he's saying he's not. Which means anything can happen now. You won't be safe.
But thinking about stuff like that always makes you go numb and the feeling can last for hours or days, which is lame and makes it hard to put on the chill face for other people, so you slam the mental door on the subject instead and turn the letter over to see what else he has to say.
The only thing on the other side of the page is a carefully traced image of a fist with the knuckles pointed outward. across the knuckles, Bro has written BUNP in his best gangsta penmanship.
You laugh and bunp it with your own fist, figuring you might as well not leave him hanging.
For a few short moments it's old times again, and then you're back in a bathroom stall with a letter that makes you profoundly uneasy for reasons you don't want to think about. Which means it's time to stuff the letter in your pocket, leave the cubicle of shame, and go see what Egbert and Nepeta are up to in the dayroom. You need a distraction.
Chapter 17: Vriska: Make him pay.
Two days after you break up, she’s still calling your phone. David says if you ignore her she will eventually leave you alone, but this is getting scary.
She’s started using other people’s phones to get past your caller ID, so you mute the ringer and tell your friends to just text you. Your voice mail has 28 messages, and they're all from her. You don’t listen anymore because they're all more or less the same.
How could you do this to me.
How could you fuck me and abandon me.
You fucker. You used me.
I hate you, you asshole, I hate you, I hate you. You're trying to make me crazy. You want to see me lose my mind. You complete sadistic abusive rapist asshole.
That last one is why you’re dodging her calls. Your older sister was raped when you were eight years old. Even though you didn’t understand what it meant at the time, the R word, to you, means being small and frightened and watching your sister sob and your parents hug and long, long hours with the babysitter while they all go to court and the bad man gets away with it in the end and you hate him so much.
So no. You would never hurt a woman. You would fucking never.
The way she screams it at you over the phone, though, her voice maxing out the microphone into a machine squeal of rage, it sounds true. Like she believes it. Maybe she does, you don't know. You don't know anything anymore when it comes to Vriska.
Four days after you break up, a letter arrives. It starts with “Dear abusive asshole piece of shiiiiiiiit” and ends with “Please please please please CALL ME! You can’t just leave me, I can’t live without you, I’ll never cheat again, I love you. I love you, I LOVE YOU.”
She has enclosed a lock of hair tied with a bit of blue ribbon.
One week after you break up, she starts showing up at your work asking to talk to you during your shifts. The manager says it’s your mess to clean up, so get it out of his restaurant. You have to talk to her now, tell her to stop fucking around, this is your job. You can’t lose this job. Enough is enough.
So you take a lunch break and go tell her to leave you alone.
She slaps you and starts to cry. “I’m pregnant, you fucking user. You knocked me up. Now what?”
Your blood runs cold. You were so careful. Yeah, you loved her, but you’re only 17. You have to pay for school out of your savings and your parents make too much (barely) to get financial aid for your first year. You can’t be having a kid now. When she started to act weird you started insisting on condoms even though she was on the pill. You didn’t really think about why at the time. It seemed sort of paranoid. But now you’re worried it wasn’t enough.
“How far along?” you ask with your numb tongue and hollow voice.
“Oh, NOW you care. Never mind the living breathing woman you dumped on the fucking curb like a pile of trash, there’s a FETUS to save. You fuck!”
“You have to marry me.”
“I’m not marrying you, Vriska. Are you sure it’s even mine?” You haven’t really been intimate much in this past few months. Ever since that stuff she said about her dad and her last two boyfriends, you can’t touch her and not think about it. Every time she wants you to pull her hair or smack her, you get the creeps. Maybe that’s why she and Josh... oh, forget this, you can't be thinking about this right now.
“Of course it’s yours, you asshole. What are you going to do about it?” she tosses her tumble of blueblack hair back over one shoulder and glares at you over the wire rims of her glasses. You always used to love how intense her eyes could be. Now it makes you feel like a small animal hiding under a bush.
“I need to think. I don’t know. I just. I need to think about this.”
“You can’t just leave me with a kid, Aaron. Not after all you’ve put me through. You can't just leave me.” And she starts to sob again, but her face looks wrong somehow.
“Vris, I need to think.” you say again, sounding dull and stupid. You begin to taste bile. “Look, don’t come here again, I’ll... I’ll call you later. Just don’t come here.”
“Fine,” she says, and leaves. You stand dazed and horrified, watching her walk away and wondering if you imagined the gleam of triumph in her eyes, until one of your coworkers comes over and tells you your lunch break is up.
Two weeks after you break up, she still flatly refuses to show you proof that she’s pregnant. You ask for a copy of the receipt for her visit copay. She says she lost it. You tell her to come over and pee on a test strip in your bathroom, and show you. She says she’s not coming within fifty feet of your apartment without at least one friend as a witness.
A witness to what? You don’t ask. You don’t want to know. But hearing that from her, it's like being kicked in the balls. Like you're this monster.
Sixteen days after you break up, Jo and Kae stop answering your texts. Robin from work calls up to warn you that your boss asked her to print up a hiring notice for your position. You ask why and she says she can’t discuss it over the phone, but that you were a good employee and she thought you deserved a heads-up from someone other than your jerk of a boss. She sounds like she wants to say something else, but she doesn't.
Your mother calls and quietly asks you to meet her at the cafe. When you show up, she’s glaring at you.
She tells you that she raised you better than this. She says your father can't bear to discuss it, or he would be here with her. He’s so furious he sent her here alone.
“What did I do?” you ask, almost not even curious at this point. Of course whatever it is will be news to you, but at the same time... it won't. Because it's in Mom's eyes. The terrible look she has that says I have never seen you in this light before, and I don't like what I see.
“You tell me.” your mother says, and you think of broken windows, flunked tests, that time you accidentally set the curtains on fire playing with matches.
“Mom, just... say it.”
And she tells you what you did.
Sixteen and a half days after you break up with Vriska Serket, only two of your friends will still talk to you. David, who never liked Vriska, and Josh, who was messing around with her behind your back for months. And Josh is too ashamed to say more than “Sorry, bro, I fucked up,” and make excuses to get away as quickly as possible.
“She’s a goddamn psycho bitch,” David says. “I told you not to date the chaos queen.” You make all the appropriate noises of despair and regret, but how were you supposed to know? Nobody just snaps like this.
Vriska Serket is a broad white smile, a figure that wouldn’t quit in tight black leggings and a casual skirt, wearing that floppy knitted sweater that always smells a little bit like cinnamon from the coffee shop where she works. She's a smoky voice joking around like one of the guys and telling you she's never felt this way about anyone before. She's a pair of big eyes as blue and innocent as some kind of fantasy princess, eyes that can turn razor-sharp in a blink when someone ticks her off. She's a sharp wit and a love so intense it makes you feel like her hero. She's so many things and they all add up to make one incredible, fiery girl you were so sure you were in love with.
That first night at the club she was dancing nasty with partner after partner and you thought she was a smoking hot mess of a girl, not the type you'd ever date, but when she caught you looking she turned off the slut act and asked you to come share a smoke with her on the street. You got to talking and it turned out she was using a fake ID too, from the same guy that made yours. And she liked all the things you liked, was snarky and fabulous and just so, so sexy about being kind of a bad girl (but not too bad). She wasn’t like your last girlfriend, so shy and meek and timid. Vriska was larger than life, took no crap, and told it like it was.
Or so you thought.
You stare down at your phone, still displaying her last text message, feeling the familiar hollow ache in your belly. “I told them all what you did.”
She got you fucking fired.
Seventeen days after you dumped Vriska, you come home to find a greeting card taped to your apartment door. It’s one of those shitty “Just thinking about you” cards with no message printed inside, just a handwritten note.
It isn’t signed, but who else would it be? You throw the card away and spend the rest of the day on the phone, arguing with your parents and trying to find one person she hasn't gotten to first. Mom believes you but Dad is the one who actually talked to Vriska and he’s convinced she would never make up something so horrible. Your friends are more or less refusing to speak to you.
The hollow feeling grows until it’s all you can think about. A couple of times you cry, but you do it alone, and even then you feel like everyone you love is watching you, thinking look at the rapist's remorse.
The last time you tried to break it off, the first time she screwed around on you, she threatened to slit her wrists the moment you left. You took her back because you still loved her and you couldn’t stand to think of her killing herself over you. You forgave her and she was so, so sweet and so sorry for what she did. You held hands for a week straight, and it was like you were in heaven with this glorious, beautiful, mad girl. And she’d opened up to you, let you see how vulnerable and weak she was beneath her confident facade, let you get to know the real Vriska and all her pain. The reasons why she did what she did. You forgave it all, and comforted her, and swore you would never hurt her.
You were so worried that someday her self-hatred would become too massive, and she would snap. No matter how much you tried to keep her happy, it would be your fault for not being there to save her.
And you tried--God, you tried.
But now she’s threatening to press charges. It’s not bad enough that your friends, your former coworkers, even your own father believes you did this awful thing. No, she’s texting you little notes about how she’s talked to a detective about a restraining order. She's sending you little taunting messages about maybe the university staff would like to know what kind of predator is going to be walking onto their campus next semester. Playful little notes, punctuated with her special eight-eyed smiley face to show that she knows she's getting under your skin. All that coyness and bitter-sharp wit you loved in her is suddenly cutting into you, and you don't think you can take much more.
What can you do? Taking her back is out of the question. You can never trust her again, you know that much. You can never get over the way your Dad shook his head and said “Son, I wish I could believe you, but...” this morning. You can't report her. What would you say? "My ex-girlfriend is telling lies about me?" That sounds like something a predator would say to discredit his victim.
You just don’t know what to fucking do.
Three weeks after your life turned into a nightmare, it all stops. Out of nowhere, you see her on the back of some beefy biker guy’s motorcycle. It's definitely her. No helmet, no jacket, wearing shorts and flip flops with a new tattoo on her back under her cut-off shirt, she's so happy and light. She’s laughing and play-punching the guy as he pulls away from the curb in a cloud of stuttering bike exhaust that smells like the fumes of hell itself. She sees you looking as they zip off into traffic, and she just flips that hair back and waves like you’re some old friend she's too busy to stop and talk to.
And just like that, it’s over.
The texts stop.
The restraining order never happens.
The pregnancy disappears.
Your father eventually comes around, but it’s hard, and you feel like your heart is broken by the way he didn’t believe you, the way you couldn’t convince him to trust you. Your friends, well, some of them believe you and some of them believe her, but it doesn’t matter.
You’re going away to school in a few weeks, and you can leave all of this behind. Find some new friends without the emotional baggage. You’re too exhausted to win people back over, not after the way they’ve looked at you like you were a monster. There’s just no coming back from being the guy everyone thinks raped a girl. The more you protest, the bigger the fuss you raise, the more people think there’s something to the accusations.
Heck, sometimes you think she believed it herself. Or she’s just a hell of an actress. So good she almost convinced you.
Maybe that’s the worst part. The way she sneaked into your head and changed how you see yourself. Made you always think I am Aaron, the guy who no one will ever trust again.
But no. David thinks the rumors will die down if you just leave for a while. Really focus on your schoolwork. Get your shit together.
You pray you never hear from her again, and someone up there must be listening, because you never do. You feel uneasy and nervous, like the sudden break in her hostilities means she might come back and start it up again just as randomly. Like a tornado that destroys exactly half your house and then blows away. No rhyme or reason, just storm and chaos and abrupt pointless silence.
You don't get it. Was she fucking with you all along? Was it actually funny to her? Will you be paranoid and suspicious of every girl you meet from now on?
And something else nags at you. She hates motorcycles. She’s terrified of them. The noise they make, the loss of control when you’re a passenger. She flat-out refused to ride double with you on your shitty little scooter, and that was going twenty miles per hour on a quiet side street. And now she’s riding around town with creeps who shave their heads?
The most surprising thing about Vriska Serket is that you’re still surprised by anything she does.
Chapter 18: The Hearing (1)
Dave gets ready for Bro's custody hearing.
Dave’s got a suit, nothing special, just this black jacket and trousers setup with the red tie Kanaya gave him. He figures no one will notice the blue ink stain on the shirt pocket if he keeps the jacket buttoned. He chooses the red chucks since he doesn’t have dress shoes and they at least match the tie.
One last look in the mirror and yeah, okay. He cleans up good. his hair’s combed and his nails are trimmed. He gets up close so he can focus on his reflection and confirms that no, there’s nothing hanging out of his nose. Good deal.
If he can’t be sane, he can at least be fashionable.
Nepeta helps him tie his tie in the rec room while he waits for Terezi. Dave never learned to do it for himself, and Bro always says clip-on anythings are a blight on humanity. He has to sort of kneel down on a rec room chair while she stands behind him and does esoteric things with her hands until the knot is shaped right.
“How do I look?” he stands up and strikes a cool pose. She adjusts the tie one final time, standing in front of him now. As usual, she’s on her tiptoes. Even with the height boost she barely comes up to his shoulders.
“Like in a spy movie.” She smiles and this close up he can see her eyes scrunch shut. She is just about the most adorable thing since sliced bread. Or does he mean a basket of kittens? Sliced kittens?
He is so fucking nervous right now he can’t even think straight.
It’s taking everything he’s got to stay in his head. Every time he gets vague he bites the inside of his cheek and that helps, but what he really wants to do is abscond the fuck out of this place. He’ll miss Nepeta and maybe Rose (snarky broad has really grown on him) and possibly the guys too, but today’s the last day he will ever be on this side of the loonybin wall with them.
He doesn’t think about what Bro wrote in that last letter. He absolutely, definitely does not think about it. That letter? Not a thing that happened. He tore that shit up like it was sassing his (fictional) mama, and now everything is fine and he’s about to go kick some chubby child protective services meddler ass. Fuck yeah.
Karkat and Sollux wander past the doorway, doing that weird hatefriend bonding thing they’ve fallen into in the past few weeks. Sollux is explaining his lanthanum beehive computer thing with escalating irritation, and Karkat is laughing his ass off and calling him names. This will go on for the next hour until someone starts crying. The two of them duck into the rec room long enough to tell Dave to kick some ass at the hearing. Everybody’s giving him a lot of space today, except Nepeta. Even Kanaya, who sewed his tie during her day-trip home last week (“For good luck”) has been strangely formal with him.
Ten minutes til go-time and Terezi comes tapping in, wearing jeans and a button-up shirt in various garish colors. She gives his leg a playful prod with the cane she doesn’t really need when she’s on the ward, and says “Are you ready to go, coolkid?”
“Yeah,” he says. “Are you seriously going to wear that?”
“I have prepared an argument in support of my clothing choices, Dave. To wit: the psychiatrist of the defendant’s younger brother sees no fashion. She’s blind, remember?”
Dave snorts. “Whatever gets you through the day, Doc. I don’t judge.”
“An excellent attitude. Now, here’s how this thing is going to go...” she says, and leads him out the door.
Nepeta watches them go, and waves.
Chapter 19: The Hearing (2)
It’s a courtroom like in the movies, only smaller. There’s a jury box, but it’s empty. Only about four of the seats are filled, all at the front, when Dave and Terezi enter. A lady sits at a small desk typing something into a laptop. The judge’s podium is empty. A few minutes of echoing silence later, the lawyers start filing in.
The bald one with the roll of fat on the back of his neck is Bro’s attorney. The brown-haired lady in the gray slacks is also a social worker. A third guy, this one taller and kind of skinny, comes in and joins the others. They cluster together, speaking quietly with solemn faces. Terezi leans close to Dave’s ear and says something, but he misses exactly what it is because his ears are ringing to the beat of his pulse.
At least he's having one of his good vision days. Usually he can't keep his eyes on anything for more than a second without it jerking around, but it seems like the spazzing is slower today. This is weird because usually stress makes it worse, not better.
The child advocate comes in next. She’s a short heavyset black lady with a thousand little gold and black braids swinging around her face. She wears a gold and green dress and lots of bangle bracelets, and reminds him a little bit of an older, sadder-looking Kanaya. He wishes Kanaya were his ad litem instead. Not-Kanaya isn’t a bad lady. He’s come to believe she genuinely means well, but the real Kanaya would understand.
Not-Kanaya joins the lawyers in their cluster.
Dave realizes with a start that all of these people are here today because of him. Then he feels stupid for only just now thinking about that, about how he’s in all these people’s lives right now, these strangers he’s never even talked to. It just doesn’t seem real.
Terezi explained a little bit about what to expect as they sat through the long ride to the city. It’s more bullshit along the lines of the first hearing, which he would really rather not think about. With all the same faces showing up again it’s a bit like time is folding back on itself.
He feels like any minute now they’re going to bring out Bro and start talking about how he’s an unfit parent and how Dave needs all this treatment so let’s send him to a residential clinic and pick his brain!
Everyone has problems. Why are his such a huge fucking deal?
But it’s not the same hearing, he has to keep remembering that. Bro’s leaving jail, he’s not going to fuck up his probation, and all they have to do is prove he’s not going to beat Dave’s face in the minute they’re alone together. Then he can come get Dave signed out as his actual for-real guardian, and they can go back to the way things were. He might even say goodbye to everyone at St. Lobaf somewhere in between the part where he grabs his bag off the bed and the part where he leaps into the back of Bro’s shitty oil-leaking Thunderbird like a pack of rabid dickwolves are gnashing at his heels.
He’ll even put up with the social worker coming over to check up on them. Maybe there’s even an upside to that part--Bro will have to stay home more, and stop bringing home the skeevier of his various girlfriends.
The child advocate will be representing him during the actual hearing, since he’s a minor with a bullshit diagnosis that says he can’t speak in his own defense (even though he totally can, now that he’s talking again, and that will come later). He only gets to sit in on the first bit and watch them set up, then they’ll send him out with Equius and Terezi will do her testimony thing and answer questions. He’ll be meeting with the judge and his ad litem at the end, in private, and present his own case. He’s not required to field any bullshit accusations this time, and no one will make him say anything in front of Bro that he doesn’t want to.
He’s a little bit relieved and a lot offended by how little of this he gets to control. With all the things they kept bringing up at the first hearing where they assigned him to Not-Kanaya, it was really hard not to just do a flip off the fucking handle. Some of it was sort of true, but they kept saying everything wrong. They made it sound so bad.
But this time he knows how it works. This time he’s come prepared. These months of being a ward of the court, he’s been very careful what he’s said to anyone involved. He’s avoided talking about anything that could be twisted around and used against him, even to Terezi, who is technically his greatest ally here.
The first couple of months, he didn’t talk at all. He was on strike because he knew they’d use anything he said to build the case against him and Bro. Okay, yeah, he had grudgingly admitted the place was a mess, maybe too much of a mess. But it’s not against the law to have a dirty apartment. Then the attorney asked about other stuff, and it got harder and harder to talk because it sounded wrong. It got so his own voice sounded like someone else. Then bam, the needle skipped across the record right there in front of everybody and next thing he knew he was halfway through answering a whole different question.
They get you to answer the little easy ones first, he thinks. Like, do you go to school, how do you like your teachers. Then when you’re lulled into answering the little questions, they turn around and ask, have you ever seen your brother making his movies?
He stopped paying attention to the porn shit years ago. It’s just a bunch of people fucking and looking like morons, gosh, how shocking. How totally immoral. Just because there’s this attitude that sex is a bad thing, the attorney homes right in on the topic and chips away at it in front of everybody. He says, why should he care what Bro does for a living? Someone has to pay to keep the goddamn lights on. It’s not selling crack on the corner. Nobody gets hurt. Nobody makes Dave look. He doesn’t even like it, so who gives a shit?
Which was maybe, in retrospect, a bad answer.
Nobody’s family is perfect, he keeps saying, but they’ll just find a way to twist anything he gives them around, make it into another piece of evidence. Nah, fuck that. He’s going home. He’s been playing it cool all this time, waiting for the hearing, watching what he says. No complaining, no whining, no volunteering any information, putting on his cool face.
He’s said not a single word they can hold up against Bro. Dave’s already screwed him over enough by mouthing off. So yeah. He’s been careful.
Equius is two seats back, a looming silence, reminding Dave that there’s just no absconding from this. He doesn’t mind. Not only did he come prepared, but Terezi has his back. She’s cool, for a tool of the Antichrist. They’ll sit in, he’ll see Bro, then they go to the little room and wait while his advocate and Terezi answer questions for about three million years. She’ll give testimony about how well he’s been doing, how he’s talking again and participating in sessions. Probably the thing where he burns himself will come up, but that’s not her fault. She just doesn’t get it. It’s not like they can pin that on anyone but Dave himself. He’s already nuts, right? So he gets a shrink when they release him, and maybe that’s cool. Maybe he can keep coming to see Terezi every week. He’d probably be cool with that. He does have some problems. Maybe if he’s safe to talk to her without having to watch his mouth, she can help fix him.
He keeps expecting them to bring Bro in wearing an orange jumpsuit and shackles, but when he’s brought in through the side door he’s got a dark blue suit on and he walks like a free man. His hair’s combed and he’s taken off his shades. A bailiff stands nearby but doesn’t loom. Bro’s been released already, and he’s looking good. Dave waits to see if Bro will wave at him, but he just gives him one solemn little nod, hardly more than a tilt of the head, and sits with his attorney.
The judge comes in after Bro, entering from a different door. It’s the same white-haired old dude from the first hearing, but he’s looking significantly less pissy. He shuffles through some paper on his podium, beckons the lawyers over for another interminable chat, and takes his time before he calls the room to order.
Once all the niceties are over and everyone’s been acknowledged and sworn in, it’s time for the mouthpieces to start nattering on about how they’re at the end of the term decided at the last hearing, and now it’s time to decide whether to extend the arrangement for another six months or stick a fork in this entire case so everyone can go home. Equius escorts Dave to the waiting room. It’s too warm and smells like old cigarette ashes. Equius doesn’t have anything to say, and Dave is tasting metal every time he tongues the inside of his cheek now, so the silence gets uncomfortable fast.
They sit like that at the little table, and Equius pulls out his tiny pink smartphone and starts trying to type on the tiny keypad with his enormous meaty thumbs. There are little blurry smears of pink in the corners of his fingernails. Is that the telltale sign of hastily removed nail polish he spies?
Why Mr. Zahhak, you pretty princess you. Dave huffs a silent laugh and feels his tension ebb a bit.
Everyone’s got a sick mind. That’s what he’d like to tell the judge. Everyone’s got their dirty little secrets.
Even the good guys are hiding stuff.
Chapter 20: The Hearing (3)
Equius finishes with his phone after what seems like an hour. When he looks up, Dave can just barely make out that he’s managed to crack his newest pair of tinted glasses.
“Sup.” Dave says, breaking the silence.
“It won’t be much longer now,” Equius tells him.
“Cool.” Dave catches himself starting to shake and wills himself to stop. Then he notices he’s tapping a little one-two beat on the laminated table surface. And jogging his left foot on the bland-as-fuck carpeting of the little room. Oh fuck me with a pitchfork, he thinks, now I’m the one who’s sweating like livestock. So much for staying chill through this thing.
“Do you want something to drink?” Equius asks. “I could ask an intern to bring something.”
“Nah.” Dave’s mouth has never been this dry, but he’s queasy with the nerves. No way he’s throwing something down the pipe if it might come back up. There are three things in life he can’t stand--puking, bad sound systems, and puking. He would throw ‘puppets’ on the list, but they don’t bother him anymore. Not much, anyway.
There’s nothing to be afraid of. He knows there’s nothing to be afraid of. He has his shit on lock. He tastes bright sharp copper and bile.
But whatever. This will all be over soon, he just has to stay cool. He adjusts his shades for the eighteenth time. He sweats. He taps. His tie feels too tight. Nepeta means well, but she is a bit on the feral side. He loosens the knot and unbuttons the neck of the shirt for good measure. It doesn’t help much. The choking feeling has nothing to do with his suit. He runs one hand through his hair and feels the nape of his neck and the space behind his ears turning damp.
More silence. Dave can hear himself breathing. He can smell the Old Spice kicking in. A trickle of sweat runs down his forehead and he forgets his manners for a second and wipes it away with the sleeve of his jacket. Equius says nothing.
Which isn’t that unusual. Equius is not one to waste words. He doesn’t go out of his way to be friends with the loonies the way Nitram does. What you get from him is the simple respect of a professional for his job. He’s weird, but he’s courteous. Even when he’s trying to talk someone down off the ceiling, he still says please and thank you and Dave figures it helps chill people out just being treated like real people.
Beefy motherfucker had some mad home training. But there’s still an edge there. Like he could throw a small car at you if you ever found and pushed his berserk button. A guy that big, it would be a hell of a thing to see.
Dave can relate.
He nearly jumps out of his fucking skin when there’s a double rap on the door and a redheaded female he doesn’t recognize opens the door. “Judge Roth would like you to come to his chambers now, if you’re ready.”
Fucking finally. He’s out of his chair and through the door before Equius has pocketed his smartphone.
“The men’s room is the first door on your left, if you’d like to visit it before we start.” she says.
“Can I have a smoke break?” he asks Equius with what he hopes is casual charm.
Well, it was worth a shot, but he knew it wouldn’t happen. He’s taken to cadging off Vriska when she’s on the smoking porch and staff aren’t looking, but she’s getting tired of sharing with him.
“Just the can, then,” he says.
“Take all the time you need,” the staffer nods and points at another door. “Judge Roth’s chambers are right through there. Go right in when you’re ready.”
Dave makes himself nod. He needs to get his shit raveled again before he can argue his case. Equius stands outside the door, giving Dave a moment of privacy for the first time all morning. He takes a leak, washes his hands and then just stands in front of the mirror, fingers dripping, leaning close to examine his reflection.
It’s weird how it doesn’t really even look like him. He knows it’s him, he’s not crazy, but it doesn’t feel right.
Fuck these nerves. He grabs a paper towel, dries his hands and uses the damp towel to wipe off his forehead and neck. He fixes his sticking-up hair with his small comb and pockets it again. He can’t do much about his shaking hands, but he figures he can set them on his lap where it won’t be as noticeable. And he figures the judge will be counting on him to be nervous. Who wouldn’t be? So much is at stake here, and it all comes down to him needing to convince one old guy that he’s safe with Bro.
Which he is.
So there’s no fucking problem, is there?
Except his adrenal gland or whatever doesn’t seem to be getting the message from above. And now his thoughts are getting fuzzy around the edges. Not slowing down, that would be too much to ask for, but blurring a little bit. Shit, he thinks, not this shit now.
The inside of his cheek is getting kind of sore from gnawing on it, but it clears his head.
His eyes have started to smart, but he takes off the shades and slides them into the breast pocket of his jacket. It’s way too fucking bright in here and the light is flickering just a bit, but he needs to be open with this judge. He can’t fuck up. He'll never be able to face Bro again if he can't do this one simple goddamn thing to repay all the years of Bro taking care of him.
He squints at himself in the mirror (the trademark bare-faced Strider look, always charming) and finally takes a deep shuddery breath. This is as put-together as he will ever be able to manage. It will have to be enough.
Time to go.
Chapter 21: The Hearing (4)
Chapter 22: Kanaya: Heart
Mama D says you’re getting too persnickety about how you make your bed. You like to make sure the duvet’s folded over right at the pillow, so when you get into bed you can fluff it up into a cocoon and your shoulders won’t be bare. Yes, it’s strange that sometimes you have to do this over and over again to get it exactly right, but it’s worth the effort to make that little voice in the back of your head stop whining about the wrong position of the duvet and let you sleep.
To pull on the duvet, to simply drag it up to the perfect length to cover you up to your neck, would be unthinkable. You still think about it, wishing it were so easy. You’d like to go to sleep without worrying, but those days are behind you.
You lie in bed anxious and annoyed by your new bookcases because they lean very slightly towards one another. The very slight gap between the two is not precisely the same width at the top as the bottom. Once you notice this, there’s no avoiding what comes next. You’re on your way out the door but you hang your bag on the doorknob, find a shim in the hardware cupboard (which you organized again yesterday, and in your defense, it was sorely needed), and fix the lean, you can think of nothing else.
This takes an hour to do properly, making sweat dampen the hair at the nape of your neck, which you just styled ten minutes ago, and the bending and lifting and bending and lifting to get the shim in the right spot leaves you sweaty and annoyed, and you have to take another shower and change your clothes and do your hair again, and all of this makes you miss your morning classes. Mama D tries to help with your hair but she wears hers natural and doesn’t know how to get it the way you like it.
This is starting to be a problem.
Your afternoon classes are a challenge. Contemporary YA lit sounds easy enough. You took it out of genuine interest, to balance out the joyless government and politics course you need for the credits. It’s not easy at all. Nothing is easy for you.
You take notes in ink, writing in neat and precise cursive, double spacing between lines, respecting the margins at all times. This week your professor is walking the class through a frankly over-ambitious feminist-perspective analysis of the third book of the Twilight series, which is not a personal favorite.
It should be simple, but you end up with five nearly identical pages of unfinished notes, each one a failure. They had to be discarded. You would not need to do it over and over again if you could dot your fucking “i” properly. There is an upside to this repetition: by the time you’ve gotten it right, you no longer need the notes. It’s unfortunate that you end up missing half the lecture while you are rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. You decide to get that new laptop as soon as your tax refund comes through. Typing is so much easier. You can cheat on the margins and every “i” will look the same.
Then you think about how your last laptop met its end, and reconsider.
You drop the class because you can’t keep up. You feel so stupid. You feel so defeated. It’s Twilight, and it’s conquered you. You can’t imagine what a semester of Anne Rice would have done to your soul.
Four months later you drive ten miles to pick up the special food for your cat. She has allergies, and is getting on in years. It takes you three hours.
You know you haven’t hit anyone with your car. You know you haven’t. You would have seen it. You would have felt it. But you have to check, because you can’t risk it.
The next year, you’re tweezing out eyelashes that grow crooked. You are arranging your food in precise portions on your plate, doing your chores over three or four times to get them right, crying in the bathroom over the chapped leather of your hands. You moisturize, but it’s not enough because you wash it right back off again ten minutes later.
Your knuckles weep blood in dry weather from the washing and the ragged bitten edges of your cuticles become pink-brown-red sores from the bleach you’ve begun using to clean everything you own.
It’s not about germs. It’s never about germs. It's just dirty, and the dirt won't wash away until you do it right.
You can’t sew a straight line anymore. You screw it up and have to do it again and again until your fine seams are a perforated mess. You could hide the little holes, let them wash out or wear out smooth when the dress is finished. No one would notice except for you.
You box it all up instead, your entire sewing room, right down to the needles stuck in the squishy tomato, arranged so they all point straight at the center. They're very carefully positioned because if you don’t take care, it means you don’t love Mama D.
You’re not sure why, but it occurred to you last week that you could do this little thing to keep her safe, so you could stop worrying about whether she'll have another heart attack. It’s the least you can do, even if it makes no sense at all.
What if God sees you grudging such a tiny gesture of faith? He might think you aren’t willing to make even such a small sacrifice. He might already know how faithless you are, fussing about such a tiny thing as a show of love.
Not that you really know there is a Heavenly Father watching over you. But what if he’s testing you? It makes no sense. You’re a decent person, except your monstrous thoughts and the way your head fills with the urge to scream blasphemies in the middle of Young Women. But if you're so decent, why would you want to do that? You don’t want to do that. But no, something in you does.
You drop out of college. You're getting sick again. You’re crying in the shower, crying in bed at night, your perfect bed with the smooth sheets where you can’t sleep for the worrying and worrying and worrying.
You stop driving. Every time you’re on the road, you worry you’ll jerk the wheel and crash into oncoming traffic and kill someone who never deserved it. Your spirit is full of unworthy thoughts, ash-gray ruins of a thousand beautiful dresses you’ll never be able to sew. You’re not good enough, and you will never be good enough, and just like that you’re throwing up again, getting compliments you don’t want for the lost weight shed for the wrong reason. No matter how much of yourself you lose, it will never be enough. You have been here before. You have been through the treatment. You know the sneaky way it gets into your head and takes over. You know what will happen if you relapse. You can’t handle the ED and this chattering horror to fight over control of your mind.
You are going crazy.
Crazy. The word follows you around, taunting you and making your stomach do slow flips whenever you try to ignore the nonsense worry and the commands from inside your brain that never quite drive away the thoughts.
You give up.
Three months later your world has shrunk to your bedroom and the short hallway that leads the bathroom. Mama D tries to get you to come downstairs and eat something every day, without fail, but you’re not hungry. She makes you eat and stays with you so you won't throw up and says you’re going to waste away, have a stroke and end up brain-dead.
You’re starting to be less horrified by the idea.
Your friends call and call, first to ask your advice and then to give their own to you. You do your best to shift the focus back onto them, because no matter how tangled your own head gets, you’re an excellent shoulder to cry on, and it's a distraction.
Even your ex calls, still wanting to be friends, as if that’s ever going to be enough when what you want is her. It doesn’t matter anyway, because you stop answering the phone. There’s no point using more energy to fuss over other people when you can’t fix yourself.
Your younger brothers take over your part of the housework and tending your garden. They don’t complain, but you feel terrible for not being able to do it yourself. You are better than this.
Mama D finally puts her foot down. Nothing spectacular precedes this, no meltdown or tantrum or dramatic revelation. She just knocks on your door one morning, barges in without waiting for you to invite her, sits beside you on the bed, and lays down the law.
Kanaya, she says, I love you but I don't know what to do.
I know, you say. You put your book down on the bed and look at your hands in your lap, feeling small and petty and crazy. It's not your fault.
Not yours either, she says. Your dad and I think you need to get some help again, baby girl.
I don’t want to go back to the clinic, you say. You burst into tears. You can’t help it.
It’s going to get worse, Mama D says, and I can’t watch you go through it again. My heart can’t take the stress.
You apologize and apologize, but you know being sorry won’t be enough. If she dies, you will have killed her. Those awful weeks at the clinic, learning to respect food and your body, learning to look into a mirror without wanting to disappear and stop taking up space, were the lowest point in your life. But was it as bad as what you’re living with now? You’re not sure.
So you say okay, because you would never do this for yourself, but you can't bear to break your mother's heart.
Chapter 23: Sollux and Aradia: Talk about Feelings
ARADIA: im listening
SOLLUX: fuckiing hell, AA, dont pu2h. thii2 ii2 hard.
ARADIA: take your time
ARADIA: we still have an h0ur
SOLLUX: iit2 2o 2tupiid, why diid ii even...never miind, okay, let2 ju2t--
ARADIA: it d0esnt s0und stupid t0 me, stupid
SOLLUX: youre 2tupiid.
ARADIA: glad weve cleared that up then
SOLLUX: fuck2 2ake. iit2 liike a ca2cadiing faiilure of epiic proportiion2 ju2t tryiing two talk two me anymore ii2nt iit. how do any of you mere mortal2 2tand iit.
ARADIA: g0d s0llux st0p making this all about h0w much y0u suck and spill y0ur huge unc0mfortable secret already
ARADIA: y0u cant see my face and i cant see y0urs
ARADIA: y0ur r00mmate is at lunch
ARADIA: the hallway is empty
ARADIA: n0 0ne is listening but me
ARADIA: s0 just say it 0kay
ARADIA: tell me whats b0thering y0u and let me see if i can help
SOLLUX: ii mii22 you.
ARADIA: s0llux im right here and im n0t g0ing away
SOLLUX: no but.
SOLLUX: ii 2tiill mii22 you.
SOLLUX: ii mii22 how we were. iit2 all different and fucked up now and ii hate iit. ii feel liike we arent friiend2 anymore and ii dont know what two do.
ARADIA: 0_0 0h
ARADIA: i th0ught that might be what this was ab0ut
ARADIA: im glad y0u finally said s0mething t0 be h0nest
ARADIA: i have been w0ndering whether i did s0mething t0 make y0u angry at me but i was kind 0f scared t0 ask
SOLLUX: what? no, iit ii2nt your fault, aa, iit2 miine.
SOLLUX: all thii2 2hiit where you put up wiith me beiing an a22hole and fuckiing up over and over agaiin, you arent gettiing anythiing out of iit, you never 2iigned up for any of iit.
SOLLUX: we u2ed two do thiing2, aa. we u2ed two have fun and go place2 and now we dont.
SOLLUX: all we do ii2 2iit around and talk about my liife and iif ii can be biiterly 2elf-loathiingly hone2t here? ii dont liike my liife all that much even when iim not hyper fuckiing focu2ed on examiining iit2 every bull2hiit detaiil iin hiigh-re2olutiion wiith an audiience.
SOLLUX: iif you thiink iit2 boriing two lii2ten two, iimagiine how iit feel2 beiing the per2on doiing the talkiing, GOD ii hate that whiiny 2hiithead and hii2 stupiid a22hole 2peech iimpediiment, fuckiing good for nothiing diickhead wiith no riight to complaiin
SOLLUX: but OH NO HERE HE GOE2 ANYWAY, BIITCHIING AGAIIN LIIKE HE GET2 FUCKIING PAIID BY THE WORD, HOW AWE2OME AND EDUCATIIONAL, LET2 GIIVE THII2 LO2ER HII2 OWN TALK 2HOW 20 EVERYBODY CAN NOT WATCH IIT!
SOLLUX: am ii a chore two you?
SOLLUX: ii gue22 that2 what ii wanted two a2k. why you vii2iit me when iit cant be any fun for you.
SOLLUX: am ii a chore aa?
ARADIA: in all h0nesty
ARADIA: yes s0metimes
SOLLUX: wow dont 2ugar coat iit or anythiing, FUCK.
ARADIA: im n0t finished s0 sh00000sh
ARADIA: y0ure my friend and just because y0ure a pain in the ass a l0t 0f the time d0esnt mean i d0nt get anything 0ut of l0ving y0u and c0ming t0 see y0u
ARADIA: it just means that when y0ure n0t happy i have t0 ch00se whether 0r n0t t0 stick it 0ut t00
ARADIA: 0f c0urse it isnt fun being friends with y0u every single minute s0llux friendship d0esnt w0rk that way even with people wh0 are healthy all the time but i d0 make that ch0ice
ARADIA: im here arent i
ARADIA: y0u drive me crazy s0metimes being s0 angry and bitter and 0nly seeing the negatives in things but y0u als0 make me s0 happy the rest 0f the time
ARADIA: s0meday y0u will be better y0u kn0w
ARADIA: and even when y0ure at y0ur w0rst when we are fighting and n0t speaking y0ure still my friend
ARADIA: st0p acting like im g0ing to suddenly give up 0n y0u 0r that i already have and just w0nt admit it
ARADIA: have a little m0re faith in me 0kay
ARADIA: y0u d0 wear me 0ut s0metimes s0llux and im s0rry f0r that but im 0nly human
ARADIA: and i d0nt see c0ming t0 visit y0u as a hassle
ARADIA: because y0u are n0t s0me miserable j0b i cant quit
ARADIA: the real ch0re is seeing y0u unhappy and feeling useless like i sh0uld be able t0 fix it and s0metimes i feel bad f0r n0t kn0wing what t0 say
ARADIA: 0r f0r being 0ffended when y0u take it 0ut on me even when i kn0w y0ure sick and n0t really angry at me
SOLLUX: ii wii2h ii never 2aiid tho2e thiing2, iill try harder, ii hate that ii --
ARADIA: i already kn0w and i already f0rgave y0u
ARADIA: i kn0w the difference between real arguments and em0tional 0utbursts even if it does make me mad t0 have them directed at me
ARADIA: like i said i make the ch0ice t0 share these hard times with y0u and i am n0t a fragile little d0ll you can break
ARADIA: i am a gr0wn w0man and y0u d0nt get t0 decide h0w much i can stand bef0re i have t0 back 0ff
ARADIA: you have t0 trust me t0 d0 that f0r myself
ARADIA: and believe that i d0 s0 willingly
ARADIA: thats part 0f what friendship is
SOLLUX: ii gue22 20. yeah.
ARADIA: things have been strained f0r t00 l0ng between us
ARADIA: and this is a l0usy time f0r 0ur friendship
ARADIA: but if y0u want it t0 survive and i want it t0 survive
ARADIA: i think we can get 0ver this latest speedbump dont you
ARADIA: d0 you want that s0llux??
SOLLUX: yeah. ii do. ii really, really do. ii mii22 u2.
ARADIA: and s0 d0 i
ARADIA: lets d0 0ur best then t0 c0mmunicate then and keep 0urselves cl0se
ARADIA: which means n0 more br00ding when y0u can just ask me whats g0ing 0n in my head
ARADIA: because we are friends and i w0uld like t0 stay friends f0rever if we can
SOLLUX: 2oulmate2 riight? god that 2ound2 lame. but yeah.
ARADIA: if were g0ing t0 be sappy why n0t g0 all 0ut
SOLLUX: okay. ii agree. 2oulmate2 from now untill both of u2 are dead and the 2oul2 are all that2 left except for our gro22 na2ty mo22-covered 2keleton2 buriied iin the 2ame plot and all tangled twogether liike we were doiing iit iin the butt.
SOLLUX: and then one day 2ome archaeologii2t who look2 liike you wiill come along and diig u2 up
SOLLUX: and u2e her awe2ome anthropology learniing2 two fiigure out what we were liike from how we were buriied.
SOLLUX: man ii have the weiirde2t boner riight now.
SOLLUX: thank you aradiia. iim 2orry for beiing crazy at you all the tiime.
ARADIA: it happens
SOLLUX: 2o your dad 2ent me another of hii2 weiird 2olo album2 la2t week.
ARADIA: h0w did y0u like this 0ne
SOLLUX: creepy. morbid experiimental 2axophone mu2ic iin a mental ho2piital at niight on 2eroquel giive2 you the mo2t fucked up dream2.
ARADIA: hmmmm yes i wasnt 0verly f0nd 0f it myself
ARADIA: i tried t0 will him t0 name it s0mething different but he w0uldnt listen t0 my psychic influences at all
ARADIA: artists are s0 stubb0rn
SOLLUX: yeah. ii know how he ii2. 2wedii2h fii2h, WTF.
SOLLUX: jazz 2axophone2 and 2ong2 about horriifiic tragedy are a horriible miix, ii hope he get2 off thii2 depre22iing mu2iic kiick 2oon.
ARADIA: at least its n0t the 0b0e
SOLLUX: 2uddenly iim really goddamn glad my dad ii2 2uch a cheerful per2on.
ARADIA: 0h g0d me t00
ARADIA: can y0u imagine
Chapter 24: Vriska: Coffee
The first time you hear the name "Mindfang" you think she's joking. Nobody would name their daughter Mindfang. But she shows you her driver's license and it's right there.
"I changed it," she says, and grins. "You can do that if you have sixty bucks and a shitty birth name to get rid of." You wince when she says the S-word, but you won't say anything. You are in awe of this woman.
She dropped out of the sky last week like some kind of crazy Mary Poppins, back from Singapore or Bora-Bora or wherever she's been this year, took your mother out for endless lunches and shopping while he sat in his recliner and gave them both smoldering looks that made your stomach lurch. They never had any packages when they'd get home. Your mother kept shooting you nervous little glances at dinner that first night, and Mindfang made a point of staring at him from across the table until he dropped his eyes first.
Mindfang wasn't afraid of anything.
She didn't take you anywhere the first few days. "I'm gonna catch up with my sis first," she said. "You'll get your turn, Vee."
She called you Vee. She called you Vee and she smiled.
After a few days, your mom started jumping at little noises. He wasn't giving her any trouble, which you thought should make her happy, but it didn't. Maybe when Mindfang left she figured he'd get her back. He didn't want her around, this stranger your mom never talked about before she appeared on your doorway and shook his hand with a grip as strong as his and announced she was going to stay for a week, and handed him a suitcase to find a place for it.
And he took it, that's the weirdest thing.
He took it and she stepped through the doorway without being invited, brushed right past him and gave him a stiff shoulder that made him edge out of her way.
You watched all this from the kitchen table where you were doing your homework. Your mouth must have been hanging open because she greeted you with a hearty "You'll catch flies, kiddo."
This woman who looked just like a younger, prettier version of your mother had the power to make those meaty scar-knuckled fists of his clench helplessly at his sides. You could barely believe it.
The car turns onto a private drive and you watch this giant decaying mansion approach. It's covered in ivy and the yard has turned into a giant snarl of brush and weeds. No one has lived here for a very long time, you think.
"It's not much, but it's home," she says. "C'mon, let's shoot the shit a while."
You push your wad of hair out of your eyes and unbuckle your seatbelt. When you help her take her groceries out of the trunk, you feel dim and smudged next to her. Your polyester sweatpants and t-shirt with a picture of two yarn-batting cats feels babyish and uglier than ever.
Your aunt Mindfang, by contrast, is packed into a black leather jacket, a t-shirt with some oriental symbols on it, and a tight frayed pair of blue jeans. Her collar has little spikes on it like something a devil worshipper might wear, except she's not really a devil worshipper. You asked about it yesterday, stammering and refusing to look right at her, and she laughed herself hoarse before she showed you her cross tattoo, which made you blush because it was on her behind. But obviously devil worshippers don't get cross tattooes. And she's nice. So she's got to be okay.
Even your shoes don't seem to fit right next to how she walks in her boots.
"Get the door, Vee," Mindfang says, and you do. She goes in sideways with both arms full of bags. Her house is huge, dark, and cold. Like some giant attic where the dust falls like snow and the spiders get to be the size of blind creeping dogs.
"What do you think?" she asks, and drops everything in the foyer. You think it's a foyer, anyway. You've never lived anywhere that had a foyer, but you've read about them.
You boggle at the place instead of answering. She's used to this by now and nods. "Yeah, I like it too. The inside's even better, so haul ass inside before the ice cream melts."
She has the foulest mouth.
After the frozen things are tossed into the chest freezer and she's got the coffee on, she sits you down at the dusty table in the dining room (she has a dining room too) for a talk. She calls it shooting the you-know-what. She offers you a mug and you take it because you suddenly feel deliciously naughty and even though you are 100% certain it is illegal to drink coffee before you're 18, no one is watching but Mindfang, and she's the one offering.
It's steaming and smells awful. She sees the face you make and snorts like a horse. "Take it black, kiddo, that's how the cowboys do it. Put some hair on your fucking chest, then Nair it right back off with the next mouthful." She snickers and pokes the mug with one long spider-thin fingertip, nudging it an inch closer to you to make a point. She grins.
You play with your coffee. It's way too hot to drink.
"Your mom never told you about me, huh?" Mindfang says, breaking a silence you kind of hoped would go on and on forever. "Bet you were shocked when I showed up."
You nod through a haze of coffee steam. Your aunt lights a cigarette with a snap of her gleaming silver lighter (it has a naked woman on it) and gives you an amused raise of one sculpted black eyebrow when you wince at the sight of. Her eyes are very blue and very wicked.
"Well, here's the deal, Vee. She got in touch a month or two ago and we've been talking back and forth, mostly about you. And, you know. That walking testicle she married."
Your mouth falls open with no words to tumble out.
"Well, he is." she shrugs. "I know my big sister. What she's like. I didn't have high hopes when she got in touch, but holy shit, Vee." She blows out a blue cloud from the side of her blue-painted lips and her eyes go hard. "Bitch scraped so hard to get your Dad there's still splinters from the bottom of that barrel scattered all the fuck over your trailer floor." She downs her coffee like it's December-chilly and sweet as honey, and sets down her empty mug without looking at it.
"So much for all the trouble and pain in the ass waiting for the shithead to go and stroke out--which he did, might I add, on your mom's fifteenth fucking birthday. Personally I think it was the best present he could have given us, but of course she cried for a week. Wah, my piece of shit dad's fat ass fell down a six-foot garbage pit. Wah."
Aunt Mindfang shakes her head in disgust.
"Nothing to do but go replace him with an upgraded model, right? And hey, why not have a kid? A fucking kid." She makes a dismissive gesture at the word kid. The hand holding the cigarette dances around, and the smoke follows her around in broken little loops. "I bailed before that, though, so maybe I'm missing the finer points of fairytale romance or something. She's never talked about me?"
You croak out a no.
"Color me shocked."
You bite your lip and stare down at the table. The coffee mugs are white and blank, something she got at a dollar store, something good enough to last however long she stays here in the decaying family home before she gives up and flies off to live her real life again. Left behind to collect dust like the rest of this mausoleum.
That mug, burning inside but nothing showing on the outside but steam. All it does is give people something to drink, and get dirty. You feel like that all the time now.
"I'd pity her, but life is too fucking short. Weak people dig their own graves, that's what I think. Sucks but that's reality." Contempt turns her voice into a bark, and you are terribly lost and empty in those words. This is your mother she's talking about, your own mother, your mom--
"Kiddo," your aunt says, relentless. "Anybody fucked you yet?"
Your eyes drop to the table. Your face is burning and you can't look at her perfect face, the way she's making you feel tiny and cheap and weak. You've been awestruck by this woman, even a little scared, since she first appeared in your life, but now you're also a little bit angry at her too.
Not that you would ever show it.
One day a few weeks ago, in study hall, one of the desks in the back was vandalized. You sat there on purpose, in case God was watching and testing you.
Somebody had carved the word SLUT into the wood of your desk, hard and deep and jagged. Carved it sharp and hard into the surface like they were attacking something they hated. You couldn't take your eyes off the desk surface, your fingers off the tiny scars in the wood. There was still a little bit of sawdust in the wounds. All that anger with nowhere to go but through a pocket knife, scarring a perfectly good desk, making it dirty.
"Might as well get ready for it when it happens." Her voice is casual. Blank. "Because that's what life is about. Getting fucked and fucking other people. All you can do is decide how much you like it. But what the hell do I know?"
Tears are not forming in your eyes. You blink to prove it, and do not meet her gaze.
"Seems to me you like it fine, and that's your business, Vee, you do what you want. You're the one who has to live with it. You gonna drink that before I take you home or what?"
You sneak a glance at her when she tosses her hair back over her shoulder, and in a tiny snapshot before you look back down again, you see the way her lips are twisted into a contemptuous little line. You'll think about this later, how it made her look kind of ugly. And how you're pretty sure it's somehow your fault .
You hate yourself for your secret little fantasy of coming to live with Aunt Mindfang and having her teach you how to be the kind of person nobody slaps around, having her for your mother instead of your mom.
It was only a tiny moment of wish fulfillment, but now the fantasy rises up in your mind and mocks you. What a baby you are, what a naive little baby sitting here at the table pretending to be a grown woman while the real thing puts up with you, that's all she's doing, putting up with you before she dashes off back to her own world where people aren't pathetic and stupid and weak.
Leaving you behind like the empty kitchen, like this table, which doesn't have anything carved in it, but you sitting here at all is an act of vandalism.
Your coffee smokes and you feel the burn through the mug with your bitten-down fingers, too stubby to ever compare to hers, but at least it's not as hot as your face right now. You pick it up in both hands, refusing to think about what you're about to do.
One deep breath later, you force yourself to meet her gaze, wanting to look anywhere else but so full of hard edges and the need to scream that you dredge up something from the bottom of your churning heart, something hard and sharp and alive, and you let your eyes go hard from the inside out and you keep the eye contact without wavering. You drink the coffee down to the bottom of the mug.
It tastes more horrible than it smells, bitter and ashtray-blunt and thin and toxic. It burns the whole way down your throat and you would love nothing more in your life than to spit it out, but you're in the grip of something here. It goes down like lava, like fire burning away everything inside, searing down past your tongue, scorching it into a buzzing carpet of pain, then down into the hollow chaos in your belly. Driving away the feelings you can't name. Sterilizing, wiping everything out, erasing.
It takes a thousand years to drink that coffee, and you think, shit goddamn fuck it hurts it hurts.
And you think, good.
Mindfang gives you a single, almost imperceptible nod as you thunk the empty coffee cup back down to the dusty table. You finally drop your eyes, but not before you catch the twitch of a smirk on the corner of her lovely lips.
You wonder what color she paints her nails, and whether you could find the same color in a store if you looked.
Chapter 25: Dave: Wake up to a harsh reality
Why would you do that? You've been awake for hours.
You have also been FLOATING. Whatever, gravity is overrated anyway.
You are in a dimly lit INSTITUTIONAL BEDROOM with nothing in it except A HOSPITAL COT with SOME GUY sitting on it. The top of this stranger's head is getting SOMEWHAT BORING TO LOOK AT since he isn't doing anything but sitting, but at least he's got NICE HAIR. He combs it the same way you do.
> Who's this douchebag?
Chapter 26: Dave: Investigate douchebag
It's not hard to move around without a body, so you descend to eye-level with the douchebag.
Well shit. This guy looks a whole lot like you. He even has the same style of dark glasses. This is weird as hell since you can't possibly be related to this dude. You'd know if you had a twin somewhere. Also, he is way younger than you.
Is some nefarious genetic laboratory mass-producing sex on legs based on your DNA? No, that's silly. You don't really believe anything like that. You aren't a crazy person. You know damn well that this world can't handle two Daves at once. Shit would explode.
It's strange how clear your senses are right now. You can even make out the way your doppelganger's chest rises and falls when he breathes. And you can hear his heart beating. Not in a gay way, though. You're pretty much not into that, especially with someone who could be your younger brother.
You wish this guy would do something interesting.
Chapter 27: Dave: Snap.
Chapter 28: Dave: Unsnap.
You only manage to break off one stem and crack the left lens down the middle before Zahhak is on you like a huge damp police dog. Not that there's any fight left in you. Two seconds after you stomped the life out of your two hundred dollar shades, you're not sure why you even did it. You decide it's one of those ironic teen angst breakdowns like in a shitty afterschool special. Is Dave Performing An Acrobatic Fucking Pirouette Off The Handle?
Survey says "sproing."
There's a little blank space, one of the ones where you know time's passing but nothing much is going on worth remembering later, and you're tucked up in a recliner into the comfort room in your favorite pajamas, the pink flannel ones with the hearts all over them. And your fuzzy hospital issue socks with the traction on the bottom to keep you from slipping around like a panty-clad Tom Cruise on a hardwood floor. The right sock is kinda lumpy.
Someone's turned the lights way down and put some piano music on the overhead sound system. You have no idea who picked the music since you sure as hell didn't, but it's cool. Bro plays piano sometimes back home. Egbert practices in the dayroom. This place doesn't really go with your artistic vision of an afterschool special breakdown, which you decide is likely the point.
A shelf full of stupid cartoony stuffed animals and a camera mounted high in the corner of the room conspire to stare down at you, which is no big deal. You've been doing a lot of staring down at yourself lately. Always starting trends, that's Dave Strider.
Your foot hurts, probably.
Chapter 29: Rose: Tour Europe.
Just a heads-up: in Brainbent, the Alpha kids are not the Beta guardians, with the exception of Dad and Bec.
My dearest Rose,
I was quite astonished to receive your letter last week. I had begun to wonder if you might have misplaced the address, and was considering sending you a reminder via text message. Of course, I immediately realized that you may not be permitted the use of personal devices in a psychiatric institution.
No offense intended, dear, if the administrators of your latest residence have chosen a more euphemistic term for such a facility. You know how old-fashioned I am in matters of political correctness. Polite fiction was always more your father's domain than mine.
Your school friends have been to visit several times, asking where you've gone. Naturally I smoothed things over for you and let on you are traveling in Europe with a long-absent relative, and may not return for some weeks. I took the liberty of spreading this tale among family to save on embarrassment and to spare your grandmother's heart the distress, although I substituted a mysterious school friend for your travel partner.
Your grandmother has, by the way, asked me to pass along her best wishes for an exciting journey and a triumphant return home. Do write again and let me know if I need to pick you up. I'll have a car sent straight away. We may need to purchase souvenirs to maintain the illusion, but of course I'll leave their selection to you.
With all my love,
P.S. The Dickinson boy paid a visit on Tuesday. He's such a nice boy to still think of you after all this time. I told him you were overseas and he was quite disappointed. I also took the liberty of copying down his phone number in case you'd like to call him and set something up once you're finished with your program.
Your name is Rose Lalonde, and you just figured out why you drink so much.
So you're in Europe now! Of course you are, how civilized! To your left, Gamzee Makara is smearing paste on the back of his hand and picking it off to make zombie blisters. He's as old world as they come, much like the bubonic plague that appears to have inspired his glue decorations. Next to him, Nepeta Leijon is drawing something in various shades of red and green crayon, singing something with a lot of "nyans" in it. You are fairly sure it's Japanese, which is a shame. It breaks the European theme you were driving at with this metaphorical glance around the craft room.
In a corner chair, Sollux Captor has curled himself into a little angular ball like a wadded up piece of cardstock. The angry expression he sported all day yesterday has sagged into a mask of disinterest. You have no idea what has him so snippy, but it's all part of the multicultural experience. You decide to assign him Germany, for no reason whatsoever. A moment later Karkat Vantas invades, storms over to the corner and begins shouting at Sollux, and you think, ah, trouble in paradise. He has the dreadful stuffed bee again, and as you watch, he slams it into Mr. Captor's midsection. Sollux grabs the bee, gives Karkat a filthy look and then they're off.
What country would Karkat be? America, probably. The United States, invading the break room--sorry, Europe--and bombing it to ashes with his vulgarities and outrage. It's almost funny.
Kanaya enters the rec room, all green and gold today with her hair slicked back with two little curled locks flush with the skin of her forehead, ducks a flying stuffed animal with perfect ninja grace, and ends the argument between America and Germany with her usual measured irritation. She's no country at all. She's just Kanaya, wherever your imagination puts her. Bossy boots, you think, and grin for the first time all day.
That nice Dickinson boy, you think, returning to the letter. That nice, thoughtful Dickinson boy with his shy smile and his clear skin and his heinously bungled attempt to pull off Highway 19 and woo you the hard way on your way back from a movie. It was the one and only time you allowed him to take you out and you honestly have no idea why you did it. He was a perfect gentlemen until his seat belt came off and his fingers turned out to be clammy and trembling, like two hairless white bats skittering up the back of your shirt. Two nos elicited only crack-voiced whining before you smacked him in the face, wrapped yourself in your shawl and walked the rest of the way back home with him trailing behind you and calling out the window with his brights on.
He apologized to your mother, for God's sake. Of course she adores him.
You look back down at the perfumed mess of ivory paper and think about all the things you'd like to write in your reply. Things you can't write, because there are rules for this sort of thing. The first person to drop the pretense loses, so you're forced to simmer instead. The lavender fountain pen handwriting on the envelope is perfectly metered, extravagant with the finishing school flourish that infests the fairer sex of your family. In the Lalonde household, you take long vacations to places you never actually visit and come back strung out and smelling of hospital soap. You do your secret drinking in a chilled walk-in pantry the size of some people's apartments, smearing fifty dollar lipstick across sparkling stemware with your well-scrubbed pinky finger cantilevered.
Kanaya watches Karkat trudge back out the door. She hands Sollux his recently jettisoned bee and sends him grumbling but pacified back to his corner chair. She joins you a moment later and sits across the small table with a sigh.
"I know this is a madhouse, Rose, but these people are insane." And when she rolls her eyes, you smile again, and drop the letter back onto the table.
Dear Mother, you think, Have decided I quite like Europe. Think I may stay. Yours in passive-aggressive shrewishness, Rosie.
Chapter 30: Dave: Be Confused.
You've been around the room five times already and you can't find the fucking door. It's not your eyes--well, maybe it is, maybe you're finally going blind the way you used to have nightmares about, but that's not the whole problem.
Like, the door's not where it should be. Your turntables aren't where they should be. The pile of shitty swords he bought off some otaku bullshit website isn't where it should be. Bro's studio equipment, shrine to Rainbow Dash and various milk crates full of movie props are gone. The novelty purple unicorn dong with the sparkles and the suction cup that winds up wobbling away in the center of the coffee table most weekends is nowhere to be seen. You're vaguely unsettled by this because that fucker travels. You make a mental note to check the shower before you step in tomorrow morning, if there even is a shower tomorrow morning.
Okay, so Bro cleaned the apartment. Fine. But who's coming over that's so tight-assed about the decor that he'd need to empty the place out? He's had a couple girlfriends like that before, the type who'll fuck him on the couch but the minute you go stomping through the living room on your way to the kitchen and grumble at them to keep the ironic anime noises down, they get all bent out of shape. Or more bent out of shape, in the case of that redhead contortionist chick who always called you David. David, what the fuck, that isn't even on your birth certificate. Maybe she went whining to somebody once she pulled her ankles out of her fashion mullet.
Bluh. You just plain do not get Bro sometimes. Most of the time.
Okay okay all of the time but you're going off into a tangent here, stop that. Just find the goddamn door and you can go back to your room where shit is likely to be where it belongs.
Still no door. Fuck, the walls don't even have posters anymore. There's no smudged window with a cheery view of the laundry-line bedecked rooftops of Houston's finest housing project.
You start to be afraid, for the hundredth time, if he might have packed up and left while you were sleeping. Which is stupid. You'd have heard him boxing up his studio and unbolting the TV from the wall. You're a light sleeper. You definitely would have noticed someone coming in to remove a whole window and oh yeah the fucking door to your bedroom.
Wait, how did you get out here without a door? Shit's getting surreal. Is this is a dream? You'd pinch yourself but you are fairly sure you signed a stupid contract about not doing that, or something.
"Hey asshole," you finally call, trying to sound casual. He's probably lurking somewhere waiting for you to give up. "Points for follow-through, but I'm not really getting the joke."
"Dave?" a female voice comes from behind you. Somebody managed to sneak up on you in your own apartment? How embarrassing.
"Did you just say something, Dave?"
She doesn't look like a cleaning lady or a furniture mover, and she's definitely not one of the suits from the county. Short Asian girl, kind of scruffy. She has that itty bitty build that makes the weeaboos cream their unwashed jeans. Oh fucking god, it's one of Bro's novelty chicks who stick around way longer than strictly necessary. And check it out, she's a furry, too. She's got a headband with blue monster fur cat ears sticking off it.
"Jesus fucking christ," you groan, more to yourself than to the girfriend. "Where does he dig you people up?"
"What are you, ten? Is he fucking you or babysitting you?" Or both, you don't add. There's hilariously transgressive, and there's creepy and disgusting.
"Huh?" she says again. Master conversationalist, this one. He sure can pick 'em.
You shake your head. Never really worth asking, you don't care, you have bigger shit to attend to. "Never mind. Is my brother around?"
"You mean your older brother?" She asks, hesitating a little. You try to focus on her face, maybe try to figure out how old she really is, but the harder you try, the blurrier it all gets.
"No, my siamese twin. The one I keep him in a fucking basket and he gets out and eats people. Keep the fuck up, lady, he gets bored faster when they're dumb."
"Dave..." the girlfriend says, "You're kind of scaring me."
"You should see what he keeps in the fucking broom closet." You get ready to call her Mom, that always freaks them out, but your heart wouldn't be in it, so you take the path of least resistance and just go back to searching your apartment.
"Maybe.... Maybe you should go back to your room?" Girlfriend asks, all fidgeting and looking at the floor.
"Yeah, that was sort of the plan until somebody stole my christing door." you wave her off. "That's some straight up ninja twilight zone shit, even for him. Let me guess, he left you here with a hidden camera. All smug in the hallway recording my confused flailing so he can send it to America's Funniest Home Abortions and try for the fifty thousand dollar grand prize. Lame, lady. Go back to the club and find someone who knows a D20 from a dildo this time. You do not belong here."
"I don't have a camera!" the furry scowls. "Want me to show you the way I got in here?"
You think about this for way too long. "Sure, take me backstage of the magic show. I'm suddenly genuinely curious for no discernible reason whatsoever."
"Okay." The furry takes your hand like you're five years old instead of twelve. Wait. Ten? No, twelve. You are definitely twelve. She leads you down the hallway that should open on the kitchen but it goes somewhere else instead. There's a desk and a blonde lady sitting behind it where your refrigerator should be. She looks up.
"Dave!" She says. "Nice to see you out and about. And you too, Nepeta. Taking a stroll?"
"I'm just taking Dave back to his room." Girlfriend says. "Is that okay?"
"That's fine," Desk Lady says. "Stay in the hallway."
"Kay! C'mon, Dave."
You remember Desk Lady's name as soon as you're past the desk and heading up the insanely bright hallway. Penelope. The night something at St. Lobaf, which is, you realize, a thing that exists.
You disengage your hand from Nepeta's--How could you mistake her, of all people, for one of Bro's bubbleheads? "Which room's mine again?"
"That one in there." She points at a doorway. You go through, anticipating a rain of stuffed animals but of course there's nothing, Bro's not here and this isn't your apartment.
On one side of the room is your stuff, right where you left it. The other side is empty and the bed is made up with the hospital corner anal retentive care that just plain screams Karkat "Ballfondling Cumslurping But No Homo" Vantas. His pillow is crooked and there is a fuzzy yellow and magenta lump sticking out just a little from underneath.
"Dave?" Nepeta stands in the doorway, tapping on the frame with one hand. She sounds nervous.
"Sup." You're meant to be on strike and not talking to anyone, but fuck it, it's Nepeta. She's pretty much adorable, and you're very relieved she's never been to your actual apartment.
"Ummm. Nothing! Bye!" She scampers off on her tiptoes, still not breaking five feet tall, and her overlarge green coat goes WHUMP behind her.
Chapter 31: dave: be a good sport
You're eight years old and your alarm clock says it's time to eat breakfast, but when you raid the fridge there's a bunch of stuffed animals crowded inside, cold balls of plush that look like giant cartoon dicks and butts lining the shelves and spilling onto the floor when the door opens.
Yesterday there was milk and eggs and some open cans of beer in there (which you tasted once, ugh), and for all you know these things are still in there somewhere, but you hear a snicker from somewhere behind you and cram the door back shut and try not to look angry. He never lets up about how you can't take a joke. You decide breakfast is a waste of time anyway and go get dressed.
You're still eight, but maybe a few months older. A bunch of papers appear on your floor one day while you're trying to do your homework, slipped under the door just before the front door slams. Bro's off to work and he left you a present. You gather up the pages and take them to your desk where you keep your reading lamp and magnifying glass.
It's three pages of printed out youtube comments and a fourth sheet with a URL written on it. Your guts do a slow flop as you sit at your computer and carefully punch in the address.
You don't know when he even installed the webcam in the bathroom, but you have to admit that the sight of yourself dancing around in a towel as you brush your teeth is every bit as hilarious as the commenters suggested. Your scrawny arms and pasty chest and the way you look like you're doing some kind of toilet-side hula all make you want to crawl under the couch and never come out. You're even wearing your shades, so it looks like you're being a fag on purpose. You never really noticed before just how little you look and act like Bro. No wonder he records stuff like this and posts it on Youtube.
It's not all that hard to start watching how you act in the apartment. You need to grow up.
You're nine years old and you come home from wherever, and he's all tangled up with a girl you've never met before on the living room futon. She's on top of him and they're both completely naked and you make a loud fake retching noise as you shut the door behind you because who even does it with their shoes still on.
The girl's got dark hair and pale skin and when she sees you come in she squawks and tries to cover herself, but Bro just laughs and smacks her on the butt and tells you to go to your room. He throws a shoe (deliberately missing you) to hurry you on your way and the girl says something low and angry that you don't hear.
A few minutes after you're safely shut up in your room, you hear the front door slam again. You guess she was mad you came home and ruined their date or whatever.
By the next month this has happened enough times that you can tell who he's banging the the sound of her voice squealing his name. Which is fairly creepy, so you decide to just go ahead and keep that little fact to yourself. You wish he would fuck them somewhere else, but you don't say anything. If he gets under your skin, you lose.
You're ten and you have pretty much learned not to look when you're walking through the living room. He's got this new movie studio thing set up right in the middle of the room and you guess if you walk into the shot it's illegal or something. They leave the props all over the place and you occasionally find yourself staring at rubber vistas of erotic shenanigans that would make a drag queen blush. Scattered beer cans all over the floor and boxes of fluorescent colored dongs of every size imaginable. Pony saddles and pink collars and black vinyl handled feather dusters and half-empty tubes of lubricant down the sides of the futon and you are just completely goddamn baffled by all these fucking attachments.
These days he doesn't date girls who squawk and try to cover up when you walk through. The new breed is generally drunk and prone to attempting conversation with you whenever you cross into the kitchen or bathroom. This might or might not be something he chooses to do on purpose to mess with you. You keep your door shut most of the time now. Some of them try to flirt with you, which is nasty, or talk to you like a person, which is horrifying.
You're eleven and you have a grand total of zero hobbies that can't be explained as jokes. You have a shelf full of little animal skulls and fossils and stuff preserved in jars that you ganked from the school biology lab that you have labeled your "angsty preteen collection."
You have a shitty camera you take deliberately shitty photos with and develop in your closet, which is a seriously shitty darkroom. The darkroom is the most fun, because you're better at working without visual cues than most people on account of you can't see for shit half the time, and also the room's too small for anyone to be lurking in there who isn't you.
You hang the photos all around your room to complete your imitation of a lousy photographer who's trying way too hard. You figure anyone who wants to can take a good photo of a sunset or misty meadow, so what's the point? Also, you can't imagine what Bro would say if you did something that lame. You prefer Myspace angles, badly photoshopped and color-corrected shots of strangers at the mall, and blurry pictures taken with a swinging camera lens. Those you kind of actually secretly like, since they remind you of how things look when you're really tired.
You're twelve and now you collect shitty friends and make shitty jokes to rip each other apart, smoking in the neighbor's shed and shooting the shit about dick sizes and video games and getting laid, and suddenly you've got somewhere to unload all the dumb porn facts you know. A willing audience of wide-eyed punks who think they're so bad. You blow their goddamn minds on a daily basis, and this earns you a reputation as a pimp. Like any of these guys knows what that even is.
You think the rumors of conquests that begin to follow you around are incredibly funny and share the story with Bro, who pats you on the back and tells you he fucking loves you, kid. You wait for a punch line but he just staggers off to bed and you smoke the rest of his joint and play with his turntables until suddenly it's morning and you have to go to school again. A girl who's been nice to you all year finally asks you out and you panic and run out of the room, but you play it off for your asshole friends like you were just fucking with her because she was a skank. You feel really bad about it but she won't talk to you when you want to apologize. You don't know why you flipped out like that, or why you had to say such a shitty thing about her. It's not like you care what people think about you. Other than Bro, anyway, but that goes without saying.
You're thirteen and you have this comic you post on the internet. It's as bad as you can possibly make it. You post fifty pages a week sometimes, following an epic plot where the main character has to screw his way through a sorority house full of ugly girls to win a bet and gets a variety of diseases along the way. You're sort of proud of the number of gory genital photos you can photoshop into the story and still have it all hang together. You title this story "asdfag" and it is pretty much your masterpiece. Bro reads it every day and frequently admires your skill with the circle tool when drawing comically huge breasts. You plan a sequel you intend to call "Titty Planet". He'll get a kick out of that.
You're still thirteen and the cops are at your door. Bro got busted for speeding and of course this is your Bro so of course he was bombed out of his mind and of COURSE they found his stuff, and of fucking COURSE the dumbass was carrying his entire stash, who even does that. So now there's a lady from the county waiting for you to get dressed and come with her to stay overnight, and she is really not handling the decor well at all. You keep hearing little "oh my GOD"s from the living room. You imagine what she must be seeing, and feel kind of bad for her, but not really. Some people are just tight-asses like that. It's why you never bring any of your asshole friends home.
You stuff your spare jeans and underwear into a backpack, comb your hair and shut down your computer. You don't bother packing the cigarettes and lighter because you figure you'll be back long before you need them.
Chapter 32: Dave: Don't worry
Dave prepares for his first visit with Bro since the custody hearing.
Right. Easy enough. You were born with a shrug in your shoulder and a meh in your heart. This is nothing. That is what you tell yourself. It's just a lunch meeting with Bro.
You stare helplessly at the two outfits laid out on your bed. The suit jacket or the t-shirt, that's the real question. Do you go in dressed like you're giving a deposition, or do you pretend like this is just another day, like you aren't seeing him again for the first time since December?
You decide on the t-shirt because you feel safer in it. The last time you wore the suit everything fell apart. You aren't superstitious. It's not like putting on a tie reminds you of getting a noose put around your neck or anything. You just want to wear something familiar.
Every time you think about the hearing, about the past, about anything, your gut fills with a ballooning gray panic. It squeezes you until you want to cry. Striders don't cry. Besides, you have no room left for more feelings, not right now. So you busy yourself with preparation for the meeting and you leave the past in the past. You wish you could dump it forever, but Pyrope's right. It won't stay gone.
All this time, fighting it, it's been for nothing. But you sort of knew that already. You're not stupid. You knew the meaning of 'futility' before you could read the word.
You choose your grossest wrinkled jeans to go with the shirt, figuring why not at least go whole hog with the familiarity angle. It's your favorite red-sleeved shirt with the image of an oldschool vinyl record on it. A gift from Bro two years ago, baggy then but perfect now. The sleeves are long. Good. You know he knows about your arms. He wrote you about it once. But you don't want to deal with that particular conversation, not today, not on top of everything else.
You pick up your shoes and slip them on. You miss the sneakers with the laces, but you wore them to death and never got another pair. You comb your hair. Ampora shows up to tell you he hopes your meeting wwith your brother goes wwell, he's been thinkin about it all day. You nod and he stands there a second longer before he moves on.
You brush your teeth for the fourth time since you woke up, and your gums are getting a little tender but it calms you down to have something to be doing while you wait, and your smile is guaranteed to be fucking radiant. You comb your hair again, sigh, pace the room. You take off your shoes and put on different socks. You sit back down on the bed and tap your foot.
Your mind keeps trying to wander. You tell yourself to shut up and have some fucking patience.
At one point Captor sort of drags his half-dead carcass down the hall past your doorway toward the lavatory, a zombie with a brown blur of beard stubble and a slump that makes your spine hurt just looking at it. On his way past, he gives a limp little wave without looking up. It's official, everyone in the building has now wished you the best of luck.
Gamzee twice, since he obviously forgot the first time.
You comb your hair again, then throw the comb in a drawer so the sight of it won't tempt you. You sit on the bed for the zillionth time and zone out a while thinking about the meeting. You only go far enough to get kind of confused, and then that goes away.
You open the drawer and fish the comb out, run it through your hair one last time just to make sure it's not going wild on you. It's been too long since you had your hair trimmed. Rose is going to start asking you if you want to borrow her hairbands soon. Christ. You're a mess.
You eye the shades John gave you, but you don't take them off the dresser. Not yet. You haven't worn them yet.
At least Karkat's not around to watch you do your hamster wheel thing. Mondays he sees his specialist, so you have the room to yourself until he sulks his way back in during the evening and hides under the blanket until dinnertime. Mostly when he's gone you sit on your bed in peace and chew the inside of your mouth til it tastes like metal every time you run your tongue over the inside of your cheek, and you stare at the posters on the wall while you wish you had a wristwatch to obsessively check. It's good times.
Time's more or less stopped meaning anything since the hearing. You can tell it's passing by the landmarks, the schedule they make you follow to give you some sense of normalcy and routine. You go to meals because you have to, you go to groups because you have to.
Every day you spend an hour or so walking around the grounds with whoever's around to keep an eye on you. Or you sit with Nepeta on a bench and let the incessant nattering about her latest cartoon obsession wash over you until it's all a comforting green blur of nonsense. She doesn't mind that you never say anything. She says most of the time people eventually get fed up and tell her to be quiet, but you never do.
You wonder if your total apathy is somehow worse for her than when other people shut her down. You'd ask, but... well.
And once every day, you see Terezi. She's not your main doctor anymore because she's blind and you won't talk, but she's the only shrink you want to deal with, so she swings by and you always spend some time together. Your real doc is a stern guy who keeps on topic at all times and treats your brain like a battlefield.
He permits you to write your half of the conversation, but you never say anything that matters so he might as well not bother. You tell him your dreams and ask him stupid bullshit questions about what they mean and zone out while he answers. You give just enough to keep him talking.
He says how normal your feelings are. You don't feel anything talking to him except the way you felt in school when a teacher didn't like you much. You could ask for a different shrink but why bother?
Pyrope at least pays attention. She's the one you asked to come with you today, instead of your advocate. You don't know your advocate, she won't have your back. She's going to be right there, and you should feel like it's intruding on your privacy. Should, but don't. You never talk to her about Bro. Even in writing. Even with the visit coming up. It's off limits. She respects that. She lets you call the shots and never gives you shit about it.
tell me how to handle this, you want to write. because i don't know what to do.
It feels like forever before she turns up in the doorway with her hideous teal and red summer dress and her cane painted to match. "It's time to go," she says, and you taste blood.
You stand, take the shades off your dresser, and slip them on. The world outside your dim room gets darker and your eyes stop smarting.
There. Now you're ready.
You aren't worried. That is what you tell yourself. You are not worried.
Chapter 33: Equius: Observe.
Equius escorts Dave and Terezi to the lunch meeting with Bro.
You're already perspiring a little by the time you duck through the slightly low-hanging door to the restaurant. Dave Strider is behind you, with Dr. Pyrope bringing up the rear. You can hear her tapping her way in behind you, having long since accepted that she will not take your arm and be led for love nor money. Her dress is awful, teal and vivid red, and you suppose she chose it for the loudness of the colors. You have no idea where a woman might buy something so terrible. Surely no company would deliberately create such a dress, not that it is any business of yours.
The manager gives you a nod from behind the till and you return it, leading the other two past the rows of booths. They're expecting you.
There are several couples and a large family in the dining room, and you note with approval the way the father helps the toddler cut his pizza into several segments that will be small enough to eat on his own. The child is well-groomed, dressed in clothes that fit, and he is wearing appropriate footwear. The mother is composing a text message on her cell phone with one hand and navigating her way through a large salad with the other. As you pass the table, the toddler makes a squawking noise of the sort that usually means nothing more than "I am bored". The father shushes him. You hear him tell the child "Joey, we don't make that noise when we're in a restaurant," and there is a note of resignation in his voice, but no overt hostility.
You observe that one of the other couples in the room is expecting. You glance across the table: chicken dinner, shared, two glasses. This restaurant serves alcohol, but she is drinking what looks like some form of yellow soda. Not great, but all right. You note that the man has a bulge in his hip pocket that looks like the outline of a pack of cigarettes. The pregnant woman has a tattoo of a Chinese character on the back of her neck, where her hair is pulled up into a high ponytail. The man's hands are very clean. They eat in comfortable silence.There are no visible bruises on either of them.
These are things you notice when you go into public establishments, these days.
The private room is small but not claustrophobic. One long table, heavy wood, with half a dozen chairs pushed in. A boring landscape painting on one wall, a pen-and-ink drawing of the restaurant as it would have looked fifty years ago on the other. The customary paper napkins wrapping a bouquet of flatware have been removed from the table upon request. When your food comes out, the server will bring plastic cutlery.
There's air conditioning, but you still feel your forehead beading with sweat.
Mr. Strider is already here, seated with his back to the wall, looking nervous. He has already ordered a drink. It's soda, which is not what you would have expected. Previous conversations with Dave and the ever-present gossip that is the largest form of entertainment at St. Lobaf have painted a somewhat unkind picture of the man's habits and demeanor.
Without his suit, outside of the context of his failed custody hearing, Mr. Strider looks much younger. His t-shirt and jeans are clean. he has removed his dark glasses and put in what appear to be tinted contact lenses. His face is grim and he has shredded his drinking straw wrapper into tiny square pieces. His hands are on the table and you observe that all his fingernails have been chewed down to stubs that rival the results of Captor's own nervous gnawing. He has shaved recently and his hair is freshly trimmed. The collar of his shirt is down, another thing you would not have expected.
"Hey," he says, quietly. Under their nearly invisible brows, his eyes are very dark. They skip off you and lock onto Dave as he enters the room, and it's a little too intense. You stand to one side, allowing Dave pass you and choose his seat. He picks the one directly across from his brother, bonelessly slumping into it. He returns neither his brother's gaze nor his greeting. You sit at one end of the table, giving them room. Close enough to be a steady presence, but not enough to crowd. Terezi enters last and makes her way to the other corner. Dave has requested that you both stay in the room until the meeting is over. If Mr. Strider acknowledges you, you will speak to him. If not, you will maintain supportive silence. Terezi will do any speaking, as usual.
Dave's hands are shaking. He drops them from the table to his lap and hunches forward. His new glasses are so dark you can't see his eyes in the restaurant light, and so large they hide most of his face.
"Thanks for coming," Mr. Strider tells Dave. "I ordered you an apple juice."
Chapter 34: Dave: Listen.
Your seat is too hard, the table is slightly sticky, and your hands and face are going numb. You can tell this was a mistake. You weren't ready for this, you should have listened when Terezi said it was up to you and how you feel whether you see him again now or wait.
"I've been thinking about you a lot," he says. "About... you know, how we lived?"
You meet his gaze through your new shades, but say nothing. Terezi was right, Terezi was right. You shouldn't be here. That's probably why most of you isn't here.
Bro looks uncomfortable, but he goes on talking. You half-listen from wherever you're going.
"They have classes. Parenting classes, you know? You would not believe some of the assholes who have to go to these things."
His mouth keeps moving, but it's mostly static, and miles below. Aha, there you are. You're up in the sky floating over the restaurant, looking down. Calm cloudy day, no wind, cars like toys crawling across the town roads. This must be what it's like for Egbert when he pretends he's a sky god. You can feel through the balloon string that connects you that your real body has stopped shaking. Time stops existing. You watch his words scroll across your vision, examining the shapes of them more than the meaning.
He sounds so tired and small. Unimportant. Just a cluster of memories with words coming out. That's what he is.
You think about the time he got drunk and held you over the edge of the roof--
"I have to take them so I can get you back. So I guess I'm one of those assholes myself, huh? I sure feel like one."
--about the girls he used to bring home and fuck on the futon while you were trying to play your video games, and how they never even cared that you were there, or maybe they did and it was all just more of his headfucking--
"Look..." Bro stops. "I. I've been trying."
--the times his club find du jour would get up to take a leak in the middle of the night and then get lost and crawl into your bed by mistake--
"I did my best. I want you to know that. I'm not the best parent, I know that. God do I know that. I mean, I fucked up. I never had it that great as a kid, I never knew what I was doing."
--most of the time they'd leave when you shook them awake, most of them didn't make it worse, just because they were drunk enough to go home with Bro didn't make them bad people, Rose would be on you so hard for blaming the wrong people in this profoundly dysfunctional home situation--
"I guess... I just... I don't know."
--after that you started blocking your door off at night with your desk, and the downstairs neighbors left a nasty note about you dragging furniture around at three in the morning, which you tore up before Bro came home because if he saw it you'd have to tell him why and he'd laugh and start talking about how you need to get laid--
"I really fucked up. I know."
--how your stomach always twists and you want to puke when you'd think about ever doing it with anyone, and you worry that something is really wrong with you, but seriously why would anyone ever want to do that, even Vriska doesn't seem to be that into sex, and she used to be the reigning champion--
"I want to change."
--Bro getting you high when his friends would come over and they'd laugh at how you got the munchies and did you honestly think you were in on that little joke? Like Makara trying to be okay with everything that's happened to him in his shitty life by power of will alone, and how obvious is it to other people?--
"Mr. Strider, that's enough." Terezi, very far away.
--how you'll open your mouth sometimes and some of it will spill out and it sounds so bad you want to take it back, say it again, say it better, scratch the record, cut it up into a new life that isn't disgusting. Do this over again like Captor rewriting the same program ten times until it's perfect, wasting cycles, wasting time when it was right the first time and you're both just fighting reality--
"You don't owe me anything, I know that."
--Lying. Lying. Lying. Lying. Lying. Lying. Lying. Lying. Lying. Lying. Lying. Lying. Lying. Lying. Lying. Lying. Lying. Lying. Lying. Lying. Lying. Lying. Lying. Lying. Lying. Lying. Lying. Lying . Lying to yourself. Lying to everyone. The truth is, you can't connect. The truth is, you're not here. The truth is you're not real. You're ten people and none of them are Dave. The truth is that you know how people look at you, how they blink, the hesitation, the way they stare and pick their words and change the subject and shift around and look at each other whenever you open your mouth and the truth comes out, how alien it makes you feel that every word in you is a weapon, how you don't relate to anyone because no one else grew up in a fucking Aristocrats joke. Nepeta understands a little, she's from fucking Mars, she doesn't look at you like she knows something she doesn't want to tell you, but even her knowing makes you feel so sick so fucking tired so trapped --
"I'm not even going to ask you to forgive me."
-so terrified so scared so sure you're making everything worse, you can't talk about this, and while we're getting metaphorical all up in this bitch, how about the way you sometimes feel like every word that comes out of you is another cigarette burn on your soul, another hole in the lie and behind it there's something black and dead that eats at you, like the look Vantas gets when he wakes up in the morning already slouching his shoulders forward so nobody will see he's got tits--
"That's enough, Mr. Strider." Equius, getting louder. Getting closer. You're descending. You're going down, you're drowning, you are fucking drowning in all this silence.
"I'm so sorry." he finishes, talking over Zahhak and Terezi, who are telling him this visit is over. As you sink back down, they're rising up, both of them, ending the visit. That's the rule: if it gets heavy, if you get upset, it's over. He's not following the rule. Big fucking surprise.
"I'm trying to make it right."
You spend so much time lying that you think, of everything he could do to you right now, of fucking everything, the worst thing he could do to you is be sorry.
He apologized, and now you have nothing left to lie about.
And you are so.
Chapter 35: Dave: Stop listening.
You rise, step back from your chair, push it in. Across the table, Bro is standing as well. You raise a hand.
"Don't," you say, and talking feels so weird. Other than a few times you've gotten confused and slipped up, like that time you thought Nepeta was one of Bro's club fucks, you haven't said a word to anybody since December. "Don't get up. Just stay there."
You can sort of make out Zahhak folding his arms over his chest to your left, just a little gesture to make sure Bro's aware he's there, in case he gets it in his head to come around from that table. It seems to work, because after a moment he sinks back down.
"Kid..." Bro's voice tells you he's on the verge of tears. Your eyes are bad, stress makes them worse, and right now you can't make out any of his features, but there's nothing wrong with your ears. It's hard to hear him sound so reedy and weak and broken. Part of you wants to rush over and hug him because you never, you never see Bro looking like that. But you're mad enough and suspicious enough that even this surrender feels like a headgame. Who knows? Maybe it is.
"Dave?" Terezi puts a hand on your shoulder and you don't nudge her away.
You take a deep breath. Part of you wants to scream that breath back out again immediately, kick his ass, accuse him, accuse him, accuse him, but you get a grip on that shit immediately. If you let this anger catch fire now, it'll be cheap. Shallow. A kid's tantrum. You are Dave fucking Strider and if there's one skill you've learned from living with Bro, it's how to not ignite in public.
"I'm not ready to talk to you," you tell him, slowly.
His reply comes out a little rushed, a little too desperate. "Okay," he says, "Okay, yeah, I understand that. You just take the time you need to--"
"No, don't suddenly be like you're the one giving me advice." You cut him off. "Don't turn it around like you actually know how shit needs to go with me. I didn't come here to be all flowers and entrees letting bygones be fucking bygones. Is that honestly what you thought this was for? We'd just have our reunion here, hug it all out and everybody'd apologize and turn the page because we're all each other's got? Man, fuck you. I hate you."
There. Hate. The word you've been gagging on since the judge met with you in his office, asked you questions that made you feel so disgusting, questions you had no answer for. Ever since you gave up, because even you at your most deluded couldn't make it go away anymore. It's out now. You couldn't call it back if you tried, which you wouldn't. It's why you came here today.
You turn to Terezi, whose hand is still on your shoulder. "I'm done," you tell her. "Let's go."
"All right," she says, and gives your shoulder a squeeze. "Visit's over, thanks for coming." She sounds so professional, but you know Pyrope's voice. You can hear the little fishhook of contempt that snags her words on the way out. It's been there every time she talks about Bro since you first came to Lobaf, you realize. Funny how you've always sort of noticed it without noticing it.
"Dave, for god's sake!" Bro loses the humble little whimper, and it's honestly a relief to be back on familiar ground with him. "Don't just walk out on me! I know I fucked up, okay? I just told you I was fucking sorry! Dave! Don't you leave this goddamn room, Dave! Don't you fucking walk out!"
Zahhak stays behind, looming in the too-low doorway and probably giving him the ol' stink-eye while Terezi leads you out. A server stands by the wall outside the private room, obviously not sure if she should go in or not with all the yelling. She's holding a handful of menus and a glass of apple juice. You give her a nod on your way by.
Terezi escorts you to the side door that leads into the parking lot.
You walk out on him.