There’s a lot of things about trolls you’ve got to learn, and what doesn't feel like nearly enough time to learn them in, for all that you might have the rest of forever. Your first few days stuck in paradox space are strange and fraught with what you and your friends term cultural misunderstandings and what Karkat calls malicious clusterfucks.
Like, you learn that they have about a million synonyms for everything, like how frond and bulge and stem and blistertube are all apparently variably rude bits of troll junk, and who’s being compared to what form of said junk depends on who’s talking to who and how mad they are about it, which you learn scales up from ‘pretty mad’ to ‘haul me away from this guy or I’m gonna make another corpse’ mad.
You learn there used to be twelve of them.
There are a lot of corpses, and you learn how to clean them up: you and Jade and Dave go around closing their eyelids and laying them out in a neat little row, and you say a few words, about how you’re sorry for their loss and you’re sure they were brave, and good, in their own ways, and Karkat makes this horrible throbbing sound, low in his gut. Then Rose levels one of her needles, and in a flash of ultraviolet they sort of just turn into nothingness, and are gone.
You learn things don’t always work out so great, and winning and losing can look a lot like the same thing to a race of kids that grow up to be soldiers, every single one of them. You learn that murders aren’t just things that happen in games and movies, and that murderers can sit down to breakfast with you and smile with a zillion crocodile teeth, like they don’t even care they killed a girl you thought you were going to be friends with, and maybe a bunch of other people too. You learn that trolls don’t care about a lot of things you think they should care about.
You learn that Karkat will headbutt you like a little goat if you see him crying, and that the twin bruises you get on your sternum from his nubby horns take exactly five days to fade from purple to an off-tan yellowish.
The black eye takes a few days longer.
You learn a lot about Karkat! He’s sort of a case study, and more manageable to observe than the three girls comprising the remainder of his species, one of which is some kind of amorphous time fairy and is never around, one of which is a crazy hell-lawyer and flirts disconcertingly with Dave, and one of which is kind of an intimidatingly pretty vampire and has formed the particular breed of terrifying and impenetrable friendship that pretty girls have with each other and which you are entirely disqualified from by virtue of never having learned to giggle at a pitch that can shatter a y-chromosome at fifty paces.
You learn that the memo about sloppy makeouts is actually kind of relevant and that there are things you never needed to see demonstrated, like how far a troll girl’s tongue can go out of their mouth.
You learn that Karkat is scared of being alone. This is cool: you are scared of being alone, too. He doesn’t actually ever tell you so! You deduce it, and easily, from the terrible way he folds in on himself when his friends are out of sight, like he has already resigned himself to never seeing them again. He walks like a cat who has tape on his paws, and has had tape on his paws for a very long time, and who never expects to ever again walk without scrunching miserably from side to side in a tangle of self-loathing and confusion. It hurts to look at him, but it hurts more not to.
You follow him everywhere and, while you don’t know if it helps him, it helps you. You spend tons of time with your friends, catching up: you talk about wizards and games with Rose and you talk about silly stuff with Jade and you patiently and endlessly listen to Dave’s raps, which have pretty much just gotten worse, he’s seriously approaching some kind of conksuck singularity. But when Karkat starts edging out of the room, it’s just easier to go tag along and catch your breath with someone that doesn’t want anything from you but for you to sit around and be alone with them.
It’s not that you don’t like people! You like people just fine!
It’s just, you like being on your own sometimes, too.
Because, like, you love your friends, but sometimes Rose looks at you like she wants to scrape the inside of your skull clean with a spoon, and Dave just-- needs too much, he always has, and Jade’s gotten raised by a fucking dog so she’s never developed any kind of off-switch, she’s so loud, and you’d always dreamed of just hanging around with your best friends forever but you hadn’t really planned on the double whammy of existential despair and PTSD wrapping around all of you like a nasty coat of tar that makes you want to cry and hit things with your pop-o-matic till they are very little pieces and can never hurt you again. But what’s wrong isn’t anything that can be smashed, just held, very carefully, till the rough edges wear away.
You learn that this is going to take a lot more time than you’d like it to.
You learn that Karkat sleeps curled up in a little ball, on a pile of whatever he can find. This is a troll thing, but not one any of them can explain. When they are sleepy, they pile things up, in an absent-minded, trundling, beetle-ish sort of way. You can put a plush dragon in Karkat’s hand when he’s nodding and blinking, and he will sort of go and put it on his husktop, and then you can give him a shoe and he will put it on the dragon, and then you can give him a few books and he’ll put those on too, and then you can hand him cans of food and a bag of potato chips and an old dress and a pillow and a frisbee and eventually he will just sort of hit the pile-tipping-point, where he will put the last thing on the heap of stuff and then dazedly flop over and curl up, even if it means his face gets mashed up against the potato chips and not the pillow.
They’re not supposed to be doing it, which is kind of both a relief, because it's weird, and another thing to worry about, because it's weird. Usually they have some kind of pre-made vat of sleeping drugs they climb into, but they are out of the stuff, and this funky piling thing is apparently some kind of primal ancestral hive-building instinct that’s kicking to the forefront of their brains as they try and cope. You think about how often you find Rose and Jade brushing each other’s hair, and the way Dave is always trying to come up with these elaborate fucking fist-bunps with you, weird things that go on for like five minutes at a time, and you don’t really make very much fun of Karkat for wanting to be a carpenter ant in his sleep.
You learn... there are noises that Karkat makes, these wrenching, deeply sad little noises, the wet ghosts of sobs that he’s got bottled up inside him. He curls up so tightly on his junk pile that he doesn’t even cry in his sleep, just hiccup. His shoulders hitch, and he winds himself into tighter and tighter knots, silent except the minute nothingish-noises of his interrupted breathing.
You learn that you can take about a week of this, of not touching him, keeping your space, respecting his dignity and his bodily autonomy and the way he is apparently fine with headbutting people really fucking hard for putting their hand sympathetically on his shoulder, before you think, oh god damn it and reach out.
And then, then, like the light of the first star in the evening, you learn this: there are miracles left in this awful, gray, bombed-out nothingspace you have fetched up in, and you’ve found one, and it is that when you put your hand on the soft fluffy curve of the back of Karkat Vantas’s head, he stops hiccuping. Some indefinable line of tension bleeds out of him, and when you run your thumb through the dark shock of his hair he sighs out this kind of high, throbbing, musical C-note.
You scoot closer, so you’re not straining your elbow, and stroke his head, very carefully, very lightly. If he wakes up you are so prepared to run, but he doesn’t. His shoulders uncurl, and he chirps a little shaky sigh, when you drag your hand from the back of his neck up to just behind his horns, then another when you do it again. He goes progressively limp under your careful strokes, smoothing out from a painful ball of knives into something approaching a kid, a person. His hair feels like dandelion fluff, dry and inhuman in a really pleasant way, and you dig your fingernails in. When you scritch him he actually shudders, and you pull back fast, your heart in your throat.
Nothing happens for a minute, and then, slowly, he starts to curl back into himself.
You scritch him again, from the back of his head up to behind the hidden shell of his ear, and he shudders once, twice, then abruptly breaks into a purr. You find your face aching in a prickly, unfamiliar way and realize that you’re grinning, the real kind of grin that happens from the inside outwards. You curl your fingers through the floofy hanks of hair at his temples, card them this way and that. You comb his hair all one way and then the other, you circle around the base of his candy-orange horns and through it all Karkat just purrs and purrs and purrs, a sprawling puddle of blacks and greys and pink-flushed cheeks. He has a gajillion fangs and you can see every one of them, because he’s smiling
“Hiiiiiiii,” he slurs, his voice straining through the purr and coming out in throbbing, jittery pieces.
“Hi,” you say, laughing. You comb your fingers across his hairline and he looks so utterly delighted.
One of his hands comes up and sloppily goes pap against your cheek. Then, apparently all tuckered out, he hitches sideways on the floor until he is a parenthesis around your knees.
“I like you,” he says to your legs. “A lot.”
His eyes are fever bright and his pupils are enormous, his long dark eyelashes drooping sleepily down over them. His cheeks are flushed a dull burning brick-red, and he just doesn’t stop smiling at all, this big goofy thing that you could never in a million years imagined even fitting on snippy, contemptuous, worn-out, bitter, miserable Karkat fucking Vantas. Your heart does this weird thing, beating not faster but harder, somehow, punching you in the underside of your ribs.
“I like you too,” you tell him. You laugh again, you can’t help it-- you are warm from the inside out, hot all through your heart and your belly, you laugh and it feels like sunlight, broken into pieces of noise. He only smiles wider, his head lolling back. You feel like you could shine pure light out through your teeth, you feel so warm for him.
You dare to slip a hand up his shirt, and he makes an enormous throb of a purr, his whole body arching off the ground and his fingers squeak-scraping across the floor. His stomach is warm as a pillow fresh out of a dryer, and soft like nothing you’ve ever felt before. Flower petals, or really, really expensive leather jackets, tough but meltingly pliant, just the teensiest bit fuzzy. He squidges around like a woolly-bear caterpillar, relentlessly curling and uncurling under your fingers, warm and soft and infinitely tender, laughing these bright clear notes that ring all through you, that hammer your heartstrings.
“You’re so soft,” you manage to say.
“And you-- your hands,” he says, and it’s this low throbbing moan that makes you breathless with the burning of it. Everything feels so important, and you hesitate.
There is this long, fraught moment where he just lies there, looking overwhelmed and twitchy, and you sort of crouch over him, feeling like you’re on the edge of something you absolutely should not fuck up. Then he sits up so fast he almost clocks you in the face, and pushes you back on to your butt. He squirms into your lap, breathing hard, and you have no idea what’s going on, if he’s going to hit you, or kiss you, he’s utterly inhuman. He takes your face between his palms, rubs his cheek up against yours.
Then he does kiss you, sloppy and weird, all over your face and only glancingly, indifferently, across your mouth. He’s like a little kid or a puppy or something, it’s somehow clean, pure and joyous, and you’re okay with that. This is beyond just kissing, somehow, beyond being friends, beyond gay or not gay or alien or human, this goes to the pit of your whole self where everything is dark and it lights up all your empty places. It feels like it means more, a tune wrapped up in a notation you don’t quite know. You want to learn how to play it, play this, play him.
"I-- John," he sighs, "John."
“Shhh,” you say, and cup the back of his head. It feels infinitely precious, the way it fits against your palm, and he vibrates all over in response.
“Shhh,” he mumbles back at you, “shooooooooooooshh,” still almost strangling on that purr of of his, and his fingers curl into the collar of your t-shirt. He’s rubbing against you, his knees digging hard into your thighs, his folded shins sharp against yours-- he’s a nightmare of a cuddle-toy, all points, and really heavy. But you hang on, and his slim torso fits perfectly in the angles of your arms when you wrap them around him. He tucks his head up under your chin, and you rub your nose against one of his horns. It’s nubbly-smooth, velvety slick in a weird way, and it makes him giggle. And then you giggle, and you’re both just very carefully holding each other and touching each other and you are so breathlessly happy.
“What is this?” you ask, really quietly, so you don’t break the spell.
“Moirallegiance,” he says, also quietly, and he looks as shy as a kid can get with a big doofy grin splitting his face from ear to ear. He swallows, hard, and the purr kicks down a few notches. “I mean, that, or you just like to wring out your shame-sponge by molesting random sleeping kids.”
“That first thing,” you decide, and stroke the warm pink scrunched-up hills of his cheeks, and he is lost again. He opens his mouth and nothing comes out but throbbing, happy noise. He turns his head sideways into one of your hands, and he closes his eyes, and he kisses one of your palms, this gentle damp press of lips. It feels like you have won some vast, enormous prize, and you’re too happy to care about the terms.
You kiss his hands too, every knuckle, every joint, every inch.
There’s a lot you’ve still got to learn about trolls, but there’s one thing that you have definitely learned about yourself.
You are going to be okay.