Before they had ever met face to face it had started off seemingly simple enough. The life of John Egbert had been laid before Karkat like a reality series and, while the existence and evolution of one exceedingly mentally challenged human boy definitely had no place in his preferred viewing genre, there was an excess of seasons and an abundance of episodes in which to fill the void in time. Drifting through space, waiting for nothing but death to catch up to them, supplied plenty of opportunity to waste away their existences with whichever outlets they found.
So Karkat would watch one person and take in every aspect, a witness to every humiliation, every defeat, every injury, to the point where he forgot they were nothing more than strangers in separate universes. John Egbert felt real, a part of his life that he had tried to shrug off as just a way to pass the days. It spun uncontrollably from under poised fingers, which hovered over the keys to control video speed and scene selection. John Egbert soon became an obsession.
Their time spent actually conversing with one another was short, well thought insults melted away into fumbling attempts to engage blue text in acidic banter. When it became apparent that the other species as a whole might not even be capable of understanding what he pushed for, Karkat was left grasping. He wanted something, anything, to come from his short interactions with the human. Being something of an expert on the subject, he knew it was no way to start out any kind of relationship. At the same time John was just familiarized himself with Karkat’s name, Karkat could hum notes of the preferred scores of music John played on any given day. When John began his session of the game and they spoke more regularly, Karkat continued to consider him the object of his hate. It irritated him that he could have rattled off a staggering number of facts he already knew about the boy, not that he would ever willingly submit that information to anyone. When friendship was offered he caught it in his grip, as intent on not letting it go as he was to not display how badly he craved it.
They lost contact soon after they established their weak bond. The chill that knowledge instilled upon him did not lift for perigees; nearly one and a half solar sweeps with reruns as his only prospect, not progress. Karkat took to study, consumed the human race's sloppy attempts in communicating the art of romance through film. He would learn it, master the inferior, uninventive pathways of a human’s ‘heart’ until he could evolve a connection when two groups met once more. It was a classic trope, star-crossed partners whose attachment only grew with time apart, and he wanted so badly to live it.
So he took it in and, the more he absorbed, the more he felt an unsettling understanding forming for a phrase that John had used. First and foremost, it became evident that the human biology controlling attraction was biased. To copulate in hopes of creating future generations, opposite genders needed to be present. There was a heavy slant depicting these kinds of relationships, while the varieties of other options were extremely underrepresented. So when John said he couldn’t respond to Karkat’s ill-placed hate, it was because he was the norm in his society. There was a higher probability for a man to like women than to be attracted other men. Even if that other man was an alien with a vastly superior romantic system that spoke of following what one felt, not what one saw, that would not be enough skew one's biological make-up.
Little by little, as the slow voyage through space went on, Karkat lost hope in his past self’s juvenile desires. Thinking he could set a foundation based in what was essentially stalking and something just bordering on voyeurism was asinine, even for him. From John’s point of view, Karkat was a certified asshole with a PHD in fucking things up and only just slightly more tolerable in the day before the scratch. John didn’t know him, John didn’t even really want to. So Karkat tried to erase what he never had in the first place. He mistakenly pursued another option, one that came before blue eyes and blunt teeth had ever overtaken in his vision. Though he failed in the endeavour, it took away some memories of slender hands coxing music from monochrome keys.
He had caught one glance of John in a dream bubble, a single face to face moment that brought on the strangest feeling. Whenever he revisited the image, a weightless feeling always began in Karkat’s collapsing and expanding bladder based aquatic vascular system. It pushed irregularly, sporadically, as if trying to expel the sudden result of a foreign chemical reaction, distributing blood throughout his body inexplicably subjected to the process of carbonation. His limbs fizz in an electric way, lifting his frame until he found it difficult to not expect his feet to suddenly lift off the ground. While he maintain his state of being land-bound, it was hard to keep the indifferent scowl he wore for the rest of the world fixed on his face. From his horns down to his toes, a tingling sensation settled in and, while he would deny it if ever questioned, it was not entirely unpleasant. It tugged his lips, raised his brows for narrow eyes to soften and made the sickening feeling of vulnerability pale to the experience. After all, he had no reason to keep his otherwise steady guard up in the presence of his current company; he had been well established as the fool and they weren’t in danger of meeting the real enemy for quite some time.
Karkat called it a human disease, something he had to have caught from the two young gods who travelled alongside the Trolls. He was sure it was explainable as such, yet he found himself seeking out an answer, confiding in the analytical Rose human while lying in a pile of unfinished knitting projects. She called it therapy and assured him that everything he chose to tell her would be kept confidential. The more he told her, the more she might be able to assist in piecing together the puzzling emotions inside of him. The apparently normal activity that defective humans entertained left him almost feeling as though he had cheating on his moirail. He walked away dirtied, with a diagnosis for his affliction that he couldn’t agree with, because he still could not fully understand it: Rose called it the beginnings of human love or—being somewhat culturally sensitive—a flush crush.
Karkat did the only thing he could think to do, which was to thoroughly repress any memory of his first, and last, therapy session. He chose to ignore it because he knew the only path he could follow if he continued holding on: the only resulting coupling from it would be his devastating rejection eloping with his broken dreams. It wasn’t a pessimistic view, though it was rather crushing in how completely realistic he kept his thoughts. He knew the realities of it better than anyone. Romantic comedies nearly always ended in favour of the protagonists, while romances did not. While he would thoroughly enjoy a lighthearted romp in the fields of easily filled quadrants, according to the list of misfortunes and all-around shit-stain of an existence, he did not live in a rom-com.
So the other option was to try for romance. Romances could be tangled and messy, weaving textures and layers into intricate stories. They could be eased into or abruptly thrown into life and, what truly struck Karkat in a defeating way, was that the feelings of one character were not always reciprocated. The fact of it was that no one could force someone to feel any a certain way, despite how deep their own feelings went. He couldn’t simply steal up John Egbert the moment he found him again and stuff him neatly into a quadrant. It was disrespectful, not to mention entirely wrong; if he was flushed—which was in no way an acknowledgment of being red for the human, but a theoretical string of thought—he should want whatever was best for John. Even if it wasn’t him.
So he chose the best option for himself and, when thoughts turned to the reflections playing off thick glass and a mouth too full of blunt teeth, he forced hope out. In dream bubbles he would run from the slightest tickling breeze, refusing to discover where it would lead. He tried to forget about one silly boy from a little planet, less than one universe away. He did so well at pretending that, when the two groups of child gods joined together at long last, he was starting to believe John Egbert meant nothing to him.
“Hi Karkat!” Until he realized John Egbert meant everything to him. It was only after John had ensnared his comrade deities in displays of affection that Karkat became the focus. He was surprised when arms cradled his frame, lingered in a tight hug that seemed to last for an encouragingly while. But he knew John was affectionate, had watched the behaviour, so contrary to his own reclusive habits, blossom and grow on a glowing screen. So while Karkat held the object of his affections, he breathed the boy in for what he told himself would be the first, and last, time. Words tickled his cheek, following a nervous chortle spilling from lips pressed painfully close to grey skin. “You know I was just kidding, in that letter I mean.”
Karkat could feel the stab of embarrassment just under the overwhelming weight closure that this thing he held for the human was not, and would never be, reciprocated. His knees nearly buckled as he pulled away, not giving John the satisfaction of flaunting his selective sexuality over him further. Teeth snapped together and lips curled into a snarl, a familiar expression to anyone who really knew Karkat but one that caused John to take a step back. His true friends—many of which were only now seen with hollow white eyes in a world of dreams—claimed that he really was like a woofbeast, with a yipping bark that he could continue indefinitely and only a hint of any ferocity in his bite. A flicker of fear sparked in those bright blue eyes; John Egbert did not know him at all.
“Wait a fucking moment. Being on an entirely excelled mental plane from the dredges you choose to stagnant yourself in, I am having a difficult time wrapping my think pan around the sentence that you just allowed to fall out of your gaping word hole. I think you’ll have to excuse me as I’ll need to slam my head repeatedly into a wall for a good half hour in order to reach the correct rung on the dumb-fuck ladder to fully comprehend. Did you seriously just insinuate that I’ve been waiting for you to sweep me into those gangly spindles you actually call arms, so we can get the xenosexual train chugging merrily towards sloppy make-out station, for all this time? Is that the direction you decided to take your first brilliant speech as leader of the newly united ragtag band of adolescents? Sorry Karkat, not a homosexual in case you were wondering about that instead the overwhelming choices of more important things you could be thinking about; for example: everything. You’re really going to imply that I have shut myself away from interacting with those I actually know so I could starve myself of social involvement, being hung up on someone like you? Breaking news and I am sorry in advance for derailing your fantasy: despite what you may think, I am not that desperate to engage myself with a member of an inferior species just so I might get shame globes off. I am over you, so do me a favour and get over yourself.”
Karkat seethed, furious at the boy before him for not even considering what they could have been, just because he assumed their genetic makeup would prevent any sort of attraction from forming. He platonically hated whichever of his friend had given humanity a concept of being attracted to a single gender, except he just knew it had somehow been his own doing, his own mistake. He was livid at himself for spouted the opposite of what he felt inside, giving into rage like he so often did out of the sheer comfort of it. Rose gave him a look of mild irritation mixed sparingly with even milder concern, a guarded expression to keep others from noticing; she knew a fraction of the words Karkat had wanted to say to John and none of that excessive word vomit had contained a shred of it.
“Oh. Ouch. That was kind of harsh, Karkat,” John complained, wincing as if the words had truly injured him. Rose made a nodding gesture to Kanaya as she continued to catch up with Jade on their lost time. He would gladly give into either of their meddling if it meant he would be extracted from a one mile radius of John Egbert.
“Good. What I would desperately like to know, though I am sure I will immediately regret the decision to amuse my horrified curiosity, is why you found that you had to bring something completely unnecessarily traumatic back into light after all this time. Come on now, Egbert, humour me. Why revisit the past?” The real question hung in the air: have you been thinking of me? Karkat cursed internally; he could almost hear the addition of a “too” to that. Then Kanaya was close, soft glowing hand pressing gently on his shoulder. He could feel the welling in his eyes, knowing he wasn’t handing things nearly as well as he thought, and he thought he was doing an abysmal job. He needed to escape from the situation he had created and she was going to enable him. “On second thought no. Fuck you. Just, fuck you and the goddamn battleship you rode in on, John Egbert. You obviously haven’t changed in the slightest despite all the self-discovery time you could possibly hope for. Don’t try to hold a conversation with me until you’ve caught up to the rest of the class.” There was confusion painted in painful clarity across the human’s face, his lips trembling before opening to offer his rebuttal. “Don’t talk to me.”
And John didn’t talk to him, he didn’t talk to him for days, and that would have satisfied Karkat if only it solved anything. What John did not cease doing though was looking at him. All the time. Karkat would feel those big blue eyes snap to attention when he entered their field of view and follow him closely around the labs until he couldn’t stand the feeling of being watched. John could probably paint a pretty accurate image of the back of his head with the amount of time he had spent studying it, if only he had a shred of artistic talent. What really bothered Karat was the fact he made no effort to hide his staring, as he often spun to challenge the look. That was the objective all along, giving in and speaking through their eyes, and John would smile, gently, feebly, in an apologetic way that tore Karkat’s heart to a shredded mess which he tried to piece back together the waiting arms of his moirail. For as much pain as it caused him, Karkat couldn’t stop looking at John Egbert either.
They were running out of time before entering the alphaverse for what they hoped to be the final battle, running out of time to pretend they all were still a bunch of kids. John approached him with a light touch to the arm that made Karkat’s internal organs twist up as much as it made him want to rip the offending lib from its socket. “Can we talk?” It was too hopefully pitiful, too desperate and Karkat knew he wouldn’t be able to refuse him. “Look, Kanaya and Rose told me about some troll stuff and about, well, about how you feel. About how you really feel.” He left the topic open for Karkat to expand upon and the current direction of choice was to fill the void with him punching John in the face.
“Oh wow, can we please stop getting so hung up on discussing relationships? From what Harley has told me, in between shooting off well aimed insults like one of her many guns, you were the one who didn’t want to think about any kind of potential romance. While I applaud you for taking a rout I should have followed—looking back on my embarrassing attempts to solicit one of your comrades into the block of kismesissitude, I probably should have done everyone a favour and culled myself—you’re making an awfully inspired attempt to backtrack to where the rest of us are. Also, you are all being too presumptuous in assuming that I still have feelings for you. Theoretically, even if I did lean towards something red after lingering bouts of hate for your very existence, those are my feelings to give. You, frankly, do not deserve them so it’s pointless to even explain it.”
“I know. Gosh, Karkat I know,” John said, releasing him to allow frustrated fingers to scratch through dark hair. Karkat remembered the habit, had watched where it began, in the reel of John’s life. He felt disgusted that he had grown so attached to something intended as mindless entertainment. “Look. If we hadn’t been fighting for our lives, if our words weren’t destroyed, if I had thought that there was any hope to feel comfort in any normalcy this game could offer, I might have listened back then. But I was thirteen, Karkat, and I just really didn’t want to think about an alien boy with a hate-crush on top of all the other things I had to deal with. I still don’t really know what I should do and we’re still trying to beat this game. We don’t know how this will end, if we’ll be allowed to win together and let the credits roll as we just fly off into the sunset or be divided back into different worlds, and I don’t think it’s a good idea for everyone to start all these romances when this shit is still going down. But despite all that, you’re here. So, Karkat, if you’ll trust me, I would like to hear how you feel.”
Karkat opened his mouth, deciding between what was easy and what was true. He could easily give in to the anger, allow it to disgrace his company as much as it would humiliate himself. Glancing up into clear, encouraging eyes, he let himself freely offer what was inside. “It’s a cacophony. It invades me and leaves me gasping and defenseless, deafened by the emotions that become undeniably loud. There are times where I loathe you as richly black as the day first laid eyes on you, times where I wish to scorn you and make you acknowledge just how inferior you are but, most importantly, find me to be your life’s rival. There are times I think you might understand me as we are so pitifully similar in our few strengths and staggering weaknesses that our souls had to have originated as one. You don’t fit to fill the missing places I would need, except for the one I desperately crave like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. There are times where I’ve seen you break down and I wanted to fix everything that had ever hurt you, wish I could orchestrate time and doom countless others to prevent your suffering. You don’t fit tidily into a quadrant because you expand through them into something Trolls rarely understood and never named. But I feel confident in the answer I found, as much as it is vile in my mouth: you are a clueless nooksucker for making me explain it for you, John Egbert, but I love you. Now leave me the fuck alone.”
The wind blew around them gently, tossing Karkat’s hair playfully in the breeze that pulsated in strange waves. John’s smile nearly split his face, eyes crescent and almost luminous, a dark red staining his pale face the result from the confession. “Oh my gosh, oh wow Karkat that was pretty beautiful! Man, I am so flattered.” A positive reaction was not one Karkat had been expecting, but a feeling of privilege was not one of reciprocation. Karkat tried to not let the disappointment show on his face as he bit back his tears. He had poured himself out for the simple elation John expressed; he felt he had received quite an unequal trade. Karkat felt more helpless than he ever had before, standing in front of the boy he loved. John took a step forward, reaching a hand out for something for Karkat to supply him. “Okay.”
“Okay? Okay what, you’ll leave?” John laughed so sweetly, shaking his head and swirling warm bursts of wind around them. Karkat’s heart rose somewhere at least a meter above his body, so elated in the possibility of what John meant that he couldn’t ground himself. He could be hurt at any moment, he knew he would not recover if the offered feelings were thrown back in his face, but he wanted so badly. His shaky hand met one damp with sweat, both of them nervous for different reasons. John’s next words would spell either their beginning or their end.
“Okay, as much as this might be a bad idea, I’d go through every trial this game could throw for a chance to make this work out. If it wants to break us apart, we’ll just break it again and again until it gives up and admits we win. So, okay, I’d like to like you too, Karkat. I’d like to see where we can go.” It was too much. John Egbert was offering him the chance to give him the feelings he had once brushed off, taking the chance to see what they could be. Karkat’s grin was buried swiftly in the neck of John’s hood while that carbonated feeling bubbled through his veins. Happy, that’s what it was. He felt happy.
“Fuck off,” he snapped, voice soft and muffled against blue fabric. “I said love.” When their eyes met it was a cue for heads to angle, for hesitant lips to find one another and press gently in expression of their start. John gave Karkat what he desperately craved, offered up the warm body and long fingers of himself to twine against a foreign body. It was all Karkat could have hoped for him to give. Regardless of how the game would end, how long they would have to struggle against its confines until it allowed them a victory the players could agree to, Karkat held John Egbert—the human boy who had been and was still his obsession—in his arms for the first time as someone who was his.