“Three hours, no more,” says the Sylph of Space, who knows more about these things than you do. “We’ve been pulled into the gravity of the Green Sun, and have no choice but to travel inexorably towards it.”
That’s the sum of Miss Ghoulish Peppermint Cream: a little pompous, a lot precise. At this point in time you’re glad for pompous and precise. You have blood on your hands, though the blood is also unmetaphorical amounts of brain matter and lymph; you’ve been mopping at Sollux Captor’s warm dead face with a scalemate for a while, now, as Commodore Cinnabelly does not care and neither does Sollux Captor.
“He really did get us all the way there,” you say.
Kanaya is mopping a little at the cracked goggles with an embroidered handkerchief, smelling luminous, clean. “Sollux was a marvel,” she says, with surprising warmth.
You loathe her a little for was, and you loathe her a little for marvel. There must be a word greater than marvel. The thin dead body in front of you is a revelation, an awe that got you all the way across infinity by dint of stubbornness and jackassery. A tiny burned-out smile hangs around his mouth as if to say, fuck me, tz, did you see that? (One of his teeth has come right through his lip. You set it back in his cooling mouth.)
And you don’t consider the word miracle.
“I think we should gather all the bodies up,” she says, which startles you. “And begin to set them to rights.”
“You want to tidy up the bodies?” It’s so Kanaya.
“It feels correct.”
It doesn’t require looking up from Sollux’s ruined face to know where she’s looking, and it doesn’t take an emotional genius to know the rubber-band tightness of her voice. Every so often she will look at Gamzee and Karkat, whose angry torrent of sobs has quietened, and every so often she will look over at a crumpled orange figure lying next to its abandoned husktop. The worst part is that, as time passes, you can smell the rolled-out blueberry candy of those wings beginning to curl inwards. Just like a dead fairy, you think.
Gravity brings you all to bear. It drags Kanaya over to the boy who is already being held by someone else which was not a secret to you ever, pulls her to the glowing emerald ember of the Sun, pulls her to that abandoned orange body you have been careful not to look at. You say, “I’m fine here,” and add, “Mr. Appleberry would want me to go through his pockets!” which prompts a light gurgle. Normally she would sass a comeback. But Kanaya just mutters assent and drifts over to Vriska’s corpse, glowing like a eucalyptic firefly.
(What could you say? Could you have made a justification, read her your verdicts? Would this have given her comfort? Signs point to no.)
So you go through Sollux’s pockets, more out of duty than desire. There’s a few pieces of scrap paper, a linty jellygrub and a scrubby friendship bracelet braided in thread, all maroons. The circumstantial evidence of his life. You keep the jellygrub. Karkat might like it, he likes sweets.
This is a pretty inane thought as thoughts go but gravity pulls you, too, to the boys a little way away. The distance between you might well be a gulf! There’s nobody for Karkat Vantas right now except the tall, lanky-legged troll with blood on his teeth, whom he has wrapped himself around like twining ivy. The answering hold is looser, less committed, one arm spread round his shoulders and smushing Karkat’s head into his ribcage.
Gamzee is looking right at you.
The arm around Karkat’s shoulder tightens, long fingers splayed over his back. Gamzee is smiling, and it is not a nice smile. It’s a nasty parody of the smile he used to give -- that hey, girl, what’s the haps with you at this motherfucking moment? -- like he is all silly with surprise. He smiled it when the boy who got you here tumbled down dead in your arms, like Sollux was an occasion to evince fakey-fake awe. Shit, girl, is that Captor with his elbow bones all POKING OUT HIS ELBOW FLAPS?
But you are being unfair, you’re being distrustful, this is Gamzee and everyone’s broken down in varying degrees of profound --
He winks at you. It is very quick, a blink, a swift shuttering of grey down yellow. Then, like nothing happened at all, he strums his fingers down across Karkat’s shoulderblades as though he wants to soothe him but never got told how. It rattles each one of your vertebones.
That makes him smile again, your unease his funny secret, and he tucks that smile away in Karkat’s hair. How perfectly pale. Karkat just gives a throaty, “It’s okay, dude, I’m here -- I’m here, fuck, we’re fine, I’m fine, you’re fine.”
“We’re all fine,” says Gamzee, and his scratchy voice does that peculiar, hoarse shout it now slips into: like he can’t control his squawkblister, like each word has to be ground out through his teeth. “We’re all mother fucking fine now, ain’t we just.”
“We’ll be okay,” says Karkat, for whom it has obviously become a pretty shitty mantra. “You’ll be fine.”
“Safe as fucking hiverings.”
“I fucking promise.”
Karkat sounds as though he is all out of promises and scraping low on weaksauce blandishments. It is sort of embarrassing seeing two people get all wantonly conciliatory like this -- behaviour that might have once had you hooting for the offenders to get a pile -- but now is leaving a bad taste in your mouth. A familiar taste, this. The coppery bite of a lie.
“Karkat!” you call out. You don’t think you imagine the quick irritation that tugs at Gamzee’s eyes. For Karkat’s part he is sore with tiredness and old gummy tears, and he looks at you very blearily. “Kanaya thinks we should go and get the other bodies.”
“What?” He sounds swollen but still himself, which softens a tight knot inside you. He barks, “For a fucking snack bar?”
“Karkat.” (Only Kanaya can ever sound that crushingly scandalized.)
“Well -- for what?”
“Neatness and niceness,” you say, and you wipe large quantities of Sollux down your skirt. “Take stock of who’s alive and who isn’t. Make them more presentable if we meet anyone. Nobody likes a bunch of untidy corpses, it’s rude.”
He opens his mouth rancorously, but then closes it again. “Yeah,” he says, after a moment. “Yeah. Okay. We should get everybody up.” As though you’re all attending a tea party. Karkat squares himself. “In for a boonpenny, in for a goddamn boonbond. Your creepy idea is officially passed, you should -- let’s go down, I want everything -- everyone -- up here.”
“Dumpass,” you say, gently as you can, “you hurl your bilebladder when you see blood, you don’t have to do this.”
“Do I correctly hear this noisome bullshit? Are you saying I’m squeamish?”
“I am saying you threw up only two minutes ago -- ”
“Not with me keeping him on the straight and fucking narrow,” says Gamzee. “I wouldn’t let my motherfucking best friend hurl unrighteously at just a little bit of rainbow. I can do all the heavy lifting, wicked sister.”
You cannot help yourself. “Objection! Considering that Mr. Makara made half the bodies, bodies, I find this a bad idea.”
“Terezi, do not fucking start with me -- ”
Gamzee’s eyes glitter when he looks at you. “Oh, girl,” he squeaks, in that awful farce of how he used to talk, “girl, that’s low-down cruelsome, do you really think I could get them ANY DEADER?”
You all go play scavenger hunt.
It’s the heads you get first, still a little leaky and disarrayed on a table. Kanaya spends some time closing everybody’s eyes with the pad of her thumb, smoothing away the rictus grin on Feferi’s mouth. The same for Nepeta and Equius, so you don’t have to sniff the green-blue clumps of burst blood vessels at their eyes, finally the same for Eridan -- she does not hesitate over Eridan, simply rearranges his broken glasses and smooths back his hair. She does not touch his stupid snapped-up science wand. You now know what happened to Eridan.
Gamzee’s behaved up till now, corpses tossed over his shoulder like he’s hauling firewood, but then he gets that stupid-on-purpose look and asks Kanaya if it doesn’t make her hungry as hell, he wouldn’t want his new walking-deadfriend to get her snack on accidentally, and Kanaya bristles like a quillbeast. His new moirail is a little harried: “Oh, my God, Gamzee, you don’t just ask if someone’s hungry for bodies.”
“My bad, best friend.”
His back’s to everyone but you, but it wouldn’t matter if it wasn’t. You can smell when he raises his fist and bites his knuckles with that exaggerated look of oh, no, I’m in trouble, eyes boring away from and at you simultaneously. The funny green puppet that is the twin of Dave’s lusus’ stares at you with the same empty, idiot smirk! Your body tenses without your say-so, your palms prickling with sweat and your bloodpusher racing. You are in stabbing pains of fear. You can only think about Sollux tumbling from the sky like a burned-out firework, Dave in green with red all down his front, the sound of gristle giving way when your sword slid straight through Vriska --
When Gamzee walks away the sensation ends. You decide: he is fucking with you on purpose.
You get ablution cloths; you get dustcloths, you get people’s old t-shirts; anything to carry everyone in. When you get back to the rooftop it’s a macabre puzzle to put body part to body part, to flip Eridan’s legs turnways so he’s not facing butt-up, until there are seven crumpled people laid out before you. It would almost look as though they were sleeping, except that they would have to be sleeping, covered in grubsauce, and have major injuries.
You settle Sollux next to Feferi, just because.
There’s not much you can do but wipe blood away from faces, hide wounds and straighten out clothes. Kanaya is better at this than the rest of you. You see Karkat hunched over Nepeta’s feet, tying up her shoes in twice-looped bows like he’s admonishing her not to trip; you busy yourself emptying Eridan’s pockets of rings and combs, scrap paper with his awful loopy handwriting. Apparently he was trying his hand at both break-up notes and poetry (fef i got an obligatory feel towwards you to say that you didnt break up wwith me as your moirail on accounta i had offishially broken up wwith YOU the night before i just hadnt SAID SO so THERE) (shall i compare thee to a dimmer seasons night thou art more lovvely an more irriguous). You keep yourself amused this way for a while.
Next to you Gamzee holds Tavros’ broken head in his lap, a long orange horn bracketing each hip. The look on his face is very curious.
You smell his sweat; you smell the faltering way his long long fingers move on Tavros’ face, opening the eyes, then closing them again. He scrubs them over the soft short fuzz of his shorn hair, then combs them through the long stripe Tavros liked to keep in the middle. His hesitation is bright and amber with worry, hands clenching into fists reflexively over and over, pushing his eyebrows this way and that.
No more assurance. The funny staring puppet sits on Tavros’ feet like a sentry, gold fang gaping out. Very often Gamzee will look down at the dead boy with naked anger reeking from his eyes and mouth, put the head down roughly and move away before giving up and shuffling back. It's strange. His expression is that of someone who is staring at a complicated equation, and they have decided they hate the equation, they hate the concept of equations, and they especially hate whoever set them the equation in the first place.
“It’s difficult, isn’t it?” you say.
His gaze swings like a searchlight to you. You expect that fear to churn through your gut again, but it doesn’t.
“Feeling,” you say, keeping your voice barely more than a whisper. “Oh, really feeling, for the first time.”
Gamzee’s hands shake a little, unmistakably with rage.
“Me?” he grinds out. “Me, sister, is that what you’re thinking? Pyrope, you trickster, I spent my whole life motherfucking AWASH WITH FEELS and now I’m just sitting here, chilling like the villain I ain’t, with a BRO. While you get all up in an innocent troll’s grill.”
“You are not an innocent troll,” you say.
That smile again, strained and sly. “Am I not?” he says. “Sounds like you didn’t hear my extenuating fucking circumstances. I just went crazy, you know, no sleep, no pie, I went and cracked like my poor boy here’s spinal cordage. Didn’t know what I was MOTHERFUCKING DOING.”
“And what are you doing now?”
“Nothing,” he says. His teeth are bared. “JACK SHIT. Me? I’m just a SIMPLE BARD, invited to perform before a bored and grumpy king.” When he leans forward you can smell the heat of his breath, sour and bloody. “You’re the bad girl who backstabbed her own fucking sister in her poor little back, accused her of all kinds of unspeakable shit without evidence at all. World’s getting too much with you, baby.”
Now it’s your hands that shake. You know he will count this as success. “Stay away from Karkat.”
“Now why the fuck,” Gamzee murmurs, “would I ever do that?”
“Because otherwise I’ll see you dangle,” you say, shoulders rigid. “Want to get acquainted with my best friend Mr. Rope and his matesprit Mr. Noose Knot? Do you really think I wouldn’t? I charge you with two counts of first-degree murder which constitute, considering the numbers, a legitimate one-sixth destruction of our remaining population which makes you guilty of the kind of genocide which is nonsensical, Gamzee Makara.”
“Know what’s nonsensical?” he says. “This,” and he lifts up Tavros’ head and he lets it roll back down in his lap, sliming a big streak of sepia down his pants. Tavros’ lips curl upwards and you see some of his front teeth are stained indigo, and when you realise what that means you add ‘kissing corpses’ to the charge. You realise belatedly you have both indulged in class-act corpsekissing. “This is something that does not make the SLIGHTEST BIT OF FUCKING SENSE.”
You expect the fear to sink into your bones again. You expect, maybe, to feel sorry; sorry like you used to feel when you thought of Gamzee Makara, throwback subjuggulator who would never subjuggulate anything meaner than a sandwich, tripping through life with a dazed expression and sopor breath. But you feel only an awful contempt!
“This is the first thing I learned about feelings,” you say. “Yours are not the only ones that matter.”
“This is the second thing I learned about feelings,” says Gamzee, taut and sing-song. “Fuck off.”
Through some sixth sense Karkat comes towards you, apparently satisfied with the state of Nepeta’s shoes. He kneels. “Fuck you, you miserable juggadouche,” he says softly. “Look at me. Come on.” He prises Gamzee’s long fingers up and away from Tavros’ horns, tilts his face away and up to look at him. You expect Gamzee to snap and snarl like a caught fangbeast, but instead he just shakes, even more ashamed and hateful; Karkat touches his cheek fearlessly until Gamzee closes his eyes.
You realise something unpleasant:
The serendipity’s there.
There are a few scents impossible to replicate, too complicated to fake. The struggle between anger and embarrassment carbonizes in your nostrils, the helpless, murderous misery; the longing is as naked from him as it is from Karkat. Once upon a time you thought you could never want anything as much as you wanted Karkat Vantas to look at you like that. This is real, this is real, this is real.
You find yourself wandering off down the corpse tableau to where Kanaya is standing, and both of you sort of shuffle around, sick of yourselves, standing in awkward silence with nothing to say and no-one to be. There’s a big blueberry splotch on the ground from where Vriska bled out, which just adds extra layers of difficult to this inopportune cake.
You both regard the stain.
“I am supposing,” says Kanaya, “you did what you thought was right.”
“This presupposes that when I think something is right, it is objectively right in general,” you say. “My right is not someone else’s right, which is really the font of all law -- ”
She says with awful kindness: “Terezi, you’re rambling.”
So you are. Well spotted. This is not going to do at all: you’re going to become someone who lets any old thing tumble out her facegash, just because she beholds uncouth bloodpools. “Let me put a problem to you instead,” you say. “A light rail vehicle is running out of control down its track. Five trolls have been tied to the track. You could flip a switch and lead the light rail vehicle down another track, but on that track is a single troll tied up! Should you flip this switch, or do nothing at all?”
Kanaya’s lovely face contorts in thought. After a while she says, “Why are the trolls not breaking down the bonds?”
“Let’s assume they’re strong bonds.”
“Who is driving the light rail vehicle? They are going to get into trouble from their superior.”
“Kanaya, that’s very inconsequential.”
“How thick are the five trolls? For instance, could the first of the five trolls on the track be of sufficient girth so that when the vehicle mows them down, it gets stuck on the first troll so that the other four trolls are saved -- ”
“ -- and there is also the question of who exactly the five trolls are in the first place, for instance if the five trolls are very bad trolls and the one troll is a very good troll, what are you doing if -- ”
“Goodbye forever, you have failed my exam,” you say. “Let me ask you something a little less dumpass utilitarian and a little more personal. If you’d known what could happen, with Eridan, would you have killed him? And don’t start talking about time paradoxes, I know everything there is to know about time paradoxes. I have a whole herd of time paradoxen.”
She peels a glove off a softly glowing hand and examines her nails, head tilted to the side. “Would I be assured that Feferi lived?” she says. “That I myself lived, if you’ll pardon another bleating paradoxen?”
“And maybe even Sollux,” you say, wishing for grief. “Maybe if he hadn’t gotten blasted by that conksuck wand. Maybe anything. But if it came down to killing him or not killing him, what would you do?”
“If it would happen.”
“If it could -- ”
Kanaya says, “I cannot kill for a could. Probability isn’t certainty, not for me.” She salts that with, “I am not the Seer of Mind.”
“Got something of yours,” says Gamzee.
It’s your double-headed troll caegar. He walks it up and down his big knuckles, spinning it between his fingers in a thrill of metal. You smell it shine in his palm as he tosses it up, then catches it easily out the air with a hand that is more a blur. Considering that your lucky caegar never leaves your pocket, as without it you are deprived opportunities to look like a badass, you suspect pickpocketry.
“Are you going to deprive me of my property?” you say.
“Never would I do something so ABOMINABLY ILLEGAL,” he says, “I just thought we could play a game. You and me. You know I like games, Terecita, they’re just like MY FUCKING NAME.”
“A coin toss is serious business!” you point out. “It isn’t a game.”
“It is if you do it right,” he says, “you can play it like anything the fuck else,” and he dances the coin on his thumb. Over his shoulder that puppet stares and stares. Reports of Lil’ Cal being a cool dude have been greatly exaggerated, you think. “Because we’re having such a hard time, you and me, me and you, I thought I’d give you a freebie. I thought I’d give you a mother fucking free one, courtesy me, you know, considering we used to be so fucking CHILL.”
You both look at Kanaya and Karkat. They’re out of earshot, talking quietly and huddled up with Vriska’s husktop. You wonder how you never saw the naked longing in her face, too, want as pale as the pink moon. Gamzee looms in again, haloed in the light of the Green Sun.
“Bad flip and I perform the murder act on every single last one of you faithless, delusive motherfuckers,” he says softly. “Let that shitsilt drain out your veins. Let you go round and round till your pushers burst in your chest, let you go to your UNJUST REWARDS.”
It seems strange that your heartpump’s not pounding audibly in your ribcage. With one look he makes your knees gelatin, your airsacs close, makes you see nothing but lucent flashes of Karkat dead: Karkat with his sickles tossed impotently to the ground and Karkat’s head wrenched right off his body. It is all you can do to drunkenly sway on the spot.
“You’ve implicated yourself a squillion times to me, you know,” you say.
“Can’t convict anyone on intent, baby girl.”
“Of course I can convict on intent!”
“Can’t convict on intent, baby girl,” he repeats, “when the witness is so motherfucking lacking in credibility, just goddamn brimful of bias.”
The cackle bubbling up is one fifth real, four-fifths panic. “It’s cute that you think you can play this game against me,” you say, “I think at any other time I might have liked it. Legislacerator against subjuggulator? Cruellest Bar versus Mirthful Church? It’s good enough for FLARP clouding.”
Gamzee tries to keep his mouth that self-satisfied smirk, but he slips for a moment into grimace. Not so impenetrable as he might like. Not so impenetrable at all. Under the surface his anger sits, boiling, shifting different tectonic plates and waiting for a surge. You say, “What if I get a good flip?”
“Then I’m a good boy,” comes the reply. “Then I’m good dear sweet poor Gamzee Makara, who eats sopor ‘cause his daddy doesn’t love him none -- ”
Without warning he flips the coin high, silver in your sinuses and silver on your tongue, seeming to hang in the air. Then he takes those big bloodied hands and claps it between his palms with a resounding crack!, hurtling his fingers together like shells in barrage. You do not flinch.
“What does it matter?” he says. “YOU’RE BLIND, REMEMBER?”
Laughing, he drops the coin at your feet, where it spins in drunken circles. Lil’ Cal gawps over your shoulder as -- with a thumb and forefinger -- he gently reaches out and beeps your nose. His fingers are rough and they pinch at you. Lil’ Cal is no cool dude for standing idly by at this display.
“Honk!” says Gamzee.
You watch him saunter off in Karkat’s direction: long as a knife, tall and gaunt, moving like some predator who knows that he could eat and eat and eat and never get full enough. In your unexploded universe he would’ve been regarded as the sum of all beauty. There is a low, troubled tightness in your belly, and you are palming it off as despair.
(You recall red text: do you want me to tell you to be a better human, or to be a better troll?)
Before you stretches Comeuppance Boulevard. You have a fist full of blood, a shoulder full of puppet, and a heart full of heavy.