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Construction (The Girl in the Machine)

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TG: so i get that im completely fucking fascinating or whatever
TG: and you just cant help wanting to crawl into a bucket with me and hump until were drowning in hideous mutant alien babies

GC: D4V3 TH4T 1S TOT4LLY OBSC3N3!
TG: your mouth says no babe but your eyes say yes
GC: >:?
TG: yeah thats what she said
TG: anyway thats not the point
TG: my point is
TG: what about you

GC: WH4T 4BOUT M3?
GC: 1 H4V3 S3LFL3SSLY D3VOT3D MY T1M3 4ND 3N3RGY TO H3LP1NG YOU SUCC33D, W1TH NO ULT3R1OR MOT1V3 WH4TSO3V3R!
GC: 1 D3F1N1T3LY DONT G3T 4NYTH1NG L1K3 GR4T1TUD3 OUT OF 1T >:/

TG: right
TG: okay no what you just said was eighty percent bullshit but details
TG: you keep talking about how i have to step out of the shadows
TG: step up and do the hero thing my own self instead of letting other people take the spotlight
TG: but arent you basically doing the same thing
TG: isnt that your whole schtick
TG: girl behind the curtain and we need a whole new vocabulary to describe the perversions youre enacting on those strings
TG: that shitll get you fifteen to twenty rez
TG: were talking lasting psychological damage

GC: D4V3, 1 H4V3 NO 1D34 WH4T YOUR3 T4LK1NG 4BOUT >:[
TG: its a coolkid cultural reference
TG: i wouldnt expect you to understand
TG: but dont you ever get tired of being the dollar store version of a fairy godmother
TG: with your cheap walgreens costume waving around your shitty plastic wand
TG: that and some petty theft turns a loser with a sword into a loser with a sword and some fraymotifs
TG: i know you live to toy with unsuspecting dudes
TG: but i dont buy that someone like you doesnt want to hog the stage sometimes
TG: so i guess what im trying to say is
TG: does terezi pyrope ever get to be the hero of her own story
TG: or is she too busy trying to rewrite everyone elses

 

1. vriska serket

 

You do it backwards and meet her in person first. It's one of the few times you leave your tree--dangerous for a lususless troll like you, especially one barely out of the wriggling stage, but at four sweeps old you already know you're cannier than anyone around for klicks. Besides, this is the year Grubcon comes to your sector of Alternia, and everyone says it's the gaming con. You wouldn't miss it for the world.

For the most part you stick to the sidelines: you're one of the youngest trolls there, and small for your age to boot. It won't do to attract too much attention. You're nothing if not cautious--except then you see the gamebooth, full headset and pressure-sensitive controls, everything about that console a work of art, and you can't resist. This stuff is ten years ahead of its time. So you take your place in line, and when it comes your turn, you don't hold back, even though you can feel ten thousand troll eyeballs rolling back in their heads.

Of course you win. You don't play losing games.

The game's called Sweep, and it's a strategy game, two-on-two. Winners get to keep playing; top scorer gets to pick her partner the next time around. Conventional wisdom would say you keep your old co-pilot--he's solid, if not spectacular--but the next person to step up to the booth is a blueblood troll girl with a gleam in her eye, tall and lanky. She can't be much older than you are, but she strides forward confidently, like she's already decided the world is hers for the taking. "I've been watching you," she says. "You're pretty good."

"I know," you tell her, sizing her up. You wonder what she wants.

"You might even be able to keep up with me." She grins. "Tell you what. I'll let you be on my team this time."


You raise an eyebrow. "And why would I want that?"

She meets your gaze dead-on. "Because I'm going to win."

You study her. She's arrogant, sure, but it's the easy arrogance of someone who's never lost at anything she put her mind to--and, looking at the easy grace with which she handles the headset, the older trolls in the crowd who seem disgruntled but not surprised at her outburst, probably not for lack of experience, either. It's the kind of gamble you just can't resist taking.

Besides, you've never met a troll your age before, not face-to-face. "Come up here, then. And you'd better not slow me down." You flash her a grin of your own.

At the end of the night you're undefeated, and inseparable.

 

***

 

CG: SHE'S COMPLETELY FUCKING BATSHIT.
CG: LOOK, DESPITE WHAT I MAY SAY SOMETIMES I AM AWARE THAT YOU AREN'T STUPID

GC: 4WW K4RK4T, 1M BLUSH1NG >;]
CG: DON'T MAKE ME THROW UP.
CG: AND DON'T CHANGE THE FUCKING SUBJECT, EITHER.
CG: MY POINT IS, SHE'S BAD NEWS. I KNOW IT, AND YOU KNOW IT, AND EVERY SINGLE FUCKING PERSON WHO HAS EVER TALKED TO HER KNOWS IT.
CG: SO WHY HAVE YOU NOT DONE THE SMART THING AND GOTTEN THE FUCK AWAY FROM HER YET?

GC: SH3S NOT SO B4D
GC: 1 M34N SH3 1S 3XTR3M3LY D4ST4RDLY 4ND UND3RH4ND3D, BUT TH4T C4N B3 4 GOOD TH1NG TOO
GC: 4ND 1 4M PR3TTY D4ST4RDLY MYS3LF >:]

CG: IT'S DIFFERENT.
CG: YOU'RE DIFFERENT.
CG: I MEAN, SHIT, HALF THE TIME I THINK YOU ACTUALLY BELIEVE THAT JUSTICE SHIT YOU SPEW
CG: AND I KNOW FOR A FACT THAT SHE DOESN'T.

GC: SH3 W1LL UND3RST4ND ON3 D4Y
GC: 4S W1LL YOU
GC: 1 H4V3 F41TH 1N TH1S

CG: UH HUH, MORE CREEPY FAKE PROPHET MUMBO-JUMBO. MUST BE A DAY ENDING IN HROTH AGAIN.
CG: WHO THE FUCK LET TEREZI PYROPE AT THE COMPUTER?
CG: EVERY TIME I TALK TO YOU IT'S LIKE WADING IN BULLSHIT SO THICK IT COULD SUFFOCATE ME.
CG: I CAN'T EVEN HATE YOU FOR IT, IT'S TOO SAD.

GC: WHY K4RK4T
GC: 1S TH4T...
GC: ..................

CG: OH FUCK NO
CG: DON'T YOU GO GETTING FUCKING IDEAS

GC: *P1TY* 1 SM3LL????
GC: SWOON >;]

CG: UGH, FOR THE LAST TIME, I WOULD NOT JUMP IN A QUADRANT WITH YOU IF YOU WERE THE LAST TROLL ON EARTH AND THE IMPERIAL DRONE WAS KNOCKING ON MY DOOR.

 

You think that's enough to throw him off this line of conversation--Karkat's a simple person, nearly guileless, which makes him really easy to misdirect. Normally you'd wind him up a bit more, but you have more exciting things to concentrate on today.

By now your fingers practically fly over the keys, and in a few seconds you have your window centered on tonight's defendant, a thin, nervous greenblood who uses his vulnerable appearance as a cover for his deceitful wiles. He goes through partners like Gamzee Makara goes through sopor, and yet he's still--miraculously, unbelievably--unscathed. But tonight, that's going to change. Tonight, unfortunately for him, you're his clouder.

AG: Geez, Terezi, aren't you ready yet????????
GC: 4LMOST!
GC: YOU COULD H4V3 4 L1TTL3 P4T13NC3 >:/

AG: I'm surprised th8y don't all get aw8y from you, you're so slow.
GC: 4ND YOUR3 JUST R3CKL3SS
GC: YOUD B3TT3R NOT G3T YOURS3LF K1LL3D OUT TH3R3, YOULL COMPROM1S3 TH3 M1SS1ON

AG: Ughhhhhhhh, for the last time, I don't m8ke mist8kes.
AG: Don't worry a8out me, worry a8out catching that criminal.

"Criminal." You like the sound of that. It's not technically true--there's nothing illegal about serial betrayal--but MMO alliances are one of the few dependable bonds trolls of your age group can form. Vriska's too flighty for pity and too eager for hate, but you know you'll always have her back, and she'll always have yours. You are, as she likes to say, sisters.

Unlike your hapless opponent, you'll fight fair: this is nothing more than a normal Flarp match, just with all the safety brakes and guard rails turned off. Lethal, as the game should be. You've even left him the option of forfeiting--but somehow you don't think your criminal will do that. Despite his fidgeting, he's pretty cocky.

You lay your defendant a trap. He probably won't be taken in by strength masquerading as weakness, not as someone who leans so heavily on that facade himself, but in him you see the arrogance of a troll who has always believed he is the smartest person in the room. So you set out the pieces of your plan: a walled-off room, an enemy that seems almost unbeatable, the exit unexpectedly sealed. An easy out carefully buried into your weaving, visible only to a moderately clever mind. It should look accidental. Just a chink in the armor, a vulnerability you forgot to account for. You wait for him to take the bait.

AG: I'm done over here. ::::)
AG: These guys are chumps, that was easy!

GC: GOOD
GC: 1V3 4LMOST GOT H1M 1 TH1NK
GC: 1M S3ND1NG YOU H1S COORD1N4T3S
GC: YOULL W4NT TO G3T H1M OV3R B3FOR3 H3 P4SS3S OUT

AG: I know, I know!!!!!!!! Geez.
AG: Let Mindfang t8ke care of this. 8888)

And he does.

Vriska makes him drag himself the few klicks from his hive to hers, on a badly wounded leg, and he's too tired to resist. (The body can keep going long after the mind has worn out, she always says.) She doesn't let up--she pushes herself incredibly hard, enough that you begin to worry about her, but Vriska waves your concern off. You wait, eyes fixed on the monitor, for the signal that means mission-complete.

"What? No, no, don't hurt me--don't--you brought me here to torture me, didn't you? You're sick!"

You turn up the volume on your headset. This one is going to be good.

There's a shoving sound. "Oh, shut up, genius. No use in playing pathetic--we've got your number."

"I don't know what you're talking about--"

"We know about your machinations," you intone. "You've been so slippery, all this time, wriggling out of the consequences of your own failure, leaving your partners in the dust. It's a little too perfect to be coincidental, isn't it?"

Vriska huffs. "You didn't really think your little act would fool us, did you? We're smarter than that."

"Then--" His voice goes high, frantic-- "then you know how good I am. You know what kind of player I am. I can get you connections, I can get you up the ladder, I'll do anything, I swear--"

"You swear?" you drawl, into the microphone. "Like you swore to your partners, I guess. Your word doesn't seem to be worth very much."

"Yeah, really," Vriska says. "How are we supposed to trust you to keep your promises? You never had a problem stabbing anyone else in the back before."

"I--never--that was an accident--"

"We already told you that won't work," you say.

He falls silent.

You adjust your microphone, leaning back in your chair. It's a shame there's no video on this thing. "This is not a game, criminal. This is a matter of justice! You have violated the sacred trust of partnership and brotherhood countless times. You have thrown innocent trolls onto the culling block to save your own skin. Do you deny it? How do you plead?"

"Please--oh god, please no, don't feed me--"

"I think that's a guilty," you say softly, with satisfaction. It's been a very productive day.


 

***

 

The two of you play at justice for almost a sweep. You relish the games, you relish the first taste at what you hope will be a long career in the Legislacerators' service, and you relish having her at your back. And if Vriska seems less enthused about punishing the wicked than you, is sometimes impatient to kill before you have amassed the proper evidence--well. She'll learn, you have faith in that. You see what she is, but you also see that she doesn't have to be this way.

And for that reason--among others--you're glad when the two of you begin to actually make friends in Flarp. You've amassed enough enemies for a lifetime.

TA: 2eriiou2ly though ii dont get iit
TA: aa2 pretty good iill giive her that
TA: but niitram2 just terriible
TA: whatever ii thiink about that 2erket biitch 2he2 good at what 2he doe2
TA: and 2o are you
TA: 2o why havent you obliiterated them by now

GC: B3C4US3 FL4RP 1SNT JUST 4 G4M3!
GC: 1TS 4LSO 4 STORY
GC: 4ND TH3 STORY 1S NO L3SS 1MPORT4NT TH4N TH3 G4M3

TA: ...
TA: okay tz that made no 2en2e

GC: 1 WOULDNT 3XP3CT YOU TO UND3RST4ND >:]

Team Charge isn't as good as you, that's true, but they're interesting: Aradia is an amazing clouder, and Tavros a very imaginative one. They're creative. None of that, however, is why you play with them. You play with them because Tavros likes stories just as much as Vriska does.

She likes him a lot more than she's willing to admit to you--you'd lay a bet that the days when she's slow to respond to your Trollian messages, when she doesn't seem to be paying attention to your latest schemes, she's talking to him, letting herself be roped into his "path8tic" non-lethal adventures. He seems to like that kind better; you have no idea why. Neither does she, judging by her near-constant complaining. But Vriska is half bluster, half pretense. You know her almost as well as you know yourself, and you know that Tavros Nitram--the troll she can't help but care about despite his utter incompetence--will be good for her.

(Sometimes you wonder to yourself: what is it you are doing with Vriska? There's no strategic advantage in this; if anything you are destroying an asset to your team by trying to pare down her ruthlessness. Are you playing lusus now? No--you're not teaching her how to survive. You aren't teaching her anything at all.

You're writing a story of your own, maybe.)

You like Tavros a great deal, and Aradia quickly becomes one of your closest friends, but at first you don't know what draws you and Vriska toward Team Charge. Maybe it's curiosity: how does a team so obviously lopsided stay together? They aren't pale or flushed--Aradia already has a moirail, and one look at Tavros puts anything concupiscent right out of the question--and your troll understanding of friendship doesn't allow for that to serve as sufficient explanation. Alliances like yours and Vriska's depend on need as much as camaraderie, and you don't see how Aradia could ever need Tavros. You hadn't figured it out yet, about the stories.

Team Charge isn't matched at all, but they're complementary. Aradia takes systems apart effortlessly, wrenches them inside out just to figure out how they tick. She can master any game in half the time it takes normal players to learn the rules. Her mind's a computer: input variables, output correct (most efficient, achieving optimal results) path, repeat until process is complete. But there's something empty in that kind of gameplay. She walks swiftly to her destination, making only straight lines. Tavros, on the other hand--Tavros soars.

Tavros tells you that he dreams of fantastic creatures, of magic and flying; of worlds without quadrants or armies or war. He's an immensely talented writer, although his blood caste prevents him from following that as a profession. A couple perigees after you start playing, you realize that you're actually learning things from him: how to bring a scene to life, fully realized; how to make your opponent imagine that his enemy is ten times as terrifying as it actually is. He's got an extraordinary imagination, and that's the kind of thing that draws people to a troll, even a rustblood who'll probably be culled before he hits seven sweeps.

Aradia plays the game, then, so that Tavros can write the story. But Scourge still has one-up on Charge; you and Vriska understand that game and story are one.

 

***

 

Nothing works out the way you thought it would.

It's your fault; you'd been so sure of your plans, so ready to see the ways in which (you thought) Aradia and Tavros's friendship was beginning to change her for the better. (Closer to how you wanted her to be.) She'd become more amenable to this justice thing in the last few perigees, even, and you knew, just knew that one day you'd be standing shoulder to shoulder with her, partners in every sense. You'd been so ready--too ready--to envision that future, and not ready enough to entertain the possibility that everything might go wrong. When she'd messaged you a few perigees back--

AG: Hey, why are we 8othering with them, 8nyway?
GC: WHO?
AG: You know. Those chumps.
AG: That loser Tavros keeps 8ugging me to pl8y his stupid Fiduspawn g8mes or what8ver. He can't even Flarp properly!!!!!!!! It's path8tic.
AG: We should just put him out of his misery.

GC: YOU DONT ACTUALLY M34N TH4T
AG: Of course I do! You never t8ke me seriously!
AG: I'm s8ck of h8m and I n8v8r want to see h8m ag8in!!!!!!!!

GC: W3R3 NOT K1LL1NG T34M CH4RG3
GC: TH3Y H4V3 DON3 NOTH1NG WRONG
GC: 4ND B3S1D3S, 4R4D14 1S SOM3ON3 W3 WOULD BOTH R4TH3R H4V3 4S 4 FR13ND, NOT 4N 3N3MY
GC: W3 DONT N33D TO M4K3 TH1NGS MOR3 D1FF1CULT FOR US

AG: Siiiiiiiigh........
AG: I g8ess you're right!
AG: Fine, we won't kill Tavros. 8ut we have to do another execution soon, my lusus is getting intolera8le.

You should have known, then, but you'd written it off as her letting out steam. Vriska is half bluster, half pretense, after all. She'd never wanted to like wide-eyed, weak little Tavros Nitram, who spent half his days dreaming. Of course she would go into the relationship kicking and screaming, spend one night spinning tales with him and the next fantasizing about his head on a pike. But the former impulse would win out eventually, of course; you had never stopped to wonder, what if it doesn't?

You'd committed the cardinal sin of gaming--Vriska's pet sin, and isn't that beautifully fitting: lost in the story, you'd forgotten to play the game. You'd forgotten that there was a game to be played, that reality wouldn't simply warp itself to your desires. Well, you won't forget this time. As you close Aradia's Trollian window and wipe your eyes, you've already begun weaving a new story, fitting the pieces together, planning your next move. You go through all your logs with Vriska and gather up the little inconsistencies, letting them reveal the portrait of the truth you've been ignoring. Here's the evidence, Your Honorable Tyranny. And here is the verdict.

It's poetic justice, that you'll be the one to bring her down: ends to ends, everything coming full circle, finished as it began.

 

***

 

When you're five sweeps old, yet too young for proper quadrants, a failed alliance is almost the bitterest thing you can imagine. It doesn't matter that you'd never desired or pacified Vriska, or she you; she was your sister, yours. And then she wasn't.

The ensuing bloodbath leaves neither of you unscathed. You end it only because you'd destroy yourself and her both otherwise. But you know that any truce has to be temporary, so you keep tracking her, you keep collecting evidence, and you never stop sharpening your sword; one day she'll slip up, you know, and when that day comes you'll be waiting with a coin and a smile.

(Sometimes you dream that you're standing shoulder to shoulder, weapons raised against an encroaching sea of enemies, and it doesn't take you long to figure out the rhythms of her fight again, nor to match them--

Sometimes you dream that she's as sharp-eyed and brilliant as you knew she could one day become, and all of her strength turned to the wrong purposes; she bests you one day, blazing a trail of murder in her wake, and when you finally catch up to her, your hands and coat still stained with innocent blood, she's smiling. She's beautiful, your nemesis, your fated, your perfect enemy if she can't be your perfect friend, and when you clash you feel the rightness of it, everything full circle, ended where it began--)

 

***

 

Nothing works out the way you thought it would.

You can feel her blood--the blood of the girl who would have been Hero of Light--seeping through your fingers, slicking your gloves. It's the only time you've ever smelled her still.

Chapter Text

2. karkat vantas

 

CG: YEAH, BECAUSE YOU'RE JUST SO HELPLESS.
CG: THAT INDUSTRIAL STRENGTH ROPE TYING YOUR HANDS TOGETHER IS IN NO WAY MADE OF MUSCLEBEAST SHIT.
CG: NOTHING YOU CAN DO.

GC: 1 D1DNT S4Y TH4T
GC: 1 *COULD* ST3P 1N 4ND D34L W1TH VR1SK4
GC: 1F YOU R34LLY W4NT M3 TO
GC: BUT 1 DONT TH1NK YOU W4NT M3 TO
GC: YOU 4LR34DY H4V3 P3OPL3 QU3ST1ON1NG YOUR L34D3RSH1P AB1L1TY DONT YOU?

CG: OH, I SEE.
CG: HOW FUCKING CHARITABLE OF YOU. HUMANITARIAN OF THE YEAR, THAT'S TEREZI PYROPE.
CG: YOUR PRIZE IS A SENSE OF RIGHTEOUS SUPERIORITY AND A CHANCE TO SWOOP IN AND PLAY VULTURE AFTER KARKAT VANTAS, PROFESSIONAL FAILURE, DOES IT AGAIN.
CG: OR THAT'S WHAT YOU THINK, ISN'T IT?
CG: YOU THINK I'LL GO DOWN IN FLAMES SO BADLY THE FIELDS WILL LIE BARREN FOR CENTURIES
CG: AND THEN YOU'LL BE ABLE TO SWOOP IN AND TAKE CREDIT FOR SAVING THE TEAM
CG: AND EVERYONE WILL GATHER ROUND TO SUCK YOUR BULGE.
CG: WELL, YOU CAN FUCK OFF. I'M NOT GOING TO FAIL.

GC: 1 DONT TH1NK YOUR3 GO1NG TO F41L K4RK4T
CG: FUCK OFF
CG: DON'T PLAY YOUR FUCKING MINDGAMES ON ME
CG: I'LL BE THE BEST LEADER THIS SHITTY GAME HAS EVER SEEN, AND WHEN I LEAD YOU ALL TO VICTORY THAT SHIT-EATING GRIN MIGHT EVEN SLIDE OFF YOUR FACE
CG: AND I WILL SAY
CG: "I TOLD YOU SO."

GC: 1 B3L13V3 YOU!
GC: YOU H4V3 TH3 POT3NT14L TO B3 4 GR34T L34D3R >:]
GC: 1 C4N S33 1T 1N YOU

CG: YOU ARE SO GODDAMNED INFURIATING.

 

You grin as you close the chat client. Talking to Karkat Vantas is always an adventure.

The two of you don't meet properly until Sgrub: you know of him only vaguely, as a friend of a friend, until Sollux falls into one of his depressive fits and you have to go find someone to make sure he eats. Karkat complains nonstop during the entire conversation--about you, about Sollux, about all the trouble you're both causing him--but he's the most transparent person you've ever met: the hovering worry bleeds through so strongly you can almost taste it. For half a perigee after that you're partners in panic, bonded together by a common cause. You learn, half by accident, all of his ugly secrets, get to know him better than anyone besides yourself and Vriska.

Well--not all of his secrets. He keeps the last one to himself.

Then Sollux starts sitting down for meals regularly, and stops sleeping through half the day, and things go back to normal, but the phantom of that momentary connection still lingers. You pester him when you're bored; he pesters you when he's exhausted. Your relationship takes on a strange, ugly intimacy. He maintains that you are a headache and he doesn't give a shit; he never mentions that harrowing half-perigee or your unusually revealing late-night conversations. But he keeps coming back, and he never blocks you. You learn to tell his mood by how long it takes him to loudly regret ever pestering you.

You aren't friends with Karkat--you can't even say you like him, really. Karkat Vantas hates himself. He thinks in absolutes, and rarely past the end of next week, unless it's to convince himself that nothing gold can stay. He cultivates anger like it's his livelihood but seems quite incapable of concupiscent hate. He has never been indifferent about a single thing in his life. No, liking's not quite the right word for the way you think of him. But he's--a curiosity, more guileless and (almost) more intense than anyone you've ever met. Sometimes you feel like every person you've met is a card you hold in your hand, to be played or discarded when the time is right, and you plan to keep this one for a long time.

Then one day he barrels into your chat window like a man on a mission--Karkat Vantas is always a man on a mission--and you think: yes, curiosity is definitely a better word for this.

Karkat demands unreasonably, like a wiggler whining to his lusus: he demands like someone who was taught that giving in is a weakness. He is desperate (always desperate, always hungry for something) and he doesn't know how to hide. But Karkat Vantas is also utterly unmovable when he wants to be.

You want to know what he'll do.

You retreat for the moment. Even you don't know what your next move will be.

 

***

 

You talk to him more over the course of the next night than you have for sweeps. Oh, you have your own business to deal with--making sure Gamzee stays on task is a full-time job in and of itself--but Karkat's chat window stays minimized at the edge of your screen at all times. You talk. You explain things to him. You explain them twice. You grin to yourself when he starts ranting.

You time him. After six hours or so, something almost miraculous happens: Karkat stops being angry.

CG: OH WHAT THE FUCK EVER.
CG: YEAH, I KNOW, NUMERALS OF THE BLIND PROPHETS AND CRYPTIC PROPHECIES.
CG: I HAVE TO GET UP TO THE SPIROGRAPH, RIGHT? THAT'S WHERE THE FIRST GATE IS?
CG: LET'S JUST DO THIS.

Well, almost. He yammers nonstop into your client, complaining about lususprites and Vriska and "this goddamn planet, seriously, who fucking decided it was a good idea to cover a planet in blood? I will never be able to unsmell this." But it's almost amiable: he inducted you into his Brotherhood of Rage sometime in the past hour, and you barely even noticed.

Several hours later, you're poring through your sixth ancient ruin, knee-deep in the mysteries of "ancient goddesses," and Karkat is midway through a rant about "fucking sidequests, what is the point? Any wiggler can solve these stupid puzzles, so why make us run around doing larval homework, again?" It's a very colorful rant. You almost hesitate before interrupting it.

GC: DONT TH3N
GC: DO SOM3TH1NG 3LS3 FOR 4 WH1L3 K4RK4T G33Z3

CG: LIKE WHAT?
CG: NOT ALL OF US GOT THE FRUITY CARNIVAL RIDE PLANETS, OKAY, SOME OF US HAVE TO TOUGH IT OUT ON BLOOD-AND-OBSIDIAN WASTELANDS.

GC: COM3 OV3R H3R3 TH3N
GC: TH3 H1LLS SM3LL L1K3 GR33N 4PPL3 4ND 1 COULD US3 SOM3 COMP4NY >;]

CG: FUCK YOU, WILL YOU CUT THAT OUT?
GC: 1T W4S 4 S3R1OUS OFF3R
CG: WHAT ARE YOU DOING NOW?
GC: S1D3QU3STS
GC: 1 COULD B3 P3RSU4D3D TO CH4NG3 T4CKS THOUGH

You were halfway through a difficult puzzle when you decided to start talking back to him, and you've nearly nailed it before he decides to reply again.

CG: FINE.
CG: BUT ONLY BECAUSE I'M COMPLETELY FUCKING SICK OF THIS SMELL, OKAY?

GC: OF COURS3, OF COURS3 >:]

Then you sit down cross-legged and push thoughts of Karkat out of your mind. You want to finish this puzzle before he gets here.

 

***

 

CT: D--> I am aware of the issue
CT: D--> Vantas's team seems to be simply plagued by these problems
CT: D--> Or rather, your team
CT: D--> Does it not

GC: 1TS K4RK4TS T34M!
GC: 4ND MY T34M
GC: BUT NOT L1K3 YOUR3 1MPLY1NG
GC: 1TS YOUR T34M TOO YOU KNOW

CT: D--> I abso100tly refuse to a%ept this
CT: D--> I will not cede leadership to someone so 100d
CT: D--> Not to mention too cowardly to publicly display his blood color
CT: D--> I presume he is ashamed of carrying such a low pedigree
CT: D--> As he should be

GC: DO3S TH3 ST1CK UP YOUR 4SS HURT WH3N YOU MOVE?
CT: D--> Oh my
CT: D--> Such crassness
CT: D--> Is unfitting of a blueblood such as yourself
CT: D--> You will stop immediately

GC: H3H3H
GC: W3 COULD SOLV3 SOLLUXS PROBL3M PR3TTY QU1CKLY 1F YOU WOULD H3LP

CT: D--> I refuse
CT: D--> If he wishes to align himself with Vantas, he can rely on Vantas to help him as well

GC: HOW LONG 4R3 YOU GO1NG TO K33P TH1S UP?
GC: YOU 4R3NT GO1NG TO W1N TH1S F1GHT YOU KNOW
GC: W3 H4V3 TH3 3NT1R3 R3D T34M B3H1ND H1M
GC: PLUS SOLLUX 4ND F3F3R1
GC: 4ND YOU KNOW WH3R3 F3F3R1 GO3S 3R1D4N GO3S TOO
GC: YOUR3 OUTNUMB3R3D

CT: D--> Aren't you forgetting about your former partner
GC: 1F YOU W4NT TO R3LY ON VR1SK4 TO PROP UP YOUR T34M B3 MY GU3ST
GC: YOUV3 4LR34DY LOST. YOUR3 JUST DOOM1NG YOUR T34M 4T TH1S PO1NT
GC: W3 BOTH KNOW TH1S

CT: D--> And you've been sent to convince me of this unassailable truth
CT: D--> So you're Vantas's lapdog now
CT: D--> I see

GC: NOP3!
GC: 1 4M *TH3 DR4GON*
GC: 4ND YOU DONT W4NT TO G3T ON MY B4D S1D3 >:OO

CT: D--> Now you're simply speaking nonsense
GC: YOU SHOULD G3T 1N TOUCH W1TH SOLLUX SOON
GC: 1LL B3 CH3CK1NG UP ON YOU!

-- gallowsCalibrator [GC] has ceased pestering centaurTesticles [CT] --

CT: D--> Oh dear
CT: D--> I think I am beginning
CT: D--> To sweat

 

***

 

He doesn't stay with you very long--Karkat Vantas is forever impatient, flitting from one task to the next without noticing that it's only half done--but when he's not fighting his way through the gates, or shouting down anyone who disagrees with him, he spends more time on your planet than his own. Can't stand the smell, he always says, but he's lying. Mostly.

You start keeping up a list of combat-heavy sidequests. You let him challenge you to imp killing contests. You win every time.

You take him up to your tree--he rolls his eyes when he sees it (how can you stand to live in that shithole, it doesn't even have running water), but he doesn't seem to mind spending idle hours up there, doing something he swears isn't sleeping, his head propped up against the walls. His whole frame droops, but he keeps typing away at his crabtop, scowling at the screen. A quick sniff tells you he's talking to Eridan.

"It's Feferi and Sollux again," he says, rolling his eyes, "the asshole never quits whining. Needs to fucking get over it already." He doesn't close the window, though.

The conversation lasts more than three hours. Later you will think: this may be the most admirable thing about Karkat Vantas. (Later you will think: that was when you finally decided for real, wasn't it?)

You get all his idle, unedited thoughts in those hours--he rambles without thinking about it, looses the bag and lets every complaint and concern and preoccupation fly. He comes up with half-baked plans, reworks them, and discards them in the same breath. You open your mouth only to point out the flaws in his thinking. He never concedes to you without a fight, even when it's clear on his face that he knows he's wrong.

On one occasion he's talking about disabling Derse, head tipped back and face scrunched up, like he's seeing something on the ceiling that he doesn't much like. They'll have to use Vriska and her mind control, he says. It's the only way they'll be able to get in and disable the weapons centers--

"She can't control that many people at once," you scoff. "She's not that powerful."

He snorts. "We don't have a fucking choice, now do we? She says she can do it."

You shake your head at him. "See," you say, "you're both the same. You don't think in any direction except straight through. You can't always get what you want by using pure force. Sometimes you have to be more sneaky!"

And here is the moment you've been waiting for: Karkat sits up and looks you dead on. There's a small frown wrinkling across his face. "How would you do it, then, if you're so fucking clever?"

A challenge. You love challenges.

"I'd still use Vriska. But not so direct. I'd have her plant doubts in their minds, sow the seeds of rebellion--you think all of the Dersites are okay with the ruling government? If we plan this right they'll do half our job for us--and it'll be easier to get the rest of the plants if everything is in chaos and half the population doesn't care anymore, won't it?"

He tilts his head to the side. His expression hasn't changed, but you know how to read him by now: he's thinking about it. "That's a nice thought, but we don't have that much time?"

"I won't need much time. Send me and Vriska, I'll have it done within the week."

"You will fucking not, I know you think you're oh-so-special, but even you--"

You lean forward. "Trust me," you say.

He eyes you--surprised, cautious. "Said the subjugglator to the rustblood," he scoffs, but he doesn't seem sure.

"Subjugglators have to be at least navy-blooded. You know that."

A snort. "Haha, you're a goddamn riot," he says, but you're not listening, because the next word out of his mouth is, "Fine."

 

***

 

This storehouse has long been picked clean, but it makes a good hideout--and a good place to catch your breath while you wire Karkat. A couple rebel Dersites keep watch for you as you fire up the chat client and put on your headset.

"--what the fuck is going on," is Karkat's first sentence. You wish you hadn't dropped your glasses back there; hearing all the screaming going on outside is just going to agitate him more.

"The good news is they did practically all of our work for us!" you chirp, mostly because you know it'll piss him off.

"Don't play dumb with me, Terezi, what's the fucking bad news."

You sigh. "Vriska and I are probably going to have to fight our way out--it's gotten pretty bad. But it's not a big deal, really, Karkat, we'll be--"

He curses into the headset. (Karkat's really good at cursing: he's always very creative.) "I should have been there," he says. "I shouldn't have let you clowns handle everything."

"It worked, didn't it? Besides, no, you shouldn't have. You're too valuable to be out here--you need to be available to the rest of the team."

"Bullshit," he spits, "bullshit--don't play that with me, you just didn't think I could handle it--didn't you say the leader was supposed to handle things himself?" His voice is high, his words running over one another; you imagine him pacing back and forth in your tree, kicking scalemates across the room, and smile.

"That was a different game, Karkat--keep up." You keep your voice light and teasing. "That was power-broking. Now it's--have you ever played chess?"

You hear a long, whistling sigh. "I'm not stupid, Terezi, of course I've fucking played chess. Get to the point."

"You can't throw your king into battle. You have to keep him protected."

Outside, you hear shouts of pain and the clashing of steel--but the loudest noise in your ears is a crash and a whine. Karkat, you guess, has dropped his headset.

You always win. Always.

One of the Dersites is getting your attention--Vriska is here, apparently. It's time to make your way to the docking bay. "Oh, I have to go!" you tell Karkat. "I'll talk to you later!"

"Terezi, wait--"

The ensuing battle is grueling, but through it all you never stop smiling.

 

***

 

You lure Karkat out to the peak of your planet with a tall tale and an appeal to his ego--"I tried before, but they're pretty tough! I don't know if I can do it by myself"--then change your mind halfway through and tell him the truth. He rolls his eyes up to the sky.

"Should've fucking known," he says, ruefully. "You always lie."

You sniff, pretending offense. "I do not. You just aren't smart enough to pick out a lie from the truth."

He shifts weight from one foot to the other. "Maybe I just don't want to play your horseshit games all the time. Did you think about that?"

"Nope!" You grin. "Besides, maybe I wanted your company. Maybe," you add, "maybe I thought you needed a break. You've been extra cranky lately, Karkat."

"I don't have time for breaks, the Reckoning's coming soon," he says, but he resumes the hike up the trail without looking back at you. Magnanimously, you allow him to lead, up until the point where the summit is about to come into view.

You put your arm in front of him. "Close your eyes. This part's a surprise."

"Fuck that," he says, and starts further up the trail, but you tug at his arm.

"Close your eyes, Karkat--geez, you're no fun." You shape your face into an imitation of his scowl that you think is pretty good.

"What," he says lightly, "so you can stab me in the back and take my place as leader?"

It's your turn to scoff. "For the last time, dumbass, I don't want to be leader."

His eyes flicker across your face. Karkat smells a little like charcoal, a little like licorice, but with a bitter edge: he's always on guard. "I never understood that." Not angry, just quiet.

"Of course," you say. "You never understood the value in not tackling a problem head-on. Come on."

He closes his eyes.

You and Karkat Vantas aren't friends, precisely, but you like him a lot.

You come up behind him and put your hands over his eyes, guiding him along the trail, and he bucks in your arms. "Terezi, what the hell--"


You laugh and press closer, sniffing the back of his neck and cackling harder when he tries to arch away from you. And that's when it happens.

You smell red.

Just like that, all the pieces fall together; the last secret is an open book. You understand Karkat Vantas--desperate, overweening, cantankerous, kind Karkat Vantas. Karkat the painfully earnest. You know him better than you know yourself. And you--

"Get off me, Terezi," he grumbles, but you only press closer. You pity him, you pity him, you pity him.

Chapter Text

3. dave strider

 

Right now, there's nothing to do but wait.

After fifteen minutes or so, it comes: Karkat turns around from his computer chair and hollers, "Terezi, what the fuck have you been doing with those humans?"

Everything about him's puffed up--he raises himself to his full height, which isn't much--and his scowl is so perfectly petulant. It is funny, after all, so you laugh in his face, because it feels good.

Then you walk over there and punch him in the arm, because that feels good too, in a different way.

"What the hell, Terezi--"

You show him all your teeth. "You should calm down," you say. "It's not like anything we do changes things anyway."

You have come to the end of your story, and now you know it: no move you make will change your fate. No amount of skill will save the eleven trolls you have come to call comrades--your tale has already been written down. Anything you do will only ensure your doom; in solving the problem, you cause it. You'd thought you were the heroes, that you were writing some grand destiny for yourselves.

Well, you were wrong. Four humans blundered into your consciousness, and there's nothing, anymore.

You are waiting to die.

You fire up Trollian again--do something, do anything--but there's no one on the other end of the line.

 

GC: D4V3 D4V3
GC: 1S TH1S YOU?

 

You do what you've always done best: laugh.

 

***

 

GC: UGHHHHH
GC: SORRY FOR 4B4NDON1NG YOU 1 H4D TO GO D34L W1TH SP1D3RTROLL
GC: 1 4M SUR3 YOU W3R3 LOST W1THOUT M3 >:]

TG: yup sure was
TG: were reinventing codependent after all tz
TG: cant go more than thirty seconds without a leetspeak injection
TG: else i start going all jittery
TG: arms twitching eyes bulging spouting romantic poetry
TG: it aint pretty thats for sure
TG: you got here just in time

GC: 1 L1V3 TO H3LP!
TG: dont lie it doesnt suit you
TG: okay who am i kidding
TG: take out your websters flip to li
TG: there dead center
TG: see that

GC: NO 1 DONT YOU 1NS3NS1T1V3 C4D
TG: lick that shit til it becomes one gross gray mess then
TG: its your grinning mug after all

He is exactly like Karkat. He is nothing like Karkat.

Karkat couldn't play a game to save his life--he disdained Flarp as "for girls, psychos, and Tavros, not that those categories are mutually exclusive"--but Dave Strider locks himself into single combat with everyone he meets. He plays three-dimensional chess on their backs and half the time they don't know it, but that's completely beside the point. The only person Dave cares to war with is himself.

If you were less smart than you are, here is what you would see: this is a boy who has never felt for anyone or anything, who loves nothing half as much as the sound of his voice, whose only concern in life is his own idle amusement. Dave wears indifference like his own skin; like it will turn his skin into diamond-hard armor. Somewhere in him he believes that if he becomes jaded enough, cynical enough, nothing will be able to hurt him ever again.

Dave doesn't care about much, but like Karkat, when he feels he feels passionately, absolutely. You prod him into conversation about his friends just to see that principle in action. You try not to be what he expects of you, ever. You slide into the skin of the phantom Dave, the other Dave, the shadow Dave, and take his place at the chessboard. You will make him face you--preferably with his shades off.

Bit by bit you drag his life story out of him--the older (distant) brother, the long hours alone in front of a turntable, the painfully guileless friends. He grows even more reticent when you start on them--or what passes for reticent with Dave, which usually involves talking for ever-longer stretches about less and less. Despite all his pretenses, he's really not that hard to read.

GC: 4ND YOU 4R3 CONT3NT TO WORK 1N TH3 SH4DOWS?
GC: YOU H4V3 N3V3R W4NT3D TO B4SK 1N D3L1C1OUS GR33N L1GHT
GC: 4ND B3 TH3 H3RO FOR 4 CH4NG3?

TG: keep up tz
TG: straight-up heroes are so last decade
TG: im not up for this silver age robot clone shooting rainbows bullshit
TG: antiheroes are where the moneys at these days
TG: gonna be a serial killer with a heart of gold
TG: eat the hearts of the wicked so the streets can be safe at night

GC: 1SNT TH4T WH4T B31NG 4 H3RO 1S
TG: okay dont even joke about that
GC: 1T W4SNT 4 JOK3!
GC: BUT 1 TH1NK 1 UND3RST4ND YOUR M34N1NG
GC: YOU W1SH TO PR3V3NT YOUR FR13NDS FROM H4V1NG TO DO TH3 K1ND OF WORK HUM4N MOR4L1TY D33MS "D1RTY"
GC: 1N ORD3R TO PROT3CT TH3M

TG: whoa shit
TG: where do you get that from
TG: "i eat babies for justice"

GC: 1T 1S VERY NOBL3 OF YOU!
GC: BUT 4R3 YOU SUR3 TH3Y N33D PROT3CT1ON?

TG: are you kidding me
TG: of course they need protection
TG: from themselves if no one else
TG: i mean look at egbert he trusted you to lead him into the lions den
TG: that says a whole fucking lot right there

GC: D4V3 1 4M HURT!
GC: 4R3 YOU 1MPLY1NG THAT YOU DONT TRUST M3

TG: babe i dont trust you as far as i can throw lohac
TG: ive read snow white i know those are razor blades in those apples

GC: WH4TS 4N 4PPL3?

He is perfectly infuriating. Emphasis on the perfect.

You think you can make something of it.

 

***

 

You think of it as your last game, because you don't know if you'll live to run any more--but this one is easy. Sburb weaves story and game together like nothing you've ever played before, and all you have to do is guide your player through the steps. You're a living strategy guide.

And there is someone else at the end of the line.

GC: H3Y D4V3 H3Y D4V3
GC: 1S TH1S YOU?

TG: okay
TG: gotta hand it to you
TG: that one is good
TG: jegus its like youre so terrible at everything
TG: it circles back around and becomes antiterrible
TG: that shits solid gold
TG: pawn it for a fortune if you can stand the fucking smell

GC: D4V3 TH4T 1S OBSC3N3
GC: 4LSO R34LLY GROSS >:[

TG: i live to serve
TG: so whats the freaky alien chick want this time

GC: YOUR3 GO1NG TO DO A S1D3QU3ST!
TG: oh hell no

He is annoyingly unreadable but by this point you're pretty sure he likes you. You're glad--you like him too, and you have no qualms about saying that.

And no, maybe not everything you do with him is altruistic, but what's the point of games if they aren't fun?

TG: what the hell does this have to do with saving my session
GC: NOTH1NG!
GC: BUT S1D3QU3STS H3LP TO HON3 YOU 1NTO TH3 H3RO YOU W1LL B3 SOM3D4Y
GC: TH3Y 4R3 4N 1MPORT4NT P4RT OF TH3 3XP3R13NC3

TG: im a little old for that shit tz
TG: i know youre the tooth fairy
TG: also santa claus
TG: and no i will not eat those damn vegetables

GC: WH4T S1D3QU3STS 4R3 TH3 T4STY CONSORTS OFF3R1NG?
TG: just some bs about avenging an ancient wrong and
TG: fuck

GC: >:]
TG: okay who the hell did i piss off in a past life
TG: to get saddled with you

GC: 1 DONT KNOW D4V3
GC: BUT 1 4M V3RY GL4D YOU D1D >:]

 

***

 

You slip up.

No, not like that--you aren't Vriska, after all--but you made a mistake. You fucked up. You saw so clearly the truth of him, the doubt and clouded path and blindness, and you knew what you had to do. You plunged your hands into murky possibility, as only you can do, and snatched out the right path by its wriggling tail. You had been so sure.

Sburb is a game, and Sburb is his story. You've been writing his story since the day you first laid eyes on him in that meteor; you play guide and invisible hand both, and he liked it, liked you.

This isn't the way you wanted things to end.

 

gallowsCalibrator [GC] began trolling turntechGodhead [TG]

GC: ...
GC: H3Y

TG: sup
TG: is this about hatelust again
TG: because i thought we agreed youd leave me alone for a while

GC: 1TS B33N 4 WH1L3
GC: 1 JUST W4NT3D TO T4LK

TG: talk
GC: JUST T4LK
TG: well id love to but i kind of have important business to take care of
TG: breeding frogs slitting wrists
TG: watching paint dry
TG: contemplating the meaninglessness of my existence

GC: 1M SORRY OK4Y
GC: 1 4BUS3D YOUR TRUST 4ND 1 R3GR3T TH4T
GC: 1 D1D 1T FOR 4 R34SON BUT 1 ST1LL R3GR3T 1T

TG: whoa hold it one second
TG: get your horse under control this aint a fucking rodeo
TG: we got class here
TG: also what makes you think i trust you
GC: YOU DO
GC: 1F YOU H4D NOT TRUST3D M3 YOU WOULD NOT B3 SO UPS3T NOW

TG: what isnt a guy allowed to humor a crazy alien chick
TG: with excellent raps and shitty comics
TG: without it turning into this huge thing
TG: i dont think im ready for this level of commitment tz
TG: you still there

GC: 1 K33P T3LL1NG YOU D4V3!
GC: TH3 MOR3 YOU TRY TO H1D3 TH1NGS TH3 MOR3 OBVIOUS TH3Y B3COM3 TO M3

TG: now thats just goddamn unmannerly
TG: doubting a ladys testimony

GC: YOUR T3ST1MONY CONTR4D1CTS TH3 R3CORD! 1 4M S1MPLY DO1NG DU3 D1L1G3NC3
TG: yeah no
TG: you know way too fucking much about everything but you dont know it all
TG: sometimes youre wrong
TG: and i know weve been playing this game ever since you hit me up
TG: making nice all sneaklike like we dont have our fingers crossed behind our backs
TG: well we rode that chicken like paul revere with the british on his heels
TG: rode it till it was good and pulverized

GC: UGH WH4T 4R3 YOU T4LK1NG 4BOUT
TG: you won tz
TG: you won the chicken
TG: i let my guard down and you took advantage of that
TG: thats fine alls fair in love and war all that shit
TG: but the other thing thats goddamn unmannerly
TG: is you rubbing it in my face like this

GC: TH4TS NOT WH4T 1M DO1NG >:[
TG: later

turntechGodhead [TG] ceased being trolled by gallowsCalibrator [GC]

 

This isn't the story you wanted to tell.

 

***

 

"So."

He doesn't sound happy. You narrow your eyes and scowl at the computer. "Oh, are we doing this now?" you say, mock-surprised. "I thought you were ignoring me!"

"You haven't taken your nostrils off me since you got here." A shrug. "Kind of hard to miss."

"Oh, of course. I've been staring at you this whole time, right? I am so obsessed with you, Dave Strider, I just can't stop thinking about you!"

"Sounds about right." His eyebrows draw up above his shades, but his expression moves not an inch.

You laugh, harsh, forced. "You, meanwhile! You do not even care the slightest amount. You are going to whip out one of your Earth metaphors--"

"--look, I've been listening to Vantas, you totally have metaphors on Alternia--"

"--just to make it perfectly clear to me that you do not care. You are going to write a whole concupiscent sonnet to your apathy! I know exactly what you are going to do, Dave Strider--I know exactly what you are going to do, coolkid, and let me tell you: I don't care that you don't care!"

Save for the echo of your voice against the walls, it's silent in the labs. You can feel the agitation coming off of him. Right now it just makes you madder. "Is that seriously a thing you just said," he says, flatly.

And you know; you see further than anyone else and you know what he's going to say and you know you're being ridiculous, but none of that seems to matter. "Yes!"

"And you're mad at me now."

"Yes."

In a voice cool and determinedly even--a voice that could almost fool you--he says, "That's a little rich of you, don't you think?"

"I thought you didn't care," you shoot back.

His head jerks up. "Don't have to care to know that there's something messed up about going back on a dude and then getting all het up, acting like you were the one that got screwed."

"Did I make you promises, Dave?"

Breathe in, breathe out.

"You fucking tried."

And he still isn't facing you and you are so angry, it burns; you've swallowed wild grass and the little blades, the sharp edges, slice at you all the way down your throat. "This is what I hate," you spit. "I hurt you--you can't forgive me--I understand that, I'm fine with that, that's fine! But don't try to pretend. Don't act like you never cared! You aren't cool, Dave. You aren't untouchable, now matter how much you want to do this pathetic dance like you never had feelings. It's just sad."

"Not the only thing that's sad."

You whirl around. "What," you spit, knowing full well the answer.

A shrug. "What, TZ? What do you want me to do, act all broken up about you fucking me over? Want me to boo hoo hoo on your shoulder so you can gloat? 'Cause yeah, I think I'l pass."

You take him in: melted-butter hair, soft pale skin, thin frame, too-long limbs. His jaw twitches ever so slightly. He might be looking at you now.

"Well? Am I wrong about that?"

You run.

 

***

 

"Stupid," you tell Cherryrump, squeezing his sides to the point of pain. It doesn't matter anyway. He's just a toy. "Stupid, stupid, stupid."

He can't answer you back.

There is no one to answer you back except yourself, and you don't like yourself very much right now. Once everything had seemed clear--once you had seen one path, shining and bright like pure white sugar--and now you are crouched in the corner of some goddamn test chamber, talking to a stuffed dragon and crying. You keep saying the wrong things. You keep doing the wrong things, and you don't stop even though you know they're wrong.

This is not what Terezi Pyrope is supposed to be like.

"Yo."

Your insides do an unpleasant sort of flop. "Fine. Fine. I'm sorry. I'll leave you alone, all right? Just go."

"Nah." There's a shifting, and you feel the warmth of him settle down next to you. He smells a little like saltwater. "I get it, yeah? I get why you did all this elaborate coinflip setup bullshit."

It's so very not what you were expecting from him that you're thrown. "Tell me, then."

He's turned toward you now, though of course you can't tell where he's looking. "You're pretty smart. Crouching chalkgirl, hidden genius and all that--my point is that you know a lot of shit." He shifts, rubbing at his neck. "And sometimes--when you're really smart you also kind of forget that you can do really, really stupid shit. I mean, hell, look at Rose."

"Are you comparing me to your grape sister with the big words and the dangerous habits now?"

"Sure am."

You look at him. "Okay," you say.

"What, do you think I'm wrong?"

Something is hurting your chest, and you have to speak. "It was the right answer. You didn't understand--I know you didn't understand, you wouldn't understand and that was the right way. I saw it. I know I was right, it's just that--"

"It's not a game, point, click, input command to get nifty endscreen." His voice is quiet. "Unless we're all strategy games to you?"

This room is cold concrete and a chemical smell, one that itches your nose--but Dave's salt-cherry cuts through it. "No." You let the word pass through you. "No, I wanted to be your friend."

"Figured."

"So--" you start.

"So yeah, I forgive you. To err is human and all that. Put down the swords, wipe the slate clean. Congratulation, TZ, you've partaken in a timeless human ritual."

You're silent then. You both stay silent for a long time. "You're still not okay with this."

He leans in and kisses you.



There's more force, more feeling into it than anything you've ever seen him do in his life: his hands are clutching at your shirt and you're pressed so close together you can't smell anything but red. Dave leans into you like he can't stand being apart one second longer, like a drowning man grasping at the shore, and he--

--he is shaking.

Gently you back off, pry his hands away from you. "It's okay, you know," you tell him. "You don't have to forgive me. You're allowed to be mad!"

"I'm not mad."

You prop your chin up on your knees, frowning at the floor. A lie for a lie: you guess it's what you deserve.

 

***

 

gallowsCalibrator [GC] began pestering turntechGodhead [TG]

GC: H3Y
GC: 1 KNOW YOUR3 M4D
GC: BUT 1 C4NT DO TH1S 4NYMOR3
GC: TH3R3S NO ON3 3LS3 1 C4N T4LK TO 4BOUT TH1S

TG: k
TG: so did you kill her or not

GC: 1
GC: Y34H
GC: 1 H4D TO
GC: W3 WOULD H4V3 4LL D13D OTH3RW1S3

TG: sounds like you did the right thing then
GC: 1 KNOW!
GC: 1 KNOW 1 D1D OK4Y

TG: whoa there
TG: someone take your chalk

GC: >:/
GC: TH4T W4SNT JUST1C3
GC: 1 THOUGHT 1T WOULD B3
GC: 4ND SH3 H4S C3RT41NLY COMM1TT3D CR1M3S 3NOUGH TO D3S3RV3 1T
GC: 1 4M JUST
GC: NOT S4T1SF13D

TG: makes sense
GC: NO 1T DO3SNT!
GC: 1 D1SP3NS3D PUN1SHM3NT UNTO TH3 W1CK3D
GC: 4ND S4V3D 4 LOT OF L1V3S 1N TH3 PROC3SS
GC: TH3R3 SHOULD B3
GC: SOM3 S3NS3 OF S4T1SF4CT1ON M4YB3 >:?
GC: 4 S3NS3 TH4T 1 D1D TH3 R1GHT TH1NG
GC: BUT 1 DONT F33L TH4T W4Y
GC: 1 KNOW 1 D1D TH3 R1GHT TH1NG BUT 1 ST1LL F33L L1K3 1 M4D3 4 M1ST4K3

TG: see thats the thing
TG: it might not make sense to your futuristic cavemen life is an arcade game species
TG: but it makes a lot of sense to me
TG: to a human
TG: before shit started going bad you were friends right

GC: Y34H
GC: W3 W3R3 4 LOT MOR3 TH4N TH4T BUT B4S1C4LLY

TG: okay yeah so
TG: how does it not make sense that youre less than blissful about killing someone that you knew and used to like
TG: that makes a whole lot of sense to me

GC: TH3S3 CONS1D3R4T1ONS DO NOT 3X1ST FOR TROLLS
GC: W3 WOULD PR3F3R NOT TO H4RM THOS3 W3 H4V3 FORM3D R3L4T1ONSH1PS W1TH Y3S
GC: BUT TH3 MOM3NT TH4T R3L4T1ONSH1P 1S S3V3R3D TH4T C34S3S TO B3 4 CONC3RN

TG: okay i know im supposed to be culturally sensitive and shit
TG: but fuck that thats stupid
TG: im not talking about logistics im talking about your squishy inner bits
TG: your feelings
TG: the ones that arent mad cackle and lets laugh at daves pain
TG: you did the right thing doesnt mean you have to like it
TG: sometimes youre handed a shitty job and you have to do it because of sburb title bullshit or whatever
TG: and you do it the best you can
TG: but its not fucking glorious
TG: being the right thing doesnt make a shitty job any less shitty
TG: and its my considered and well informed opinion that killing people is pretty much always shitty
TG: yo
TG: you there

GC: D4V3
GC: 1 TH1NK TH4T 1S TH3 SM4RT3ST TH1NG YOU H4V3 S41D TO M3
GC: 3V3R

TG: cool
TG: so we at the part of the conversation where you work your mind voodoo magics
TG: to get me to put out for you again
TG: cause i have been waiting on the edge of my seat for that part

GC: >:[
GC: 1 DONT W4NT TO DO TH4T

TG: what you dont want to manipulate people and watch things explode from a distance
TG: cause im gonna have to call bullshit on that one

GC: NO
GC: 1 H4V3 N3V3R D3N13D 3NJOY1NG M1NDG4M3S
GC: 1 W4S G1V3N MY T1TL3 FOR 4 R34SON 4FT3R 4LL
GC: BUT TH1S T1M3 1 WOULD PR3F3R TO W1N B4CK YOUR 4FF3CT1ONS
GC: 4ND V4R1OUS L3WD F4VORS
GC: TH3 OLD F4SH1ON3D W4Y!
GC: 1N OLD3N T1M3S TROLLS WHO H4D F4LL3N 1NTO D1SPUT3 BUT WHO ST1LL W1SH3D TO M41NT41N R3L4T1ONS W1TH ON3 4NOTH3R WOULD F1GHT 4 C3R3MON14L DU3L
GC: W1TH TH3 T3RMS OF R3CONC1L14T1ON TO B3 D3C1D3D BY TH3 W1NN3R
GC: BOTH P4RT13S 4GR33 TO FORG3T TH31R GRUDG3 4FT3RW4RD
GC: 1 W4S TH1NK1NG W3 COULD DO SOM3TH1NG L1K3 TH4T >:?

TG: uh
TG: what the fuck
TG: you think we should duel

GC: 1 WOULD THROW TH3 F1GHT OF COURS3!
GC: 1N D3F3R3NC3 TO TH3 F4CT TH4T W3LL
GC: 1 D1D TR1CK YOU

TG: haha good one
TG: well played
TG: thought you said you were done fucking with me though

GC: 1 4M 3NT1R3LY S3R1OUS!
GC: >:[

TG: seriously cant you just
TG: do nice things for me and act really sorry for a long time or something
TG: until i decide its okay
TG: is that a thing that trolls do

GC: SOM3T1M3S!
GC: 1F ON3 1S P4RT1CUL4RLY D3RS1ROUS OF K33P1NG TH3 R3L4T1ONSH1P
GC: OR D3SP3R4T3
GC: BUT 1 W1LL TRY TO B3 CULTUR4LLY S3NS1T1V3!

 

It's funny in its own way, one of those double-looping ironies Sgrub likes so much, but you learn patience from Karkat and honesty from Dave Strider.

Chapter Text

4. jade harley

 

Dave is leaning against the wall when you raise your head out of the recuperacoon, the pounding already heavy between your eyes. At least, you think that's Dave. It could be any of the humans, but he's the only one who has the key to your respiteblock. "Go away, Dave," you mutter, sinking back down into the slime.

He tugs your hair. "Not today. Today is a big day. We've got some serious interior decorating to do, TZ."

You growl at him. In response he waves a bitter brown something in front of your nose.

"Take your medicine."

As it turns out, you're allergic to some of the plants on this new planet. Weeks and weeks of you stumbling around, nose-clogged and half-blind, bumping into the scenery, before Jade finally managed to alchemize you a cure. It tastes terrible, though, like a trash heap in your mouth, and you want nothing of it. If you could just be left alone, to sleep--

"You've been in there for a whole fucking day," Dave says. "Rise and shine. Do you not even care about pissing off Vantas anymore? Because I think that's intervention-staging territory."

"I said go away, Dave."

"Life is worth living, Terezi. Ragefaces are worth living for." He reaches forward and clasps your hand in his. "Tell me about your feelings."

You stare at him. He stares gamely back.

You sigh and open your mouth long enough for him to spoon a little of the brown liquid in. "Blegh." You wrinkle your nose--it really does taste terrible. "Did you get the key?"

He holds it up, spins it around on his finger. "Harley was kind enough to lend her copy to us for the day."

"I think I like this girl, hehehe." With a squelching sound, you pop out of the slime, scrabbling on top of the recuperacoon; Dave turns his back as you towel off sopor residue and pull on a set of clothes. Once, you would have teased him for it. Now you aren't quite sure where the boundaries lie, and that unsettles you. Terezi Pyrope should always be sure.

"Got the chalk?" His back's still turned to you.

"Dave, I always have the chalk."

He gives you a thumbs up. "Knew we were friends for a reason."

There's a long pause, and then-- "We should go," you say, and he follows you down.

 

***

 

The two of you work quickly and silently, an unspoken understanding stretching between you. It's so rare to find someone who shares your sense of artistic vision! You could not be luckier. You doodle a troll with nubby little horns and red cheeks; Dave leans over and scribbles a moustache on him, in green. You add a speech bubble, and he fills it with a line that makes you laugh, really laugh, for the first time in a long time.

"You are so vulgar," you inform him cheerfully. "Better be careful! He might interpret that as some sort of caliginous advance."

"The life of a coolkid. All them bitches want this piece of ass."

Then, at last, you're done. Wall-to-wall rainbow masterpieces, dragons and comics and dozens of terrible jokes, courtesy your partner in crime over on the left. You pause to admire your work, licking the chalk dust off your palms.

"Fucking hell, I knew you were trying to distract me--"

You hear the sound of giggling-- "It took you long enough, Karkat!" and oh, that's him, clomping up the stairs. You recaptchalogue your chalk with a grin and try your best to look innocent; not that you think he'll be fooled for a moment, but it incenses him like nothing else to see you try.

"What the fuck did you let them do--" Karkat throws the door open and storms in, still yelling over his shoulder. His face, when he sees what you've done to his walls, is a thing of beauty.

Dave gives him a one-shouldered shrug. "Just making your room a nicer place to be, Karkles. You can thank us later."

When he's angry, Karkat scrunches up his nose. "I--what--you--" He throws up his hands. "Don't you assholes have anything better to do?"

"Nope!"

"Sure don't."

It's even true.

 

***

 

The past six months have been quiet: the games are over, the battles fought, tears shed and wars won. Karkat--and by extension all of you--has devoted his time to building a settlement on the empty planet. We have to become sustainable, he insists, along with a bunch of other things you tune out. This grist won't last forever. So you spend your days foraging, popping in on Kanaya and Jade in their makeshift garden, and escaping whatever boneheaded task Karkat is trying to force you into today. You'll never have to fight another imp or break another universe; you'll never have someone else's blood on your hands again.

You are so incredibly bored.

You've been spinning your wheels ever since you got here, needling people in between your chores, driving Karkat to distraction. Planning pranks with Dave. It has its charms, but you're in a universe of sixteen and before long you tire of seeing the same faces every day. Terezi Pyrope was born in action; she casts judgment on the wicked and punishes lawbreakers; she makes and breaks kings. She was not made for peace.

Karkat, on the other hand, has taken to it like a seadweller to water; he seems more alive than ever. Nothing could make him happier than getting to order, fuss at, manage, and wrangle sixteen people into doing completely mundane things. He makes lists and lists of plans--the memos start up again, which is how you can tell he's finally feeling himself--edits, changes, scraps them altogether, and pretends not to listen to anyone's advice on the subject. You troll him a little; he's always expecting something from you, you can tell, but you can't work in gears and crops and numbers. They aren't your language.

These days when you come downstairs you can smell his scowl; he stands, arms folded, in front of the doorway, staring Jade Harley down. She twirls a lock of hair around her finger, wearing an expression to match. They're fighting, and have been for some time. You don't think either of them really sees you.

Jade lived alone on an island for seven years, in labs like the ones in the Veil, if not as big. Like a proper troll, she taught herself to survive. She knows more about water and power and sources of food than the other fifteen of you put together, and you know it, and Karkat knows it, even if he'll never admit it. You watch the way he at first argues, then defers, a careful pattern the two of them dance together.

Then you head for the exit. You feel like being far away right now.

 

***

 

Almost immediately, you run into Vriska.

She grins, too-wide, all swagger and no real confidence. "Well, you're up early, Redglare," she calls. "Nothing to do as usual? Geez, I don't know what we're keeping you around for if you're just going to take up space like this."

You roll your eyes. "Ugh, do you even listen to what you're saying?"

"Ooh, did I hit a nerve, Neophyte? How unfortunate." Like you're five sweeps again and still sniping impotently at one another.

Like you never had her blood on your hands. "Go away, Vriska. I'm not roleplaying with you."

She scowl-pouts, tossing her head. "Patheeeeeeetic. Why does anyone bother with you and your mopey mope moping? That's what I want to know--"

"Terezi!"

You catch Jade's characteristic sour apple scent. Thank Jegus, Gog, and all their alien children. "Jade-human! What's up?"

"I, ah--" She glances over at Vriska, who's doing her level best to look uninterested in the conversation. "Something's come loose in the water tower we're constructing, and I need someone to hold it up. Aradia's out, and John, well, I can't find him anywhere. I was wondering if you had a solution?"

"Hmm..." You rub your chin, miming thought. "It's pretty heavy, right? That's a hard one! Hey, Vriska, you haven't seen John anywhere, have you? I think he's the only one besides Aradia who could do that."

She stops in her tracks--when she turns around, she is smiling again. "Not everyone is weeeeeeeeak like you, Terezi! I can hold up that beam, no problem. As a matter of fact, I will go show you right now!"

She leaves a trail of candy sparkles as she flies off.

Jade stares after her. "Um, should I be worried?"

"She will do the best job ever," you inform her solemnly. "There's someone over there, right?"

"Yeah, Feferi's covering things right now...." And she begins to giggle, face scrunched up, arm over her eyes. "You are really, really good at this--I'm impressed! I thought about asking her, but I don't think she likes me very much, so I wasn't sure."

You smile. "I have no idea what you're talking about, Jade-human! I only asked her a simple quesstion--she just went off on her own! Vriska does that."

"Hehehe, of course." She's positively bouncing. You like this girl; you've seen her bowl over gods (and Karkat) with a smile and a glare. "You don't mind asking a few more questions, do you? I need Karkat's help with this project, but he's still being so stupid. I might have yelled at him."

Okay, you really like this girl. "He's still mad about the walls?"

"So mad, oh my god." She wrinkles her nose. "It's all 'this horseshit again' and 'false pretenses' and you would think I stabbed him in the back or something! They're just fucking walls, you fuckass, get over it--" And that--that is a very rude gesture she's making. "It's really annoying. We have to get this purification system up and running, we're getting low on grist, but he won't listen."

You shrug, one-shouldered. "That's Karkat for you! Sometimes you just have to let him have his tantrum. Do it without him. He will just have to get over it!"

Her scowl is fierce. "I tried. No one listens to me--" You can tell, by the pepper-sharp scent, exactly when she gets it: exactly when it dawns on her face.

"Jade-human, we are going to make them."

 

***

 

Jade has the plans already drawn up--they're way too complicated for you to understand, so you don't bother--and between the two of you you can beg, threaten, and cajole your way into free labor, but she needs a mechanic and a computer geek, and therein lies the problem.

"Go away," rasps Sollux when you knock on the door to his respiteblock. Jade wrinkles her nose.

"He was like this yesterday, too."

Where is his moirail--oh, that's right, Aradia's gone. Well, in a pinch you'll do. "No can do, Mister Appleberry Blast, we're coming in anyway!"

You can smell the exhaustion coming off him a mile off. Sollux is a mess, and so is his respiteblock--food cartons and wires strewn everywhere. He's sitting in the middle of the floor, trying to hook in a cable, but he keeps missing. "When was the last time you ate?" you ask, and then amend, "When was the last time you ate anything but snack cakes?"

"We only have so many of those," Jade says mournfully. "You are hogging the supply! Also I need your help."

"Fuck off."

"Who stuck a plug up your ass?"

You start to cackle, restrain yourself halfway through, and go hunt through Sollux's thermal hull. He narrows his eyes at you when you hold up the leftover grubloaf to his mouth, but he takes a bite anyway. Then you shove him off into his recuperacoon.

"He gets like this sometimes!" you explain to Jade. "You just have to wait it out--here, do you have a pen?"

She's watching Sollux's sleeping form with a shrewd look on her face, but she takes enough time out of that to hand you the pen behind her ear.

 

H3Y SOLLUX

J4D3S BU1LD1NG SOM3TH1NG 4ND SH3 N33DS YOUR H3LP
SH3 S4YS 1T SHOULD B3 PR3TTY S1MPL3 TO F1GUR3 OUT BUT 1 DONT KNOW
1T S33MS COMPL1C4T3D
1 HOP3 YOU C4N H4NDL3 1T >:P

H3R3 4R3 TH3 PL4NS! SH3 S4YS TRY NOT TO T4K3 TOO LONG

T3R3Z1

 

"No. No way! It cannot be that easy."

You grin at her as you stick the note up behind the wall. "For some reason, Jade, we only know simpleminded people!"

Equius is a little trickier.

The two of you find him holed up in a pile of robot parts he seems to have transformed into his workshop--he's claimed the common area of this hiveblock for his own, Nepeta complains about it all the time. "For the last time, the answer is no," he says. "Your plans are simply ludicrous. They do not make any sense, and even if they did I could not begin to decipher your undignified shorthand. Neigh, it simply will not do." At that last, he picks up a towel and swipes it across his brow.

"You're ludicrous," Jade mutters. "They make perfect sense, I told you, I used standard notation and anything. It's not my fault troll notation is stupid."

"Troll oatation is hayly distinguished, and I hoof no idea why that fact continues to elude you."

"You're stupid, and your horse puns are terrible." Jade leans over him. "Also, you've got a loose screw right there."

"I am not neigh-king any horse puns--oh, fiddlesticks!"

She folds her arms triumphantly as Equius scrabbles for a screwdriver. "Anyway, you don't have a choice. We have to get the water purification system up and running as soon as possible."

"We are just going to keep bothering you until you agree!" you put in.

"Forever," Jade agrees.

Equius mops his forehead again. "I refuse to accede to the foolishness. Your plans are wrong."

"They are so not wrong and you know it, that's why you won't read them--"

"--they are unintelligible, that is why--"

Jade looks him up and down. "You know what? Fine. I am going to write down everything in your stupid troll language, and then you will see that I am right and you are wrong." And with that, she swipes the plans Equius is working on right from under his nose. "Then you will have to kiss my sweet butt!"

She storms out of the room, head high. Equius lets his screwdriver clatter to the floor. "Oh my," he murmurs. "Oh, dear. Oh, my. Such forcefulness."

You are starting to wonder whether Jade Harley really needs your help after all.

 

***

 

GG: no i get what you are doing!!
GG: and i think it is really smart
GG: i just, um, lose my temper a lot of the time these days :B
GG: people are stupid

GC: H3H3H3 YOU C4N S4Y TH4T 4G41N
GG: you are a lot better at keeping calm when other people are being fuckasses
GG: and figuring out how to manipulate a situation to your advantage!
GG: like a super spy :)
GG: i think you helped a lot! and you know the rest of the trolls better than me

GC: YOU UND3RST4ND HOW TO D34L W1TH TH3M NOW 1 HOP3 >:]
GG: hehehe, i'm a fast learner :D
GG: but yeah! i went back to equius this morning and like you said, he was a lot nicer
GG: especially when he actually looked at the plans
GG: i guess you just need to earn his respect

GC: OR SOM3TH1NG 3LS3 >;]
GG: D: ewwwwww that is so gross terezi
GG: hehe!
GG: anyway i gotta go check how things are going with the tower
GG: thanks again for all your help <3
GG: bye!

gardensGnostic [GG] ceased being trolled by gallowsCalibrator [GC]

 

You like Jade Harley. She understands long games--she understands people--better than anyone you have ever met, and she'll be good for this group. (She'll be good for Karkat.)

After you close the chat window, you take a walk.

 

***

 

This planet smells like grass and hay, threaded through with spice and the blueberry wash of an early-evening sky. Barely any sign of life; certainly none of the dangerous beasts that roamed the Alternian wilderness. And no people.

Karkat insists there must be someone out there--Sgrub wouldn't create a universe without the ability to propagate itself, after all--but you aren't so confident. Intelligent life could be centuries or millenia away, or across oceans, and then it might as well not exist at all for all the good it does you. This world is as empty as it is disordered.

You crawl up into the branches of your favorite tree; favorite because it's easily climbable and far, far away from camp. You love climbing, love heights and the view and the exhilaration--love the wind blowing through your hair, and love imagining that you're flying. These days, it makes you a little homesick, but that's okay, too, because sometimes you want to remember.

Everything had a purpose. Everything was in its place, once, and you oversaw it all, just like this.


"What the fuck, Terezi."

This is decidedly not the place for Karkat. You scowl down at him, although it's unlikely he can see it at this height. "Leave me alone! I came here to be alone, Karkat."

"No one's seen you all fucking day, you know. Were you going to come back before or after Leijon wasted her energy gathering a search party?"

He was worried. Right now that just annoys you.

"You should calm down! I'm not always hanging around camp when you want someone to yell at, you know. I have things to do too!"

"Like fuck," he says, "you just snort chalk with Strider all day."

"Maybe I like hanging out with Dave." You stick out your tongue at him. "Maybe I think he's actually interesting."

"Well congratu-fucking-lations."

"Thank you!"

He stares up at you in the tree, arms folded, face contorted with hurt. It makes you feel good; right now you want to grind him into the dust, want to forget you ever knew Karkat Vantas.

"Okay, seriously," Karkat says, voice low. "What's wrong? You look like shit."

You roll your eyes. "What's wrong with you?"

He rolls his right back. "If you actually listen to me, oh Seer of Mind, you'll notice that's not what I asked."

You have been bested in verbal combat by Karkat, of all people. How the mighty have fallen. You lean back in the branches and scowl. "Nothing was wrong until you showed up. I said, I want to be alone."

"So what, you just can't stand the sight of me?" He's looking away.

It takes you a long time to find a response to that. "Why don't you go find Jade? She needed you for something."

He doesn't answer.

Seconds--minutes pass. Something squawks in the distance, some sad old bird. You brush sweat out of your face. Through it all, Karkat stays as still as a statue: as still as your unborn lusus sleeping in her egg, waiting to die. "Spar with me."

You blink. "What?"

You're holding your breath, but you know he's swallowing right now, imagine the way it travels down his throat. "I--don't know. What you want. What you want from me. You like making people bleed, right? So let's spar."

He feels sorry for you. Once that would have made you happy, but you're too tired to feel much of anything these days.

You spar.

Karkat is looser with his movements than he was before, a little shrewder, a little sharper. The first time you draw blood he still freezes, but it's a kind of progress. Something in him has settled since you fought together at the end of the universe.

You don't regret any of it: it's still your best work, the work you're most proud of, six hundred hours of frenzy and roaring and bringing tyrants to their knees, with this angry boy at the center of it all. But that belongs to a time and a place that doesn't exist anymore. You can't go back. You can't be the Seer again.

Karkat will probably never be as good a fighter as you. You beat him handily.

 

***

 

"Coolkid," you say.

The two of you have claimed Jade and Kanaya's garden for your own today--its usual occupants take the news with grace, preoccupied as they are with actual jobs. You, however, have nothing on your mind but Dave's fingers, sticky with juice and hovering over your face as he drops a berry into your open mouth. "Yeah?"

You chew and swallow before answering. "Let's start a mutiny. We can usurp Karkat's authority and declare ourselves the rulers of this universe! Comics and justice for everyone."

"Sounds awesome." He wipes his hands on his jeans--you know it doesn't make a difference but you very carefully don't quite face him. You still aren't sure where the boundaries lie there.

"Or--no, no." You stretch out in the grass. "Let's run away, coolkid. Get a boat and just--sail, far, far away."

"Can't be pirates, though, that's spiderbitch's schtick. Guess we'll just have to be sea ninjas."

"Yeah," you say softly. "That sounds good."

Chapter Text

5. terezi pyrope

 

You run away.

It's Jade's idea, and you think it's the best she's ever come up with--counting the one that saved your lives and a universe, even. If there are people out there, she says, we should find them. The world is our oyster! Hee. She doesn't want to live her life alone any more than you do.

There is a boat--you hover over her shoulder as she makes design sketches--and there is food and navigation (and weaponry, she says breathlessly) to think about. It takes months. You bring in Feferi as your last co-conspirator, and the three of you call in every favor imaginable while revealing as little as possible. It kills you not to tell Dave, but you can keep a secret when you have to.

You don't want to tell Karkat at all.

"No. No, no, fuck no, you are not skipping out on me."

"That's not what this is," Jade says, off to the side. "Terezi's doing something important, geez--you were the one saying we had to figure out where all the people were on this 'godforsaken planet' just yesterday."

"I didn't mean like this," he growls.

You fold your arms. "And why not?"

"Why not? Why not? We haven't even been here a full sweep and already you want to leave, that's why not! I need every hand I can spare to build this place up. We have to fucking survive."

"You said it yourself. I'm not doing anything anyway."

"We can spare three people." Jade talks very fast. "And she wants to go--they all want to go, Dave's been miserable since we got here! You're being stupid, Karkat."

"Strider can go fuck himself. No one is going." But he looks at you with no small amount of desperation, and you feel your temper flare.

You take off your glasses, make him stare right into your eyes. (The ones he always said were creepy.) "You haven't given me a reason, Karkat. Why. Not."

He lifts his chin stubbornly. "Do I need a reason? I'm your fucking leader. What I say goes."

"That's not an answer," you say, at the same time that Jade rolls her eyes and mutters, "Karkat, you're a jerk."

A jerk of the head. "What was your first clue, Harley?"

You are tired of this. So, so tired of this. "You're lying." You say it flatly. "You lie and hide and run--you won't even tell me the real reason you don't want me to go! You know--and I know--and you won't even say it! I'm leaving, Karkat. I'm taking Dave and Feferi and I am getting on that boat, and there is nothing you can do to stop me."

You won't face him a second longer. You turn on your heel, towards the distant shore, towards the waves.

"Terezi, wait--"

"You're really dumb," Jade tells him. You keep walking, heading away from the compound; you'll have to come back to collect your things but this isn't about that, this is about making a point--

"I need you here, okay?"

You stop. Karkat breathes out, ragged. "Don't. Don't leave, Terezi, we just fucking got here, you can't go--"

The air here smells like flowers, flowers that clog your nose and blur your vision. "I can't stay here."

He falls silent at that: maybe he's remembering you up in the tree, him down on the ground. These days he and you fight at every turn. The story that was the two of you--the story you wrote for him--is over now. But still, still--

"I'll come back," you promise, and you mean it as much as anything you've said in your life.

(Later Jade will lean against the wall of your respiteblock, watching you pack up the last of your things. The two of you chatter about Equius and Sollux and Vriska and Tavros. You tell her everything you can think of, everything you know, and then you tell her, Take care of him.

She doesn't have to ask who. Oh, I'll take care of him all right, she says, wrinkling her nose, and both of you laugh.)

 

***

You lean over the railing, taking in the ebb and flow of the sea and the sharp salt air: in time you're sure you'll grow sick of it, but now it clears your head and makes you feel alive all over again. Feferi swims beside the boat, paddling in the water, smelling as almost as gleeful as you are. Dave is at your side, and trying his damnedest not to throw up into the ocean. He has some sort of complex about going down below deck, thinks it makes him look like a 'pussy.' You think it's hilarious.

"Ever going to forgive me, coolkid?" you say idly, as the breeze blows through your hair.

"Never." He rolls his shoulders. "I never want to see another piece of seaweed again, and I know you're just waiting for your chance to lick my eyeballs. Not cool, TZ. I thought you really cared."

"I care! I care a lot. About your eyeballs."

The ensuing silence is a comfort: it's not that you have nothing to say to each other, it's that nothing needs to be said. You begin to think--one day, you think, things will be all right.

"So," Dave says, at last, "do you actually know what we're doing out here, or are we just fucking around on a boat?"

You grin up at him. "It's a work in progress."
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