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The Entire City Was Silent

Chapter Text

Your name is Dave Strider.

And your best friend is dying in front of you.

“Dave! Dave it hurts!!”

His eyes are squeezed shut, tears beading at the corners with his hands fisted in the sheets. His body is wracked with tremors and his skin is tingling, hot then cold, then hot again.

You flounder, standing over him, watching him squirm and convulse in pain, body spasming and voice hoarse from screaming. You can’t stop the pain, you can’t even ease it. You can only watch, eyes wide with horror, and yell at yourself for letting this happen.

How could you let this happen?

“DAVE!” he screams, arching off the bed with smoke pouring off his skin and veins popping out as the blood within them burns and sizzles. He kicks out his feet and hits you in the leg. It hurts, and it’s enough to pull you from your stupor.

“I’m sorry,” is all that tumbles out of your mouth. It’s all you can say as you lean down and gather his burning body into your arms, his skin ice cold then broiling then ice. His breath against your neck, ragged and punctuated with whines, whimpers and sobs.

“Make it stop!” he wails, clawing at your back as his body twists and writhes against yours, tears coursing down his face and evaporating with a sizzle against the stovetop that has become his skin.

“I can’t!” you shout. And it’s more like you’re wailing yourself because you can feel the wetness in your own eyes and you’re cursing yourself over and over and you can’t deal with him crying like this. Him screaming like this. You can’t deal with it even though you know it will be over soon and you know what its results will be.

And then your traitorous eyes wander over to the shotgun on your dresser, and you wonder if it wouldn’t be better for you both if you did make the pain stop. The pain he’s in now, and the pain he’ll be in when the transformation is complete, when he realizes that his entire world has gone up in flames and his life’s about to fall apart.

“Dave.” He’s sobbing, but the twitching and twisting of his body is waning and you can feel the heat fading from him as his skin and blood cools. All the tension is leaving him and he is going limp against you. Your eyes wander back to the gun and you realize that this is your last chance. If you don’t do it now you’ll never do it, and you’ll have doomed your best bro to a life of being damned, hated and hunted.

Slowly, gently, you untangle yourself from him and lie him back down on the bed. He has gone silent. He’s not shaking anymore. He’s not crying. He’s perfectly still and his skin stopped alternating between Dante’s fucking inferno and Antarctica and is now weirdly cool. Not freezing cold, but too cold to be human.

You stare at him.

His eyes are closed and you can see the veins in his eyelids. You can see the veins on every visible inch of skin. From his strong, well-muscled arms to his pale neck and the bits of leg poking out from beneath his jeans. His hair is a mess as usual, looking like he either just had sex or tried to house a family of birds up there. His glasses are still on but they’re skewed and it’s simultaneously adorable and making you want to cry. It’s John. It’s all just so John.

Fuck you can’t do this.

One hand goes up to run itself through your hair, the other twitches at your side as you continue to throw glances at the gun sitting on your dresser.

Fuck. Fuck. You need to do this. You can’t not do this. It’s John. John the happy-go-lucky goofball who is so kind and sweet it should be illegal. You can’t let him turn into what society sees as a monster. You can’t put him through the hell you and your bro go through. What the Trolls downtown go through. You can’t.

You stand up.

You walk to your dresser.

Your hand closes around the gun.

You stand and shake.

You swear at yourself and pick up the gun. You almost drop it. You put it down, wipe your sweaty palm, and then pick it up again.

You walk back to your bed and sit down beside the body of your best friend in the entire world.

You slowly raise the gun and level it with your best friend in the entire world’s forehead.

He opens his eyes.

You’re suddenly met with a familiar brilliant blue. All wide and sparkly and looking like a fucking summer sky. Except the familiar blue is also different. The pupil is slit like a cat’s and there’s a silver ring edging it. He looks at you, confused. His eyes flicker from your face, to the gun, then back.

“Dave?” he whispers, his voice hoarse and gravelly and sounding like he just woke up from a six-month hibernation. “What’s going on?”

And then there’s that voice. That same voice you’ve heard laugh and giggle at your ironic gestures and pout and cry at shitty movies and the one who can talk your ear off but also listen and you can see those adorable rabbit teeth of his and oh shit you can’t.

“Fuck,” you drop the gun. Probably not the smartest thing but the safety is still on and all you can see are those huge baby blues and- “Fuck.”

And then you’ve wrapped your arms around him again. Pulled him upright and against your body, hugging him close like you’re afraid something is going to rip him away from you. Your teeth dig into your lip and your head is ringing with you cussing yourself out but you don’t care. Because you need John here, in your arms, and not with a bullet in his brain.

He shudders against you and you are reminded that John is different now. That he has been changed and warped and is no longer human and that this is a huge problem and is going to fuck so much shit up and-

He shudders again and you feel his hands grab at your shirt. He opens his mouth against your neck and you feel his breath, cool and icy, against your skin. Teeth that are far sharper than they should be graze the area and you hear him release a needy whine.

…Shit.

And then there’s a burst of pain as he bites down, his teeth digging into your flesh and his grip on your clothes tightening. You hiss and jerk backwards, but it’s you who’s locked in his embrace now and his arms are around you as his lips move against your throat.

The draining sensation is powerful and painful and at the same time sends all sorts of feelings shooting through you. Your eyes roll back in your head when he sucks and if you could form any sort of coherent thought you’d be seriously ashamed of the moan you just made.

He drinks deeply and fast and soon you’re slumped against him, eyes half closed as your best friend in the entire world goes to town on your neck like it’s a vintage wine and he’s a Lalonde. Your body twitches and shudders and a small part of you wonders if you’re a masochist or if it’s an actual a side effect of being fed upon. Because you are barely aware of the pain through this strange pleasurable haze that’s descended and you’ve definitely been making more of those shameful moans.

You’re so out of it that you barely register when he pulls away. It takes awhile for you to pull yourself back into awareness. Slowly, the pleasure fades and you become more aware of the throbbing pain in your neck. You feel yourself being laid down on your back and at the same time sound bleeds back into your world and you hear heavy sobbing from directly above you.

It takes awhile to place it but the second that you realize it’s John you haul yourself back into consciousness so fast you practically put yourself in a time warp.
Your eyes snap open and you try to simultaneously sit up and say his name, but all you do is kind of jerk a little on the bed and gurgle.

…Shit. How much blood did he take? You can’t even fucking feel your fingers.

“I’m so sorry!” he’s sobbing, and though your vision is blurred you can see his face over yours and those bright blue no-longer-human eyes and all the tears dripping from them.

“I-I can’t b-believe I…I…I’m s-so sorry! I-I’m a m-monster! I-I’m one of th-them a-and I-I….Y-you-!”

He’s hysterical and hiccupping and you manage to muster enough energy to raise a hand and smack him in the face. You were actually trying to give him a comforting pat but you lost control of your hand on the way down and it fell kind of heavy.

He stopped babbling though, so whatever.

“N’monstrrr,” you slur, blinking lethargically and wishing for the world to stop fucking spinning. “Still m’Jhn. Al’ays m’Jhn.”

God that was horrific. And he’s still crying but now he’s clutching your hand like it’s his last lifeline and you guess it kind of his.

Because what the fuck is he supposed to do now?

Your eyes wander to the area you know the shotgun is and your stomach twists painfully. There really was no way that you were going to kill him. Not John Egbert. Not the adorable derp with a heart of gold and a smile as bright as the sun. Not your best buddy of seven years.

But what the fuck is he supposed to do now?

The city you live in is riddled with ‘taint’. People who are said to be ‘tainted’ with some form of Darkness. The Trolls are the main ones, living in the city’s lower regions and staying the hell out of sight. Others include those ‘mutated’. It’s not hard to spot a tail or a pair of furry ears among the crowds of Derse however carefully hidden they appear to be. And of course, the actual Agents themselves, the dark demons haunting the streets. There are many different types of Agents, and getting attacked by one will either leave you dead or infected with some dark illness.

Like your best bro, who has been turned into a Rainbow Drinker.

“Calm down,” you mutter, and you’re already feeling a bit better and less light-headed which is good because you were getting fucking tired of your bed pretending to be a merry-go-round. You manage to sit yourself up and shift yourself closer to him. Your hand is still in his and his skin is icy cold against yours. His face is streaked with tears and he’s still hiccupping and he sort of collapses into your chest, like all the life’s gone out of him. Which it kinda has.

“What am I going to do, Dave?” he wines, face buried into your shirt, “I’m…I’m…,”

“Yeah I know,” you answer. And then you wince because that was kind of abrupt and rude and he really doesn’t need this right now. But you’re almost as stressed out about this as he is and your fast recovery-ability only goes so far and him leaning against your chest is kinda not working too well with how weak and jelly-limbed you’re feeling.

But you don’t say any of that. You just wrap an arm around his shoulders and rest your chin on top of his head. Blood loss be damned.

“You’ll be okay,” is what you say, even though you know it’s a lie. “We’ll be okay.”

But you won’t.

No one in this godforsaken city is.

Because despite making up almost a third of the fucking population those who are ‘tainted’ are ostracized and persecuted mercilessly. The Trolls squat in filth and fear in the deepest pits of Derse to avoid being killed by zealous ‘anti-Darkness’ fighters. Those with mutations hide them desperately or risk being attacked and beaten in the streets. People who have been infected drop off the face of the earth. Because the infection is usually one that makes it impossible to live among normal humans any longer.

Like craving their blood.

“It’ll be okay,” you repeat again. “We can get through this.”

You’re lying to him.

You’re lying to yourself.

Behind your shades your eyes darken and you go back to cursing every god in heaven as well as those damn Agents and yourself as well. Yourself for letting this happen.

Because it’s your fault.

Of course it’s your fault.

You with your red eyes and black wings and dark abilities. Fucking Child of Misfortune, that’s what you are. And now your misfortune has leaked onto one of the most important people in your life.

You hold him as he cries and promise to fix it. Even though you know you can’t.

Because your hell, the hell of every tainted being in Derse, is now his hell as well.

And there’s nothing you can fucking do to change it.

Chapter Text

It’s noisy.

Not that that is anything new. The entire city is noisy and this bar happens to be a louder area than most. Your ears burn a bit with the buzz but you’re used to tuning out senseless background babble. The bar is busier than usual and it’s a chore getting across the floor to the counter. Everytime you brush against someone you have to fight the urge to flinch away. Personal space is something you enjoy, particularly when you’re surrounded by people who would potentially kill you if they knew what you were. It doesn't matter that most of these people are ‘tainted’ themselves. Your kind isn’t loved by anyone.

You finally make it to the bar after ploughing through far more people than you would have liked to. It’s a hassle getting a stool and you have to stare down some weedier looking guys through your shades but soon you’re leaning on the counter and waving down the barista further down the line.

She glides forward, wiping her hands on a rag as she looks at you with appraising green eyes.

“Mr. Strider,” she says sternly, stopping in front of you and placing her hand on the counter as she raises an eyebrow, “I believe I have informed you several times that you are underage and therefore not allowed in our establishment. Yet you persist in coming.”

You smirk at her, and her black lips downturn into a slight frown.

“If you want to play this game we can,” you say, leaning forward, “But babe, you and I both know you’ve got better things to do then engage in a verbal battle that you will undeniably lose due to myself being an epic honoured master of lyrical swag and you being nothing more than a verbiage-happy snarky broad.”

Her eyebrow gives a barely perceptible twitch, but other than that she seems unfazed. Her poker face is almost as good as yours. Almost.

“Very well, Mr. Strider,” she says tersely, as formal and overly-enunciated as ever, “A beer it is.”

Relief rushes through you, because despite your bravado you really aren’t up to any verbal duels and just really, really need a beer.

Because you’re stressed as fuck.

“Thanks, Kanaya,” you say with more grace and actual gratefulness than you usually allow yourself to convey. Her lips curl into a slight smile, revealing thin fangs protruding from her upper gums.

“Just this once,” she teases, though still in her prim monotone, before whisking away.

Her name is Kanaya Maryam, and she is tall and slender, with oddly-styled black hair and judgmental, assessing green eyes. Her skin is sallow, looking discoloured and almost grey. It gives her a haunted, almost dead look, accented by the black lips and the strange golden rim around her irises.

Kanaya is a Troll, obvious from both the discolouration and the black lips and gold-rimmed eyes. It’s rare for a Troll to be so out in the open, to not hide themselves or at the very least try and conceal their differences and blend in as a human. But Kanaya is as classy as they come and holds a great deal of pride. You have no doubt that she would waltz down main street with her head held high, not caring about the hateful glances or the death threats being thrown at her.

She’d probably be carrying her chainsaw, but still.

“Here you are, Mr. Strider,” says Kanaya as she returns with a half glass of dark yellow liquid. You look at the small cup in her hand and your face downturns into a scowl, eyes glaring at the woman behind the counter.

“Are you serious. Are actually fucking serious. What is this kiddy sized piece of shit you are trying to give me. Kanaya girl I thought we were friends.”

“You seemed troubled,” she says simply, setting the glass in front of you and then staring with those scrutinizing eyes. “Hence your apparent desire to drink away your stress. I deduced that it would be better for you to be relatively sober to face whatever is causing those dreadful frown lines in your skin.”

“My troubles don’t care whether or not I’m stoned or smashed.” You growl, the slightest trace of bitterness creeping into your voice. Because fuck was this actually a good idea? Yes he’s miserable and depressed and needs to get out of the fucking house but maybe you shouldn’t have brought him here. Maybe it’ll be too much for him. Maybe-

The door opens and you automatically recognize the faltering step, hearing it through all the other noise in the bar. The gait is more graceful than it used to be, but he’s taken to doing this weird shuffling thing and now you can always hear his shoes and pant hems scraping against the floor. On top of that is the way his breathing is forcibly quiet, as if he is trying to hide himself away.

You turn your head away from Kanaya and towards the door, your eyes flickering about to try and find what your ears are telling you is there.

Most of the people are sitting down now but the room is small and all the dark coloured jackets and scruffy clothes are blending together into one solid mass. The darkening effect of your shades isn’t helping but like hell you’re going to take them off. You find yourself wishing that John still wore obnoxious bright clothing like he used to. Like that adorable sweater with the overlong derpy hood that he’d run around in when you were younger, giggling like mad and pretending he could-

“Dave?”

You jump slightly in your chair and turn, tilting your head back to look behind you.

Against all odds, he has managed to sneak up on you and is standing hesitantly by your shoulder. He’s dressed all in gray. Gray sweater, gray jacket, gray jeans, and his hood is up. You can just barely see the glimmer of bright blue within the darkness of the cowl, and like always, you’re momentarily taken aback by how huge and how fucking blue his eyes are without his glasses.

You swallow once and offer him a slight nod. “Hey.”

Definitely not the best thing to say to your emotionally unstable, depressed friend. But dammit you are a Strider and you are as outwardly apathetic as fuck. You don’t want him to pick up on your own nervousness and get more worried and anxious and freaked out than he already is.

Though he can probably tell just from the way your tapping your foot and sitting hunched over like you’re about to pounce on something. He’s become pretty good at noticing the subtle things that give away what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling.

The super Rainbow Drinker vision he’s been given probably helps.

“I-is this the right place?” he asks in a whisper, shifting from foot to foot and looking about nervously.

Fucking wondering that myself, is what you think.

What you say is: “Yeah man, this is the sweet grill I was going on about. Aren’t you just digging this ill scene with all the cigarette smoke and wasted bums draping themselves all over you?”

Sarcasm probably wasn’t the best way to go, and you mentally kick yourself when he hunches over and mutters “Not really.”

Your stomach twists uncomfortably and you turn back around, downing your stupid kiddie-sized beer in one gulp.

Fuck sobriety. You’ve never been drunk a day in your life. And you need the buzz if you want to get through this night with your poker face and stoic attitude intact. You feel way too much like crying already. It’s not a good start to what’s clearly going to be a hella difficult evening.

“That’s because you’re not a licensed master in the art of cool like I am,” you say, answering his terse response with more of your usual snark now that you have some warmth in your veins. You can’t tell if he cracks a smile or not. It’s hard knowing what breaks through that shell of depression and what just makes it worse. He’s more sensitive, so sometimes your long ironic metaphor-heavy rants hit him in places you don’t intend them too. But at the same time, when you’re quiet and going out of your way to not step on any emotional toes, he gets completely distraught. You’re pretty much the only constant in his life right now, and he hates when you act differently around him.

The line between what’ll make him crack a smile and what will add another chip to his over-damaged heart is a thin one. And despite your mad acrobatic skills and natural poise, you don’t think you’re doing a very good job walking it.

“I apologize for interrupting…,”

John jumps and you whip your head around, back towards the Troll woman behind the counter. The one you’d momentarily forgotten about.

God, your awareness has gone out the window. Maybe you really should stop drinking. People are sneaking up on you from all sides. And the Egderp and a fashion-obsessed barista no less. If Bro were here he'd be raising his eyebrow in ironic disapproval and somewhat unironic amusement. And then he'd probably kick your ass.

John seems a bit startled as well, his hood falling back a bit as he turns towards Kanaya with wide blue eyes. Her eyes flicker from you to him and narrow in a barely perceptible look of scrutiny. John flinches and you immediately tense up, shifting your body so that you've placed yourself in the path of Kanaya's view. "Sorry babe," you drawl, leaning back in your chair, "I know he's gorgeous and the choice of men around these parts are limited, but he's off limits so cast that green eyed gaze somewhere else, capiche?"

There is the slightest hint of steel in your voice and you see Kanaya tense, her eyes flickering back to you in annoyance. Her poker face might be good and she exudes the perfect demeanor of apathy, but she is nosy and curious. You have brought a newcomer to her bar. Someone she doesn't know anything about. You guess you can understand her worry. This isn't the place to be bringing in random stooges off the street. Despite its outward appearance this is something of a classy establishment and you do sort of understand where Kanaya is coming from with her curiosity. But her staring is freaking John the fuck out, and that's not something you can allow.

She seems to get the message, because her gaze softens and she steps back a bit.

"My sincerest apologies," she says, her eyes flicking back to John, but less intense and demanding. "I was merely curious as to the identity of your new companion. He is an individual that I have not had the privilege of encountering. Perhaps it would be prudent for you to introduce the two of us?"

You can hear the underlying line of 'who the fuck did you bring into my bar Strider' and you can't resist a smirk.

"This is John," you say, gesturing back towards your best friend with a jerk of your head. "He's my lover. We'll be eloping in a couple of days so I thought it best to-,"

"Dave!" squeaks John, grabbing onto your jacket. His hood falls back a bit, and his face emerges from the darkness of the cowl, all bright blue eyes and ridiculous overbite. Your smirk softens into something else for a moment, before you reemploy your patented poker face and smack him lightly on the forehead.

"What's this, Egbert? Are you calling off our shotgun wedding after I've already gotten my dress? The nerve of you!"

You give him the most scandalized expression you can with your glasses hiding your eyes, and he flushes red before lowering his eyes to the ground.

"Jeez Dave..." he mumbles with a small shake of his head. He seems to have noticed the displacement of his hood, because he pulls it forward and sinks into it, hiding himself away again.

Something in your chest twists painfully and you fall silent, clutching the fabric of your pant leg into a fist. Once upon a time, John would have engaged you in a ridiculous banter wherein you owned his ass in a battle of 'who can be the most awkward and make the most shitty metaphors.' Now, you're lucky that you got a response from him at all.

"I suppose it is accurate to assume that this boy is a good friend of yours, Dave?"

Kanaya's voice snaps you out of your stupid painful thoughts and you incline your head towards her.

"My best bosom bud forever," you affirm in deadpan. Your eyes flicker to the side to see if he's reacted, but John is back to hiding away inside his hood, all curled in on himself with his shoulders bunched up.

A surge of something that you refuse to acknowledge as heartbreak and immediately reassess as anger rushes through you. You have to fix this. You can't let this go on. In this fucked up world that you live in, the one thing that should never be messed with is John Egbert. He's too kind, and too sweet, and too everything this shitty city is not. He needs to stay sweet, and keep being a goofy prankster, and never be depressed or so fucking quiet.

You've been looking for ways. Ever since he was attacked you've been looking for ways to help him. You can't reverse the change, though god you were still pathetic enough to ask a few people down here if they knew of any miracle cures. You can't stop the craving, though you've been satisfying it as much as your body is able to. But you can't fix the damage that's been done. You can hide his eyes, but it's obvious just from the way that his personality has changed and the way he walks that he's been infected. He can't live among normal humans anymore. He's lost all of his friends, and though his Dad didn't kick him out, their interactions are now strained and awkward and just really painful. You've seen some. They make you wince.

The worst part of the entire thing is that you know that it’s your fault. Your very existence thrives upon bringing misfortune upon others. You thought you beat it. So many years of being close to John and not having him fall down staircases or get hit by cars had you thinking that maybe your Bro was right and the whole curse was a myth. That you could be close to someone and they wouldn’t get hurt.

But the worst thing possible happened, and now you know that your shitty fortune-stealing ass has ruined your best friend’s life.

Every so often, when you’re alone in your room, your eyes drift over to the gun that sits on your dresser. Every so often, you wonder if you did the right thing. If your original thought, that he was better off dead than living this life, was correct.

But that’s something that will drive you crazy if you dwell on it. You didn’t kill John, and now he’s a Rainbow Drinker and miserable and alone. And you need to help him. You need to fix it.

That’s right, except for you, John's alone. Something he's never been before. Despite being a doofus his warm nature made people flock to him he had a lot of friends. As much as you wish you were enough, you aren't. John needs people in his life. He needs others to help him realize that he's not a hopeless monster.

"It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance John," says Kanaya after an awkward silence, apparently realizing that John isn't going to respond further and that you're surprisingly lacking in witty remarks.

"My title of address is Kanaya Maryam, and I am partially in charge of this establishment. While we are usually rather strict about unknown persons, any comrade of Dave is welcome."

Kanaya's lips curl up into the barest of smiles, and her fangs glint slightly in the light. You see John flinch slightly and you stiffen.

Unlike you, John has spent pretty much all his life on the 'right' side of society and grew up fearing and hating Trolls. In the years that your friendship has grown you have tried several times to convince him that not all Trolls are bad. That most of them are just grumpy and beaten down. They look scarier with their discoloured skin, fangs and claws but aside from a century of oppression and generations worth of resentment and pain, they aren't that different from humans. He had always given you looks of incredulity, and even though it irritated you that he never took what you said seriously you guess you couldn't blame him. Every day on the news there were a flood of stories about atrocities committed by 'Taints', especially Trolls. The only image that the media paints of Trolls and Taints in general is a violent, monstrous one.

Since he's turned you've been trying doubly hard to convince him that that's not true, especially since that bad image now applies to him. You can tell that he's still having trouble believing you though. About Trolls and about himself. Especially about himself.

"Thank you Ms. Maryam," John mumbles under his breath, still cringing away from her a bit. Kanaya raises an eyebrow and turns her gaze towards you slightly. You maintain your stoic expression. You're not going to embarrass him by making excuses for his skittishness.

Bu you really, seriously, really hope that he can get over his distrust of Trolls, because he's going to be meeting a lot more in the coming times.

Actually, the coming minutes, if you have anything to say about it.

"Now that we've all been introduced," you say, leaning down on the bar counter and adjusting your sunglasses, "How's about allowing us down to the basement so I can introduce my bride to the rest of our backwards family?”

Kanaya’s eyebrows shoot up into her hairline and her eyes snap back towards John, before turning back to you with a barely perceptible look of uncertainty.

Are you sure you want to take him down there, Dave?

No, you’re not sure. In fact, if you were being honest, you were completely unsure. This bar, its basement area in particular, might be like a second home to you, but you grew up tougher than John did. Your Taint has always been with you, unlike his, which literally sprang at him from nowhere. He’s not used to this world, and he looks uncomfortable even up here on the upper level, where it’s ‘safe’.

But at the same time, what choice do you have? He’ll waste away into nothing if you keep going on like this. As it is he’s like an empty shell of Egderp, like a fruit gusher with all the juice let out. He’s barely your John anymore, and it’s killing you as much as it’s killing him.

It’s a strong testament to your common sense and problem solving abilities that the only solution you can think of is introducing him to a bunch of Trolls who are angry and relatively violent on a good day. But John needs people, companionship. He’s like an elderly person whose life is relatively pointless so they adopt like a thousand fucking cats and a fish.

Since his friends are no longer an option, the only choice is to introduce him to your friends.

It just so happens that none of them are human.

(Well, you have one human friend, but that’s a slippery slope and you’ve almost tumbled down it several times yourself. Definitely not something to drag John into.)

So despite your own misgivings, you give Kanaya the deadpan to trump all previous deadpans and raise an eyebrow as if to say ‘You’re questioning me? You’re questioning me?’

She doesn’t look impressed and she gives John another skeptical look, but she nods, granting you the visual acceptance to bring someone new into the hidden basement of the bar. The secret safe haven for all those reviled by society.

As you slide off the stool and nod for John to follow you, you’re again plagued with doubts and fears and is this really the only fucking thing you can think of doing?

But it is.

It really is.

And that in itself is ridiculously tragic.

Chapter Text

Your name is JOHN EGBERT.

You are SEVENTEEN YEARS OLD, live with your DAD, are going to be a senior in high school and are considering pursuing a career in either MUSIC or TEACHING or BOTH.

At least you were.

Before you were ATTACKED.

Now, you are a MONSTER.

And you really, really HATE YOURSELF.

Usually, this self-loathing is what takes up your entire thought process and emotions. You just really can't get over how much you despise what you've become.

Sometimes it makes you angry, and sometimes it fills you with disgust, but mostly it just makes you really, really sad.

Dave is always trying to convince you that you're not a monster. He is always telling you that you're still John; that nothing about your personality has changed. That the disease you've been infected with has done nothing to your character or your ideals.

And you guess that's true to an extent. You still love playing the piano. You still like the concept of pulling pranks (though you currently lack the spirit to plan or execute any). You still hate confectionary items with the passion of a thousand burning suns. Your feelings towards your Dad haven't changed as you still find him overbearing and weird but love him with all your heart. You still see Dave as your best bro, though you don't see him as quite the epitome of cool that you used to now that you can read his movements and see the glimmer of tears in his eyes before he blinks them away.

But see, that's the other thing. It's not as simple as Dave thinks it is. The biological change that has occurred may not have affected your personality and interests directly, but it has heavily changed how you see the world.

Dave hates that you don't laugh and joke anymore. That you don't smile at random strangers on the street or skip happily from place to place. That you don't light up rooms with your buck-toothed grin.

But the thing is, your buck-toothed grin is now gleaming and predatory with incisors that are far too sharp. You can't smile at random strangers on the street because all you see when you look at them is their weak points. Where to strike. Where the blood in their veins flows the strongest. You can't skip happily from place to place because your gait has become the gait of the hunter. You glide from place to place and no matter what you do your steps are always soundless. You have snuck up on your Dad more times then you can count and the flash of fear in his eyes whenever he jumps and turns around has carved deep holes into your heart. You don't laugh and joke because all of a sudden nothing is funny. Your eyes can see more than just weak points. They can see every movement, every muscle spasm. Every twitch and shift. You can almost always tell when a person is lying. When you see people on the street talking together you don't see conversations but an exchanging of lies. Even simple things, like people saying 'Nice to meet you' when their body language says they'd rather be anywhere else. The world to you has become a giant ball of untruths and masks. It is nearly impossible for you to find something to laugh about when all the worst of the human race has been laid bare before you.

Your entire world has collapsed. It is as simple as that. You wish you could go back to how you were. Go back to being the John you used to be. You know it's what your Dad wants. You know its what Dave wants more than anything else in the world.

But you just can't.

That doesn't mean you're not trying though. You try and smile sometimes for Dave, but it's hard. It's just so much easier to hide away in your hood. You've given up smiling for your Dad because it just unsettles him.

Your relationship with your Dad is lost, that much is obvious to you. He's uneasy around you and nothing you do can ease that. It's better with Dave. Dave is like you, except he's had his condition all his life and his infection doesn't make him crave people's blood. But despite the unpleasant side effect of your disease, he's not uneasy around you. He isn't scared of you. And he's the reason your hunger hasn't consumed you yet.

You hate feeding from him. So, so much. But you know you don't have a choice. If not him, than it would be some innocent person off the street. Or worse, you might snap and attack your Dad. Dave isn’t human, so he’s more durable, and his blood count replenishes fast. Post-feeding anemia never lasts more than a day for him, and that only occurs if you go a long time without feeding and then take a lot in one go.

You have considered removing yourself from the equation altogether, but Vampires are hard to kill and Dave has made it quite clear that that’s not an option. You don't want to upset Dave anymore than you already have, and his eyes tell you that it would destroy him if you managed to kill yourself, so you don't try.

Dave really has become what your world revolves around. You don’t tell him that, because you don’t want to freak him out or seem like more of a burden then you already are. But without Dave, you would have gone crazy, or lost yourself. There’s no way you could have maintained this pretence of ‘John’ without Dave reminding you of just who ‘John’ was. Of who you are. The times when your new instincts begin to take over, when the need to feed and to hunt begins to cloud everything else, it’s thoughts of Dave and of how much you want to make him happy that keep you sane. That stops you from losing yourself to the monster within.

To be honest, you don’t have much hope left for yourself. Hopelessness is the number one emotion behind the melancholy that you are constantly carrying. If it were up to you, you’d probably sink into an endless pool of misery and carnal desires with no hope of resurfacing.

But it’s not just up to you.

There’s Dave.

And that’s why you’re here.

Which is kind of funny.

Since he’s not.

You are alone in a hallway, empty and silent and yet loud and full. The sounds from upstairs are booming even though the flight of stairs that leads down to the basement is really long and winding and the door separating the upper floor from the lower is shut. The buzz and mumble is loud in your eardrums and the silence of the hallways just makes the noise from upstairs all the louder.

In addition to that is the door in front of you. Dark and unremarkable. Heavy, with no light coming from beneath it and looking to be made of solid iron. The noise from behind it is nowhere near the level that the noise from upstairs is. But the low rumble that you can hear unsettles you so much more.

Because the low growling tones, the way you can’t actually hear anyone on the other side of the door moving. The dangerous smell seeping into your nostrils.

You haven’t met one, ever, but your senses are telling you Trolls.

And that, quite frankly, scares the fuck out of you.

Dave has been telling you non-stop that Trolls aren’t as bad as everyone makes them out to be. He keeps telling you that they are mostly just like humans, except a little angrier and a little more violent. But it’s not like they go around attacking people. They’re just constantly provoked.

That’s what he tells you, but it’s hard letting go of the image of Trolls you’ve had since forever, and quite frankly, you’re not entirely convinced that they’re not bloodthirsty monsters that will rip you to shreds.

Actually you’re not convinced at all.

You trust Dave. You really do. And you trust that he knows more about these types of things than you do, but you can smell them. And they don’t smell nice. And you don’t mean that as in they smell bad. You mean that as in they smell like ‘fuck off or I’ll bite you’. Like a cat with its fur puffed out or a dog baring its teeth. You are getting huge waves of animosity from behind that door and you seriously just really don’t want to be here. Like at all.

You trust Dave, but you can’t even see the Trolls and you already know they want to kill you.

You hunch down into your sweater a little more, biting lightly at your lower lip and wincing as the to-sharp fangs dig into the flesh.

Why did Dave have to leave you here alone? Okay wait, that’s stupid you know why. He wanted to triple check that is was okay for you to be here. He’s been super nervous all night and all tense and flinchy and you know he’s just as scared as you are, in his Dave way. That’s part of the reason you’re trying so hard. You want to not be miserable, really. But it’s hard and you don’t know how anymore. If Dave thinks making friends with scary grey angry-smelling people with claws will make you feel better, than you’re all for it.

Well okay not really.

But you’re here anyways and you’ll ride out whatever happens next as best you can.

You close your eyes, trying to block out the noise. A short spike of anxiety shoots through you when you can no longer see your surroundings, but your other senses soon acclimate accordingly and you can see the hallway just as well with your nose and your ears. Unfortunately, the buzz of the room above distorts the image and bothers you and jeez you hate this superhearing stuff!

Gradually, you allow yourself to relax (if you can call it that) and fade back into yourself. You retreat from the hallway and into your mind, allowing all the background noise to truly fade away and losing the image of your surroundings as your focus wanes. Your mind wanders to a different time, and a different place. You see light, warmth, and happiness. You see smiles. Your Dad's smile, Dave's smile. Your own smile. You see people, people that you don't have to avoid and keep your head down around. People you can talk with, and laugh with.

People.

And you.

You’re a person too.

Not a monster.

Your thoughts probably would have continued along this track and taken you to a sad, dark place. But they are abruptly interrupted by a sickly sweet smell shooting suddenly into your nostrils and almost soundless footsteps padding towards you.

Your eyes shoot open and you straighten up from where you were leaning against the wall. Your body is tense and all you can feel is fight and defend and enemyenemyenemy killkillkill.

Your senses are telling you that someone is trying to attack you from behind. They are telling you that something dangerous is behind you and that you very much need to get it before it gets you.

You whirl around and instinctively bare your teeth, hunched forward as if preparing to spring.

Then you pause.

Your senses are screaming danger danger as loud as they can and your body is reacting accordingly, but your eyes are caught unawares by the sight that greets you.

It's a girl, which is pretty much the last thing you were expecting since your body had gone to defcon 3. She's standing there, looking relatively amused with one hand on her hip and an eyebrow raised. Her hair is dark and falling around her shoulders, and though it's dark you can see silvery frames around her eyes.

You are caught off guard and quite confused for a few moments. But then your mind finally catches up with what your body has been telling you and a terrified chill sweeps through you as you recognize what you're looking at.

A Troll.

It's a Troll.

An infuriating mix of fear and anger rolls through you. The fear comes from your memory, from all the news and stories telling you that Trolls are dangerous and to be feared. But then, there is a hot feeling rolling around your chest and swelling up into your head. Aside from simply remembering the threat of danger and fearing it, you are feeling the threat. You are feeling the danger and more than that you are feeling a need to eradicate said danger.

Your instincts are going crazy, but you manage to keep yourself in one place. You don’t curl your lips back and bare your teeth. You don’t leap forward and attack. You freeze, battling the two feelings of Fight and Flight raging within you. Your fingers twitch at your sides and despite your best efforts, a low growl rumbles in your chest.

The Troll’s eyes narrow and yours do as well, your senses and wariness going up on high alert. You see its lips curl back you tense further, the need to attack first quickly beginning to cloud all other thoughts.

Then it laughs.

The Troll throws back its head and laughs, a haughty sound that’s loud and a little bit rough on the ears with the needling tone it has. Its eyes close briefly and then reopen, sparkling with amusement as its mouth curls into a grin, pointed teeth fully on display.

You’re startled, and your eyes blink wide. The fear you had of Trolls when you were a human suddenly overpowers the anger and need to attack that you have as a Rainbow Drinker. The sudden shift in emotions unbalances you and you find yourself taking steps backwards, disoriented.

The troll’s grin widens and it lets out another short bark of laughter.

“Jeeeeeeeez, what’s up with you?” it sneers, eyes narrowed and glinting in the dim light of the hallway, “You make it a habit of lurking suspiciously in corridors and then freaking out when someone passes by?”

You’re going to be honest. The fact that it talked surprises you. It’s not that you think that Trolls can’t talk or whatever. You know they can (Their ability to manipulate with words is part of what makes them so dangerous). But you guess…you just have this image of them as vicious barbaric creatures lurking in the shadows ready to pounce. Dave has told you again and again that that’s not true, but apparently, deep down, you never believed him.

So this troll girl, who looks mostly human except for the fangs and the claws and the black lips, surprises you. You are floundering so hard right now you can’t even tell which way is up. You’ve been told that your social awkwardness is endearing but in this situation, where you’re struggling to find something to say to this monster who is actually a girl and who you have to not hate or be afraid of, it is a huge liability and really embarrassing.

She tilts her head to the side and raises an eyebrow, still grinning, and you take another step back.

“Man, what are you? A little kid or something?” she jabs, advancing forward as you retreat. “The hell is wrong with you? Are you lost? You look terrified and confused as fuck. You suuuuuuuure you’re in the right place?”

No, you’re not sure, and you retreat again, body tensing and thrumming with warnings and instincts battling it out beneath your skin.

You’re trying so hard. Where’s Dave? Why is this happening? It’s so, so hard keeping that monster side of yourself down, and now you’re stuck here, in a tiny space, with another monster that’s making the monster inside of you go crazy. You can feel it battling within your skin, trying to break out, and you can almost feel the tears and rips as it tries to break through your outer layers and explode into the world.

It’s going to break out.

No it’s not.

The monster is going to come free.

No it’s NOT!

“I’m John Egbert!” you blurt out, your voice surprisingly loud and echoing a little around the hallway. The Troll girl looks legitimately surprised, her eyes widening a bit.

Wow, you really have no idea where that came from. You think that it might have been you vocalizing your fight with your inner demon. Shouting out your identity as John and not as Rainbow Drinker to validate it.

Gosh you’re fucked up in the head. How did that even happen?

“Well, well, well. He speaks!” says the Troll girl, her face falling back into a smirk. “I was beginning to think you were mute on top of lost, scared, and clueless.”

You stiffen and your eyes narrow again. This time in actual irritation and not in primal anger.

This Troll girl is rude.

“I’m not lost!” you huff, straightening up out of the defensive crouch that you had unconsciously sunk into, “I am totally and completely in this hallway on purpose.”

She looks amused. You fight the temptation to stick your tongue out at her, because that would probably most certainly result in it getting pulled out.

“Is that so?” she replies, her teeth glinting as she grins, “Well then, Mr. John Egbert, what is that purpose? Because it seeeeeeeemed like you were spacing out against a wall. And quite frankly, you don’t seem like the type of guy that hangs around a place like this.”

She’s mocking you, from the light in her eyes to the curl of her lips to the standoffish way she’s standing with her arms folded across her chest. But at the same time, you kind of agree with her. You know Dave meant well and everything, but this situation is looking like less and less of a good idea as time progresses.

“Yeah, I’m kinda not,” you agree a little sheepishly. The girl looks surprised again and it takes you a few seconds to register that holy shit you just agreed with a Troll are you in a conversation now is this a conversation are you talking to a troll oh man oh jeez evasive action evasive action mayday mayday!

“Hey!” says the girl loudly, startling you out of your panicked thoughts, “That is not what you’re supposed to say! You are supposed to make a serious but pathetic effort to defend yourself so that I can tear you down and show you what a loser you really are!”

You frown, and the girl huffs. That was kind of mean, but at the same time, it’s kind of funny how she seems to be actually upset about you agreeing with her.

Wait no. It’s not funny. She’s scowling and her eyes are narrowed and shit what if she’s going to attack shitshitshit-

A crushing wave of panic sweeps over you but before you can freak out the Troll’s angry expression fades to one of contempt, and she sniffs and looks at you over the rims of her glasses.

“Honestly you can’t do anything right,” she comments dryly, staring down at you as if you were the most incompetent bug on the planet.

You momentarily bask in the relief of her not attacking you, but then your last comment registers in your brain and you bristle angrily.

“That doesn’t even make sense!” you blurt out, your own growing irritation pushing aside your lingering fear, “That like, makes the furthest from sense ever! You don’t know me at all. You can’t just say I can’t do anything right!”

“Caaaaaaaan’t I?” she asks silkily, her eyes teasing and her lips smirked once more. “Who’s going to stop me? I call ‘em like I see ‘em, Mr. John Egbert who lurks in the hallways like a lost little puppy.”

Okay, now she’s pissing you off. You are not a lost puppy! If anything, you are a dog bursting with the mangrit of a thousand wild huskies. You are the manliest and notlost-est of wolves.

“My lurking in the hallway is the type of lurking that is totally not the lost kind of lurking!” you snap, taking a step forward, “It is the most not-lost kind of lurking there is. In fact, it is the found kind of lurking. The levels of which you totally wish you could achieve, but you can’t, because you’re not Mr. John Egbert who lurks in the hallways like a manly husky-dog-wolf who is not lost in the slightest.”

Wow it’s been awhile since you said that much in one go. It feels kind of weird. You really haven’t had much to say lately and when you do you prefer to fade into the background and not trouble anyone. But you don’t care whether or not you trouble this Troll because bluh bluh she’s a huge bitch.

And it felt totally awesome to tell her off.

Her eyebrows are way up in her hairline and she looks really shocked. You congratulate yourself on a telling off well executed and a sense of satisfaction that is the closest you have come to happiness in months creeps into your chest.

Then she bursts out laughing.

This isn’t like the laughter before, this is full on laughter. She’s clutching her stomach and has her head thrown back and crap, maybe you’re comeback wasn’t so great after all?

Or maybe it was so awesome that it caused her to lose her mind?

Yeah no, thinking back on it, you’re ‘comeback’ was just a hastily strung together string of nonsense. You want to laugh at yourself for the fail. You can’t blame the Troll for practically being on the floor from amusement.

Though it kinda dampens what was almost a good mood and sends you sinking back into your hood. The brief flash of…not-melancholy that had infected you is gone, and you suddenly feel heavy with the revelation that you are not only a monster, but also a joke.

Why are you here again?

You turn away from the girl, not turning your back to her but not looking at her anymore. You shuffle down the hallway, moving to an area closer to the door and farther from the girl.

That’s it. You’re not going to do this. Trolls are crazy and mean and talking with one isn’t making you feel any better about anything. You want to go home. Even though it’s not really your home anymore. At least in your room you can turn off all the lights and curl up under the covers and not have to try. You’re really tired of trying when it just doesn’t help.

“Hey! Mr. John Egbert!”

You flinch a bit as the Troll girl’s voice pierces through your consciousness again, but you don’t answer her. You sink further down into your hood, hiding yourself away again.

It doesn’t help though, because she appears in front of you, grinning with fangs on full display.

“That was reaaaaaaaally pathetic,” she says cheerfully, adding another hole to the swiss cheese that is your self-worth. “Did you really think that was a good comeback? Laaaaaaaame.”

You don’t reply.

The Troll girl frowns and leans forward, getting way too close into your personal space for comfort.

“What the hell’s eating you?” she growls, “What happened to that fun conversation we were having? Are you pussying out of our scintillating dialogue?”

Trolls know words like scintillating?

“Leave me alone,” you growl, and it’s actually a growl. It builds up in your chest and rumbles past your lips. Not overly threatening but definitely a warning.

Your mood is souring by the second and you feel the monster stirring and scratching and banging about inside your skin again. It’s making standing still really hard and you actually kind of want to punch something.

“Come oooooooon,” stresses the Troll girl, apparently not taking the hint or just choosing to ignore it, “Are you gonna go crying to mommy just because I got on your case a little bit? Gimme a break.”

“Why don’t you give me a break?!” you snap, suddenly lurching off the wall and getting right in the Troll’s face. You’re suddenly centimeters away from unnatural gray skin and sharp teeth but you’re too mad to be scared.

“I mean, god! I’m just standing here, minding my own business, and you totally just invade my personal bubble and start verbally assaulting me in an extremely mean way! You are the meaniest of mean rude bitches! The rudest of mean rude bitches! And your laugh sounds like a hyena being attacked with a cheese grater!”

You again, acknowledge the not quite A grade of your insults, but they seem to have had some effect because the Troll girl takes a step back. Though that actually might have been because you kinda got right up into her face and holy shit you got right up into her face she’s a Troll what if she had eaten you what if she had spit out some poisonous saliva that melted the flesh right off your bones oh god oh god oh god.

But the Troll does no such thing. She steps back, gives you a look you can’t quite place, and then smiles.

“Looks like Mr. John Egbert has a backbone after all,” she says with a smirk, “Nice to see you’re not quite as pathetic as you first appear.”

You blink, somewhat taken by surprise. Was that a compliment?

“Was that a compliment?” you ask. Your mouth is frequently racing ahead of those thoughts of yours that caution you to watch what you say around this Troll. Because you don’t seem to be seeing her as THE ULTIMATE THREAT any longer. Just as a really rude girl who is only really scary when she narrows her eyes and bares her teeth.

And that’s…a bad thing?

“Weeeeeeeell, it wasn’t necessarily an insult,” she says coyly, before letting out another short bark of laughter.

“Hyena. Cheese grater.” You deadpan, wincing at the sound, and the look she gives you is one of pure amusement.

“Your insults need some work, kid.” She says, her teeth all bared into that scary grin, “But you’re not quiiiiiiite as lame as I first thought.”

Okay so you’re guessing that was another compliment? You don’t know. This is weird. How are you having a seemingly civil conversation with a Troll you were telling off seconds ago? How are you having a civil conversation with a Troll at all?

Man, what the hell is even happening.

“Uh…thanks?” you answer weakly, rubbing the back of your head nervously. “You’re, uh, still kind of a mean rude bitch but you haven’t tried to eat me or anything which is kind of what I was expecting so uh, good job?”

The Troll girl raises one eyebrow questioningly before understanding flits across her face. Her smirk fades, and then returns in the form of a grim smile.

“I see,” she says, a little quieter than her previous comments, “You’re new. New to this whole scene. Newly changed.”

You don’t get what she means right away, but when you do your face falls into a pained expression and you swallow thickly, looking away from her and directing your gaze to the ground.

“Yeah.”

There is a moment of silence before you see her nod her head a little out of the corner of her eyes.

“Sucks to be you,” she says flatly. The lack of exaggeration in her tone surprises you and you look up. Your eyes meet and then she smiles wanly. “Sucks to be me too. Sucks to be all of us. But what the hell.”

Then she’s walking towards you, and whoa she’s closing the distance between the two of you quickly and you don’t think you’re okay with being this close and-

“Let me give you some advice Mr. not-lame John Egbert,” she says, right up in your face with her smile not exactly happy but not sad either, “This shitty life is only as shitty as you make it. Likewise, it’s only not shitty if you allow it to not be shitty. Lurking in hallways being ‘not-lost’ while looking like a kicked puppy? That’s allowing it to be shitty. Most of us seem to be content with being shitty, but that’s lame and that’s for losers.”

The Troll girl pulls back and she smirks at you again, flipping her hair back over her shoulder and tilting her head to the side.

“I’m a winner,” she says, teeth showing as she grins proudly, “And by my awesome powers of deduction and my natural sense for these things, I think you could be to. Because hell, most infectees don’t handle their first ‘troll meeting’ that well. Even if you’re comebacks were shitty as hell.”

“My comebacks were awesome,” you mutter under your breath, and she laughs again.

“God you’re pathetic,” she chuckles, and when you look up sharply again she makes a shoosh sound and stops you before you can begin defending yourself.

“Don’t take it personally, no one can quite match up to my levels.” She states with a shrug. “But what I’m saying is that I think you’re interesting, Mr. John Egbert.”

Again, her comment catches you off guard, and a bit of a blush spreads up into your pale cheeks. You flounder about a bit for something to say but find yourself unable to come up with anything. This situation is just too weird and you can’t find the right words to respond to it correctly.

But you don’t have to, because the Troll girl laughs a little and then turns, flipping her hair dramatically as she begins continuing down the hallway, walking to wherever she had originally been going.

“See you around, John~,” she says over her shoulder and wow you’re not sure how you feel about the way she just said your name and actually you’re not sure about this entire situation all together and wait where is she going is she leaving?

“Hey!” you call out before you can stop yourself, and when she angles her head to look back at you, you freeze up and kind of choke a little. “Uh….”

Why did you call out to her again? Why was that a thing that you did?

“Uh…I, uh, don’t know your name,” you manage to stammer out, “And I don’t think that that’s a thing that’s really fair since you know mine and all…”

And that really is the only reason you would want to know her name. To balance out the fact that she knows yours.

Right?

She grins again and you feel that spike of uneasiness at the sight of her fangs, but it’s nowhere near as strong as it was before and none of your body’s warning bells go off. Which should be surprising but you’re actually not paying too much attention to that right now.

“Normally I’d tell you to call me the Marquise,” says the Troll girl with a wink, “But since we’re being ‘fair’, you can call me Vriska.”

She gives you another wide, fanged, smile before resuming walking and disappearing into the darkness. You can still see her but it’s pretty obvious that she’s done talking to you and wow are you actually a little sad because you were enjoying that conversation…

Wait.

What?

You just had a conversation with a Troll. A conversation that ended with you exchanging names and uh you think there might have been some flirting was there flirting you think there was flirting oh god why was there flirting.

You are still having a mental freak out when Dave finally opens that stupid iron door.

Chapter Text

Once again, you are DAVE STRIDER.

You are currently lingering around the basement, rocking back on your heels and critically observing your surroundings through your shades. It’s not as loud down here as it was in the bar above, and the buzz of noise is almost comfortable. Especially since it’s a noise your familiar with, one that you’ve grown used to and now associate with something akin to security.

You shift your weight and tilt your head as you continue to let your eyes sweep across the room, very aware of the fact that you are just stalling and should really just open the damn door already.

Quite a few minutes have passed since you finished speaking with Vantas and convinced him to let you bring John in here and introduce him to your group. You hadn’t actually planned to speak to him about it since he’s an angry, loud asshole who’s fun to rile up but annoying in large doses. However, the friend you were going to speak to, a disturbed but awesome chick by the name of Terezi, was unavailable for conference. You had to make do with what you had.

To be honest, if you should be talking to anyone about John it’s Lalonde. In addition to being a sort-of-kind-of-acquaintance of yours and the one who generally smothers you with her bullshit-shrouded advice, she is also the daughter of the proprietor of the establishment. There would have been a lot of posturing and doubletalk involved but speaking with her would have allowed you to voice a lot of the concerns currently gnawing at your psyche. It also would have helped reassure you to know that John had the protection of the bar owner’s daughter.

Though admittedly, while Rose and her wasted mother own the establishment it’s Vantas who unofficially runs the bottom level. He’s a loud, obnoxious, asshole, but he also makes sure that no one’s fucking around. They’re not the bloodthirsty monsters that the media paints them to be, but Trolls are violent douches most of the time, so despite being an angry caustic fucker himself he doesn’t allow any fights down here. You’re not sure if it’s because he doesn’t want Lalonde to kick them out, or if it has something to do with the weird utopian ideals he occasionally babbles on about. Frankly, you don’t really care. The trolls down here are the most approachable in the entire city, and you’re pretty damn proud to say that you roll with them.

Not to say that they’re all decent. There are quite a few assholes (aside from Vantas) down here that get your back up and make you bristle in all the wrong places. Like humans, Trolls can be dangerous in ways other than their sharp claws and pointy teeth. There are quite a few deceptive, manipulative bastards mixed in the crowd. Twisted souls and darkened hearts. You always avoid them, because the smell of them alone is enough to make your stomach turn.

But Vantas assured you, in a long rant peppered with expletives and over the top metaphors, that most of those bastards aren’t here, and that those that are have better things to do than to fuck with a newly changed Rainbow Drinker. Still, you give the basement a once over yourself, just to be sure. Not that you don’t trust Vantas (not that you do trust him either), but he doesn’t know John and he doesn’t know that John, while not a coward, has been conditioned to perceive everyone who is currently in the room as a monster. So you’re doing what any responsible friend would do and scoping out the area for any potential pockets of discomfort for your best bro.

The basement is a hundred times less crowded than the bar upstairs. The area is much larger width and length wise, though the ceiling is much lower and some of the taller trolls have to duck their heads or risk scraping them. The ground is a patchy, dark blue, disgusting excuse for a carpet. Surprising, considering how much effort Rose’s mother usually puts into appearances. But as Rose informed you, no use spending good money on hardwood if it’s just going to be gouged by claws, speckled with blood and stained with various other miscellaneous substances.

Other than that, the basement is kept in impeccable condition. There are couches, all a soft, plush like material, and tables. A pool table is set up in the far corner, and a small bar runs along the back wall. Various piles of soft objects are scattered about for those Trolls that never quite adjusted to more ‘human’ comforts, and the entire basement is dimly-lit, dark and hard to navigate for anyone not endowed with night-vision. The shroud of smoke from the variety of drugs being exhaled into the air also adds a haze over everything. It also partly masks the intensely feral and sickly sweet smell of Trolls. In your opinion, having your nose filled with the scent of smoke isn’t much better than the smell of Trolls, but at least dogs are less likely to attack you on the street if the smell of tobacco and weed is masking your own scent.

There aren’t too many Trolls here right now. Usually there can be up to a hundred in the room at a time, with other miscellaneous Mutants scattered in the midst (despite being dominated by them, the basement is not actually an exclusively Troll area). Today, there can’t be more than thirty or so people altogether. You suppose that’s good. Less chance of fights breaking out. Less chance of a wildcard asshole wrecking everything.

You strain your ears and can catch the voices of some of your ‘friends’ in the mostly vacant room. The quiet, scratchy voice of Nitram, Captor’s obnoxious lisp, and Makara’s disorienting up and down trill. The high-pitched laughter of your partner in crime can’t be heard though, and for a moment you wonder where she is, what she’s doing, and why she didn’t tell you.

But you’ve already got John to worry about and Terezi can take care of herself, so you shake those thoughts form your mind and let your eyes drift over everything a few more times, straining your ears and eyes for any possible dangers or unpleasant surprises.

Okay, come on Strider, you tell yourself with a mental slap, tearing your gaze away from the room and turning towards the door, You’re acting like a neurotic Father about to walk his baby girl into her first day of Kindergarten. Jesusfuck John’s perfectly capable of handling his own shit you don’t have to hold his fucking hand-

Something smashes behind you and you hear an eruption of furious snarls and hisses quickly followed by a cascade of loud angry curses from Vantas. You grit your teeth and continue walking towards the door.

Okay, so maybe I should. Just. Like. Not hold his hand or anything. Just. Kind of. Hang my fingers close to his in a position letting him know that if he wants to- or like, needs a lifeline or reassurance or some shit- that I’m- I mean, if he needs me to beat the shit out of someone for him I am totally there and totally cool with it because we’re bros and holy shit I am totally a neurotic father okay stopping this retarded train of thought right now.

Resisting the urge to facepalm or bang your head against the wall, you finally get to the door and place your hand on the handle, roughly pushing aside all your paranoia and the sick, punched-gut feeling you have deep in your stomach. Running a hand through your hair, you push open the iron door separating the basement from the hallway.

The door, though ridiculously heavy, opens easily for you and you wrinkle your nose as the musty smell of the hallway hits you in the face.

In the dimly lit corridor, you can see John. His body is turned away from the doorway, but his head has snapped towards you, hood down against his neck and dark blue eyes wide and startled.

You’re surprised to see him with his hood down, and you immediately notice that there’s something slightly different about him. He looks spooked, like something has ruffled his feathers, and you feel yourself tense and bristling in response to whatever might have unsettled him.

“Sorry I took so long,” you say, slouching with your hands in your pockets. Your tone is casual, but your voice is stiff, eyes flickering about for a glimpse of what startled him. “You alright?”

John stiffens a bit and turns his head to look down the hallway, eyes narrowed slightly. Your head immediately snaps to look in the direction he’s staring, gliding to his side.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he says quietly, blinking his eyes before turning to you. “I, uh, I ran into a Troll.”

A chill shoots through you and for a moment you actually stop breathing. Your mind disintegrates into a mushy whirlwind of whatwhatwhat John met a Troll a Troll was around John when I wasn’t there I wasn’t here to protect to help what if they had hurt him what if it had been a violent asshole why wasn’t I here why wasn’t I with him why did I leave him alone what the fuck is wrong with-

“But it’s okay,” continues John, interrupting your stream of self-berating. “She was, uh, well she was kind of mean but she didn’t attack me or anything. We, uh, had a conversation?”

He tilts his head to the side, looking vaguely confused and more than a little perplexed. You are partially concerned but you can’t deny the immense feeling of relief you get from seeing him with that derpy expression of confusion on his face. He doesn’t seem hurt or roughed up or like he’s been terrified out of his wits and will never ever set foot near a Troll again. He just looks a little…bemused?

“That’s cool,” you say, maintaining your cool façade despite the cascade of different emotions rushing through you, “Man, here I was worrying about introducing you to a bunch of Trolls and you’ve got the jump on me by making pals with a chick when my back’s turned.”

“That’s not what happened,” he argues softly, cheeks dusting a bit pink. He’s looking more flustered than spooked, and surprisingly, hasn’t made a move to duck back into his hood or hunch inwards.

It’s not the ‘Oh yeah, Dave. I get all the chicks when you’re not looking. Hehe,’ that you’re looking for, but it’s something and you feel your heart soar a bit.

Because holy shit call the press alert the mayor it looks like you were right. He just needed to talk to people who don’t see him as a monster. Who didn’t know him before so wouldn’t treat him differently now.

Well, okay, he actually needs a fuckload more than that- like a Father who doesn’t flinch in his presence and a body that doesn’t crave blood- but companionship is definitely on the list of things he needs and…

Shit this might actually work.

“Well you can tell me the whole gruesome story later,” you say offhandedly, moving backwards into the open doorway, “Your daily Troll quota is nowhere near filled, so let’s get this show on the road and head on in.” Normally, you would have grilled John intensely about his encounter, but he’s not hurt, and he seems okay, so he almost certainly didn't meet a ‘dangerous’ troll. In addition, you’re currently riding a confidence high and you want to at least get him in the room before all your paralyzing doubts latch onto you again.

John bites his lip a bit at your comment, but he nods and turns his body towards you. He doesn’t seem quite as apprehensive as he did before and another wave of confidence rushes through you. It is dealt a heavy blow, however, when he reaches up and pulls his hood back over his head, face once again disappearing into the darkness of the cowl.

You swallow thickly and turn your face away, looking back into the smoky, dimly lit room. A few faces have turned towards the pair of you, mostly because you look pretty damn conspicuous just lurking in the open doorway like this, and your face immediately hardens.

Jesus what the fuck is wrong with you? Letting your guard down like that, thinking that just because John looked a little less miserable things going were going to be okay. If anyone should know how much life doesn’t work that way it’s you. And yet, here you are, Dave fucking Strider, naïve idealistic moron who believes the world’s going to explode into sunshine and rainbows just because your bro had one half decent encounter with a Troll.

“Dave?” And then John is right beside you, pressed up slightly against your side and eyes flickering between you and the depths of the room in front of you. You don’t take your eyes off of the occupants of the room, but you raise your hand a bit so that it’s resting on John’s arm. He jumps a bit, but you leave it there, pressing a bit to gently guide him into the room. John’s breath hitches a bit and you swallow thickly.

The door shuts behind the two of you loudly and John jumps almost a foot in the air while you just grip his arm tighter. A few more heads turn, but now that the door isn’t hanging open and the two of you aren’t doing anything seriously distracting they lose interest quickly and return to whatever the hell it was that they were doing before.

John’s breathing is tight and nervous beside you and his hand reaches it out and clutches at your jacket. You release the tight grip you had on his arm and painstakingly pry his fingers from your coat. He shoots you a confused, slightly panicked look as you do so, but it quickly melts away as you lace your fingers through his and give him the most comforting look you can from behind your shades. John relaxes a bit, and his fingers lock with yours.

“Wow Strider, you know, when you were lying prostrate at my feet kissing my hands and basically begging for my assurance that your to-precious-for-this-world bosom buddy would remain safe from the grabby, serrated claws of the creatures of the night, you forgot to mention that he was your boyfriend. Don’t know why you didn’t just come out and fucking say that you were boning the kid. It explains a whole lot about how ice cold coolkid Strider could be so fucking concerned about one goddamn newbie.”

The second the first gravelly note hits the air your head snaps to the side and you’ve moved to stand in front of John. His body goes ridged and you hear what might be a growl bubble up from his throat, but you ignore it in favour of narrowing your eyes at the familiar bastard who has managed to sneak up on you.

Of course it’s fucking Vantas.

He’s standing in front of you, arms folded across his chest belligerently and his standard scowl downturning his lips and souring his expression. His shoulders are hunched defensively, like always, which makes him look even shorter than he already is. He stands about a head below you, his scraggly shock of black hair just barely reaching your chin. Bangs hang in front of unsettling red eyes, which are locked on you both. They’re a brighter red than yours, less blood coloured and more the colour of candy. The gray palour of his skin and the dark bags under his eyes make them stand out even more, and they appear to be almost glowing from behind the curtain of hair.

"My bad, Vantas," you reply, barely masking the irritation in your voice, "Must have forgotten to mail you an invite to the wedding. Though it was probably less of a forgetting thing and more of a 'no loud angry douchebags allowed' thing."

"And yet, here we are," he responds with a sneer, "With your precious wifey surrounded by loud angry douchebags. By your own doing, might I add. Was that not the point of this whole fucking endeavor? To introduce your Rainbow Drinker boytoy to the collection of angry douchebag assholes you have the audacity to call 'homeys'?"

His comment once again sends a spark of doubt through you, but you shake it off quickly, turning your head to look at John, who is standing apprehensively beside you. Normally you enjoy getting into long verbal battles with Vantas but now’s not the time. It’s a testament to your luck that the first Troll you happen to meet with John is the one whose relationship with you is the most caustic.

Fuck being a child of misfortune. Fuck it in the goddamn face.

"Fine, you caught me,” you say, and you’re a bit ashamed of how fucking tired you sound usually you can hide it better than that-

“It was my mission all along to subject John to your long rambling rants about jackshit." Your lips twitch and you almost scowl, but you manage to maintain your composure and turn to your best friend.

"John,” you begin, gesturing towards Vantas with a tilt of your head, “This short angry munchkin-,"

"-Fuck you Strider I'm still growing-,"

"-is Karkat Vantas.” You finish with a little smirk, ignoring Vantas’s angry interjection. “He enjoys running his mouth off about literally nothing. He's also a fan of really shitty movies so maybe the two of you can indulge in your absolutely poor taste in cinema together."

John looks surprised, turning his face away from you to look at Vantas. The Troll just growls, red in the face and looking extremely affronted.

“Fuck you, Strider,” he repeats snappily, “There is literally nothing on this Earth that can top Serendipity and John Cusack is a goddamn miracle in cinema. It’s a hell of a lot better than your shitty cartoons.”

“Low blow, man,” you say with mock look of grave injury, “Don’t be hating just because you were not bestowed with the gift of ironic animation like me myself and I.”

You feel John slowly untense beside you, and you begin to relax yourself. This was what you wanted to show him. That you could talk with Trolls just like you could talk with people. That they weren’t monsters that would rip off your face just for looking at them wrong. Hell, maybe Vantas was actually a great place to start. He’s got the bark of a T-Rex but literally no bite and is sort of great for getting desensitized to Troll growling and anger.

“If that’s a fucking gift than I hope you kept the receipt because I’d exchange it the first chance I get,” Vantas snaps shortly. His red-eyed gaze then transfers to John, who stiffens under it.

“So you’re John, huh,” he grunts, not yelling anymore but still with a challenging note to his voice, "Newly changed Rainbow Drinker."

John stiffens again and he shrinks backwards into his hood. You tense beside him and fight the urge to tell Vantas to back off. You can’t fight all of John's battles for him, and this isn't really a fight. This is just Vantas bringing up something John would rather not think about. An unpleasant reality he doesn't want to confront. You don't like seeing him all scrunched in on himself, and shit, you really just want to gather him up in your arms and tell Vantas to go fuck himself. But he needs to do this. He needs to fucking get over himself before he can move forward. You can introduce him to all the people in the world, but until he learns to be at least somewhat okay with what and who he is, he'll always be miserable and depressed and alone. In thought and spirit, if not in body.

And now you're getting all theoretical and touchy-feely and just fuck this shit you are so tried of your goddamn emotions messing with you.

"Y-yeah," stutters John after a few seconds and a nervous glance cast in your direction. He was probably expecting you to do just what you told yourself not to do. Jump in and defend him.

Despite your best efforts you feel a little guilty and you swallow thickly and drop your gaze a little.

"Well kid," continues Vantas, lips curling back from his teeth a little. "I've got some news for you.”

John flinches and you tense, looking up sharply with your eyes narrowed behind your shades.

Goddammit Karkat why do you have to be so goddamn difficult can’t you just-

“It gets better.”

John looks up in surprise, eyes wide. You’re similarly caught off guard, but then you remember that oh yeah. Troll Messiah. Sole advocate for social change and all things good. Karkat.

Normally you sneer at him and roll your eyes at his ‘it will get better’ rants but now it’s exactly what John needs to hear.

Even if you personally don’t believe a single word of it.

"It gets better, kid." repeats Karkat, face still in a stubborn scowl but softer, his eyes not as harsh. "I know it seems like the world is ending right now. Like nothing will ever get better. Like everything is a spiraling black vortex of doom and suffering and that the world considers watching you in pain to be its prime form of entertainment."

His features twitch and you can see that he's trying to stop his own face from twisting into hurt. His scowl deepens and he folds his arms across his chest.

"But look," he continues, taking a step closer, "You're alive, aren't you? That's more than a lot of poor assholes can say. Yeah you've been screwed over. Yeah nothing's going to be the same for you again, but fuck, you still have a chance. You can make this fucking work, if you try. If you just lay down on your face and die than you've let them get the best of you and you've let them win."

John's been silent the entire time, still wilting a bit under Vantas's stare but no longer standing hunched over and like a cowering, beaten dog. Now, you see him lick his lips a few times before hesitantly lifting his gaze towards the Trolls'.

"Who...who's 'them'?" he asks hesitantly, eyes flickering to you briefly.

"Everyone else," replies Vantas bluntly, "Ain't gonna lie to you, kid. The majority of the world is against you. Of course they fucking are. If everyone is against you than of course everyone else is going to be against you to."

John looks confused and you roll your eyes behind your shades.

"He means that people like to follow the crowd," you state cooly, still slouching with your hands in your pockets, "If the majority of the city hates us the rest will follow due to the fear that if they don't they'll be hated as well." John frowns, and you shrug.

"Thanks for the translation, Strider. I'll be sure to defer to you anytime my painfully obvious statements need to be relayed in simpler terms," spits Vantas, eyes flicking over to you. Before you can retort, he's focused on John again, who's still looking at him with apprehension and wariness but with less fear and more of a hesitant curiousity.

"So basically," continues Vantas, his eyes softening a bit but his tone still hard, "Keep your head up and your eyes forward and screw them over by showing them you will go on, and you'll do it with fucking pride and class. Show them that there's more to you than a silver ring and fangs. Show them that you've got them beat ten times over in heart and that the real monsters in this situation are those that would label an entire population of innocents as beasts simply because they're different from them or have a disease."

There's a silence after Vantas Is finished ranting, and you see John's head drop downwards. There's no hunch to his shoulders though, and it's not the hiding crouch he was using before. You can tell it’s just him thinking over what the short angry Troll had told him.

You've heard similar rants over the years. Karkat is a wordy little asshole, and if there's one thing he never stops prattling on about it's how one day things will be better. You'd never classify yourself as an outright pessimist, but you don't exactly let yourself buy into Vantas's beautiful word spiels.

Basically, the amount of faith you have in the people of Derse and the likelihood of them ever changing their opinion of the Tainted could be held in a thimble.

"So basically," continues Vantas, and you fight the urge to sigh loudly.

You lose the fight, and as you release a large exhalation of air the short troll turns to you angrily, teeth slightly bared.

"Basically," he snappily repeats, glaring at you before turning back to John, his eyes less harsh but his face still stern.

"Welcome to the club."

You see John startle and look down with a bit of hesitancy at the hand Vantas has extended towards him. You can't say you blame him. Though the media tends to exaggerate, the yellow nails extending from the troll's fingers are no joke. They're cut short, not curled or tapered to a point like the of other Trolls, but are still sharp enough to make someone- particularly skittish slightly troll phobic goobers like John- think twice about taking that hand.

But- holy shit alert the press ring the victory bells- John takes Karkat's hand and the two of them partake in a firm, manly handshake with Karkat doing his weird happy scowl thing and John looking slightly less overwhelmed and with the beginnings of what might be a small smile playing about his lips.

Your heart does that stupid fluttery thing again and you quickly shut down the thoughts of what it was like when John used to really smile. It just hurts when you do that. But looking at your friend, still wearing that slightly-apprehensive-but-not completely-terrified half smile, you reason that maybe, you'll see that smile again soon.

If you don't manage to fuck it up first.

Chapter Text

You are still DAVE STRIDER.

And for once, you seem to have caught a break from your bad luck.

You're sitting on the couch with one hand resting protectively on John's thigh and your cheek resting against the closed fist of the other. You're looking towards him with the smallest smirk of amusement playing about your lips, listening to his quiet, nervous chatter and watching the little smile curling over his large teeth.

There's a troll beside him, with a scraggly dark brown Mohawk and a shy curl to his body. He’s lounging on the couch, turned towards John with a small smile of his own. Hanging over the arm of the couch is a second troll, with short black hair mostly concealed by a blue hat and cat-like olive eyes. Both of them are smiling, friendliness coming off of them in waves, and while John still feels tense beside you, with his hand resting over yours, he doesn't seem afraid, or like he's going to bolt or attack. In fact, he seems to be enjoying the conversation.

"And though it's a, uh, thing that most people don't generally realize," the first troll, Tavros, is saying, "Most animals don't tend to actually, uh, be afraid of Trolls. Dogs are, generally, rather protective and sometimes territorial by nature, so uh, they like to bark at us. And sometimes, attack, which is mostly unpleasant. Or, uh, completely unpleasant. But not all animals hate Trolls. Or are fearful of us. Most, actually, are okay with us. Given that uh, obviously, we don't give them reason for alarm."

"Tavros is really good with animals!" chirps the second troll, Nepeta, "Sometimes when we go pounceside, purrds land on his head!"

"Really?" asks John, leaning forward a little with eyes wide with curiousity.
A blush of brown erupts on Tavros's cheeks and he looks down, beginning to stammer nervously.

"Well that, uh, is a little true I guess. But my abilities with the animals of the bird kingdom, and the other kingdoms, have nothing on Nepeta's connection with cats. Which is a, uh, thing that is kind of amazing."

Nepeta laughs loudly, stretching her gloved hands forward to bat Tavros's shoulder affectionately.

"I love cats! They are absolutely purrfect!" she says in a voice that seems to be emulating purring itself, "But it's only cats. You can stalk to all types of animals! That's rrrrreally amazing!"

Tavros's blush deepens, and John's smile widens a little.

You find your own smirk widening as well, and you have to fight from keeping your expression mostly stoic before Vantas, or god forbid Captor, catches you with an actual shiteating grin on your face.

See this, this is kind of what you were hoping for. You were hoping for John to get close to nice guys like Nitram and cute girls like Nepeta and to have people to talk to. And you’re not sure if he’s aware of it himself, but it took no time at all for them to coax his smile out. It’s not that John can’t smile. It’s that whenever he’s tried to recently he’s had people flinch away because of the tapered point of his incisors. But Tavros and Nepeta both have tapered teeth of their own, more than a single set actually, and the slight point to John’s teeth doesn’t faze them. Neither do his slightly slit pupils or the silver ring around his eyes.

He’s free to be John again, without people judging him for something that he can’t control.

Nepeta bursts into another round of giggles and Tavros continues to smile shyly before moving on to the next topic. John’s listening intently, the little smile never widening or breaking into laughter, but remaining constant on his face.

Satisfied with the proceedings, you turn away slightly and pull your phone out of your pocket. No offense to them or anything, but you’re not particularly interested in animals or roleplaying or anything else those goobers talk about. In fact, listening to their conversation the past ten minutes or so have been something akin to nails on chalkboard and fall far beneath your standard requirements for a Strider worthy conversation.

Keeping your one hand resting on John’s thigh, you open Pesterchum on your phone and smile slightly when you see who’s online. (She’s always online at this time. Almost as if she’s attuned herself to your nocturnal schedule in order to get more coolkid time. You don’t blame her. Coolkid time is a fucking hot commodity.)

Your phone logs you in automatically and almost immediately a window pops open as she begins pestering you.

GG: hi dave!

Your lip quirks up a little at the sight of the bright green text and you cast a surreptitious look to the side towards John.

He’s turned towards the trolls still, but as soon as your gaze centers on him you see his head turn slightly and his eyes flicker towards you. He looks a bit concerned, gaze flicking down to the phone in your hand with confusion and his fingers lacing with the ones resting on his leg.

It looks like your bro is a bit concerned that your attention isn’t fully on him. And while without context that seems like a self-centered sort of thought to be following, it makes sense seeing as he’s probably counting on you to jump in if the Trolls start pulling anything funny. Not that they will, since it’s freakin Tavros and Nepeta, but he doesn’t know that. And even if you told him he wouldn’t fully believe it.

But however strong that overprotective part of you is, you have no desire to subject yourself to a conversation about kitty cats and fairies when John is perfectly capable of managing himself in this situation. And it’s not like you’re fucking going anywhere. Your hand has taken up permanent residence on the upper area of his leg and it isn’t moving anytime soon.

You shrug a bit in response to his worried look and give him your equivalent to a reassuring smile. Which is really just your standard smirk accompanied by a slight squeeze of your fingers in his.

He relaxes a little at the confirmation that you’re still here and attentive, and he turns his head back towards the Trolls on his other side, saying something quietly to Tavros who quickly resumes his chatter.

Satisfied, you turn your attention back towards your phone and begin typing out your response.

TG: sup harley
TG: ready for your nightly fix of strider
TG: i know you must be going through wicked withdrawal from not being subjected to my sicknasty charm and swag all day
TG: dont worry im here to relieve your pain dr dave is in the house
TG: slip into those hospital jammies and lets get treatment underway

GG: haha! oh wow dave!
GG: that sounds…
GG: really suggestive! :p

TG: suggestive
TG: just what do you think im suggesting harley
TG: damn girl get your head out of the gutter aint nothing but the purest thoughts on my end
TG: its like a nunnery in here im crossing myself to ward off your lewd depraved fantasies

GG: the only one having lewd depraved fantasies is you, dave!

TG: nah
TG: you might have gotten everyone else with your nice harmless little asian girl act
TG: but i aint buying

GG: i am a nice girl!
GG: though i guess im not little anymore :P
GG: and…
GG: i am definitely not harmless :)
GG: but only to those who deserve it!

Your stomach drops as you read her last reply and you find that your mouth has suddenly gone dry. You swallow thickly and lick your lips a little, unconsciously tightening your hand with John’s. His head turns a little to look at you, and when your eyes meet you quickly wave him off. Nothing but cool, calm, collected Striders on this end.

Once he’s turned back towards his fairies and bullshit conversation you drop your gaze back down to your phone, and the friendly bright green text displayed on the screen.

Definitely not harmless, you think to yourself, gritting your teeth a little. Nothing harmless about you.

Not for the first time, you consider dropping the convo, deleting her from your list of pesterchums, and backpedalling out of this friendship so fast you’ll put yourself in a timewarp. If you were intelligent in any way, shape, or form, you would have done this as soon as you met her in person and learned her name. But nope you got suckered by her big green eyes and infectious laughter and now here you are, four years since you met her in person, seven years since you met her online, and several steps closer to being gutted and having your head stuck on a pike above the English estate.

God you’re an idiot.

You are such an idiot that statues will be erected in your honour. A big hunk of stone with a plaque underneath reading: “in memory of the suicidal idiot who maintained contact with and continuously flirted with a girl who would gleefully blow his brains out if she ever caught a glimpse of his eyes. Class A moron, Dave Strider.”

You are the moron.

It’s you.

Mentally, you pound your head against some kind of hard surface while you fingers fly across the keys and type out a response.

TG: well thats great
TG: jade harley vigilante extraordinaire
TG: watch out ne’er-do-wells 100 pounds of justice coming at you from twelve o clock

GG: haha very funny :(
GG: im not a superhero or a policewoman
GG: you know what im talking about!

You do, you know all to well what she’s talking about. You know it’s not a laughing matter. You know that you especially shouldn’t joke about what she does almost every night or whenever the call goes out.

Because one day it could be you that she goes out hunting.

TG: yeah yeah i know
TG: still dont get why its necessary though
TG: dont we have police for all this shit

GG: dave dont be stupid!
GG: normal police cant handle the infected!
GG: only those specially trained can take them down
GG: like me ;)
GG: and besides the polices job is to detain
GG: our job is to eradicate!

You close your eyes for a moment, putting down the phone and fighting down all the sick feelings that are rolling through your body.

You are either a masochist or an idiot. Or both. Oftentimes when you’re talking to Jade you manage to skirt around this particularly uncomfortable topic but just as frequently it manages to rear its ugly head. Jade and you have an extreme difference in opinions when it comes to the Tainted in the city. You’ve managed to pass of your views as something of a passive acceptance of their existence, while Jade has made it quite clear that she wants all of them- all of you –gone. And quickly.

GG: dave?
GG: dave are you still there?
GG: sorry if I upset you :(
GG: i know for some reason youre oddly tolerant of the tainted
GG: but well all be better off when theyre gone!
GG: seriously!

The constant highpitched pinging of your phone causes you to open your eyes begrudgingly and look down. You stare at the walls of green text for a few seconds, a chill running through you as you read the words ‘when they’re gone’. You push down the sick feeling in your stomach before beginning to reply with a sigh, cursing yourself for being such an idiot the entire way.

TG: im still here calm your tits
TG: cant a man space out every once in awhile without being subjected to the goddamn inquisition
TG: anyways youre right i dont really give a damn
TG: and besides theyll never be all gone theyre pretty much a permanent fixture sorry to burst your bubble

GG: i know :(
GG: all we can do is take care of the ones who cause trouble and disturb the peace

TG: and the ones you suspect
GG: huh?
TG: you also ‘take care’ of tainted who havent done shit but you think might do shit
GG: well duh!
GG: its better to stop a crime before its begun right?

TG: sure
TG: but what if they werent going to do anything
TG: what then

GG: dave…
GG: you can be really naive sometimes!
GG: theyre those infected with darkness
GG: they are always waiting for the chance to do something to hurt innocent people!

Haha.

Right.

You forgot, mindless monsters who only want to cause mischief and pain.

Right.

A wave of bitterness crashes over you and you tighten the grip on your phone. You hear the casing groan in protest and quickly relinquish your hold. Wouldn’t want to break your phone because you let what Jade says get to you. Considering it’s your fault for continuing to talk to her even though you know how she feels about your kind.

You really don't know why you do this to yourself.

TG: okay fine whatever
TG: changing subject now

GG: um
GG: okay!

TG: so whats new
TG: havent chatted in a couple of days anything fantabulous happen in your life

GG: haha XD
GG: not really!

TG: come on jade
TG: spill the deets their must be something new exciting going down in harleyville

GG: hm
GG: well…
GG: you know jake?

You pause for a moment, and your mind automatically flickers to the images you see on t.v. Of the shining, bright-eyed, buck-toothed golden boy standing proudly beside the figure in the green coat you’ve come to hate with every fiber of your being. Both of them smug and smiling. Both of them carrying guns that have ended the lives of several people (because dammit Tainted were people too) that you knew.

But then again, the same applies to Jade.

TG: yeah
TG: your cousin
TG: what is something up with him
TG: did he kick the bucket

GG: no!
GG: hes perfectly fine!
GG: well actually…
GG: hes been acting kind of weird!

TG: weird
TG: like weird how

GG: just weird!
GG: i think…
GG: i think that he might have a girlfriend! :o

TG: a girlfriend
TG: whats so weird about that isnt he like twentyfive
TG: its weird that hes only getting one now thats whats weird

GG: okay yeah maybe :/
GG: but hey!
GG: couldnt you say the same about your bro?
GG: hes twenty-something and single too!

TG: no
TG: bro is cool
TG: and a strider
TG: we dont have time for bitches were married to our swag

GG: i dont think thats actually possible!
GG: they wouldnt issue you a marriage license :p

TG: well damn
TG: what am i supposed to do now i was all set on marrying my own cool and retiring with 2.5 children behind a white picket fence
TG: welp guess thats it
TG: bachelor for life
TG: i will never love another

GG: thats too bad!
GG: i was really hoping that we could go get ice cream tomorrow! ;p

And just like that the warning bells start ringing in your head and you draw back from your phone with a slightly pained expression.

It’s funny, Jade can straight up tell you she wants every one of your kind eradicated from the city and you’ll grimace but stay right where you are and keep talking to her but as soon as she mentions the romantic feelings that you’re pretty certain she has for you it’s like ‘nope nope nope. Nopes away into the sun’.

And it’s not that you don’t like her. Because you do. Maybe even a little more than friends. She’s pretty, and funny, and sweet, and tough. And all around a pretty amazing girl. The problem of your opposing places in society notwithstanding, you could totally see the two of you being a thing.

Except.

That.

Yourheartalreadybelongstosomeoneelsecoughcough

TG: ice cream
TG: man thats tempting
TG: but i think im going to have to pass

GG: awwww why? :(
TG: because
TG: im busy

GG: busy with what?
TG: things
GG: what things?
TG: strider things
GG: :(
GG: dave are you just blowing me off?

TG: what
TG: no
TG: of course not

GG: i think
GG: that you are just blowing me off >:(

TG: sweet funny sexy girl like you
TG: now why would i go and do that?

GG: :/
TG: seriously harley
TG: chill
TG: nothing personal i promise

GG: hmmmm
GG: well i guess…
GG: its fine :)
GG: i get that youre not ready for a relationship!
GG: i can wait <3333

Aaaaand just like that she stops being subtle and straight up flaunts her intentions towards you in all her green-text emoticon heavy goodness.

But it still doesn’t matter.

You’ll wait forever, you think, your eyes flicking to the side towards the blue-eyed, black-haired boy beside you.

To your surprise, just as your gaze flickers to the side, his head turns to look at you. For a few seconds it is just the two of you staring at each other. Your head is still downturned towards your lap, so he can’t tell that you’re looking at him as well, what with your shades protecting your eyes. You take a moment to focus on your hearing and you realize that Nepeta and Tavros have both gone quiet, and you get the sense that they're looking at you as well.

You lift your head and turn it towards them fully, resting your phone on your knee and raising one eyebrow as you give them your complete attention.

“Something up?” you ask casually, trying not to instinctively tighten your hand in John’s.

“They have to go now,” says John quietly, “Nepeta got a text from…,” he trails off, brow knitted together, and the aforementioned troll giggles a little and leans forward.

“From my moirail!” she chirps happily, “You know Equius, right Dave?”

The image of a sweaty troll with the unnerving habit of standing in the shadows and staring creeps into your head and your lips quirk downwards.

“Unfortunately,” you deadpan and the young woman huffs at you.

“Well uh, he wants her to go meet him,” interjects Tavros, probably sensing that you and kitty girl might end up arguing over how her moirail should stay inside with the blinds closed as a public decency. “So I was going to walk her to where he wants her to meet him. Outside. So, uh, we have to go.”

He looks apologetically towards John, and Nepeta has the exact same sorry face on as well. John looks…well you’re not sure if sad is the right words. He always has some degree of melancholy on him nowadays, but he definitely looks a little put out.

“That sucks,” you say, though your tone of voice is deadpan as usual. “But if strong and sweaty says you gotta scram I guess you gotta scram.”

You open your mouth to say something else, but your phone does a rapid-fire pinging thing and you look down, flipping it over to look at the words displayed on the screen.

GG: dave?
GG: bluuuuuh
GG: you cant always run away from these conversations!
GG: daaaaaaaaave!

TG: chill harley
TG: im talking give me a sec TG: actually you know what lets just talk later okay? TG: sorry

GG: :(
GG: Alriiiight...

You then lift your head quickly and lean back against the couch. “Thanks,” you say quietly. It’s casual and spoken like an afterthought, but the expressions on both Tavros’ and Nepeta’s face softens.

“Yeah,” adds John, speaking quietly and lifting his eyes to meet theirs. “Thanks…for this.”

“It was no problem,” says Tavros with a small smile, and his eyes flick over to you. He knows, and you knows, and Nepeta probably knows too, that this was as much for you as it was for John. You’ve pretty much accepted that your life sucks, it will always suck, and your general philosophy is that the only time you feel that elusive emotion called happiness is when you get it secondhand from John’s happiness. You need him to be happy. At the expense of sounding like a cliché love song, you’re addicted to his smile.

The two of you watch as Tavros and Nepeta leave, disappearing out the door. You hear John sigh beside you and you turn to look at him, squeezing his hand lightly.

“You okay, man,” you ask quietly, “No post-Troll trauma or anything like that?”

He doesn’t say anything for a few seconds, and your heart clenches as you wonder if maybe things didn’t go quite as well as you thought they did, but then John turns to you, and he does his little half smile, and squeezes your hand back.

“No,” he says, and his voice is still painfully quiet but you can deal with it because he really, really looks okay and not broken or shattered or depressed.

Though still sad.

And still with that…defeated air about him.

You wonder if that will ever go away.

“They were nice,” he adds, as an afterthought, his eyes staring into the distance, narrowed slightly in concentration as if he was replaying the conversation in his head, “I, uh, I guess I didn’t know that Trolls liked stuff like cats and roleplaying.”

“Told you, bro,” you say with a little smirk, “They may be the colour of asphalt and have more sharp edges than a knife factory but for all their snarling Trolls aren’t that different than humans.”

John’s eyes turn back to you, and you’re once again struck by huge they are without his glasses. His smile has dropped, and he’s staring at you with this blank, but still utterly depressing look on his face. Your mouth goes dry and god why is he looking at you like that you thought he was feeling better what the hell-
“Hey Dave,” he says softly, licking his lips lightly. You startle a bit, not expecting him to start speaking, but lean forward, listening intently.

His mouth quirks upwards into that little half-smile, but this time it doesn’t even begin to touch his eyes. They are still two huge, silver ringed pools of sadness.

“You know I’m not human anymore, right?”

He whispers it hoarsely, and it feels like something has dropped onto your chest. There’s a lump in your throat, and he’s looking at you with such a sad, resigned look on your face. You open your mouth to respond and find you can’t quite get the words out. Your poker face is in danger of breaking and with a quick shake of your head you swallow down all your feelings and respond, with a bit of a crack in your voice, “Yeah.”

John stares at you a few more seconds, then he closes his eyes and nods.

“Yeah,” he replies quietly. “I’m not. So...I should…I should stop trying to be. I mean. It’s okay, if Trolls are just…Trolls. You don’t, you don’t have to- have to try and play up their human characteristics or anything. To make them like, more appealing to me or something or- I mean, because I’m not-,”

Oh fuck oh fuck there are tears in his eyes and shit his voice is cracking and he looks like he’s about to break.

You lean closer to him and open your mouth but he claps his hand over your lips and hisses slightly.

“D-don’t say anything, okay?” he stammers, blinking back the tears. “I just…I just sort of, sort of realized that now. And I…I think we both have to stop pretending okay, Dave? I just…I need to…”

He trails off and takes a deep shuddering breath, not removing his hand from your mouth.

“I can do this, I think. I think I can. I mean, I was talking to Nepeta, and she was talking about how sometimes she hunts for her own food, and that’s not a human thing, not really. But it was interesting, and she was interesting and I liked her. So…it’s okay. I-I’m not, I mean, I’m not so, uh, I’m not so okay right now but-,”

He looks at you with those big blue eyes and fuck thank god for your shades because you might actually be crying a little yourself and just everything is just-

“I’m going to be okay, alright Dave?” he says, and then he smiles. Not a half-smile, an almost full smile. Not quite there because his eyes still look so in pain but you can see his teeth and he looks like he means it and it’s better than anything you’ve seen in so long.

“Thank you for bringing me here,” he continues, and then he leans into you, resting his head against your chest and bringing his arms up to clutch at your sleeves.

“Thank you, Dave.”

Your breath hitches and you throw your coolkid mask to the wind in other to wrap your arms around him and pull him close. You bury your face into his hair and for a moment allow all your posturing to fall away as you let your emotions crash over you. You won’t admit that you might be shaking a bit, and you sure as hell won’t admit that your cheeks are damp with tears. You hide your face in his hair, and rub your hands up and down his back and along his shoulders.

Your little moment continues for a minute or so before you suddenly remember that oh yeah you’re in the middle of a somewhat crowded basement full of assholes and Captor is probably videotaping this fuck.

You untangle yourself from him, pushing him back slightly and quickly rubbing away the wetness that most certainly isn’t on your cheeks. He lifts himself up from where he was leaning on your chest, but he leaves one hand resting on your arm, staring at you with this soft expression that just makes your heart flutter all over the place. Again, you’re glad your sunglasses are hiding your eyes because you just know your poker face has gone to shit and your feelings are showing plainly on your face.

Not cool.

You clear your throat and run your fingers through your hair, donning your icy-cold impenetrable coolkid persona even as John’s hand moves down your arm to tangle his fingers with yours once again. He’s still staring at you, just staring, and you battle internally wondering whether he wants you to say something funny to break the silence or if he wants to continue the feelings jam type situation you were starting to get into or-

“Dave?” he says suddenly, breaking your panicked train of thought. You focus your attention back on him and tighten your grip on his hand.

Before you can respond, he’s leaning forward slightly and asking, “Can we leave now?”

He must have noticed the way you stiffened and probably guessed that your mind was jumping to conclusions and taking you to unpleasant places because he immediately shuffles closer to you and cuts you off before you can say anything.

“It’s not…it’s not because of anything,” he assures you hurriedly, “I just…this has been a lot and I just want to…to go home now?”

His voice has a questioning tone to it, as if he’s not sure of his own answer. But you think you get it. You’ve exposed him to a lot in one go. And he had to deal with one of Vantas’s bullshit speeches and a type of self-revelation to boot.

He’s tired.

Quite frankly, so are you.

“Yeah,” you say, your voice still sounding a bit choked up much to your embarrassment. You clear it quickly and direct your gaze to the side, attempting to regain some of the dignity you’ve lost in the public feelings-fest you just participated in. “Yeah, it’s cool. Let’s go.”

He smiles, and you both stand up, hands still clasped together. As the two of you begin walking out of the room you allow your eyes to wander and are relieved to not see anyone smirking or making kissy faces at you or Captor grinning maliciously while brandishing one of his many portable cameras. Looks like everyone realized there were better things to do than watch two…friends engage in brohugs.

My luck has been ridiculously non-shitty today, you think as you push open the heavy door and walk out into the hallway, something really fucked-up is probably going to happen tomorrow.

A voice that sounds suspiciously like Bro tells you to stop being so pessimistic. You raise your eyebrows at it and calmly tell it that it that you are simply being realistic and that statistics shows that a shitload of good is always followed by fuckload of bad. It’s practically a law of nature at this point.

The two of you make your way up the stairs and into the upper area of the bar. It’s less crowded than it was earlier, just a few people sitting at the bar and around the tables. A sense of relief flows through you as your ears are spared the assault of noise that they went through when you first came in. John’s still holding your hand, and you feel him relax a bit. The crowd probably bothered him more than they bothered you, and you’re reminded of how much work needs to be done before he is any kind of okay.

As you walk to the entrance you spot Kanaya out of the corner of your eye, pouring a drink for a customer. Her gaze flickers towards the two of you, lingering a bit on John before centering on you. You raise an eyebrow at her, as if daring her to say something. But she simply raises an eyebrow back, before returning her attention to her customer.

You turn your own gaze forward again, reaching the door and stepping outside with John. Though you’re back to maintaining your stoic coolkid mask and not showing any emotion, inwardly, you are extremely glad that Kanaya didn’t start anything. You are very tired. Drained, at having to constantly be on alert for John and to explain John and his situation to people and to watch what you say and how you act. You think it paid off, because it really seems like you broke through a wall and made some progress with him today, but that doesn’t change the fact that you have never been less in the mood for snarky broads and their horseshit and are very much ready to abscond the fuck out of here.

The two of you step out into the open air, and you hear John exhale loudly in relief. You turn to face him, and find him with his face upturned towards the sky, his hood down. His expression is more relaxed than you’ve seen it in weeks, and though he’s not exactly smiling, he looks…content.

Watching him staring up at the sky like that is causing your heart to do all sorts of stupid things, but you continue to stare, transfixed. Besides, who knows when he’ll next look like that?

You hear him sigh again, and then his eyes are on you. Big and blue and causing your insides to twist and turn and heat up like pavement on a hot summer day. You swallow thickly and slouch a little, still keeping one hand in his.

“You okay, John?” you ask quietly, your voice not doing as good a job as it usually does at staying steady and emotionless.

He stares at you for a few moments, but then his adorable front teeth poke out over his bottom lip in a slight smile, and he squeezes your hand.

“Yeah, I’m okay,” he says softly, but with a wistful sort of lightness to his voice that makes you think that for once he might actually be telling the truth about that.

“I’m going to head home now,” he continues, turning his gaze forward, “It’s really late, and I don’t want to get mistaken as an Agent by a patrol.”

A spike of fear twists through you as you think of the patrols that stalk the streets, under the guise of eliminating Agents but really looking to shoot any Infected Dersite they see. An image of Jade in all her fighting gear flashes into your mind, and your hand untangles from John’s to clutch at his sweater.

“You sure you want to do that,” you ask, fighting to keep your voice down and not panicky, “You can just crash with me. I mean it’s not like you haven’t before. Me casa, su casa, dude. Seriously. Just spend the night it’s cool.”

You tighten your grip on his jacket and if you seem clingy and paranoid well fuck it it’s dangerous out there. Derse at night is not something to fuck with. The Tainted stalking the streets now are the reason people are so convinced that you are all deranged monsters. They’re the ones who have lost themselves completely. The ones that will kill you as soon as look at you.

And then there are the ones hunting them. English’s men. Derse’s ‘patrol.’ The Felt.

Officially, those who are infected are still considered to be citizens of Derse. Still ‘people’ who are protected by the law. Just people with a disease. Pariahs. But not animals to be hunted.

When the sun goes down, and The Felt comes out, all bets are off. They’re only supposed to hunt Agents. Only supposed to hunt Tainted people who are proven to be dangers to society. But they’re the ones who decide who’s a danger. And there’s no one to tell them they’re wrong. No one to disagree. No one to say, ‘wait, hold up. That dude’s actually a seventeen year old who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and wouldn’t hurt a fly don’t shoot him just because he might attack someone and drink their blood. Because he might be hostile. Because he’s a diseased deviant just waiting for the chance to hurt innocent people for fuck’s sake-

“Dave.”

You’re startled out of your internal rant by a cool hand on your cheek, and you blink rapidly, your eyes refocusing on John’s face, which is now right in front of yours. He smiles as he notices your attention back on him and for a moment you think about how easily he can read you now, even with your sunglasses on.

“I’ll be fine,” he says, dropping his hand away from your face, “I’ll call when I get home, okay?”

No, not okay, actually.

“I can walk with you,” you offer, taking his hand before it’s dropped completely to his side.

What you’re actually saying is let me protect you. You know that, and you’re pretty sure he knows that, and you wonder if it offends him or anything, you acting like he can’t take care of himself. But he still smiles a bit for you and before you know it he’s stepping forward and enveloping you in a hug. He rests his head on your shoulder and his arms are wrapped tightly around your waist. You stiffen, but then you say fuck it to being cool and hug him back, burying your face into his neck. His skin is warm, and you can feel his pulse-to fast to be human- thrumming against your cheek.

“I know you can,” he whispers, rubbing your back lightly, “And you have been. Walking with me. Helping me. All of it. But you can’t always. And you shouldn’t have to always.”

You open your mouth to retort sharply and tell him that hell no you’ll always be there for him. Always. But he tightens his hug unexpectedly and your words turn into a puff of air as his super strong rainbow drinker arms knock the breath from your lungs.

“I’m sorry,” he says softly, and you’re not sure if he’s apologizing for almost crushing your ribs or for being overly dependent on you. Which he’s not. If anything, you’re the one who obsessively clings to him. You’re like that overprotective father, holding their baby girl’s hand on her first day of school, and every day thereafter until she fucking walks down the aisle. And even after that you’re always within a ten metre radius, hiding behind a bush, watching to make sure she’s alright, until the day she’s forced to disown you and implement a restraining order.

Okay, maybe you’re not quite that bad. But you’re getting really fucking close to it.

John pulls back and smiles at you, a little shakily, his eyes a little wet.

“Bye Dave,” he says, and he half-turns, beginning to walk away from you and in the direction of his home. You reach out and catch his arm, pulling him back.

“Hey man, wait,” you say and he turns to look at you, eyes as wide and as blue and as gorgeous as ever. You swallow thickly and before you can register what you’re doing you lean forward and kiss him lightly on the forehead.

“Be careful, okay?” you say quietly. “Don't do anything stupid. Don’t wander into any dark alleys. And for fuck’s sake, don’t take any candy from strangers. Even if they happen to be Nic Cage in all his glory. Don’t do it, man.”

The comment earns you a little laugh, though it’s offset by a puzzled glance and you know he’s probably going ‘wtf’ internally because platonic brohugs are one thing but forehead kisses are an entirely different can of worms. John doesn’t say anything though, just smiles at you softly before turning and walking off into the darkness.

You watch as he fades off into the night, fighting down the paranoia and panic and desire to tail him. You’re sure he’d notice, and probably wouldn’t appreciate it very much. Might even file that restraining order.

After a minute or so, John turns a corner, and his back is no longer in your line of sight. Your hands clench into fists at your side, then unclench, then clench again.

Calm down, Dave. You tell yourself firmly. He’s right, you can’t always-

Just then, the wind changes and you’re suddenly assaulted by a familiar sickly sweet scent. You stiffen and turn slowly, your body tense, your hands clenched again and your jaw tight. As you turn, you see a shadow out of the corner of your eye. When you’re facing the front completely they step out of the doorway of the bar, into the illumination of the streetlight.

You relax a bit as you see who it is, but only slightly.

“Vantas,” you say, your voice just a little tight with irritation, “You make it a habit to lurk around eavesdropping on private conversations, or are you just that obsessed with me? I mean, I know I’m a prime hunk of man meat and all the bitches want a ride on this red hot sausage of mine but sorry man I’m unavailable. Check back in ‘never in a million fucking years’ mkay?”

Karkat is standing belligerently, arms folded across his chest, and scowling per usual. He stalks forward purposefully, and behind your glasses your eyes narrow as he fixes his gaze on you.

“Cut the bullshit, Strider,” he says, stopping right in front of you and staring up into your face. His eyes are narrowed, but he doesn’t look as angry as he usually does and mostly looks…well…you can’t actually place the expression on his face but if you were to hazard a guess you would say he looks…

Concerned.

What the fuck.

“I want you to keep that fucking hole in the middle of your face shut for five minutes so I can tell you how goddamn pathetic you’re being,” he continues loudly, and he hisses at you when you open your mouth to retort sharply.

“Fuck off, I’m serious!” he snarls, “This is important and even if you choose to ignore every other thing I say you better fucking listen to this because otherwise you’re going to screw both you, and your blue-eyed friend over.”

You stiffen at that, and now it’s you who is stepping forward, suddenly devoid of any sort of amusement, all sharp angles and angry.

“What the fuck does John have to do with anything,” you growl lowly, using your height difference to loom over Karkat intimidatingly. He doesn’t flinch, just wrinkles his nose and tilts his head back a bit so he’s still staring into your shades.

“Don’t play dumb you bleached blonde bastard,” he snaps impatiently, “I could tell you were flushed for the kid even before I met him. And Jesus, if you think you were being in any way subtle about your feelings for newbie in the basement than you are a thousand times stupider than I ever thought. And you know that I already suspected you of having the intellect of a small aquatic bacterium doped out on sopor, so that’s saying something.”

“Okay, fine, whatever. I don’t see how the fuck me liking my bro has anything to do with you,” you snap in irritation. Seriously, you don’t like where this conversation is going at all.

Karkat snorts a little and leans back, tilting his head to the side and fixing you with the most annoying look of condescension you have ever seen.

“Nothing, obviously,” he continues with a roll of his eyes, “But it is physically painful to watch you shower your friend in flushed affection when you clearly have told him nothing about how you feel. I mean, I get that he’s traumatized and all but how he hasn’t noticed how fucking in love with him you are is a level of obliviousness that must take training to achieve.”

You growl a little at that -because fuck no one’s allowed to insult John he’s goddamn perfect- but Karkat makes that annoying ‘shoosh’ noise and gives you his signature ‘I’m not done ranting shut the fuck up’ look.

You’re pissed as hell but it takes way more energy to shut Vantas up than is worth expending. You grit your teeth and decide to just let the little asshole go off on whatever tangent he’s going down.

“The point is this, Strider,” he says firmly, “You are clearly head over heels for this kid. You haven’t fucking told him about it. And now you’re using his vulnerable condition to get as close to him as you possibly can before he can stand on his own two legs again and doesn’t need your shitty ‘platonic’ hugs to get him through the day. It’s pathetic as hell and it’s just going to mess the both of you up in the long run. So for your own fucking good, I’m telling you to either quit with the charade or buy some flowers, get down on one of your goddamn knees, and fucking confess already!”

You are actually stunned into silence for a few moments, but then you’re grabbing Vantas by the front of his sweater and hauling him upwards so that your noses are almost touching. He snarls and grabs your arms with his hands but you ignore the claws pressing into your limbs and focus on the angry gold-rimmed eyes in front of you.

“You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, Vantas,” you say lowly, your voice cool as always but just a little tremulous with rage. “So shut the fuck up and stop flapping your goddamn lips just to hear your own voice. You don’t know shit about me and John. Nothing.”

“For fuck’s sake, anyone with eyes can see what’s going on!” he shouts, exasperated. “I don’t give a fuck, Strider. I really don’t give a fuck. But this half-assed romancing is going to get you into hot water and you’re going to end up with that shriveled up mass of flesh you try to pass of as a heart torn into pieces. And I really don’t want to have to fucking clean up the mess! So wise up, and sort out your damn intentions before your own stupidity causes you to lose your friend before this damned city ever gets him.”

With that lovely last comment, Karkat places his hands on your wrists and wrenches them away from his clothing, dropping to the ground with a disgruntled grunt. He gives you a look, that same strange, almost-concerned one from before, and as much as you’d like to retort sharply you can’t because for some reason all your clever words have left you. Gone. Flown the coop. You watch as Karkat turns and walks back into the bar, your face like stone and your blood like ice.

He’s an asshole.

He’s an angry, easily worked up midget who likes getting under your skin.

He’s also right.

Fuck.

Chapter Text

It’s a nice night.

You’re walking along the sidewalk of a major street, wearing nothing but a light shirt and your favourite cap, pulled low. It’s chilly, and the garbage scattered everywhere is being pushed about by the breeze blowing through. Summers in Derse aren’t much different than Falls or Springs in Derse, just less rainy, and if you were human, you’d probably be wearing a heavy jacket.

But you’re not.

Human that is.

And so, for you, it’s a nice night.

The sky is clear, and you can see a few stars poking out from beneath the haze of pollution that blankets Derse’s sky. Most of the streetlights are flickering or just plain broken, and the full moon is casting everything into an eerie light.

It’s nice.

You can almost ignore all the prone bundles of skin and bone huddling in the alleys between buildings. Under benches, in bus terminals. Whereever those forsaken from society can hide from the cold. They’re so dark and so still you could almost pass them off as small lumps of stone. Some type of perverse artwork created to personify the very spirit of Derse.

Ah, Derse.

This city of yours.

It’s twisted, dark, and depressing. Throughout your life the city has continuously presented situations designed to break you. Destroy you. Kill you and your brother. But like the city, you’ve been designed a certain way. You’ve been designed to survive, to rise above, and to keep moving forward. People like to label what you have as a disease, but in your opinion, it’s a genetic upgrade provided to help improve the human race. The only reason it hasn’t prevailed is because those who haven’t evolved outnumber you, and fear you, and suppress you. Attack you. Revile you and treat you like pariahs. Most people are convinced that people like you are ‘Tainted’ and ‘Infected’, but you don’t buy into it. You’re proud of what you are, and you’re sick of having to hide it.

Your name is DIRK STRIDER.

Currently, you are TWENTY-FIVE YEARS OLD and live with your YOUNGER BROTHER in a shitty downtown apartment that you pay for with your JOB as a DJ at night and as a MARTIAL ARTS INSTRUCTOR during the day.

Your aforementioned YOUNGER BROTHER is not currently in your aforementioned APARTMENT and is off doing GOD KNOWS WHAT with the boy he’s obviously head over heels IN LOVE with.

You’re not too worried about him, even though it’s getting late. Dave’s a smart kid, and he’ll be twice as alert if he’s watching out for Egbert. Normally, you like him home before the AMs, since that’s when The Felt usually comes out and starts shooting everyone in sight. But you have good authority that the patrol will be pretty low key tonight, that they don’t have many targets to go after, and so, even though it’s approaching 2 AM, you’re alright with Dave not being home.

Besides, you’re not home either.

Not that you give a shit whether the Felt are out or not.

Among the benefits of being ‘advanced’ (not infected. Fuck those assholes you’re not sick) is being naturally stronger and faster than normal humans. You can outrun them, and overpower them, easily. In addition to your natural prowess, you’ve spent most of your life training in martial arts and swordplay. Even if you weren’t what you are, you’d probably be able to kick the shit out of anyone who came after you.

Not that you usually stick around. It’s not that you’re scared to fight them. It’s that getting into a fight with the Felt would do you absolutely no good in the long run. So you stick a couple of green assholes, so what? All it would do is piss off their leader. Cause the patrols to be even harsher on your people than they already are.

So if you see or sense the patrol nearby, you quickly melt into the shadows and get out of sight. You’re fast. So fast that when you move it’s like you disappear. They can’t catch you; they can’t even get close to you.

So even though it’s close to two o clock in the morning, you walk. Wind whipping down your shirt, the streets empty and echoing with far away screams. The occasional crack of a gunshot in the distance. The shouts, and the raucous laughter, the sounds of a city wasting away in its own filth. There’s a familiar rhythm, a melody to the madness, and you can feel the pulsating lifebeat of the city. A dissonance of sound, of the clash and the clang and the pain and the suffering. The tune of Derse could potentially drive anyone crazy, but you let the rhythm run through you. Background music, that you won’t let crowd your senses. A hum at the back of your mind, reminding you of what is going on, but not letting it overwhelm you.

You understand this city, you can follow the beat, but you won’t let it ruin you, or take you over.

And you certainly won’t let it kill you.

But enough about that.

Though you’re not scared of the city, you don’t generally go strolling through it for no good reason. Nope, tonight you have somewhere to be, shit to do, and not as much time as you’d like to do it.

You quicken your pace.

In little time, you’ve reached the main park of the city. It’s large, and full of trees, and actually not as horrible as it could be, considering it’s in Derse. You step off the sidewalk and walk across the grass, yellowed and crunching under your sneakers. The leaves rustle noisily in the wind and a chill actually creeps down your spine. You’re not cold, but the branches on the trees are gnarled and the trunks warped. The entire park looks like a setting from a horror movie, but more than that, the trees are large and really close together. The grass is overgrown and untended to. The area is empty. No homeless in sight. It’s the perfect place for someone to conceal themselves. To stage an ambush.

Strategically, it’s not a good place to be at this particular hour. And while you know you shouldn’t have anything to worry about, you can’t help but-

Snap!

You pause in your step and tense as you hear the sound of a branch snapping behind you. All your senses are on high alert and you inhale sharply through your nose. Your sense of smell and your hearing aren’t as off the charts as Dave’s are but they’re still pretty fucking powerful and right now you know exactly who is behind you.

You turn slowly, your mouth curled up into a small, humourless smirk.

“Anyone ever tell you it’s not safe to walk around at night by yourself?” You ask casually as you turn.

“I could quite easily say the same for you, good sir.” Comes the reply, deep and amused and confident. “But that’s not going to stop either of us, is it?”

You complete your turn.

He’s standing there, in his usual khaki shorts and lace up hiking boots. A simple white t-shirt and a dark green jacket with the collar up, dark black hair curling into it. His glasses glint in the moonlight, but then he shifts and you can see through the lenses to the dark green eyes behind.

His name is Jake English, and he’s the son of the Lord of this town. He’s the same age as you, but is different in every possible way. There’s a gun belt at his hip, as opposed to the sword holder strung across your back. He’s human, but more dangerous than most of the Agents and ‘Infected’ in the entire city. His Father is responsible for the hunts that go on each night. For the investigations that flush out any Tainted person that might be considered ‘dangerous’. For all the acquaintances you’ve had that have simply disappeared. For the hate campaigns that keep public opinion in Derse stolidly against your people. The English family is responsible for it all.

And Jake is at the forefront. Jake is often the one leading the patrols. Leading the hunt. He’s got as much blood on his hands as his Father does, and you hate him.

You hate him, and Lord English, and Lord English’s brother Harley, and Harley’s granddaughter and every member of the Felt, and all the people in the city who are stupid enough to believe in the bullshit propaganda they spout.

“My you’re quiet,” says Jake, walking closer to you with the purposeful, arrogant stride of someone in a position of power and who doesn’t have to worry about a single fucking thing, “Cat got your tongue?”

He stops right in front of you, and you glare at him through your shades. “I’ve got nothing to say,” you reply coolly, “No need to bring in overused, unimpressive metaphors.”

His eyes narrow at you and the two of you lock gazes, standing in silence as you each attempt to stare the other down.

Even as your eyes are focused on him, your ears are straining, catching every sound, every crack and whisper on the breeze. Your nostrils flare as you attempt to catch any scent that doesn’t smell like forest. Any foreign scent, any foreign sound, anything that’s not you and Jake, standing in this park.

“Anything?” he whispers hoarsely, his steely gaze flickering into something else, that determined, arrogant posture faltering. You take a deep breath and your eyes close momentarily before opening and centering on him.

“Nothing.”

Then his hands are on your cheeks and he is pulling your face towards his. You slam together painfully but then your mouths are open and your lips are sliding against each other messily and desperately.

One of your hands goes up to tangle in his hair and your other arm wraps around his back, pulling him closer to you. Your chests press against each other and you deepen the kiss, sliding your tongue into his mouth and swallowing the moan that results.

He starts walking you forward and your back slams against a tree, your lips still attached. His hands leave your face to begin exploring the contours of your torso and massaging your body through your shirt. His mouth detaches from yours, leaving a string of saliva connecting the two of you, only for him to descend on your neck. Jake presses kisses all across your throat, down to your collarbone and back up again before beginning to nip. Teeth digging into your skin quickly and sharply before being replaced by soft, suckling lips, dancing all around your neck.

“Jake, fuck.” You groan, tilting your head to give him greater access, one hand still tangled in his hair and the other tightening on his hip. “H-happy to see me?”

“Shut up,” he pants into your skin, moving his mouth downwards to mark the skin along your collarbone and the hollow of your throat, “Haven’t…bloody seen you in ages…rotten ass, hiding from me like that…”

He bites down hard, and you inhale sharply. You pull his head away from your neck and move both your hands up to hold either side of his head, holding him still and preventing him for lunging for your neck again.

Jake makes an angry, frustrated whine, and glares at you from over the top of his glasses. You smirk and dive in to capture his lips between yours, your eyes slipping shut as you show him just how happy you are to see him.

Him.

Jake English.

Son of the guy trying to get you, your brother, and everyone like you permanently removed from Derse.

Yeah.

You could write an essay on all the reasons that what you are doing now is going to get to you killed. You could write a book on how this current course of action could bring an end to not only your life, but your brother’s as well.

Dave has always been your number one priority, and it’s a testimony to your own arrogance that you think you can somehow pull this off and still keep him safe. You are completely aware of the fact that you believe you have this situation under control. However, you can also step back from the situation, and examine it from a logical point of view. It’s obvious that for all your carefulness and planning, it doesn’t matter what you do to protect Dave. To keep him safe. One word from Jake. One betrayal, and you are both dead.

You know this.

You know that even you aren’t good enough to stop this entire situation from crashing down on your head. And you know you should stop. The fact that you can recognize the mistake you’re making before you make it, as you make it, and after, means that you should know you should stop.

You need to stop.

But you don’t.

Because in addition to the essay and book on your stupidity, you could write hundreds of essays and dozens of books on all the things you love about Jake.

You love him.

You love him.

And you hate him for it.

No.

You hate yourself for it.

Your kisses slow to soft touches, feather light pressing of your lips to his. You massage the back of his head with your fingertips and one of his hands rest on your hips while the other rests on your cheek. Jake sighs contently, but you pull back, removing your hands from his person and separating the two of you.

His eyes flicker with confusion, and he licks his bruised lips lightly.

“Long time no see,” he whispers, fisting the hand on your hip in your shirt and dropping the other one to his side.

“Yeah,” you whisper, and you find yourself stiffening a bit, “Been busy?”

Jake startles a bit, before nodding, his gaze going off to the side, “Yeah, I-,”

His words cut off sharply as he his head turns violently back towards you, having just caught the steel that was in your last comment.

“Dirk, don’t,” he warns, less of a threat and more pleading as he tightens his grip on you and moves a bit closer.

“Don’t what?”

“Stop it!” he shouts, pushing you a bit, looking hurt and angry and more than a little cornered. “I already told you my decision. I already told you that I was still going to do the patrols, just be more selective about which ones. You know about it and you accepted it so just-,”

“Who the hell said I accepted it,” you growl, untangling his hand from your shirt and pushing him back slightly, “You murder people each night.”

“Stop making it sound like it’s just something I do,” he growls back, hands tightening into fists at his side, “It’s for protection. I know they’re your people, Dirk but a lot of them are dangerous. Don’t even pretend they aren’t!”

“And what about the ones that aren’t?” you snap, advancing on him a bit, your own hands fisting aggressively, “What about them?”

“I don’t hunt them!” he explodes, lurching forward so that your foreheads connect, his eyes staring into yours. “I don’t hunt them, Dirk. I told you that. You know that.” His voice is a hoarse whisper now, and your skin feels warm and tingly where his head is meeting yours. The hot anger that was bubbling in your stomach cools rapidly and begins to swirl away as your vision is captured by the vivid green of his eyes. They look hurt, and desperate, and the last vestiges of heat evaporate as you close your eyes, letting yourself lean into him.

“I know,” you say quietly, and you feel him untense in relief against you, “I know you stopped. I know.”

“Then why do you keep bringing it up?” he whispers, and it’s almost a whine. You wince a little, but try to relax as his arms rise up to encircle you. “Why the bloody bullfuck do you keep bringing it up, Dirk?”

You’re silent, and you grit your teeth, internally struggling with the myriad of conflicting emotions swirling through you. His body is warm against yours, and you can feel his heartbeat thudding against your chest. His breath is against your lips, and you can hear it hitch. You hurt him.

You and Jake have known each other for awhile now. Almost a year. Yeah, a year. You haven’t spent the entire time together, obviously, but you became ‘friends’ quickly enough. More by Jake’s annoying persistence and dedication to getting to know you than anything else.

At first, obviously, Jake hadn’t known what you were. He thought the shades were some kind of fashion statement, or an ironic gesture, or anything but the shield between you and your discovery as a ‘child of misfortune’. You let him think that. It was a long time before you considered him as anything other than an annoyance. A rather dangerous annoyance that could potentially ruin everything you’d built for yourself and your brother. You tried everything to shake him, but he liked you. He made it quite clear he intended to be your friend, and if there was anything you grudgingly respected about him in those first weeks, it was his absolute tenacity.

Despite the emotional guards you put up. Despite deflecting him with every aloof remark and cold shoulder you had, Jake managed to worm his way past your defenses. You didn’t mind as much as he ambushed you on the street, rambling on at you even as you steadfastly ignored him. You even started indulging him with replies.

In fact, you think that might have the moment you first started to fall in love with him. That wide smile that split his face the first time you actually carried your end of the conversation without any ounce of sarcasm.

He wasn’t like you expected, Jake. You had expected a cold, unfeeling mini-English. With a steely gaze and trigger happy hands. Instead, you met a large, over-excitable goofball. Who loved crappy movies and skulls and adventure and heroes. Who fancied himself a hero.

You think you have a good grasp of shades of gray. If anyone knows that this city, and the people in it, can’t be divided into black and white, it’s you.

And yet, you were still surprised to find out that Jake English wasn’t exactly ‘evil’, but legitimately thought he was doing the city a favour by killing every ‘Infected’ person in sight.

That was when the two of you really started talking. You argued with him heatedly about it. About why going on killing sprees every night was wrong. He’d fire off statistics at you, the number of people killed by Infected each night. You’d rebuttal with the number of people killed by regular old humans each day, and the two of you would end up glaring in silent anger.

At the same time, you found yourself loving more and more things about him. He was rich, and the son of the city’s lord. But he loved going out into the center of the city. He loved helping the homeless, buying ice cream and toys for the poor children, helping the elderly. He tried to disguise himself when he went out, and you also found out that he hated how people treated him because of who his father was. That he wanted, more than anything, to be known as Jake, and not as English.

He was also gullible, overly-trusting, and not likely to look before he leapt. He was brash and foolhardy and brave and kind. Yeah, kind. That was something you never thought you’d associate with an English.

But then you met Jake.

You consider yourself a master of human behaviour. You can always read people better than they could read themselves. However, you didn’t even notice yourself tumbling head over heels in love with Jake English.

You didn’t notice until you almost lost him forever.

It was almost to cliché, the scene that had unfolded. It was raining, and late. He was about to go out on patrol. Someone you knew personally had just been killed on one. You argued loudly, you actually screamed at him. He screamed back. He said all Infected were monsters. You whipped off your sunglasses, gave him a glare of bright tangerine and asked him if he was going to shoot you.

Looking back, it had been a really, really stupid thing to do. But you had been angry, and hurt for reasons you weren’t sure of. Your chest had been throbbing, especially caught in those deep green eyes, and he had looked so hurt as well.

Then he’d looked horrified.

You had both parted ways, and didn’t see each other for awhile. The whole time had you wrapped up in terror and regret. What if he told his family about you? What would happen to you and Dave? He hadn’t shot you then, but would he come for you on a patrol?

Leaving Derse wasn’t an option. The city is surrounded by badlands and dessert. It’s a single, self-sufficient oasis of civilization in the middle of land that is otherwise uninhabitable. Leaving is essentially signing a death warrant. You had had to trust that your friendship had meant something to Jake, and that he wouldn’t turn you in.

The whole time you’d been consumed with worry, you’d also been consumed with heartache. You felt sick, your head hurt, and anytime you saw something green you wanted to punch something.

You missed him.

You eventually ran into each other again. It had been stiff and awkward and full of emotion and feelings sharing and there might have been tears and then you’d somehow ended wrapped up in each other with your lips pressed together.

And that was that.

Jake had conceded that not all ‘Tainted’ people were mindless killers. He only went on patrols that removed known offenders. He forbid the members of the Felt that he commanded to kill anyone that wasn’t on their list.

But you know that’s not enough. You know they kill them anyways. You also know more often than not, the ‘known offenders’ were unjustly convicted, did not have a trial, and were probably reported by someone who had run into them on the street and just not liked their face.

In addition, an offense could be anything from murder to accidentally knocking an item down in the store. The reports incriminating the ‘Infected’ don’t tend to specify what they did. It’s an unfair, bloodthirsty system and you hate that Jake’s a part of it and won’t quit no matter how many times you ask.

But you also know that you’re being unfair. He’s only known you a year. All his life he’s been told that the Tainted in Derse are murders and villains and need to be stopped. He’s told you about how the first toy he ever had was a gun. How we was taught to shoot before he could ride a bike. How the lesson most impressed upon him in his youth was that all the Infected in the city need to be exterminated.

The fact that he’s with you, and listens to you, and tries to not kill as much says a lot about him, you think. The fact that he’s willing to defy his family for you.

You want it to be enough.

You want to stop badgering him.

But you have a bad feeling. You have a bad feeling in your gut and you’ve had it for awhile now. And more than anything, you need to know that Jake is on your side. And with him straddling the line between them and you, you can’t say that for certain.

But he doesn’t like it when you push him.

And you don’t like seeing him upset.

Because love makes you softer than the squishy derriere of a plush puppet.

“I’m sorry,” you say with a sigh, unclenching your fist and relaxing a bit. “I’m a fucking dick, I got it. I’ll shut up and stop ruining our date.”

Jake stares at you for a few long seconds, his eyes flickering and his lips pressed tightly into a thin line. Finally, he sighs as well, reaching up to brush your bangs away from you forehead.

“You’re not a dick,” he says softly, “You’re just an arrogant prick who hates when things don’t go his way.”

“That too,” you agree with a humorless smirk, “Think you could forgive me?”

Jake smiles, and the skin around his eyes wrinkles adorably. He leans forward, nuzzling his nose against your cheek. His face moves down to rest in the crook of your neck, and you feel a rumble of laughter in his chest.

“I could be persuaded,” he murmurs, his lips and breath warm against your skin.

 

You smile, and let him push you down to the ground, his weight settling overtop of you. The grass is cold, and you can feel the chill even through your shirt. But his warmth is above you, and sinking into you, and you feel a heat rushing through your blood as he presses his lips to yours.

Your relationship isn’t healthy, you know that. You and Jake disagree on the fundamental aspects of each other’s lives. He refuses to believe what you say about the corruption in the convicting of your people, and it’s hard for you to be sympathetic to the pressure his family puts on him. More often than not, your arguments end like this. With both of you pushing, and pushing, until you both back off, running away from the issue. Letting it sit and fester even though it’s something you and Jake really need to deal with if this thing is going to work.

You’re smart. You’re experienced. You know that letting Jake push you down and kiss you senseless is no way to solve problems.

But…

He pulls back a little, hooking a finger under your sunglasses and pushing them up off your face. The dark shade over your vision lifts, and Jake’s face is illuminated more brightly than ever. He smiles down at you, his overbite poking adorably out from under his lip. You lurch upwards, one hand on his cheek as you capture his lips with yours. He lowers himself down to the grass beside you, and you turn, tangling your legs with his, wrapping your arms around each other and pressing as close as you can get.

It’s ridiculous, the way you’ve let yourself slip. A year ago, you would never have dropped your defenses like this. Never let your discomfort, your feeling of unease, get pushed away with a kiss. Logically, you need to work this out with Jake. You need to push and argue and not let the problem get away.

Deep down though, you know why you don’t.

Deep down, you think you realize that the problem can’t be fixed. That if you stopped and thought about it, you would recognize that there’s no logical way that you and Jake can stay together.

And you can’t accept that.

You just fucking can’t.

Even though staying with him could get you killed, you can’t give Jake up. You let him into your heart, and he put down roots that would rip it apart if you attempted to dislodge them.

You love him.

Regardless of the consequences.

//

It’s close to 4 am by the time you walk into your apartment. The lights are all off, but you can see a flicker of light from the living room, and hear the murmur of the television. You raise an eyebrow and walk towards it, pulling up your collar to hide the marks on your neck.

Dave is on the couch, slumped against the back with his sunglasses on his head. His eyes are half-closed, and there are bags under his eyes. He doesn’t turn to look at you as you enter the room, and doesn’t move when you plop down onto the couch beside him.

“You’re up late,” you comment offhandedly, wondering vaguely why he is watching The Squiddles of all things. His gaze remains forward, and he shrugs lightly without turning to look at you.

“You’re home late,” he rebuttals in deadpan, eyes still trained on the brightly coloured tentacle monsters dancing across the screen.

“The club closed late,” you reply coolly, “People don’t like to go home when they’re drunk.”

He snorts a little at that, and you allow your face to crack open into a smirk. He doesn’t know about you and Jake. If he put effort into paying attention to your coming and goings, he’d probably guess that something was up, but teenagers are self-absorbed by default. Not necessarily selfish or purposefully ignorant of others, but generally too wrapped up in their own drama and problems to notice issues outside of their own. And Dave has more issues than the average teen. You know this thing with John is destroying him on the inside. Both his crush, and John’s transformation. Dave really buys into the whole ‘child of misfortune’ bullshit. That the extra strength that the two of you have is a product of stealing the fortune of the people around you. His…abilities are pretty extensive, and so he believes he brings ten times the bad luck. You’ve been trying to change his mind about that, but he isn’t buying it. Especially now that his best friend’s life has been ruined.

Added to that issue is his thing with Harley’s granddaughter. It had been as shocking to you as to him to find out that his online friend of three years was the grand-niece of Lord English. You’d forbidden Dave from seeing her after that first meeting, and at first he had listened. But it wasn’t long before he started sneaking out, being evasive about where he had been, and blatantly seeing her behind your back.

You didn’t bring it up again though. The damage was done. She’d learned his name in that first meeting, and already knew that he had a brother from their Internet conversations. Aside from what the two of you were, there really wasn’t much else that he could reveal. And besides, they really were good friends. The whole reason you let him get a pesterchum account was so he could make friends.

You were used to being alone and didn’t have a particularly fervent desire for camaraderie. But after you left AR’s you could tell that Dave was lonely, especially with you working all day and most of the night. So you encouraged him talking to other kids online, where he didn’t have to be overly closed-off and focused on hiding his eyes and abilities. Through it he had met John and Jade, literally the only two people he was close to besides yourself and AR’s family.

It was probably you going soft, but you hadn’t wanted to force him to lose one of the only friends he had. So against your better judgment, you let it go on. Dave doesn’t know you know. He’s got enough confidence in his senses to believe he can actually tell when you’re following him (which he can’t). But you’d rather him think that. You don’t want him to think you condone fraternizing with the enemy.

Haha.

Right.

Besides, Jade wasn’t dangerous so long as she didn’t know your secret. And you trust Dave not to reveal it.

Like you did with Jake.

“Sucks to be you in the morning, then,” he says with a little smirk of his own, finally turning his face towards you. “Good luck teaching kids when you’re dead on your feet.”

You elbow him sharply, mock glaring at him from over the top of your sunglasses. “Yeah, yeah. We don’t all get to be lazy asses and chill out inside all Saturday.”

Dave gets weird look on his face at that, and he averts his gaze. You raise an eyebrow, and you see his cheeks pink a little bit.

“Actually,” he says awkwardly, and you notice that he has phone in his hand, fiddling with it nervously.

“I’m going out for ice cream tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

Your name is JADE HARLEY.

You are SEVENTEEN YEARS OLD and the GRANDDAUGHTER of a very prominent BUSINESSMAN. You also happen to be the GRANDNIECE of the LORD of the city you live in. When your parents DIED and your Grandpa ADOPTED you, you moved in with your UNCLE ENGLISH and his son JAKE. This was to PROTECT YOU since your parents had not just DIED but had been ASSASINATED.

Those damn Infected will do anything to try and get at your uncle.

You really, really hate them.

But you’re not going to think about that now! Nope, because today, something really awesome is happening! Something you’ve been waiting and hoping and wishing for since forever.

Well, seven years, give or take.

The point is, you have finally managed to rope the boy you’ve been crushing on for years into a date with you! Well, it might not technically be a date date. But it’s much more of a date than any other thing you two have done! Mostly because the decision to go on this almost-date was preceded by you telling Dave you liked him! And he still texted you back and agreed to go out for ice cream. So you think, even though neither of you said it was a date, it totally counts as a date.

You’re so excited!

It’s early in the morning, but you’re already ready to go. You spent an hour picking out the perfect outfit, throwing away skirts and tops that you’re usually fine with but just won’t do today! You finally found a summer dress that you don’t usually wear, because it has frills on it and they annoy you, but you think it’s perfect for a date!

Usually, you just leave your hair out or pull it into a messy ponytail, but this morning you asked one of the servants to do it for you, suffering through having the tangles brushed out. You don’t think Dave has ever really cared about your hair either way, but you really want to impress him! You finally got him to agree to a date, and you’re not going to mess it up!

You finally finish getting ready just in time for breakfast, hearing the sounds of servants bustling about and dishes clattering as you walk down the stairs. The smell of eggs and bacon and pancakes and sausages welcomes you as you step onto the floor and skip towards the dining room.

You walk through the main doors and look around the room. The servants are bringing in the last of the food through the kitchen doors, but aside from them there’s only one other person there.

“Good morning, Grandpa!” you chirp cheerfully, walking around the table to where your Grandpa sits. The old man looks up, eyes twinkling as he sees you and his moustache lifting up into a smile.

“Well now, who is this elegant young lady before me?” he exclaims in mock shock as you approach him. You giggle and skip over to his side, throwing your arms around his neck and kissing his cheek.

“Don’t be silly, Grandpa!” you laugh, moving around to the chair on the other side of him, “All I did was put on a dress!”

“You also did your hair,” he comments with a raised eyebrow. You self-consciously touch the tight bun on your head as you pull out the chair and sit down, smiling nervously.

“Weeeeell, what’s wrong with that?” you ask with a shrug, fidgeting a little in your seat.

“Nothing, nothing,” he chortles merrily, and you blush.

The table is soon completely filled with a variety of breakfast dishes. Plates filled with eggs cooked in different ways, pancakes and waffles, bacon, sausage and ham. Bowls of fruit sit at the center, beside fresh yogurt, syrup, and milk. The idea is to have every type of food that any of you- you or Grandpa or Jake or Uncle English –could ever want to eat, so you don’t have to ask the servants to make you something else. It’s really convenient because no matter what you’re craving, it’s there on the table when you wake up!

A passing servant fills your glass with orange juice, and another one takes your plate for you and begins placing food on it at your instruction.

“Hey Grandpa,” you begin, brows furrowed in slight confusion as you look around the table, “Where are Uncle English and Jake- hey no bananas!”

The servant about to place the offending fruit on your plate drops it quickly apologizing profusely. You scowl at him, before turning your eyes back to your Grandpa. He’s looking at you with amusement and you pout. He laughs a bit and his servant places his now complete plate in front of him.

“Thank you m’dear,” he says cheerfully to the girl, before turning back to you with a slightly more serious face. You raise an eyebrow, ignoring your own servant as he sets your plate down before you.

“Your Uncle is busy with a new project,” he says, his green eyes a little darker than they were a second ago, “I’m afraid we won’t be seeing much of him for the next little while.”

Your bottom lip protrudes in a pout and you huff loudly, stabbing into your pancake aggressively.

“He’s always busy with a new project,” you grumble, resting on cheek on your hand and beginning to dig into your food. It’s true, your uncle is borderline obsessed with reforming the city and making sure it’s as safe and prosperous as possible. It’s not exactly a bad obsession, and it’s the reason for the increase in patrols and the census of all the Tainted in the city. But it’s kind of all he ever talks/thinks/cares about? He’s always going on about maintaining the purity of Derse and turning it into a city that we can all be proud of and not having the scum of the Earth tainting its integrity and you agree with him completely but…

He’s your uncle, and you love him a lot, so you kind of wish that you could just sit down at breakfast and talk to him about something like…the weather. Or something. Like you did when you were younger and he was the only one who could make you smile. Of course, that’s because he’d tell you just what he’d do to the Tainted who killed your parents when he found them, and that would make you smile through your tears, but still. You are super close with your uncle. And because he’s the Lord of the city and always has Lord stuff to do, breakfast and sometimes dinner are the only times that you see him.

You sigh loudly and take a gulp of orange juice before returning your attention to your grandpa.

“And what about Jake?” you ask, looking around the room to see if your cousin is coming through any of the doors, “He never misses a meal.”

Your eyes narrow suspiciously and you remember how evasive Jake was acting last night at dinner. The words girlfriend! Girlfriend! Romantic interest! Flash through your mind and you purse your lips.
"I bet he snuck out last night and that’s why he’s not out of bed yet,” you mutter to yourself, casting another look towards the staircase.

“What was that?” asks your Grandpa, idly cutting into his ham as he half listens to you talking to yourself.

“Nothing!” you say quickly, smiling nervously before turning your attention back to your own breakfast, cheeks burning. Grandpa raises an eyebrow, but you stuff some eggs into your mouth, feigning indifference. If Jake is sneaking out to see some girl, you’re not going to tell on him. You Youngsters have to stick together! And besides, if he’s been seeing her as long as you suspect he has, than he must really like her. You’re not going to mess him up by blabbing to your grandpa!

“Really now?” inquires Grandpa with a quirked eyebrow, his suspicion aroused after your speedy denial of having said anything, “Because it certainly sounded as if you said something, love.”

You make a disagreeing sound in the back of your throat, not looking up from your food, and out of the corner of your eye you see your Grandpa open his mouth, about to begin the interrogation, so you shove a last bit of pancake into your mouth, chug back your orange juice and stand up from the table.

“Whoops would you look at the time!” you say, feigning dismay, “I’ve gotta go, Grandpa!”

Looking less than convinced, your Grandpa begins to protest, but you skip around the table quickly and peck him on the cheek before racing out one of the doors.

“Love you!” you call out over your shoulder and you laugh a little as he responds with: “Love you too you sneaky little scamp!”

You skip through the hallways, grinning broadly and heart thrumming with happiness and the excitement of the day to come. You do a little twirl, your dress spinning around you, and giggle.

It’s going to be such a great day. You can just tell.

You prance towards the front door, deciding that, even though your date-

Date!

-with Dave is an early afternoon thing, you’re going to go out from now. Nothing wrong with spending a morning out on the town!

As you pass the main staircase you see your cousin, hair mussed, glasses on his head and hands rubbing at his eyes, descending. You skid to a stop, still grinning broadly, and wait for him to reach the floor.

“G’morning, Jade,” he yawns, blinking at you with blurred green eyes, “Sleep well?”

“Better than you, obviously,” you tease, smirking at him knowingly. Jake blushes and rubs the back of his neck, avoiding your gaze.

“W-well you know, um, that blasted mattress is full of more dips than one of those roller-coaster doodads from the past. Bloody difficult to get a decent rest on it, haha.”

He laughs weakly, and his eyes travel from the floor, the ceiling, and back again, anywhere but your accusing eyes.

“Uh-huh,” you reply, your smirk never faltering, “Guess it’s not a great place to meet your girlfriend then! Which is why you sneak out.”

Jake’s eyes snap towards you in a heartbeat, wide with horror and disbelief.

“Whu-,” he stammers, holding up his hands defensively as all the blood drains from his face. “I-I don’t know what-,”

“Jeez, Jake! Relax!” you laugh, waving away all his panic with your hand, “I’m not going to tell anyone! You’ve been acting all weird and secretive for awhile. Always declining to go on patrols but mysteriously still being dead tired in the morning and spending so much time staring into space with a totally lovestruck expression on your face.”

You waggle your eyebrows at him, and he blushes, looking uncomfortable and nervous as he once again keeps his eyes away from yours.

“Don't worry, coz, I won’t tell anyone!” you chirp, reaching out and patting his arm comfortingly. Then, your smile fades a little, and you take a more serious tone.

“But you should stop skipping out on my patrols to go meet with her,” you say sternly, and his eyes flicker up to your face at the change in your voice.

“It doesn’t matter how pretty she is or how much you like her,” you continue firmly, “The safety of the city comes first. Uncle would be seriously disappointed in you if he found out.”

Jake flinches a little at that, and you frown, feeling a little bad for being so serious with him so early in the morning, but it’s true! Love makes people do stupid things, and prioritizing a person over Derse is definitely stupid. Your family’s job is to run and protect the city. If even one of you starts slacking, everything could go to hell in a heartbeat. All the Diseased and Infected and Tainted are just waiting for a gap in your defences to bring this city to ruin. And you refuse to let that happen.

Jake doesn’t respond, just keeps his gaze on the ground, and you sigh loudly, punching him lightly on the arm to get his attention, and grinning when his eyes flicker back up to you.

“C’mon Jake, don’t look so down!” you exclaim, throwing your arms open wide, “It’s summer, and it’s a beautiful day! What’s the point in meeting your girlfriend at night when you have days like these? If you’re worried about being recognized and attracting attention, just go out in disguise!”

Jake double blinks, and then smiles wrly at you.

“Like what you do, coz?” he asks, now with a teasing note in his voice. You blush a little and laugh nervously.

Usually, you’re fine with walking out alone on the street. You love walking through Derse during the day, because you get to see everything you work so hard to protect. It’s hard, going out every night to get rid of the scum of the earth. Knowing that you’ll never be completely rid of them and there will always be that one you missed. The one who got away to kill another innocent person. But when you see the smiling Dersites during the daytime, going about their lives safe and happily, you just become so proud of the work you do. Of the work you, your cousin, your grandpa, and your uncle do.

You’re not supposed to go out alone, so you usually take Becquerel, you’re large dog. He’s your protector and your best friend. Uncle English gave him to you a month or so after you first came to live with him, around the same time he gave you your first gun. You usually go everywhere with Bec. But lately, Uncle English has been borrowing him. You don’t know what for, and you miss having him always trotting at your heels, but you trust your uncle, and are sure that whatever he needs Bec for it’s for the good of everyone!

But all that aside, you almost never go out in disguise. …Except when you go to hang out with Dave. Then you don’t take Bec, and you disguise your face. Dave doesn’t like attracting attention to himself. Even though he fancies himself a coolkid he’s actually really shy and never goes out without these huge shades hiding half his face and doesn’t like being in large crowds or having people stare at him. So for his sake, you hide who you are when you go to meet him. That’s why Jake’s teasing you. Because it’s probably pretty strange to the people in this household that every so often you don a disguise to go out when you usually loudly profess how much you hate hiding who you are. You haven’t told anyone about Dave, because you know your Uncle and Grandpa would probably want to meet him and he told you the first time you met in public that they scared him and he never ever wanted to meet them. When you go out to see him, you sometimes say that you’re going to meet a friend, but you never say which friend or what type of friend.

But you think that Jake might have just guessed that it’s a special type of friend.

“Hehe, yeah. I guess so,” you answer with a sheepish chuckle, your cheeks scarlet. “Look Jake, I won’t tell Grandpa and Uncle, but you gotta stop skipping out on patrols!”

You place your hands on your hips, your face morphing back into a serious expression as you frown at your cousin. His face darkens a little and he turns away from you, slipping his glasses down from the top of his head to his face and beginning to walk towards the dining room.

“Have a swell time on your date, Jade,” he calls softly over his shoulder. Your eyes narrow and you hear him mutter darkly, “Stay out of my business and I’ll stay out of yours.”

You stay standing there with your fists clenched and your expression angry and hurt until he’s out of sight and for awhile after. Jake and you have always been close. He’s eight years older than you but he always found a moment to spend time and talk with you when you were younger. You’re still close, but in the past year or so, you’ve found it harder and harder to talk to him. He’s just seemed so…distant. You’re starting to wonder if something more than a girlfriend is up with Jake.

With a sigh you let your shoulders slump, your hands relaxing out of their fists. You spin on your heel and resume your walk to the front door, striding purposefully.

Today is going to be a good day. Today is going to be a wonderful day. Today, something is happening that you’ve been looking forward to since forever! You’re going on a date with Dave, who is funny and cool, but also a huge dork and a sweetie and shy and nice. Today is your day. The two of yours. And you’re not going to let anything ruin it.

You pull a widebrimmed sunhat from one of the hooks by the door, and reach into the basket sitting atop of the coat stand to pull out a huge pair of shades. You place the yellow hat firmly on your head, pulling the brim low, and don the gaudy shades, grinning to yourself. Though you don’t like disguises, you like wearing these shades. They remind you of Dave.

Your purse is already slung over one shoulder, and once you slip on a pair of green flats, you’re all ready to go.

A servant is waiting to open the door for you, and as soon as you approach him he pulls it open, a gust of warm summer air hitting you. You breathe in deeply, taking in the scents of this city of yours and smiling. It’s hot today. An anomaly in Derse. Usually summer is only marginally warmer than the rest of the year. But today is a good day. Today is your day. Today the sun is shining and the air is comfortably warm. You don’t need a jacket and the breeze only chills you a little.

It’s time for the ice cream you’ve been waiting seven years for.

//

You are now DAVE STRIDER.

And you don’t know what the fuck you’re doing.

Seriously, what the fuck are you doing? Sitting here at ye olde quaint as hell ice cream parlor, twiddling your thumbs under the cute little umbrella that shades the table on the patio.

You run a hand through your hair and lean back in your chair, craning your neck backwards. The shop is pretty out of the way, so usually there aren’t a lot of people about, but it’s a weirdly nice day and the people sharing the patio with you are numerous. The sun is shining for some odd reason and you’re pretty sure you heard a bird singing earlier which is straight up freaky. It’s almost like Derse isn't a decrepit hellhole just shy of succumbing to the desolation that claimed the rest of the world and was actually passable as a place to live.

You call bullshit. This sunny summer day stuff isn't going to fly and you’re even more antsy than usual. It’s hot, and you tug at the collar of your jacket. You’re about two seconds from taking it off but you’ve never done that in public before. It’s not that your skin is scaly, or grey, or furry or whatever but you have been known to have random…spasms in your back. Occasionally feathers phase through your skin and you can feel your wings shifting and begging to take form. It’s infrequent and ignorable, but the heavy jacket you wear isn’t just for style. With only a t-shirt separating your back from the outside world, it wouldn’t be hard for someone behind you to see the shifting of your skin beneath the fabric or feathers randomly beginning drifting down from underneath your shirt.

So nope, jacket stays on. Just in case.

But luckily the umbrella is shading you from the sun’s direct rays and mostly you just feel sweaty and uncomfortable from the muggy air. Your tight black jeans cling to your skin and blargh you suddenly hate everything. Summer sucks, sun sucks, you’d take the rain and clouds and cold and wind any day.

Why are you even out right now? You should be buried under a mound of covers like the nocturnal creature of the night that you are.

Ah yes.

You remember.

Because there’s this girl.

You like her a lot.

You think she’s cool and funny and tough.

And she digs you as well.

A lot, actually.

And the two of you could be a thing. Ignoring the fact that if she ever saw your under-the-skin wing shuffling nonsense or those blood red eyes of yours she’d shoot you before you could blink.

But it was never really that fact that stopped you from taking your relationship to the next level. Since you’d been ignoring the whole problem of her wanting to kill you since the moment you met in person.

No, what always stopped you was John.

Your other best friend.

Who, fine fuck it, you are head over heels in love with.

And you never responded to Jade’s advances because John was always at the back of your mind and you always hoped that maybe somehow you two could up your stuff up from platonic brohugs to hugs as passionate as a thousand blooming roses or something similarly as over the top and reminiscent of a trashy romance novel.

You wanted him to look at you as more than a friend. You’ve been holding on to the hope that he would. But at the same time, you knew he wouldn’t. You knew best bros was as far as it would go, and you were totally okay with that.

But, it was recently brought to your attention by a short, angry douchebag that you might have been projecting your suppressed affections in a way that’s really not healthy for you or for John. Apparently you’ve kept your love for him bottled up for so long it’s just all bubbling up over the top and you can’t contain it anymore. Vantas told you to either quit it or confess. Quite frankly, confessing isn’t an option. You are 99.9% sure John won’t reciprocate because he’s never shown the faintest interest in guys and because he’s never shown the faintest interest in you romantically. Or hell, even sexually. You might get pulled into those baby blue peepers and stare at his perfect pink lips for long intervals of time but he’s as attracted to you as he is to a piece of cardboard.

John’s preferences aside, you can’t confess to him because…well, you don’t deserve him. He was perfect, and then he was broken. And you know it’s your fault. You and your shitty luck-stealing. Your speed, your wings, the freaky time thing you can occasionally do, it’s all a product of stealing the fortune of those around you. That’s how being a child of misfortune works. You get a ton of upgrades, become better, faster, stronger than everyone else, by stealing the fortune of the people around you.

Bro says it’s a myth. That that’s ridiculous and it’s just a stupid story made up by people who are afraid of you. But you remember every ‘random’ accident that happened when you were living with AR. You remember how he ran into financial trouble and almost had to shut down. You remember how the financial trouble disappeared when you and your Bro moved out.

And then, John was attacked.

So no, you’re not going to confess to him. Instead, you are going to nip this stupid crush in the bud. You are going to give up on having him as anything other than a friend, and you are going to do that by finally pursuing a different romantic interest.

You’re not so worried about Jade’s fortune being stolen. For starters, she’s rich as hell, has the city in her palm of her hand, and probably has a lot of excess fortune to spare. You’re not sure if fortune actually works that way, but the fact is nothing bad has happened to her since you’ve started talking. Maybe the English-Harley’s have some sort of fortune-stealing repellant? Who knows.

But yeah. That’s pretty much why you agreed to this ice cream date. That’s why you’re here.

For a date.

With Jade.

Oh god.

“Dave!!”

And there she is.

You turn your head, and your eyebrows shoot up in surprise. Jade…well, she looks different than she normally does. Her hair isn’t the chaotic mess it usually is, and she’s wearing a dress with way more frills than she likes.

It looks like she really got into this date thing.

She’s beaming and waving frantically at you and you break your poker face to offer her a smile as she skips towards where you’re sitting.

“Hi Dave! Haha!” She’s laughing, all of this happy energy bubbling up and out of her from every pour. Your smile widens unintentionally, and you lean forward as she sits down across from you.

“Hey, Harley,” you say, trying to tone done this weirdly huge smile smashing the shit out of your poker face, and failing,

“Sorry I’m late,” she says, a sheepish grin on her face as she adjusts the huge sunglasses she’s wearing (Which while completely unironically horrible also look unfairly adorable on her). “I actually left the house early, but I went for a walk through the city and I kind of got distracted!” She laughs again, and your stupid face shatters into a smile once more. You like her laugh. It’s light and carefree. No other person you know laughs like that. You know it’s because everyone you know is sitting at the bottom of the Derse ladder and Jade’s sitting at the top. You wonder if it’s bad to like hanging out with her because she’s happy, when the reason all your other friends are miserable is because of her family.

Your life is stupidly complicated. It’s not fair that the only person besides John who can make you smile like this is part of the problem. It’s not fair because you like Jade a lot. Sometimes, when you’re wallowing in self-pity and lamenting your shitty existence and how fucked up everything with you and John has become, you forget that there are other people who make you, ah, happy.

Like the girl in front of you dressed in light green with dopey, lopsided sunglasses on her face and a huge, infectious grin with front teeth that protrude outwards a little (not as bad as John’s do, but still just as cute), and a light, infectious laugh.

Yeah.

You actually like Jade a lot.

So fuck it you’re not going to regret agreeing to ice cream with her. Whatever your motivations for it were you’re on this date now and she’s here and she’s clearly excited and you’re not going to be a douche about this.

“So,” you say, pulling out one of the menu cards that they leave on the tables, “What type of delicious frozen dairy goodness shall we order to kick off this date?”

You regret it even less at the look of utter happiness that envelops her face.

//

The sun is beginning to set when she leaves.

Your date went…actually better than you expected. You kind of thought it would be exactly like how you normally hang out, except with Jade expecting more from you than you were willing to give. But she was just so happy the entire time, and her radiating happiness somehow pierced your thick skin and left you with this stupid shit-eating smile on your face the entire time as well. You talked about the same stuff you usually talked about. Your comics, her music, your music, how you should combine the two, the sky, the earth, the apocalypse, the future, the past, who invented ice cream and how.

At some point she reached across the table and took your hand in hers. You complained about her hindering your ability to shovel ice cream into your mouth, but didn’t pull away.

You talked and talked and talked. Talked about everything, but at the same time, nothing. Because you didn’t bring up Jade’s family, or what she does. Which you shouldn’t be ignoring, but you ignored it anyways because you’re young and stupid and are happy with Jade and just wanted to keep being happy with Jade. Because the only other person you could be happy with like this is John and now you can’t be happy with John because he’s different and you’re walking on eggshells with him and you just want to be happy with Jade so fuck it you’re going to be happy with Jade.

But when she bolts upright the moment she notices the sun going down, you know why. And she knows you know why. And she looks apologetic as she gets up to leave but there’s a stubborn set to her jaw and you know she’s not sorry for what she’s about to go do.

You’re sorry though.

You’re sorry your life is such a fucking mess.

When she leaves, you kind of deflate. All of the weird happiness that was running through you leaves in a whoosh, and it’s now that you let all those things that you were ignoring come crashing down on your head.

You’re about five seconds from diving headfirst back into that pool of self-pity and self-hate when a surprisingly sweet scent is carried to you on the breeze. Your head snaps up, and you turn your head to the side, eyebrows knitted together.

No way. Why would-

“My, my, my. Look who it is! Smelling like jalapeno anger and bitter cough drops as usual.”

Yup. It’s her.

You smirk humourlessly and tilt your head back, looking at the girl standing behind you in the dying light. She’s not as sharp as she usually is, all her angles and pointy edges hidden beneath a sweatshirt and baggy pants. There’s a scarf obscuring most of her face from view and a hood covering her hair. You can only see her red glasses between the two and the tiniest bit of grayish skin.

Even though she’s covered from head to toe in order to hide the fact that she’s a troll, you can tell that it’s Terezi. By her voice, her scent, and her…Terezi-ness.

“Sup, Tz. Missed you yesterday at the Basement,” you drawl, raising an eyebrow as if to ask ‘Gonna tell me why you weren’t there?’ It takes you a moment to remember that she’s blind and can’t see the eyebrow. Dammit.

But you see the scarf shift and the skin by her glasses crinkle a little, and you know that she understood the question behind your statement. Said belief is affirmed when she lets out one of her patented nails-on-chalkboard cackles.

“Hehehe, I was busy, Dave! You can’t expect me to spend all my time in that bar waiting for cherry red coolkids to come around, now can you?” she teases, leaning down on her cane.

You smirk a little, and turn your chair so that you’re facing her completely and don’t have to keep your neck craned back and to the side.

“Nah, s’pppose not,” you drawl lazily. “But I missed my daily dose of getting molested and licked by Terezi handsy-as-shit Pyrope. Hope you’re here to make up for lost time girl ‘cause I don’t like it when I miss my appointments.”

The scarf shifts a little again, and you can imagine her lips quirking into a smile. But the skin around her glasses remains unwrinkled, and you realize that the smile didn’t reach her eyes and that her mood is less light-hearted than it was a second ago.

You stiffen in your chair and your smirk drops. You watch as she shuffles closer to you, the grip on her cane tightening.

“Hey coolkid,” she rasps, her voice containing none of the teasing tone that usually colours it, “By the smell of sour lime gumdrops in the air I can tell you’ve been hanging out with Miss Harley-English again.”

You grimace and wince, your eyes drifting away from the accusing red of her glasses to stare with great interest at the few sparse clouds drifting across the reddening sky. Terezi is the only one who knows about your thing with Jade. You don’t even know how or when she figured it out. One day the two of you were sitting doing something stupid (you think she was colouring your nails with teal marker) when she offhandedly asked you how your morning with Jade went.

Despite the internal freak out her words had caused, you had calmly replied that your morning was bitching as always. Terezi hadn’t pursued the matter, but her disapproval was pretty much tangible. The only other words she’d offered had been: “Just remember, Dave. As alone as we all are, we’re also all in this together. So if one of us digs theirself a hole that’s too deep to get out of, we’re all going to fall in.”

You told her you knew that.

She smiled humourlessly at you and asked if you were sure.

You said yeah.

And she dropped it. Never brought it up again.

Except for now.

“Yeah, maybe,” you say guardedly, feeling uncomfortable and with a sick feeling in your stomach, “Why Tz, you jealous? Not my fault you missed me last night, I’m a busy guy can’t expect for me to keep my schedule open for you exclusively.”

Your words are light, joking, but there’s a tense, defensive edge to your voice and the hair at the nape of your neck is bristling. Terezi appears to notice, because she relaxes her own body a bit. Loses the confrontational hunch of her shoulders. She straightens up, and you think you hear her let out a quiet sigh.

“I’ve been hearing things,” she says, her voice low and devoid of any joking tone whatsoever, “About English having something new up his poisonous, cactus-green sleeve. That a new…solution is in the works.”

You blink behind your shades, and your eyes narrow a bit. You don’t even bother asking her where she’s been hearing these ‘things’. The information might be from actual informants or it might be from her weird ability to hear and smell the future. Which doesn’t make sense to you but she hasn’t been wrong yet.

“Solution?” you ask. Then, a chill runs down your spine, and your heart drops straight into your stomach.

“To us,” you say, your mouth suddenly dry and tongue heavy, “A…solution to us.”

“That’s what I’m hearing,” replies Terezi flatly, and you see her knuckles whiten a bit as she tightens the grip on her cane. “Something smells bad. Like an infected wound left to fester in the heat and the taste burns my tongue like acid.” She makes a sound like an exasperated hiss, and tilts her head up towards the sky. “It might still be awhile off,” she continues, face still upturned, “This project apparently just started so the nuclear green mushroom cloud explosion I’m smelling might not be anytime soon.”

She takes a deep breath, and you think you see her shiver a little. You don’t blame her. It’s still warm out but you’ve got goosebumps all over and feel like there’s a shard of ice sitting in your chest. You’re cold.

“But it’s coming,” she snarls out, her voice suddenly harsh and causing you to startle a little. Her head whips back towards you and though you can’t see her eyes or mouth you can sense her bared teeth and narrowed orbs.

“It’s coming, Dave. And it’s going to be a war,” She continues, spitting acidly, “So keep up your thing with miss sour gumdrop if you want, but you better remember what side both of you are on when she’s pointing a gun at you and there are no shades for you to hide behind.”

She’s angry now. Angry and frustrated.

And you’re cold.

Like.

Ice.

“I got it,” you say mechanically, snowwater trickling through your veins freezing up everything drip drip drip until nothing drips because it’s all frozen you’re cooler than ice you’re the coolkid and you’ve got it all under control.

“If you think that, you’re a fool, Dave Strider,” replies Terezi flatly, and you think she’s maybe more disappointed in you than angry.

You understand that.

“Yeah,” you agree flatly, clenching and unclenching one of your hands as you grit your teeth, “I know.”

Chapter Text

Your name is JOHN EGBERT.

And you don’t want to get out of bed.

You’re curled up under the covers, your legs tucked into your chest and your face buried into your pillow. Your shirt is riding up, your boxers are falling down, and you feel hot and stuffy under the blankets but have no desire to move from the fetal position you’ve placed yourself in. You can hear the hum of the fan above you, but can’t feel the cool movement of air it offers.

You feel lousy, and the feeling only worsens as you hear the whirr of the cake mixer from the kitchen, adding to the clattering of noises that woke you up in the first place.

It’s hilarious how your dad loves baking first thing in the morning, because, you know, you’re pretty damn sure that you told him that you preferred sleeping during the day now. That your internal clock had done a serious flipturn sideways. And you’re also pretty sure you told him the slightest noise would wake you up. And yet.

And yet.

Today’s not off to a great start.

You pop your head out from under your covers and blink blearily. The world comes into focus quickly, and the clarity of the picture still catches you by surprise a bit. Everything is bright and sharp, and you can see into all the hidden corners of the room perfectly. Completely different from the time when you’d spend your first moments of wakefulness fumbling for your glasses.

It still surprises you, and still hurts a little, but you’re doing your best to not dwell on things like this anymore. And besides, you haven’t lost a pair of socks since you changed! You can now find anything you misplace with your super ramped up vision, which is definitely a plus.

You smile wryly and drag a hand down your face, yawning.

You really don’t want to get up right now. You can see a glimmer of light from behind the curtain, and you literally want to hiss at it and recoil. It’s ridiculously stereotypical, and you think that you could totally pass that off as one of Dave’s ridiculous ‘ironies’.

Thinking of Dave makes you frown a little, and you sit up fully in bed. The covers fall away from you, and your mood darkens further as all your accumulated warmth melts away.

It’s been a week since Dave took you down to The Basement and introduced you to his troll friends. A week since you and him mutually accepted the reality that, yeah, you weren’t actually human, and you both should stop pretending like you are. It hurt to admit to yourself. And you think it hurt Dave too. But in the long run, it’s better this way, you think. Probably. It’s not like you can go back to the way you were before, and your life definitely won’t be the same as it was when you were human. So trying to pretend you’re still human would be kind of useless, was kind of useless, and was only hurting you because you were trying so hard to be something you just couldn’t be anymore. And you were expecting life to deal you the same hand but things work a lot differently for Infected people than they do for humans and you were getting your hopes dashed a lot.

It’s better that you stopped pretending.

So this past week you’ve stopped moaning and sulking over what you lost and begun appreciating what you gained! Things like superhearing, which can be annoying but also useful (it helps you avoid your dad). And super-eyesight, and supersmell.
You’ve got so many supers that you could probably go into business as a vigilante or something. Though you haven’t tested them out a lot, you know
you’re packing some superstrength and superspeed as well.

But you also have a rampant bloodlust and a matchstick temper fueled by a pool of primal anger sitting constantly in your gut.

You don’t think superheroes are allowed stuff like that.

You’re pretty sure that those sorts of things are exclusive to supervillains.

Aaaaaaand you’re being depressing again being depressing is not okay stop being depressing right the fuck now.

You scrunch your face and try to think about something else. Not the things you’ve lost. Not the things you’ve gained.

How about the things you’ve maintained? The things you still have and have always had?

Your dad pops into your head first, but you dismiss him quickly. You don’t have your dad anymore. He’s scared of you and avoids you and you think maybe he’d be happier if you’d just died instead of being infected. Sometimes you think that would have been better, too. But then you remember that there’s someone else. That yeah, you totally do have one person that you still have, and have had for the past seven years and won’t not have anytime soon.

But.

Ah.

Things with that person have gotten a bit…

Uh.

Well.

You have begun to really and truly very much suspect that your best bro in the entire world might have a crush on you.

Like a crush crush.

Like red floating hearts and floating rose petals and cheesy music crush crush.

And.

You’re not sure how you feel about that?

Dave’s your absolutely best friend, and has been for the past seven years, since you first met him on pesterchum. The two of you hit it off right away, even though the weird things he tried to pass off as irony didn’t really make sense to you and he thought your taste in the old pre-apocalypse movies was horrible.

Your online chats were great, and you loved coming to your computer and seeing walls of red text greeting you, but soon you found yourself wanting more. Because Dave was really cool and it was awesome talking to him but you wanted to see him as well.

So you told him that.

You told him that he should totally come over and the two of you could have a movie marathon and you’d prove that Nicolas Cage was the best actor ever to grace the earth.

Dave’s response had been less than enthusiastic.

In fact, he’d shut you down so fast your eleven-year-old jaw dropped a little.

Your supposed best bro had given you bullshit excuses about you not being able to handle all of his condensed cool in person or how the dazzle of his smile was too blinding to take out in public, but all it had really done was make you feel more and more like he didn’t like you as much as you liked him.

Which hadn’t made you feel so hot.

When you were younger, you didn’t have a lot of friends. You were awkward and your jokes and pranks weren’t as funny to others as they were to you. At school you were good for annoying the teacher and postponing lessons a bit but no one laughed with you, only at you. And no one stood up for you when people shoved you in the hallways. That’s the reason your dad let you get pesterchum in the first place. So that you could finally make some friends. And you did! You met Dave, who made you laugh and smile and snort and made you huff angrily when he insulted your movies and tilt your head in confusion when he tried to explain his oh-so-cool ‘ironies’.

But then it seemed like he wasn’t as into the friendship as you were. That, maybe, you didn’t have a best friend after all.

You ignored it, and carried on as usual, not bringing up meeting in person again, but the doubt sat heavily in your stomach, and the walls of red text didn’t bring you as much joy as they once had.

It came to a head on your twelfth birthday. No one had responded to your invitations, and you’d spent the morning curled up in your room and feeling sick from the smell of cake that no one had come to eat. When you’re computer pinged and red flashed on your screen all you had felt was anger. Upset, hurt, and lonely, you had ranted and yelled at Dave over pesterchum and told him that he was a shitty friend and that having a friend that was just pretending was worse than having no friends at all and having no friends at all was pretty damn shitty and you would know because you didn’t have any friends and no one had come for your birthday and Dave was an ass and he could keep being an ironic coolkid but he should stop fucking talking to you because you were tired of your heart hurting.

You’d shut down your computer savagely, thrown some of your stupid movies across the room, and flopped onto your bed, cheeks damp and completely resigned to spending your birthday in misery.

Towards the evening, you had been shaken from your wallowing by your dad calling for you to come downstairs, saying there was someone here for you.

You’ll never forget the first time you saw Dave in person. Drowning in an oversized red sweatshirt with the hood up and huge pointy shades that took up most of his face. Wispy pale hair poking out and hanging over the palest skin you’d ever seen. His whole body had been tense and even as he smirked crookedly at you he seemed nervous and even though you weren’t the best at reading the atmosphere or understanding people, you could tell that Dave really didn’t go out much. His voice had been shaking as he greeted you and all of a sudden you weren’t angry at him but angry at yourself because Dave seemed panicky and scared and you felt like an utter ass for guilting him out of his apartment.

But the two of you had got to talking, and some of the awkwardness faded and the tense atmosphere diffused. Dave had brought you a stuffed bunny, which he explained was an authentic replica of the stuffed bunny from one of your favourite pre-apocalypse movies, Con Air. He had been planning to mail it to you, but hadn’t been able to come up with a non-creepy way of asking for your address. You had laughed a little, and hugged the bunny to your chest. He’d smiled, and his shoulders had untensed just a bit.

The two of you had then proceeded to share your huge birthday cake and talk and joke and got stomachaches and had a great time. You thought having Dave right beside you was a thousand times better than coming home to walls of red text on your computer.

It wasn’t until two years later that you discovered that Dave was Infected. That the reason he hadn’t wanted to meet you in person at first was because he was afraid of revealing what he was.

There had been a lot of drama, for both of you. You had grown up seeing what Dave was as a menace to society, and finding out your best friend was one of the monsters you used to ask your dad to protect you from when you were a kid had dealt your heart a heavy blow. It had shaken what you knew to be truth, confused you about the city you lived in, and suddenly made you doubt the Lord you had previously trusted and believed unconditionally.

Your fourteenth year was a rough one.

But somehow, all the drama and the stress and the revelations had only served to strengthen your relationship with Dave. After you had come to terms with it and decided you didn’t care if Dave was a monster (because dammit, he was your best friend!), and after the initial awkwardness between you, (an awkwardness that admittedly lasted a few months), you and Dave had slipped back into your friendship. In fact, your relationship strengthened, and was hardened into something concrete and unbreakable. Dave was free to talk to you about things he never had before, and you had learned more about Dave than you had learned in your previous four years of friendship. You learned he and his brother had both been born Infected, like the Trolls and mutants, but were different. The exact details of what he is confused you, but you understood that it made it hard for him to get close to people. You realized that aside from his brother, you were the only person he had ever opened up to, because he had never intended to meet you in person and hadn’t put up his usual barriers when you spoke online. He let himself be, and let you in, and you think you’re the first person besides his family who ever got to see the real Dave.

You had helped Dave a bit with his anxiety problems, and given him a pair of shades that were slightly less obnoxious than the ones he currently had. He, in turn, had helped you with your social skills. Dave could be skittish and also a bit of a pushover but he understood people a lot better than you did (he said it was because he wasn’t part of the social order you were in and could observe from afar and criticize and mock), and he helped you get better at not being such an ass in school. You stopped trying to make people laugh for attention and instead focused on being yourself. You made friends. You became happier. But Dave was always your first and best friend and the two of you were as close as brothers, if not closer.

But it seems that maybe.

Maybe.

Dave wants something more?

Certain events (like being kissed on the forehead what) have made this possibility seem more and more likely. And you think it’s probably a good idea for you to talk to Dave about it. Because you know Dave, and if he hasn’t told you yet, he’s probably never going to, the ass.

You push the blankets off of your legs and roll off the bed. Even when sliding ingloriously onto the floor, you land soundlessly on your feet, and for once, you’re thankful for it, because it means your dad won’t know that you’re up yet.

You pad across the floor, stepping over discarded clothing and softly opening the door.

The smell of sugar and flour and eggs waft through the house and you wrinkle your nose in distaste. You’re not a fan of baking. Your like for it dwindled over the years and eventually developed into a dislike, but your dad never really got the message and besides baking is relaxing to him. You don’t bother asking him to stop anymore.

But you don’t bother asking him for much of anything.

Or. Bother talking. Or.

Aaaaaand there you go on the train of depressing thoughts! Nope, nope, nope. You cancelled your pass for that train and swore you’d never get on it again. Time to hop off at the nearest stop and get on the ‘look on the bright side’ buggy. Destination: out of the house that isn’t home anymore.

You walk silently down the hallway, eyes squinting at the brightness of the house. The blinds and curtains are open in every room except yours, and when you reach the bathroom and close the door behind you, you release a short sigh of relief. It’s not that the light hurts your eyes or anything, but you just.

Don’t like it.

You don’t like light.

You stand in the darkness of the bathroom, observing yourself in the mirror. Your eyes glow a bit, like a cat’s, and the silver ring and slit pupils are more prominent than ever. Looking at them still brings a lump to your throat, and you run your fingers through your hair and lower your gaze.

You turn to the side to look at your bathtub, contemplating whether or not to take a shower. Doing so would alert your father to your presence, and you’re hoping to avoid a run-in with him at all costs. Besides, you showered yesterday and you don’t smell or anything. And it’s not like your planning anything fancy with your day! There’s nothing for you to do, really. It’s still summer, so there’s no school, and getting infected kind of kicked any chances of a summer job out the window. You really could just spend the day in your room.

Except for one thing.

You swallow thickly and run your tongue over your front teeth, letting it slide down to the tapered tip of one of your incisors. You haven’t fed in a few days. Two, to be exact. It’s not as horrible as it sounds, because your food hunger and your blood hunger are different. You can still eat human food. And it still satisfies you, to an extent. But there’s always that emptiness that only blood can fill. And when left alone for too long, that emptiness turns into a sharp, burning longing that spreads up into your throat and makes it hard to think of anything else.

That’s only happened once.

Dave made you promise not to let it happen again.

Your phone is always on you now, and you reach into the pocket of your boxers and pull it out, bringing up the pesterchum app.

EB: hey Dave?
EB: uh…
EB: its that time again, ☹
EB: sorry, i usually can last a bit longer than this.
EB: but yeah, do you mind if I come over so I can…you know.

You send off the last message, frowning. Feeding usually keeps that hollow, empty feeling away for about four days. Five if you push yourself (which you promised Dave you wouldn’t). You hate when it’s less than that. It’s not like Dave is an all you can eat buffet or something. He needs his blood a lot more than you do!

In addition to needing to feed, you really want to talk to Dave about this crush thing, and you’d rather do it in person. Maybe you’re delusional or reading to far into his increased touchyfeeliness, but then you think forehead kiss, and you remember the way he clutched at you and clung to you in the Basement and you get a funny feeling in your stomach and chest.

You don’t know if that’s because you’re nervous that your best bro might be crushing on you, or because…

Maybe I like him back?

You definitely love Dave. In like, a brotherly way. You think. Because well, you think his hair is soft and fluffy, and you think he has pretty eyes, and you like the roughness of his hands and his little smirks and also his smiles. And you’re not sure if those are normal things to like about people you care about or if you…

Like your best bro in the same way you suspect he likes you?

Bluh.

You don’t want to think about this right now.

You wait a couple of minutes for a reply, but Dave’s pesterchum remains idle, and you’re reminded of the fact that Dave actually follows his internal clock and tends to sleep during the day whenever he can get away with it. You probably won’t get a reply. Which is okay, because you’re totally allowed to just drop in on Dave’s apartment unannounced. You did it all the time before you changed, and you don’t think he’ll get mad if you do it now.

But.

You think you’ll give him some time to reply all the same.

But not by staying in the house! Nope, you are highlighting it out of here as fast as your little vampire legs can take you. Despite your first misgivings, you’ve managed to stay relatively upbeat this morning and nothing is going to sink that sunny ship faster than having to interact with your dad. So you’ll wait for Dave to reply by walking around Derse a bit.

Turning back to the sink, you pull the handle and let a small stream of water flow from it. You splash some on your face, rubbing it down your neck and using it to flush the sleep crust out of your eyes.

Your dad used to emphasize constant cleanliness. You remember watching him shave meticulously and imagining yourself doing the same some day. It makes your stomach squirm a little, and you smell a ride on the depression train popping up so you shut off the tap and shut off the thoughts and exit the bathroom.

When you get back to your room you pull a pair of jeans and t-shirt out of your drawers along with a clean pair of boxers. After pulling them on you pick up your grey sweatshirt from the floor (you’ve worn it more this summer than you have the previous two years you’ve had it) and pull it over your head.

Hopefully, today wouldn’t be like yesterday, which was freakishly hot. You’d been forced to open a window which sucked because the sun was shining more than, you swear, it ever has in your life.

It’s funny, and also sad, because a month or so ago you would have been ecstatic at the miracle of a sunny day in Derse.

Would have, could have, maybes and once upon a times.

You pull your hood up and leave your room.

Now’s the hardest part. Getting down the stairs and out the door without accidentally bumping into your dad. There’s pretty much no chance of him hearing you descend. But there is a chance of him randomly walking by the bottom of the steps or in front of the door as you’re trying to make your escape.

He’s always been kind of irritatingly good at popping out of nowhere when you were trying to escape out the front door.

You creep down the stairs, hearing the sound of the oven opening and smelling the scent of batter and baking materials more than ever. Your nose wrinkles a bit in distaste as you reach the ground floor and you hurry across it, hightailing it to the front door.

You’re pulling on your sneakers when you hear the sound of your dad’s shoes clacking against the floor and oh fuck oh fuck how does he always know the worst time to leave the kitchen?

Throwing caution to the wind, you yank open the front door and it bangs against the wall, you hear his footsteps quicken and you hear the beginnings of him calling your name but you’re out, you’re gone, and you’re slamming the door behind you as you take off running.

Nope.

Not today.

You’re half a block away in no time, and force yourself to slow down because it’s really not a good idea to draw attention to yourself and running down the street at the speed of a sportscar is almost definitely drawing attention to yourself.

You walk.

It’s a cloudy day, which is typical for Derse. It’s overcast and the sun’s covered. The layer of cloud is thin, however, and it’s still fairly bright out. Brighter than you’d prefer. But overall, it’s kind of a nice day. And there’s this lovely breeze that is blowing through you and you’ve always liked breezes and gentle winds. ‘Gentle’ isn’t usually a setting Derse has. And the only wind you get are hurricane gales that come with the horrific storms that threaten to drown the city.

But you haven’t had one of those in awhile. This has been a good summer.

Well, weatherwise.

You snort to yourself, because haha it’s actually really funny that you just thought that this has been a good summer.

Look, Dave! I can pull off your ‘ironies’ as well!

It’s not really funny, but you find it funny because it’s not funny. Which doesn’t really make sense? But you’re not sad or anything. You’re not riding that stupid train, and you’re appreciating the nice day.

You walk.

Your feet eventually take you out of the suburbs and into the city center. The people you walk by on the sidewalk increasing, cars rumbling down the road, the smell of smog and pollution and clutter and dirt increasing.

You don’t really like how Derse smells.

You also don’t like crowds.

You keep yourself against the buildings, avoiding walking directly in the throng of people on the sidewalks and streets. The smells and sounds assail you, and you grit your teeth at how disorienting just walking through the city is. You really don’t know how Dave has dealt with this all these years.

But as you hazard a lift of your head, you find yourself able to sort through the smells and sights and sounds and it’s less of a chaotic mess. You can smell the humans, and you can smell the Infected hiding among them. You can smell people who smoke, people who do drugs, people who just had sex (that’s pretty funny actually).

You can hear conversations. People talking on their phones, talking to each other. You can hear the lies and the deceit still, and you frown, but the sound of a genuine, bubbly laugh takes you by surprise and you find yourself searching for the source with your eyes.

You don’t find her.

But that’s okay, because what you see with your eyes isn’t too bad as well. Derse in general tends to be relatively gray, and the people reflect it. There are no happy faces for you to see. But it’s always been like that, and instead, you find yourself picking out the individual characteristics of the people who pass you. Every strand of hair is highlighted, every frown line and wrinkle. Jewelry sparkles, and glasses gleam.

Crowd watching has never been this enthralling.

Getting through the mass of people slows you down, especially as you’ve found a new appreciation for the cacophony of sound, smells and sight that is Derse. By the time you’ve moved past the city’s center and towards the part of town that Dave lives in, it’s almost midday. You’ve been walking all morning, doing nothing but thinking and looking and smelling and hearing.

You smile a little.

That was kind of nice.

The crowd has thinned out, the buildings are a bit more rundown and you’re walking the familiar route to Dave’s apartment. Your phone hasn’t vibrated, so the lazy bum still isn’t up. But the emptiness in your stomach is still present so even though you’ll feel bad showing up unannounced you’re just going to-

Hm?

You stiffen and pause in your step. A new smell has just hit you. Or, wait, that’s not right. A familiar smell has hit you. And not like familiar as in the familiar smell of the city, or the area, or something like that. But familiar as in…as in specifically familiar?

Yeah that doesn’t make sense.

Dave once told you that he could recognize each person’s individual scent. You thought that was the absolutely most coolest thing ever. When you first turned, you were too busy being miserable to fully test out your abilities. You’re trying them out more now, but it never really occurred to you that you could…pick up a scent and have it be familiar. You think your dad probably smells exactly like your house, and you always hear him coming before you smell him anyways. And Dave has always had a smell to you. Since you first met him (he smells like birds and coffee and a bit like cherries).

But now…

You smell…

You smell…

You’ve turned, walking in the opposite direction of Dave’s apartment. Your eyes are narrowed and you’re following your nose like a bloodhound.

That’s kind of cool actually! Like Lassie, or White Fang. Or, or…something.

You shake your head a bit to clear off the weird thoughts (man your brain is weird) and focus on the task at hand. The familiar scent is getting stronger and you find your feet bringing you into an alley between two buildings. A brief flicker of unease shoots through you but you shake it off and keep going.

It’s not a closed alley, and you exit the otherside into what looks like a flat expanse of pavement. Then you see the sparse tufts of grass and the decrepit, warped equipment and realize it’s actually supposed to be a playground.

Before you can lament about how crappy Derse’s children have it, you see someone standing under the mangled pieces of pipe you think is supposed to be a jungle gym.

You see them, and you recognize them.

You gasp sharply, and their head jerks towards you, bright candy red eyes widening in disbelief.

“What the fuck?!”

“Karkat?”

Chapter Text

You are still JOHN EGBERT.

And you have been completely and utterly caught off guard.

He stares at you, mouth hanging open a bit, and gray skin looking paler than usual. You stare back, at a total loss as to what to do.

You’re not sure exactly what you were expecting when you began following your nose, but it was definitely not this.

This being the angry kind-of-helpful Troll that Dave introduced you to last week. Karkat Vantas.

He seems shorter than you remember, but that’s probably because he’s wearing an oversized hoodie and ratty sweatpants; both appear to swallow him up. The hood of his sweater falls back a bit as he turns to look at you and you can see his unnatural red eyes, staring at you in shock.

Looks like he’s just as caught off guard as you are.

“Holy shit what the flying fuck are you doing here?!” he splutters angrily, turning to face you completely with his hands clenched into fists. The harshness of his words causes you to stiffen, and immediately, the molten pool at the pit of your stomach begins to rumble and churn, causing you to growl at him. The noise slips past your lips unexpectedly, and you’re immediately horrified. You quickly attempt to backpedal and reign in the aggressive response of your body, fighting to keep calm against Karkat’s hostile body language and narrowed eyes.

 Calm down, John . You tell yourself sternly, breathing in sharply through your nose then regretting it when the thick, cloying scent of Troll fills your nostrils and almost makes you see red. You breathe in deeply despite that, trying to get some oxygen to your brain, and swallow thickly, the scent on your tongue.

 In.

Out.

In.

Out.

No need to attack. No danger.

Just.

Calm the fuck down.  

The heat in your stomach cools a little, though your chest still feels tight and your heart is thrumming rapidly. You refocus on Karkat, swallowing again and intent on ignoring his aggressive pose.

But it looks like his pose isn’t quite so aggressive anymore? His fists are still clenched, but his brows are knitted together in what looks more like worry than anger, and though his eyes are narrowed and he’s frowning he’s not scowling or snarling. And his shoulders aren’t hunched and he doesn’t look like he’s about to pounce on you or rip your throat out anymore.

You relax a bit.

“Uh…,” you begin hesitantly. Your voice still sounds growly, so you clear your throat a few times and try again. “Hi!”

Your voice squeaks on the word, and you wince. Karkat’s eyebrows shoot up in apparent surprise, but then he’s back to scowling. You tense a bit, but the rest of his body is still non-aggressive, so you fight back the rumbling at the back of your throat and try to clear the feral thoughts from your mind.

 “Hi?”  he repeats acidly, his grating voice pulling you from your inner struggles and diverting your focus to him once again. His teeth are grit and you wilt a bit.

Was that the wrong thing to-?

 “Now this may come as a shock to someone of your sparing intelligence,” begins Karkat, his voice tight with annoyance as he interrupts your train of thought, “But the correct response to the question, ‘why the hell are you here’ is not, in fact, ‘hi’. ‘Hi’, believe it or fucking not, is a greeting used by lesser lifeforms too fucking lazy to say ‘Hello’ but somehow consider themselves above using the degenerate ‘sup’ like the fucking douchebag hipsters that stalk the earth in so-called ‘ironic’ eyewear! And while this may come as a shock to you and completely destroy every foundation of your feeble existence, I do  not  regret to inform you that ‘hi’ is not an acceptable answer to a fucking question!”

His nostrils flare as he huffs angrily and you take a step back, hands raised defensively. The side you often call your ‘human’ side overpowers the ‘fight’ sensation that your new instincts bring, and you find yourself instead focusing on how funny Karkat actually looks with his cheeks puffed out and flushed red. The part of you that is always thinking silly thoughts no matter the situation casually ponders the revelation that Trolls can look something other than terrifying.

Huh.

Who knew?

Oh wait shit Karkat was yelling at you maybe you shouldn’t space out like that that’ll just make him angrier.

“Uhhhh,” you begin again, floundering for a bit, “I don’t know?”

Karkat’s eyes widen, and you mentally wince because  haha  that definitely wasn’t the right thing to say. That was stupid even by your standards!

But Karkat turns even redder and he looks really mad and frustrated and

For a second

You remember how much you loved the reactions of people you pranked.

“You don’t know?!” he explodes, and you jump a bit, body tensing again and skin prickling as his voice jolts you back to reality. Too loud. Too angry. Too threatening. Your pulse races, and you feel hot all over. The sharp claws of the monster inside your skin scratch and gouge and it’s like all your humanity and sanity is leaking out of the wounds and the picture your eyes can see is warping and tilting into something grotesque and something you have to  killattackfeedhitfirstbitefirstattackfirst

“How-,” The Troll is mid-rant, all snarls and bristles, but then his eyes meet yours, and though you’re focusing on quelling the violent wave crashing into you, you see something shift behind them. Something give way. The fire blazes a little cooler, and the threatening pose is reduced. He shuts his mouth abruptly, but his eyes never leave yours and the intensity of his gaze never falters.

Your body relaxes a bit as a result, and the inferno inside you cools. It’s not as hard as it used to be. You’re more used to the violent bursts and the sensation of losing control of yourself, so it’s easier to drag yourself back from it.

 But not that easy.  

You’re still shaking it off, still trying to reign in that stupid annoying monster that makes it  so hard  to just talk to people. Before you can say anything, his mouth is open again and he’s saying in a flat, exasperated tone, “Why are you here, John?”

You blink, caught off guard a bit by the sudden change in his mood. His eyes are staring into yours, and you wish you could break his gaze. You know he’s probably annoyed and pissed off that you suddenly walked in and interrupted whatever the hell it was that he was doing. You know he probably wants you to scram. You know it so you don’t have to look into his eyes and see what his words aren’t saying.

But he holds your gaze and the feral part of you says that looking away would be conceding defeat. So you don’t. And you brace yourself for what you’re going to see in his eyes.

But. Instead of hurting you.

What you see surprises you.

Instead of annoyance and anger, you see concern. Like, actual legitimate concern. You can’t remember ever seeing that in someone’s eyes. Eyes that always hold anger, and hate, and never match the words that the person is saying. Eyes that hold discomfort, and disappointment, and fear. Eyes that aren’t hiding anything malicious or anything to make your heart hurt.

You suddenly want to cry.

Swallowing the lump in your throat you smile crookedly, rubbing the back of your head sheepishly.

“I smelt you back on the street,” you say truthfully, laughing a bit because wow that’s a funny thing to say! Not normal at all. You wonder if conversations between Infected are always filled with such awkward sentences.

Karkat narrows his eyes a bit, and you laugh nervously again.

“I didn’t know what it was!” you continue, “I’ve never recognized a person-smell like that before. So I decided to follow it and see who it was. And it was you! Hehe.”

You sound stupid, you think. But it’s a small worry, compared to how you were feeling before. You like small worries. You appreciate them. They remind you of how bad your worries can get and it’s almost nice when all you have to be concerned about is sounding stupid.

“Oh god,” groans Karkat, and he’s rolling his eyes towards the sky, as if seeking patience, and your lips curl up a little more. He’s funny.

“This is so fucking ridiculous, I can’t even formulate the words to articulate just the type of chest-heaving rage that is burning through my veins like the red-hot hellfire I wish would burst through the ground to engulf me before I have to continue this conversation for any longer!” he rants, waving his arms around violently.

He goes on, and you tilt your head and watch. What you notice is that though he’s loud and his teeth gnash and his eyes narrow there does not seem to be any real… intent  behind his anger.

 All bark and no bite , you realize in surprise, and you feel that last vestige of tenseness, caution, and primal defensiveness simmer down into almost nothing.

 Not a threat.  

In your mind, you pause.

 Well, not an  immediate  threat.  

Satisfied, you refocus on Karkat, who’s still huffing and puffing and shooting out hot air and meaningless words. A smile curls around your teeth and you think on how Karkat would probably be really fun to prank. Your mind starts thinking of ideas automatically, and though it gives you a warm feeling in your tummy to be thinking of stuff like that again, you try and focus on the situation at hand.

You’re not scared or fighting back the urge to rip out his throat anymore, so you’re okay to ask Karkat a question.

To continue the conversation.

To  talk  to him.

(( You miss talking to people. You miss it so much. You never knew how much you missed it until Dave gave you the opportunity to do it again. It’s hard to find people that aren’t scared of you or that don’t freak you out and now that your crazy vampire instincts are calm all you want to do is talk to Karkat. Talk and talk and talk until you have to go home where you’re can’t talk.))

“Well, why are  you  here?” you ask, interrupting him mid-rant. His eyes refocus in on you, while your own gaze begins drifting about, looking at what ‘here’ is.

 Man, this playground is horrible!  

It’s true, it barely passes off as a playground. Everything is metal and more often than not the metal is rusted, warped, or broken. The slides are disgusting and it looks like the jungle gym could slice your head off. The asphalt is hard and unforgiving and your stomach churns as you imagine a little kid falling off one of the creaky swings.

The image that pops into your head is gruesome and full of blood and you jerk your head to look away.

 I never used to think of stuff like that wow my mind is morbid and gross and this place sucks even for Derse how the fuck-

“Why am I here?!” he shrieks shrilly, jolting your attention back towards him. “What the fuck does it matter to you?! The single fact of the matter is that I’m  supposed  to be here while you are an unwanted passerby that just stumbled onto something he really fucking shouldn’t have. So scram, kid. This doesn’t concern newbie Rainbow Drinkers with no sense of tact or when their presence is. Not. Welcome.”

Oh.

Well.

 Ouch.  

Something inside shrivels up a little and you curl inwards a bit, suddenly having trouble swallowing. Your tongue is all heavy and thick in your mouth and it takes a bit of time before you can choke out an, “Okay.”

Because you get it. You do. You don’t fit in with humans and you don’t fit in completely with the Infected. Because they’re used to it and you’re not. And you’re still clinging to your humanity even if you’re trying not to and they’ve accepted that they’re not humans. And you’re you and you’ll never belong anywhere again.

You glide back a few steps, averting your eyes from Karkat’s. “I was just curious,” you say, clearing your throat a few times to try and stop the quaver of your voice. “I’ll just um…bye.”

Your eyes are burning a bit, and you feel horrible and the hollowness inside is worse than ever. But you keep your gaze to the ground and you turn away. You’ve taken a single step when you hear a muttered expletive from behind you and then there’s a hand on your arm tugging you back.

“Oh for fuck’s sake, don’t go sulking off like that. Jesus dick do you have to be so goddamn sensitive?”

Your stiffen at his clawed hand on your arm but before you can turn around he’s moved to stand in front of you, eyes narrowed as usual, but with less of that flurried anger and more of that  concern  you saw earlier.

“Damn you’re fucking thin-skinned,” he grumbles to himself, dropping his hand away from your sweater and folding his arms across his chest, “Look, it’s not actually about you personally. It just so happens that I’ve got shit to do and I really wasn’t expecting to run into Strider’s buck-toothed boytoy. This isn’t exactly your type of neighbourhood.”

Some of the weight lifts off you at the softening of his previous words, and you perk up a bit, raising an eyebrow curiously.

“What makes you say that?” you ask, suddenly a bit suspicious, “How do you know I don’t live around here?”

Karkat rolls his eyes. “Trust me, it’s obvious,” he snorts, and you bristle a bit. He seems to notice, because he sighs heavily and adds, “Also, Dave told me you’re not, and I quote, ‘walking the same road we are. John’s a bit higher up on the ladder and not made for the dirty downtown.’ Or some shit like that.”

You blink, and then you frown.

 That’s how Dave thinks of me?  Honestly, you’re torn between being flabbergasted and hurt.

And a little…worried?

 Dave doesn’t think I’m…better than him or something, does he?  

The thought leaves a bad taste in your mouth and you wince.

 Or…weak? He thinks I’m…weak. Ugh, well it’s not like I haven’t felt like Dave thinks I’m ‘fragile’ before! All I’ve got to do is prove him wrong!

“Well, that’s not all that true anymore,” you say, echoing your thoughts as you clench and unclench your fists at your side. “Maybe I don’t live around here, but I’m not…I’m not better than you or anything. I’m still…”

You trail off. Even after all this time, it still hurts to say it. Your throat still closes up and your lip still trembles. But you’re tired of being weak, delicate John.

“I’m still Infected,” you say firmly, “And…and you say- or Dave said –that this is the ‘dirty’ downtown. And I guess he thinks it’s bad down here and doesn’t want me to experience it. But…”

Karkat’s looking at you intensely and it’s a little intimidating, but you feel like you’ve struck something in both yourself and him, and you want to keep going. So you meet his gaze squarely and continue.

“It’s a bit scary down here,” you admit, “But it seems so much more…real? I don’t know. The people don’t seem to hide as much. And I think it’s maybe because here, they’re more free to be themselves?”

You're going off in odd directions now, and you feel like you’ve strayed from the point you were trying to make. You’re not talking about yourself anymore.

But still.

You want to keep going.  

You drop your gaze to the floor and clench your hands tightly.

“Where I live, everyone hides,” you say quietly, “And it’s horrible to see. No one is truthful, everyone only ever cares about themselves. They pretend to care. But they don’t. They don’t care.”

You trail off, biting your lip. It hurts. Your fangs dig into your flesh. But what you’re talking about also hurts, because you never noticed it before. You used to love where you live. You used to think it was the most perfect neighbourhood with perfect neighbours and your perfect house and perfect life.

Now you.

You hate it there.

You actually hate it there.

Your mind wanders back to your time in The Basement, and how comfortable and at ease everyone seemed. Even though there was that risk of a fight breaking out, and the crackling intensity of a score of individuals with matchstick tempers. They never had to worry about being ‘discovered’. They were free to interact with one another without masks.

“It seems like, even though it’s dark and dirty and scary,” you continue softly, “All of you are in the dark and dirty and scary together. It’s like…even though you’re isolated from the rest of the city…,”

You trail off, and your eyes look up wistfully towards the grey sky.

“…You’re not alone.”

Karkat is looking at you. Well actually, it’s more like he’s  gaping  at you. His eyes are wide and his jaw has dropped a little. Then his mouth closes, and you see the skin around his jaw tighten a bit.

“You’re really fucking messed up, aren’t you,” he says bluntly. You startle a bit, surprised at the words. His gaze is as intense as before and you find yourself letting your eyes drift up and away, pushing aside the confrontational side of yourself.

“Well, haha,” you laugh weakly, trying to speak past the lump that has sprung up in your throat, “I’m much better, actually! I’m pretty okay with everything, you shouldn’t listen to what Dave says, he’s just a bit worrywart, ha…”

You trail off miserably.

You want to mean it. You want it to be true that you’re okay, that you’re much better, but the words sound weak and hollow even to your own ears.

 I wonder if…if I’ll ever actually be ‘okay’.  

“Hey, Egbert. John. Whatever. Stop spacing the fuck out and come back to earth for a precious moment of your time.”

Karkat’s voice isn’t as harsh as it was earlier, angry-sounding though his words still are. Begrudgingly, you lower you head, once again matching his gaze with yours.

Then Karkat breathes in deeply, closing his eyes as he does. Huffing and drumming his fingers on the arms folded across his chest. Your cringe a little, anticipating whatever tirade he’s about to unleash upon you.

 Aw jeez, what now?  

Finally, he opens his eyes again and looks at you.

“You want to come with me?”

 what.

“Don’t fucking take this the wrong way or anything!” He follows up quickly, scowling at you even as you stand in stunned silence. “There’s just no way I can, in good conscience, leave someone so obviously lacking in common sense and even the tiniest vestige of intelligence in this part of this fucking city. That would just be fucking cruel.”

 That  pushes you out of your shock and you find yourself scowling at the Troll. Wow, that was  rude.  

“You know, it’s not like this is my first time down here or anything,” you say, a little cross, “I come down here all the time to visit Dave. I’m actually perfectly capable of walking down the street without someone holding my hands,  thanks. ”

He blinks in surprise, as if he wasn’t aware that you had backbone, and you bare your teeth at him. You’re more than a little irritated, to be honest. It isn’t a great feeling; every one acting like you can’t stand on your own feet.

 Maybe I’d have an easier time believing in myself , you think sullenly,  if someone else would bother believing in me as well.  

“Well, whatever helps you fucking sleep at night,” he growls badtemperedly, “You coming or not? I wasted enough time loitering in this stupid death trap of a park. I’m leaving now, with or without your sorry ass.”

You bristle a bit, and narrow your eyes.

“Why should I go with you?” you reply, suspicious, “Aside from looking down on my stupid useless goody-two-shoes ass and feeling sorry for it, I can’t see any reason for you to invite me to your super-top-secret-hardboiled-mutants-only meeting. Or wherever you’re going.”

Karkat stares back at you, his gaze a little guarded, less angry still. You tense, unsure of what he’s thinking.

“The reason is,” he says lowly, still in an almost-but-not-quite- aggressive growl, “To give you a chance to prove that you’re  not  useless when Strider isn’t superglued to your side.”

Your eyes widen and all your anger, irritation, and humiliation suddenly melts away from your skin to form a leaden ball in your stomach. You open your mouth to reply, but Karkat has already turned on his heel and is stalking away.

“So come if you want, or don’t, I could not give less of a fuck,” he grumbles as he walks away, not looking back over his shoulder to give you a second glance.

You watch his receding back.

You hesitate.

You clench your fists.

You gnaw at your lip and then regret it when you feel the bite of your fangs.

And then.

You.

“Waitwaitwait Karkat waaaaaait! I’m coming hold on just wait a second I’m coming okay I’m-,”

“Oh my god,  shut up!!”  

//

You’re not sure what you were expecting when you followed Karkat to his super-secret whatever-the-fuck club thing. Maybe a collection of hardened Trolls growling and snarling at each other over a poker table. Maybe some type of Infected fight club where you had to prove your masculinity and were forbidden to speak about it to outsiders. Maybe…

Maybe…

Pretty much anything other than what you’re experiencing now.

“Jesus, would you look at the size of you,” growls Karkat, but his tone has an affectionate note to it you’ve never heard before, and his eyes are soft, “What the ever-loving fuck have they been feeding you?”

The Troll child, no more than five or six, giggles happily, covering her face with her hands.

“If ya swear ‘gain Ma’ll give ya a spankin’!” she squeaks, laughing from behind her palms. Several of the other younger trolls gathered around Karkat join her in laughter, all of them no older than seven. Small and skinny with dirty feet and threadbare clothing.

“Oh will she?” responds Karkat, rolling his eyes and scoffing, “Well let me tell you something, you little brat, I’m not scared of Mama D one fucking bit-,”

The red-eyed Troll’s declaration is cut off as all the children simultaneously scream and scatter away from him, laughing hysterically. Karkat freezes in genuine horror, his eyes wide, and he turns slowly towards the figure that has reappeared in the doorway.

You met ‘Mama D’ when you first came down here, but shortly after she disappeared into a small back room you were told was the kitchen. Now she has rejoined the group in the small, cramped common room, and she looks as daunting as she did when you first saw her.

She’s tall, for one. And stout, with a round face that gives her a matronly feel. Her hair is black and cut tightly against her head, the same stark ebony as her lips and eyelids. Her dress is a vivid jade colour, wide and sweeping, with long drooping sleeves. Her face is stern, but her eyes are soft. Each of her arms holds a child, and even more cling to her skirts. Your eyes are glued to her because- and you’re ashamed to say it now –you never really thought about Trolls having mothers.

Because that’s what she looks like.

That’s what she  is.  

A mother.

“Karkat,” she says sharply, moving in front of the younger troll with a stern look on her face, “I  hope  that wasn’t a  bad word  I just heard you say in front of all these children.”

Karkat actually pales, completely not for show, and the children’s tittering increases as they all run to hide behind Mama D, whispering ‘yer gonna get it now Karkat!’ and ‘we tolds you!’.

It’s really adorable and really domestic and you feel like a total outsider watching, but you are glued to your seat on the couch, completely enraptured by what’s happening.

“O-of course not!” he blusters, eyes avoiding the sharp emerald of Mama D’s gaze. “Jesus Mama, what do you take me for? I’d never stoop so low as to poison the ears of the little munchkins. I  do  have a fair fu-, a-a fair degree of control over what comes out of my mouth, despite common belief.”

His cheeks burn pink and the kids laugh louder, having caught his slip up. You don’t even realize your lips are curling up into a smile, only noticing when a laugh almost escapes your own throat at Mama D’s incredulous expression. Karkat continues to bluster, and you think it  is  mostly for show now, but the children are in stitches, laughing and calling for their mother to give the short Troll a spanking.

The place Karkat took you to, the place he was going, is an orphanage. The only one offered to Trolls, or Infected of any kind really. It is run solely by the Troll woman who goes by Mama D, with help from Karkat and some of his friends. On your way here, Karkat had told you that Derse was crawling with orphans. The Felt killed people willy-nilly, whoever they thought were threats, and they rarely took into consideration the families of those they killed. There was a shit-ton of kids in Derse whose parents had been murdered. Kids who had no one to look after them.

“The worst part is it’s hard to find them in time,” Karkat had told you, teeth and fists clenched angrily, “They die so quickly…and they’re so small, they hide in every nook and cranny and we can’t find them. We’ve got just over twenty orphans at Mama D’s, even though there are hundreds in the city. It would be easier if the police or fucking  someone  with a large amount of manpower was helping to look out for them, but the cops would shoot an orphan Troll and call it mercy. Fucking  mercy .

Your stomach had churned at the words, and your heart is twinging painfully as you look at the laughing children. All of them skinny, scraggly. You’ve seen bugs fall out of some of their clothing as they jump up and down with excitement.

At Mama D’s command, the children all jump on Karkat to ‘punish’ him with tickles. He curses as he goes down under the pile of kids and the underground house echoes with laughter. Your smile widens again, because the sight is adorable, but your heart is still aching a bit. Aching from Karkat’s previous words. At the state of the decrepit home they’re living in. At the lines and wrinkles in Mama D’s face. And at the fact that you ever had the gall to feel sorry for yourself. And that you ever thought of these people as mindless monsters.

“Alright, alright,” laughs Mama D, her voice firm but still with a soothing tone to it-

 -she sounds like a mother-

-“Get off him boys and girls. I believe he’s learned his lesson.”

The kids all make sounds of disappointment, and a few them continue tickling, giggling naughtily to themselves. Karkat growls and sits up, kids tumbling off of him with squeals of surprised delight.

“Hey, you heard the lady, scram. Any more punishing and I’ll be tickled away into a useless sack of finger-molested skin and tenderized flesh,” he grumbles, breathing heavily with his face and neck flushed.

“I don’ think tha’s enough pun’ment!” squeaks a little boy, no more than three, if that. He huffs in frustration and then, to your surprise, he turns to you, golden eyes wide and questioning. “Mista John, dontcha think Karka’ needs mo’ pun’ment?”

And then, just like that, all eyes are on you.

There’s silence for a moment, and you freeze and tense under the weight of all the gazes. You kind of snuck in here behind Karkat. He had curtly introduced you as an ‘utterly ignorable tagalong’ before going to speak with Mama D and then going to mingle with the children. You’d been happy to take your seat on the couch, feeling more than a little uncomfortable with a score of foreign, potentially hostile bodies, running about willy-nilly. It hadn’t taken you long to relax and feel more at ease, but you had become sort of accustomed to becoming one with the couch and not having much more presence than the furniture.

You’re frozen for a few seconds, but then you force yourself to relax, laughing nervously and rubbing at the back of your head.

“Well I don’t know,” you say, squinting your eyes at Karkat and feigning intense scrutiny, “He looks pretty punished…”

“No way!” cries out a little girl, poking her head out from behind Mama D’s skirts, “He sweared so much, he deserves  infinties  punishment!”

A chorus of voices rises up in agreement, and you smile sheepishly at Karkat, who’s scowling at you. Your eyes drift up to look at Mama D’s expression, and you see that she looks amused, one eyebrow raised.

Your gaze drops back down to the waiting children and you shrug helplessly, grinning.

“ Weeeeeeell  Mama D said no more punishment-,”

A loud wail of disappointment erupts from the kids, and you hold up your hands in a placating gesture.

“…But the judge has to abide by the jury! Which is you guys. You’re the jury! And since you guys say he needs ‘infinties’ punishment…”

“Infinties times a thousand!” pipes up a little girl with dog-ears, her skin discoloured and splotchy.

You pause for a moment, your heart twingeing again as you look at her, but then you smile softly and nod.

“Infinties times a thousand,” you add quietly. Then you force the grin back onto your face. “So  I  say, each of you guys gets to tickle him  one  more time for each time you heard him swear!”

The kids all let out a loud whoop of excitement that completely drowns out the deluge of expletives that stream from Karkat’s mouth. The short Troll turns on his heel and runs down the narrow hallway leading away from the room. The whole host of Infected kids sprints after him, hooting and jeering and laughing merrily.

You stare at their receding backs, still smiling softly, but then the smile fades a bit, and your gaze drops to the ground.

 For some reason, seeing all those kids laughing…despite the way they look, the way they live, what’s happened to them…it makes me both happy, and sad.  

“It’s hard to look at, isn’t it?”

You look up, Mama D’s voice cutting into your thoughts as she glides across the room to stand in front of you. The babes in her arms are both swathed in blankets, curled up against her breast with nothing visible but a pair of pointed ears on one, and a scraggly mess of red hair on the other. She shifts their position slightly as she stares down at you, her eyes lined and tired.

You swallow and look away, fisting one of your hands in the cloth of your pant leg.

“Yeah,” you say thickly, “It is.”

Mama D’s head turns away from you as she looks down the narrow passage that Karkat and the children disappeared down, a sad little smile on her face.

“They are just children,” she says softly, her voice heavy with fatigue and sadness, “Children who’ve never been given a chance. Who never  will  be given a chance. Their lives have been snatched from them before they even had the opportunity to live.”

You remain silent as her eyes drop down to the slumbering babes in her arms, neither of them stirring.

“They’re sick,” she says sadly, her voice wavering with age for the first time, “That’s the only reason they stayed quiet during all that racket. They’re sick, and all they do is sleep. When they wake up they cry, because it hurts, and then they go back to sleep.”

Your bottom lip trembles slightly as you look at the babies, your heart heavy and your stomach feeling sick. They are perfectly still, like babies never should be, and you can barely see the fabric move with their breathing.

It’s all you can do to stop from crying.

“I’m not sure why Karkat brought me here,” you say hoarsely, your throat dry and scratchy with unshed tears, “He said I can prove I’m not useless, but I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“Maybe that’s the real reason he brought you here,” says Mama D simply, adjusting the baby on her left arm so that it rested more comfortably against her, “To help you discover what you should be doing.”

Before you can reply, the peace is shattered by the pounding of footsteps and the shrieking of kids as Karkat and the children come barreling back down the passageway.

“Eheeheeheehee!”

“Mama, Mama help!”

“Karka’s gun eat us!”

A host of screaming children come rushing into the room, some of them scrambling over you lap, onto and behind the couch, others seeking refuge behind Mama D’s legs and under her skirts, a few ducking into the kitchen, and all of them laughing hysterically.

Last comes Karkat, stomping into the room with a squealing child under each arm. He’s breathing heavily, red in the face and looking disheveled and worn out, but there’s a grin of sorts on his face,

“Now, now,” says Mama D, poorly concealing her smile as she tries to look stern, “What’s this about you eating the children?”

 The children begin shrieking out accusations all at once and Karkat rolls his eyes, unceremoniously dropping the two kids he’s holding onto the floor.

“I overruled the Jury’s verdict and gave out my own sentence,” he huffs, batting away the two infants as they playfully kick at him and try to clamber up his legs, “One way ticket to my stomach for anyone who didn’t scram fast enough.”

The kids all start shrieking and laughing again. A couple of Troll girls hide behind your legs and another tries to hide herself in your sweater. A little boy with webbed fingers shimmies up your arm and sits on your shoulder, giggling into your ear and hiding his face against your cheek. You flail slightly, your face pink as you suddenly find yourself covered in squealing, squirming children.

Mama D is in a similar state, but all she does is laugh as the kids hide in the folds of her dress and cling to her. She laughs harder when she looks at you and sees your expression, and you can’t help but smile.

“Alright, alright, boys and girls,” she booms, her voice merry but firm, in that same motherly tone that puts a warm feeling in your stomach, “This has all been fun, but there’s a pot of soup in the kitchen that won’t be hot for long and-,”

A cheer goes up from the kids as they all detach themselves from you, Mama D, and Karkat, and go charging towards the kitchen.

“Wash your hands!” calls Mama D, shaking her head with a small smile as she enters after them.

The smile remains on your face as you watch them all go, still hearing their excited shouts and Mama D’s soothing words even when they’re out of sight.

 It’s nice…what they have here. It’s nice, even if the house is small and the kids are dirty. They all seem happy, and-

“There won’t be enough.”

Your eyes turn towards Karkat, one eyebrow raised in confusion. The previous grin is gone from his face, and his lips are in a tight line, his eyes narrowed and sad.

“Soup,” he continues, his teeth grit, “There won’t be enough fucking soup for all of them.”

Immediately your stomach sinks and you turn back towards the kitchen, still hearing the excited sounds of the children, mixed in with the clanging of bowls and spoons.

“There’s never enough,” snarls Karkat, jerking your attention back towards him, “Mama tries, she fucking tries so hard, but there never is. She’ll hope there’s enough. She’ll mix in water and dig through the cupboards for any other shit she can throw in the pot, but she’ll have to start giving smaller portions when she gets a third of the way down the line, and the last kid will be goddamn lucky if they get half a bowl, if that.”

The Troll takes a shuddering breath, dragging a hand down his face and swearing violently under his breath. You don’t say anything. You don’t know what to say. Your chest is aching and you feel horrible. It’s like all the joy you had at seeing the children so happy turned to ash, sitting heavy and leaden in your stomach. You feel sick, and you wonder how you ever felt sorry for yourself for being turned into an Infected, when you were at least lucky enough to not have been  born  one.

“John.”

Karkat’s looking at you, eyes candy red and piercing and unforgiving. A part of you wants to wilt under the gaze. Another part of you wants to fight him. But all you do is match his eyes with your own, feeling heartsick and tired and useless.

“Earlier, you got all butthurt over what I said,” he says, speaking levelly and with less of the ornery tone he almost constantly has, “But fuck, it’s not a bad thing. It’s really not a fucking bad thing that this isn’t your life. So you live on the ritzy side of town with a cute little car and a white picket fence. So what? At least you have a house. With enough food. With a bed. A house that doesn’t freeze in the winter or turn into a cooking pot on those rare days the sun comes out.”

He pauses, and you struggle to find something to retort with, struggle to find something to defend yourself with.

“You’re a good kid, John,” says Karkat, continuing before you can reply, “I get what Strider was saying. You shouldn’t have to deal with this. You weren’t born into it and you don’t have to experience it. So don’t. I don’t get why Strider brought you to The Basement in the first place, but he fucking shouldn’t have. You don’t have to live like this, and you shouldn’t have to see what it’s like. So just…walk away John. Walk away. I told you before that it gets better. And it does. It can. But for kids like them…”

Karkat squeezes his eyes shut, and you think you see tears beading at the corners, a strange pale red colour that is blinked away before they fall.

“They’ll probably die first,” he finishes gruffly, clenching his hands into fists. A heavy oppressive silence falls between the two of you and the only sound you hear is the sounds from the kitchen, happy laughter now replaced by disappointed whines.

You choke a little, your throat tight and eyes stinging as you close them tightly.

You open them.

“Karkat?” you say hesitantly, your voice a little rough, a little shaky, “I have to leave now.” Your stomach is hollow and you know that the dryness in your throat isn’t just from unshed tears. You had been going somewhere before Karkat had waylaid you, and the discomfort of your hunger is beginning to get to you.

“Yeah,” he replies after a moment, his shoulders relaxing a bit. “Yeah, okay. Good.”

You press your lips into a firm line and take a deep breath, your own hands clenching and unclenching a few times.

“But I’m coming back.”

Karkat’s eyes shoot up into his hairline and he looks at you in disbelief, anger twisting his features.

“What the everloving fuck?! Were you listening to a goddamn  word  that I just-,”

“Yeah, I was,” you interrupt, your voice more firm and assertive than it has been for awhile, “And you know what? I decided that that’s stupid. It doesn’t matter if I wasn’t born like this. I  am  Infected. You guys look out for one another. I know you do. Just because I still have a house on the right side of town doesn’t mean I’m allowed to plug my ears and close my eyes. Nu-uh! I…,”

You swallow thickly, and you stare at the Troll levelly.

“I want to help. In anyway I can. I want to help with these orphans. You’re right, I do live in a nice house with enough food. So let me bring some of it here. Let me bring over cans of soup so that there’s always enough. Hell, let me bake the kids a fucking cake! There’s enough mix in my house to feed an army.”

Karkat’s eyebrows knit together and he opens his mouth to retort, but you shush him, waving a finger in front of his lips wildly.

“Shoooooooosh. No talkie. This is a totally non-negotiable thing. I’m going to come and help here and anywhere else there are Infected that need help. It’s horrible that people live this way! It’s horrible and it sucks that that the Lord and the city won’t do anything about it. But  I  want to do something about it. So I will! I’ll help, anyway I can. I…I want to not be useless.”

You finish, a determined smile on your face. Karkat looks a little flabbergasted, but then he snorts and turns away, folding his arms across his chest.

“Whatever floats your boat, asshole,” he grumbles, not looking at you, “Do what you want.”

You grin and nod, “I will.”

Then, you hop to your feet, heading for the exit. Part of you wants to pop your head in to say goodbye to the kids, but you don’t want to interrupt, and you don’t want to see their hungry faces.

 But they won’t be hungry anymore, not if I have anything to say about it!  

“Hey, Egbert.”

You pause, one hand on the door that leads to the stairway to outside. You look over your shoulder to see Karkat looking at you, a genuinely grateful expression on his face.

“Good job at standing on your own two fucking feet. And…thanks.”

You blink, and then you smile.

For the first time in weeks, in over a month, you have something to do. A purpose. Something other than moping and just trying to cope with your existence. For the first time in weeks you feel like something more than a waste of space and you’re…

 Happy.  

//

You take a deep breath as you step out into the open air, shaking your head slightly to get the hair out of your eyes. It still tastes like pollution and overcrowding and too much at once but it’s not as bitter as it once was and you close your eyes and let the breeze blow through your clothing and hair.

You only stand for a moment before you open your eyes with a sigh and look around to get your bearings so that you can continue on towards your original destination. But you see something out of the corner of your eye at the same time as you catch a sickly sweet scent on the breeze. A  familiar  sickly sweet scent.

 No way…  

You slowly begin to turn, not believing your mind as it actually manages to connect the memory to the smell. Because there’s no way. That would just be weird, to run into someone else you met that night. No way, no way, no way-

“Holy fucking  shit.  No  way .”

Yup.

It’s her.

The Troll girl you met at the Basement, Vriska, is standing behind you, looking both surprised and amused. Her lips are curled up into a grin, and it looks disconcertingly like she’s baring her fangs at you. The sight doesn’t send you into a rage or paralyze you with fear, however. Honestly? You’re getting used to seeing fangs and claws everywhere.

This is the first time you’re seeing her in the light, and you notice that her hair has blue highlights in it, matching the dark blue of her eyes and her lipstick. She’s holding a large cardboard box in her hand, with a small hole at one corner, and its contents thud and roll as she turns to face you fully.

“Uh, hey!” you say, grinning back nervously. You’re not really sure what to make of this or what to do because, uh, this is like the complete last thing you expected? “Vriska, right?”

“Yeeeeeeees,” she says, tilting her head to the side and smirking, “And you’re John Egbert, right? Something about being a brave, manly wolf that doesn’t take shit from anyone?”

Your cheeks burn, and you look away, your voice cracking as you laugh nervously.

“Yeah…can we just pretend that never happened? That was really embarrassing, hehe.”

“I’ll say,” she snorts in agreement, “That was a  lame  first impression if ever there was one.”

You’re pretty sure your face turns an even deeper shade of red and you cough into your hand and look away, feeling  really  self-conscious and stupider by the second.

“Yeah, that was- that was pretty bad!” You laugh nervously, “But that’s in the past so let’s leave it behind us! How come you’re out here?”

 Subtle subject change is not subtle at all,  you groan inwardly, but Vriska laughs, not the shrill, mocking laugh you remember, but an actual snorting laugh of amusement.

“Wow,  smooooooooth ,” she replies, clearly not buying your ‘subtle’ subject change, “I see you still have those A plus dialogue skills, huh wolf boy?”

You huff and fold your arms across your chest. “Okay,  yeah . I made a total butt out of myself last time we met. Can we  please  move past it? Honestly, I don’t think my ego can take anymore of this.”

Vriska laughs again, but only a little. Then she stares at you,  reaaaaaaaaally  stares. Her eyes are dark and scrutinizing, and you’re a bit uncomfortable under them.

“What?” you ask, shuffling slightly.

 Do I have something on my face? Is there something in my hair? Oh man, I don’t need anything else for her to mock me mercilessly over.  

“You’re different than you were before,” she states flatly, her gaze appraising and…a little impressed?

“Less whiny, less curled in on yourself…looks like you took my advice to heart, huh?” She grins and you feel something in your chest flutter unexpectedly.

“Way to not let it be shitty,” she continues, flipping her hair over her shoulder, “Way to be a  winner.”  

You blush, but this time it’s not from humiliation. Your heart feels lighter, and that feeling of worth you got from your talk with Karkat increases tenfold. For so long, you thought you were fighting a losing battle, trying to stay positive and make the best of your situation. You thought you were never going to get anywhere and were always going to be almost-if-not-completely-depressed.

 But it looks like, you think, smiling at Vriska, a real, wide, bucktoothed grin, I can do this after all.  

“Thanks,” you say firmly, still grinning. You’re about to say something else, but then a wave of dizziness hits you, and your throat tightens. You’re reminded of why you came out here in the first place, and you frown.

“I have to go,” you say dejectedly, and the amount of disappointment you’re feeling actually surprises you a little: you really were enjoying Vriska’s company.  

“Yeah, me too,” she says, tossing her hair again, “Places to be, shit to do. You know.”

She grins at you, and you grin back. Her fangs don’t seem scary at all anymore. In fact, some weird part of your brain thinks they’re kind of cute.

“Alright,” you say, still grinning, “See you around then!”

“I better,” she says, and then she-

 holy shit she-

-she  winks  at you.

“Keep it up, John!” she calls over her shoulder, turning and walking away, “Maybe next time we meet, you’ll have  some  idea of how to carry a conversation.”

You splutter in indignation, and she laughs, walking away and…

Opening the door you just came out of?

You blink in surprise as Vriska enters the Orphanage. As she walks through the door, something tumbles from the hole at the bottom of the box she was holding. The door closes behind her, and you walk forward, kneeling down to pick up what she dropped.

 Oh…

It’s a doll.

It’s a wooden one, tied together with string and with fraying wool for hair. The face is sloppily drawn on with marker and the entire thing looks pretty pathetic.

 But the kids will love them , you think,  they really will.  

You straighten up, burning with new resolve. It really is true that all Infected look out for one another, when it comes down to it. When you first met Vriska, you wouldn’t have pegged her as someone who brought toys to orphans, or even someone who leant encouraging words to newly changed vampires. But she did both. And now, you want to help as well.

 But first , you think with a grimace, running your tongue over one of your fangs,  I need to see Dave.  

//

He’s waiting for you when you get to his apartment.

Like, actually waiting for you. You raised a hand to knock and the door swung open to reveal him standing in the doorway, looking genuinely irritated. His shades are on, but even with them masking half his face you can see he’s upset.

“You texted  hours  ago,” he snaps, “And you’ve been logged out of pesterchum. Where the fuck have you been? I didn’t know whether I should go out looking for you or what jesus fuck John you can’t play around if you’re coming you’re coming don’t pansy around on your way here especially if you’re hungry! What if something had happened, what if I didn’t know? I didn’t want to leave in case you came here I-,”

“Holy shit, Dave.  Breathe, ” you stress, holding up your hands. “I thought you would be sleeping! I texted really early. So I decided to take my time getting here, that’s all.”

You shrug and grin sheepishly, because Dave is funny when he gets all flustered and rambly like that but you also feel bad for making him worry.

“I’m fine,” you stress, and you spread your arms wide and do a twirl for him, grin still in place on your face. He stares at you, his mouth hanging open a little. Dave looks tired, you realize. His hair is a mess, and he looks like he just rolled out of bed, except that he’s dressed to go out.

Another twinge of guilt rolls through you as you realize he’s probably been pacing his room trying to decide whether or not to tear the city apart looking for you. Your minds drifts to what Karkat said about how Dave thinks of you, and your eyes harden a little.

You  have  to make Dave see you can do just find on your own. He shouldn’t have to worry himself to death like this.

“Sorry for making you worry,” you breathe out with a sigh, “I just lost track of time. Actually, I ran into Karkat! Hehe, so you can yell at him later for taking up all my time.”

“You ran into Vantas,” he repeats in deadpan, but his facial muscles twitch and his body tenses and you can read the surprise and slight panic the statement caused him in his movements. “How the shit did you run into Vantas. What the fuck were you doing?”

“Just walking around,” you say, shrugging again. Then you hop forward, moving close so that your nose is almost touching your friend’s. “ Dave . You worry too much! I’m fine, see?”

And then you smile for him, a huge, blinding smile full of teeth, both large and pointy. Even as you do it, you realize that you haven’t smiled like this for Dave in a really long time. And the fact that you can do it now, and it won’t be fake, just makes your smile widen.

Dave looks stunned as you beam at him, and when you laugh a little he makes a small noise at the back of his throat. Your smile falters a bit as you hear it, and he seems to notice because he swallows thickly and turns his face to the side, running his fingers through his hair.

“You seem happy, “ he says, and he turns back to look at you. You  really  wish he wasn’t wearing his shades, especially when he lifts a hand to brush some hair out of your eyes.

“It’s nice,” he adds, and you think you hear his voice quaver a bit, “Really nice.”

You look at him closely, and all your suspicions about how Dave feels about you come rushing back. You move a little closer to him, and you hear his breath catch in his throat.

Before you can do or say anything, he scrambles backwards into the apartment, turning away from you and coughing into his hand.

“Well now that all that’s been settled, let’s get this fucking banquet started,” he says, plopping down onto his couch and shrugging off his jacket, “Special of the day is Strider’s pasty white neck, served raw. Enjoy.”

“Dave, that’s not funny,” you huff, marching inside and closing the door behind you.

“Seriously? I thought I was fucking hilarious,” he replies, pulling down the collar of his shirt and rolling his head back against the couch, exposing his neck to you.

You freeze, your eyes suddenly fixed on that pasty white neck, and the pulse thrumming just under the skin. The empty ache in your stomach throbs, more pronounced than ever, and you struggle to swallow, walking forward.

“I won’t take to much,” you say hoarsely, “Since it’s only been two days.”

“Oh shut the fuck up, Egbert,” grumbles Dave, not changing his position, “Just get over here and get your lunch before I slather myself in barbeque sauce with a side of French fries in an attempt to attract you.”

You laugh weakly and kneel on the couch beside your friend, positioning yourself over his body. As you lean over, you’re hit with that same sense of guilt you always get, and it makes your stomach churn. But you can  smell  his blood right now, surging through his veins, and see his pulse fluttering.

Unable to contain yourself any longer, you lean down and sink your fangs into his throat.

He shudders slightly as your teeth pierce the skin, tensing as they slide in, but once you’ve positioned your mouth over the punctures and begun to suck, his body relaxes and you hear a low breathy groan escape him.

You make a similar sound as you taste the blood on your tongue; feel it flowing down your throat and filling you. Forgetting yourself for a moment, you bite down harder and nuzzle into his neck, moving so that you’re lying on top of him with one hand in his hair and another fisting into his shirt. Dave makes another small noise but you don’t really hear it, gulping down mouthfuls. You breathe out against his neck, and tongue the wounds, flicking into the small holes.

Dave shudders beneath you, a groan rumbling in his chest, and you hear  that . Your eyes snap open and you jerk away from him, eyes wide with horror.

“Oh shit Dave I’m so sorry I didn’t-,”

“Nah,” he interrupts, breathless but not too weak or infirm, “I’m okay. Just, man, if you do shit like that with your tongue again, we might have a problem. Aspiring to be in a vampire porno or something?”

You blush, and Dave grins up at you, which looks a little bizarre with his sunglasses crooked on his face and his neck leaking blood.

“Jeez Dave,” you say, feeling embarrassed but not willing to show it, “Am I turning you on or something? Do you have a fetish for getting bitten, or is it just me?”

You’re joking, of course, but Dave stiffens from underneath you and his grin falls a little. You frown, and he looks away, his jaw tight.

“Look Egbert, how about we just get this finished? You’re heavy as fuck, you know,” he says, and your frown deepens.

“Sorry,” you say, rolling off of him and moving back to your spot on the couch beside him. Slowly, you move back in to position your mouth back over the holes in his neck, drinking cautiously and keeping your eyes open to check his face for any sign of discomfort.

It was a joke. It was supposed to be funny. It  was  funny. And you’re pretty sure that the fact that Dave didn’t find it funny is just an affirmation of your suspicion that he  like  likes you. Like in the red heart way.

Okay, you really need to address this before things can get anymore awkward.

You withdraw your mouth from Dave’s throat and lick the blood off your lips, wiping away the rest with the back of your sleeve. You get off the couch and maneuver your way through the puppets strewn all over the floor to the bathroom down the hall. Grabbing a washcloth from the upper cupboard, you turn on the sink and wet it with some warm water, before hurrying back to Dave.

He’s still leaning against the back of the couch when your return, but he’s not slouched over anymore. His sunglasses have slid down his nose somewhat, and you can see his eyelids and the pale eyelashes brushing his skin. His hair is still messy and tousled, looking like a mix of bedhead and sexhair.

 Dave is really cute , you acknowledge, and the thought just solidifies your desire to clear up his feelings for you-

- and my feelings for him -

-right now before anything else happens.

You sit down on the couch again, pressing the cloth to the wounds on his neck.

“You okay?” you ask softly, wiping away the blood trickling down his skin and putting pressure on the lacerations.

“Yeah,” he drawls, his voice heavy and lethargic, “Think I’ll take a nap, though. Catch up on my beauty sleep.”

You smile and brush the hair away from his forehead. Dave never likes admitting that you feeding on him makes him weak. He doesn’t like to inconvenience you in any way, shape or form. He’s silly sometimes, but Dave’s a good friend, and you care about him a lot.

You pause in your treatment of his neck, brow knitted as you look down at your best friend.

It feels kind of cheap to ask him now, when he’s all drained and tired, but it’s really bugging you and you don’t want to put it off any longer.

“Hey Dave?”

“…Mm?”

“Do you have a crush on me?”

There’s a split second of silence between the two of you, but then Dave bolts upwards and scrambles away from you, practically shoving you off the couch. He stumbles a few steps and then sways on his feet, falling down onto his hands and knees.

“Shit!” you swear, rushing to his side, “Dave are you okay?”

“Peachy,” he gasps out, trying to wiggle away from you, “Spiffy. Hunkydory. Never fucking been better. Could win a goddamn contest for feeling like a million bucks. Shit is off the charts. I feel so good I could wrestle a fucking grizzly. If they still existed. Fuck.”

He slumps forward a little, bracing his hand against the couch, and you hover around him worriedly.

“You need to go lie down,” you say firmly, trying to take him by the arm to help him to his feet.

“What I  need ,” retorts Dave, breathing heavily and squirming away from your touch, “Is for you to back the  fuck  up.”

You let go of him immediately, recoiling as if you’ve been slapped. Dave hasn’t spoken that harshly to you in…in… ever.  

 Maybe I was wrong about him liking me , you think your heart sinking and beginning to ache,  maybe he actually hates me.  

“Dave…,” you begin softly, reaching out a hand towards him hesitantly. You really don’t think he hates you. You  really  don’t. But there is  something  there. Something between the two of you. And you want to know what it is.

Dave looks up, and as he does his glasses slide down his face and for a second you can see his eyes, crimson and unguarded and scared and panicked.

Then he pushes his glasses back into place. His hair is getting long, and it falls over them as he looks up at you, his lips in a thin line.

“John,” he says tersely, his voice strained, “Don’t.”

You hesitate, but then you narrow your eyes and shake your head.

“Dave,” you repeat firmly, ignoring the flash of anger that lights up his face, “Do you like me? Romantically?”

A heavy, oppressive silence falls between the two of you and you hold your breath as you watch Dave’s face. He’s struggling to keep the emotions off of it. To remain impassive. You wish more than ever that he didn’t hide behind shades because you would give anything to see his eyes.

It seems like the silence is going to go on forever. You’re about to say something yourself, apologize maybe, or ask again, when:

“No.”

You blink, caught off guard.

“Huh?” you reply, looking down at Dave in confusion.

He stares at you, his jaw set in a stubborn line. You see him take a deep breath before he gets to his feet shakily, leaning heavily on the couch.

“I thought about it,” he says, speaking slow and carefully, “You’re my best bro and I care about you a lot. And not gonna lie, you’ve got a damn fine ass. Seriously dude, could bounce a coin off those buns.”

You blush and splutter and Dave smirks a little.

“But I don’t like you like that,” he finishes with a shrug, “Sorry.”

Well.

Uh.

 This is awkward.  

“Oh!” you exclaim, before laughing weakly, “Okay, uh…oh jeez this is awkward. Aha!”

Dave doesn’t say anything, and you stop, looking at him closely.

You really were sure about your suspicious. You just…you were so  sure . And Dave was acting weird before, maybe he…

“You know, Egbert, I actually do feel like crawling into the cotton castle. My palace of pillows. My kingdom of bedsheets and duvets. My mattress is calling to me, John. Can you hear her? She’s saying I’m a shitty knight and I better get my ass over there to rescue her from her distress by laying on top of her right this instant. Can’t keep a lady waiting, bro.”

Dave is wobbling forward, shaky and swaying more than power lines on a windy day. You go to support him, but he lurches away from you, stumbling into the wall.

“It’s cool,” he gasps out as you scamper towards him. Then he turns his head to look at you, smirking again, “Hey man, you keep trying to put the moves on me. Sure it’s not you that has the crush?”

“What?!” You squeak, indignantly, freezing midstep. “I-whu-no!”

Oh hell no. If Dave doesn’t like you like that, there’s no way you’re going to weird him out by making him think you want to touch his dangly bits everytime you engage in bro snuggles. That would just toss your entire friendship into a big pile of awkward. Your kind of sort of fuzzy wuzzy feelings were okay when you thought Dave reciprocated, but if he doesn’t there’s no point in letting them grow into something that’s never going to happen.

 But still…

You stare at Dave closely, biting at your bottom lip.

You’re not convinced. You’re really not. It’s hard to lie to vampire eyes, and you don’t think Dave is telling the truth. You don’t. You’re not sure why he would lie about it, though. Because he’s embarrassed? Because he doesn’t think you like him back? But if you tell him you might like him and he actually  doesn’t  like you at all in that way, that will make things  so unpleasant  and  so weird  between the two of you.

 Ugh. Dilemas.  

“Good,” he replies, pushing his hair back away from his face, “Because we should stay best bros, that’s it.”

There is a final note to the statement and something inside you sinks a little. You get the feeling that Dave has just…ended the argument, so to speak. You’re not going to get anything else out of him, whether he’s telling the truth or not.

The level of disappointment that washes over you surprises you a bit, but you nod anyways, sighing heavily.

“Yeah,” you concede, “Just bros.”

//

Your name is DAVE STRIDER.

And it’s better this way. 

Chapter Text

Your name is DAVE STRIDER.

And it’s Autumn.

The air is crisper, chilly with more of a bite to it. And though there are no trees around here, you know the ones by John’s house and in the central park are beginning to yellow. Unlike the movies, the leaves don’t turn bright reds, or oranges, or anything remotely pleasing to the eyes. Instead, they turn a sickly yellow white before shriveling up and falling. In fact, the entire fucking tree will start shriveling up, the trunk and branches twisting, and over the course of the autumn and into winter, the bark will turn black.

Next spring, leaves will grow again and the trees will regain some colour, but they always remain twisted, getting worse each year, and the vegetation in Derse is grotesque at best.

But whatever, you’re used to that.

The wind blowing is stronger than it was a few days ago, and you put a hand on the frame of your sunglasses, feeling like they’re about to fly off. Looking down on the street below you, you see coats flapping out, newspapers and other loose items barreling down the street, and the usual mass of people fighting to move forward against the gale.

At least there’s a clear sky, and it’s not raining, you think idly, leaning down on the windowsill with your chin resting in your palm, that would fucking suck.

Aside from the general smell of smog and pollution from the cars below, another scent catches your attention, and you lean back, turning your head and looking into your apartment.

“Hey, John,” you call out lazily, nose wrinkling a bit, “One of the cakes is turning into fried dough. Wanna check the oven before you burn my crib down?”

There’s a cry of ‘oh shit!’ from the kitchen, and you smirk a little in amusement as you hear the sound of John opening the oven, letting out dismayed noises as he does. The smoky smell intensifies, and then gives way to the scent of vanilla cake, and you breathe in deeply, enjoying the pleasant aroma.

Your apartment always smells like cake nowadays. John has turned it into his personal bakery, filling your cupboards with all the cake mix he can lift from his own kitchen without his dad noticing. He makes cupcakes and mini cake-cookies as well, and if he can get away with a bag of flour he sometimes makes bread.

It’s funny, but in the seven or so years you’ve known him, you had no idea that John could make bread from scratch. He doesn’t make it often, because his dad is more likely to miss flour than a few of the hundreds of boxes of cake mix in the house. But when he does, you like to watch him. John claims to hate baking, but he looks really at peace when he’s kneading dough, white dust all over and a dopey grin on his face.

Daaaave. Why are you staring at me like that? It’s kinda creepy, dude.”

You shake the memory away abruptly. Nope, not going down that road. You burnt that bridge and you need to stop fucking think about it.

It’s still better this way, you think firmly, setting your jaw in a firm line.

You pull out of the window, slipping back into the apartment and sticking your hands into your jeans’ pockets, slouching over to the kitchen.

You poke your head into the doorway, and your lips quirk upwards a bit. John’s hovering over the newly pulled out cake, inspecting it.

It’s really fucking hilarious, you think with a smirk, how seriously he takes baking for someone who claims to despise it.

You’ve told him that before, and all it got you was a fistful of dough to the face, so this time, you lean against the doorframe and say: “Is that the last one? It’s getting late in the morning and I gotta jet. If you want me to come with we gotta hit the road.”

“Yeah,” says John, moving away from the cake and dusting his hands on his pants, “I won’t ice this one. The others are all packed away already.”

He gestures over his shoulder to where two other boxes sit neatly. One is a cake he made last night, the other is one he made earlier this morning and decorated cheaply with strawberries and whipped cream that was miraculously not-expired. (John’s ability to find edible food in your fridge has impressed not only you, but your brother as well. It’s definitely the reason Bro doesn’t mind that John has taken up pretty much permanent residence in a previously Strider-only area.)

John’s humming as he opens up a new cardboard box and picks up the cake, putting it in gingerly and then grinning down in satisfaction. You watch, a faint smile on your face.

It’s amazing, how far he’s come over the course of the hellish summer. He’s smiling, he can laugh again, he put shaving cream in your hand while you were sleeping and tickled your nose with a feather. While it was annoying as fuck and you’d been smelling shaving cream all morning, your heart had practically done a fucking jig. He was pranking again. He was fucking pranking you again the stupid goober had rediscovered his prankster’s gambit or whatever the fuck it was.

It was a big deal. It meant he wasn’t hopelessly depressed anymore.

That had arguably been the best day of your life. It had also almost been the worse, because you had been consumed with the desire to sweep John off his feet and kiss him silly, seeing him giggle like an idiot at your cream covered face.

But you couldn’t.

And that sucked.

But it’s still better this way.

“Okay! All ready to go!”

John stands up, holding two of the cake boxes stacked atop of each other in his arms. He grins crookedly, and you fight to keep your expression neutral, cussing out your heart and telling it to fuck off and stop doing that goddamn fluttery thing.

You turn your head away from him jerkily, and walk over to grab the other box from the counter.

“A’ight, let’s move out,” you drawl, turning back to look at him and smirk. Because you’re good. You’re not pining after him like some lovesick girl. You made your choice. He’s safer this way. And you’re cool.

Like.

Ice.

The two of you make your way out of the apartment, maneuvering down the narrow hallway and into the elevator. The cakes aren’t heavy, especially to two seventeen year old guys endowed with superstrength by the unholy powers of darkness, but they're awkward. John can’t even see where he's going and is relying solely on his Rainbow Drinker hearing and smell.

You trust in John’s competence, cross your heart poke your eye with a needle, but you don’t like the fact that he’s walking in front of you as you both stroll down the street. If he goes down thanks to some ill-placed telephone pole you are totally going down with him.

And he won’t stop talking. How the hell has he not tripped over his own feet I don’t even.

“-and Sollux thinks he and Equius can maybe install a better heating system. I mean, they’re not sure since Sollux is all about computers and Equius is all about robots, but they both want to try. I know I say this a lot, but Dave, it’s really great how we all help each other like this!”

You don’t miss the ‘we’, and you smile, thinking about how far John has come from being the depressed, frightened newbie cowering in his sweater at the bar. He doesn’t flinch at being called a Rainbow Drinker or a vampire anymore. He can grin freely, no longer crippilingly self-conscious about his fangs, and he can laugh.

He laughs again.

And that.

That is just.

The best fucking that has ever happened to you.

Like a sea of vanilla in the belly of a chocolate cake, you hum in your head, half-closing your eyes and still with a concealed smile tugging up your lips as you listen to the soothing beat thrumming in your skull.

Like a breath of fresh air when life’s more than you can take.

Like summer.

Like the sun.

A flash of light like the explosion of gun.

But warm, not cold.

A happy ending to the saddest story ever told.

You rap in your head. Rhythms and rhymes and words that are strung together in a way so sickeningly happy you almost want to slap yourself. It’s like the inside of your mind is filled with prancing unicorns and shit because all the sick fires burning through your skull are about sunshine and sunlight and cool breezes and at this point you’re wondering if you should give up on rap and turn into the next Robert Snow or whatever the fuck his name was. Or like that one chick who offed herself real classy like, with the oven.

But the amount of cheese and bubblegum fluff floating around your newly candy-coated cranium doesn’t bother you as much as it should. Because you can hear John chattering on ahead of you, and every so often he turns his head to look back at you, smiling. His eyes are still too blue, too big, silver-ringed and slit pupils, but they are John’s eyes, and they’re fucking beautiful.

And you’re happy that they’re happy again. And you’re happy that you get to see them be happy. And you’re happy that you can be beside John again and there’s no awkwardness and it’s almost like before. Except there’s something new between you now. Something new between you, and him, and the kids in the orphanage, and the other Infected in the city. Because before, he was your best friend, but he was also human, and you were a pariah. Now, you’re both on the same side as the fence, and as much as you wish he didn’t have to suffer through this as well, you can’t deny that it broke down any remaining barriers between the two of you.

You really are as close as brothers. Inseparable even. He’s practically moved in with you. When you’re not in the Basement or hanging out with Terezi or Karkat or helping out at the Orphanage, you’re curled up on the couch watching some shitty TV show or playing video games. It’s like old times, except your hours are a bit different and you can get away with sleeping during the day more because that’s when John sleeps now as well. And he sleeps beside you.

He rarely goes home. He pops in to grab some mix, and then absconds the fuck away. You honestly don’t know what’s up with him and his dad anymore. Whether or not his dad is okay with him spending so much time away from the house. If he prefers it that way. John doesn’t like to talk about it. He gets growly and badtempered and you think he’s hiding the hurt he still feels about the way his dad treats him by getting mad instead. If you were Lalonde, you’d feed him some shit about that not being a healthy coping method and that he and his dad needed to have a chat and maybe a hug or something. But you’re not Lalonde, so you let him curl up in your bed beside you. Sometimes with his head on your shoulder, or on your chest. Sometimes with your hand in his hair. Always with you falling asleep to the sound of his heartbeat and the feel of his breath ghosting against your cheek.

You’re not together. Not like that. Not the way you want to be. But what you have now is good. It’s great, actually. You’re okay with it. You’re…

You’re happy, goddamnit.

Walking down the street is a bit of a nightmare, what with the hurricane wind blowing about and trying to send the cakes ( and you)  crashing to the ground. But you and John shoulder on, John not chattering quite as much as he grips the two boxes tightly, and you craning your neck to see in front of him and make sure he doesn’t walk into an uncovered sewerhole.

It’s not a horribly far walk, though the wind makes it a hell of a lot more unpleasant than it usually is, and soon the two of you have reached your destination. The wind is still being a fucking bitch and as you set down your cake box to open the door you feel obliged to place a foot on it, feeling like it’s going to go whirling off in the wind like that chick’s house in that one movie about the munchkins and red shoes.

Soon the two of you are making your way down the stairs and into the Orphanage.

Your arrival is much the same as it always is. The kids run to John, squealing happily and grabbing at the cakes. A few try and clamber up your legs and one of them flaps a pair of malformed, leathery wings and tries to grab at your sunglasses. You almost let him have them, but snatch him from the air at the last minute, balancing the cake in one hand as you tickle him with the other.

You’re pretty sure the cakes are all going to meet a messy death due to mauling by children before you can get them to the kitchen, but then Mama D sweeps in, pulling children off of the two of you and taking one of the boxes from John so that he can finally see what’s in front of him.

“Come now children, is that how we behave with guests?” she says sternly, “If you keep this up, no one is getting any cake.”

There’s a chorus of wails from the kids, and with another hard jade glare from the adult Troll they fall silent, a few of them still giggling.

The small bat boy, all twisted limbs and a disfigured face, lands on your shoulder, and sits up primly, obviously trying to be the model example while still eyeing your shades mischeviously.

You bump him lightly with your head and he squeals, digging into your jacket and laughing.

“That applies to you as well, Strider,” says Mama D, suddenly fixing her stern gaze on you.

You freeze, and the kids start up their laughter again. John grins at you, and you resist the urge to stick up your middle finger at him and settle for sticking your tongue out instead. That gets you another scolding, much to the children’s delight.

Eventually everyone settles down and the cakes make it to the kitchen in one piece. Mama D begins getting the kids down at the table, going through the same motions of telling them they only get one piece now and another later, and you and John stand in the doorway, you scowling at the tears batboy left in your best jacket and John with the biggest shit-eating grin his face has the capacity to withstand.

“They’re so happy, Dave!” he whispers, leaning close and tugging on your sleeve as he watches Mama D begin distributing the cake to the children. “Look! You’d think they’d get tired of cake, but…hehe. They still love it!”

“That’s because Crocker makes like, fifty different brands of cake,” you says flatly, “It’s a new taste everytime man. I’m pretty sure you could eat Crocker cake every day for the rest of your life and still not get through all the flavours.”

John makes a face at that, and you almost laugh, because you forgot that even though he makes her cakes practically every day for these kids, John still hates Betty Crocker products.

You’re about to tease him about it, but just then, your phone vibrates in your pocket.

Aw shit, you think, stiffening suddenly, I’m late aren’t I. Fuck.

“Dave?” asks John, going from playfully annoyed to concerned in the blink of an eye, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” you answer quickly, and you feel guilt like a dark metal coil in your stomach. Because you claim to be as close as brothers but you haven’t told him this one deep dark secret of yours.

Your phone buzzes again and you can imagine her pouting, green eyes flashing angrily from beneath her ridiculously large sunhat and your stomach does a warm tingly thing that’s both affection and oh fuck I’m late she’s going to kill me.

“I just, remember I said I could only drop the cakes off?” you continue, inching backwards towards the door, “I gotta go, man.”

John frowns and you feel another surge of guilt. But you did tell him you had other shit to do today.

A date.

Even though you’re cool with everything now, you’re chill, it still almost makes you cringe, to think about going on a date when John’s right in front of you.

But the ship has sailed and you’re anchored firmly at the dock.

“Yeah, I remember,” he says with a sigh, “To your mysterious thingymebob you won’t tell me about.”

Another surge of guilt, but then he’s grinning, and chuckling, and swatting your shoulder lightly.

“It’s alright, go do whatever super secret Strider stuff you need to,” he teases, “I was going to stay here for the rest of the day anyways. Karkat’s coming by later with Sollux to see about the electricity down here. Oh, and Vriska might come by too!”

Well.

That sends your mood plummeting straight to the pits of Tartarus.

The hypocrisy of the situation doesn’t escape you, nor does the irony, but you really don’t like the fact that John is getting all cuddly and red for the spiderbitch. You try to reason that it’s because she’s manipulative and vindictive and just a bitch, but you’re pretty sure you’d hate John hanging out with her if she was the fucking sugarplum fairy.

My John. The thought pops unbidden into your head. But it’s unfair. And it’s stupid. If you can have Jade then John can have Vriska. He can take care of himself, and if he gets hurt because of Vriska you’ll truss her up tight, as if she was caught in one of her own fucking webs, and feed her to The Felt.

You don’t say any of that, though.

Instead, you say: “Cool. What time will you be back at the apartment?”

Then John’s face falls into an actual frown. His eyes go downcast and your whole body clenches with dread as that happy glow you love so much recedes.

“John?” you ask, trying to keep the panic from your voice. “Hey man, what’s wrong?”

“Ugh, I forgot to tell you,” he says, running a hand through his hair as his eyes grow dark and his mouth curls into something that’s almost a snarl, “My dad texted me last night- I didn’t even know he knew how to text…he asked me to come home tonight. He said he absolutely has to talk to me.”

John turns his head to the side and folds his arms across his chest, looking seriously pissed off.

“So I think I’m staying there tonight,” he says sullenly, “It will probably be too late to walk home.”

You stand silently for a moment, conflicted, before you jolt with the sudden realization that John just referred to your apartment as ‘home’.

Just.

Holy shit.

Your heart does all sorts of stupid things, but you swallow them down, giving John a curt nod instead.

“Well who knows, it might be good to talk it out with your old man,” you say with a shrug, trying to keep your tone casual as you go about channeling your inner Lalonde, “Shit hasn’t been too great between the two of you.”

“Not my fault,” he snaps, and you don’t say anything. All that sadness John had about his father acting scared and wary and uncomfortable around him has turned to anger, which sucks because seeing John badtempered can be as bad as seeing him sad.

I only want to see him smile.

For that I would walk a mile.

Every piece of ravaged earth

For that grin like a fucking hearth

All warm and shit, I’m torn and hit

With love

You shake the rhyme from your head, trying your fucking hardest not to blush, as John sighs and the scowl falls from his face. He suddenly looks sad and a little lost again, and he looks up at you with those big, too blue eyes.

“I don’t want to talk to him,” he whines and flops forward, his head against your shoulder. You let him melt into you, patting his back and allowing him to bury his face in your neck.

“We all gotta do shit we don’t like to,” you say flatly, “And maybe this conversation between the two of you will turn out to be good for something. You never know, man. I’d give it your best shot.”

John makes a snuffling noise against your neck, and you shiver as his breath ghosts across your skin. You find yourself wishing he would open his mouth against your throat, dig his fangs in and drink, but you kick that thought to the curb too.

It’s really fucking awkward, getting turned on by getting fed upon. It’s like the most depraved fetish there is and that’s coming from someone who knows Equius Zahhak.

Also, it would weird John the fuck out if he knew, and he’d get all awkward when it was time to feed.

No, you’ll just keep that to yourself.

Your phone vibrates again in your pocket, and you jump a bit. Gently, you push John away from you.

“Sorry dude, I really gotta go,” you say, your voice heavy with regret. John sighs and nods. Then he smiles.

“Alright, Strider,” he says, his tone playful again, though a bit more subdued, “Go off to whatever super top secret coolkid stuff you need to do. I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”

“Alright,” you say and you hold up your hand for a fistbump. John stares at it, and then laughs, throwing his arms around you and pulling you into a hug.

“Dude, this is why you’re not cool.”

“Shut up and hug me, Dave.”

“Alright, but you get any dork on me and I’ll have my lawyers sue.”

“Close that hole in your mouth and hug me like I’m Cameron Poe and you’re Trisha and you’re afraid if you let me go I’ll disappear from your life again.”

He’s joking of course, but the words strike a little too close to him and you hold him tightly. Just like he asked.

“…See you later, John,” you say, as the two of you finally detach. John looks at you, all blue and bright. His smile is wide and all encompassing.

“See you soon, Dave!” he replies, and you break your poker face, grinning at him.

He waves goodbye as you walk away from him, and you find yourself wishing it was tomorrow morning so that you could see him again.

 

//

 

“Do you believe in God?”

You’re lying flat on your back in some sorry excuse for a meadow in the Central Park. Jade is beside you, her disguise momentarily forgotten as she lies with her black hair spread out on the grass around her head. She turns to look at you as she asks the question, and you stare back at her.

“What type of God?” you respond after a few seconds hesitation. “Like that bible shit everyone was so crazy about pre-apocalypse? Or just like, general higher powers and stuff.”

Jade looks thoughtful for a second, and she pushes back a strand of hair being flung across her face by the wind.

“Both I guess,” she says with a grin. Then she rolls onto her stomach, resting her chin on her arms and catching you in her green-eyed gaze.

“I’m pretty sure religion is one of those things you’re never supposed to bring up on a date,” you say casually, rolling your head back to the middle and directing your gaze up at the sky, surprisingly clear and blue for Autumn. “It leads to all sorts of awkward conversation topics, like faith, mortality, morality. Unsafe roads to tread, man. Those paths are paved with the hopes and dreams of those poor unsuspecting suckers who choked to death while trying to dislodge their feet from their mouths. Best to backtrack before we’re the next layer of asphalt, Harley.”

Jade snorts, giving you an unimpressed eyebrow raise.

“Weeeeeeeell, I think it’s good to talk about those sorts of things!” she argues, her voice still cheerful and light, “Views on religion and stuff reveal a lot about people’s character, that’s what my Grandpa says.”

“What you don’t learn enough about me from our stimulating conversations about dicks?” you ask, and she giggles, hitting you lightly on the shoulder.

“Fine, fine,” you sigh, adjusting your sunglasses and squinting up at the sky. The wind is still strong, and your hair is beginning to whip at your face.

“Guess I don’t really believe in that Jegus dying on a cross shtick,” you begin cautiously, “And I honestly don’t fucking get why people would follow some dude who flooded the world for shits and giggles and created some sort of mass genocide every hundred years or so because he was pissed that his kids weren’t doing what he told them to do. Also he totally played favourites, which is a completely dick move for anyone trying to make themselves out as a ‘Father’.”

“So you don’t believe in God?” asks Jade, looking at you closely.

“I don’t believe in the crap the bible spouts,” you correct. Then you sit up on your elbows, staring out into the distance with your usual unreadable expression, “But fuck if I know whether or not there’s some higher being out there pulling the strings. Don’t really care either way. If there’s someone out there, they are a total douche, and I ain’t getting on my hands and knees in a skimpy altar boy outfit for them anytime soon. Hell no.”

Jade rolls back onto her back, sitting up on her elbows as well, and looking at you with something of an amused expression.

“A douche,” she snorts, shaking her head in bemusement, “Do you think that because of the apocalypse? Because of the way we live now?”

Her eyes turn a bit stern again, and before you can reply, she’s leaning close to you, suddenly serious.

“Do you believe that God did this?” she asks, “And cursed us with the Infected?”

You almost flinch at the second statement, but you’ve gotten good at hiding those types of reactions around her. Instead, you shrug, pulling up your jacket collar against the wind.

“Pretty sure the apocalypse happened because humans are fuck-ups and couldn’t handle all the shit we were pumping into the earth,” you say casually, “As for the Infected, those are just people with a disease, caused by the fallout from ye olde day of reckoning. If we’re gonna get religious, we can say that some whitebeard in the sky allowed it to happen, but I’m a pretty firm member of the ‘masters of our own fate’ club, so forgive me if I don’t up and say that he caused it.”

Jade looks pensive, her expression surprisingly unreadable. Then she says, “Uncle says the Infected are a punishment for our sins.”

 

Uncle can go fuck himself.

 

You don’t say that though. Instead, you keep your tone aloof and say, "Who is it that's getting punished? Seems to me like it’s the ones who have the disease that got the short end of the stick."

 "No," says Jade, so venomously that you startle a little, "We're the ones that have to deal with them. We're the ones under attack constantly."

She looks so serious, so very completely wronged, as if she’s been done a great injustice, and you feel an unexpected prickle of anger spike through you. You sit up completely, your jaw tight and your eyes narrowed behind your shades.

 "You're under attack?" you spit out before your brain can catch up with your mouth and tell you to zip it, "Last time I checked, you weren't the ones being hunted mercilessly in patrols night after night."

 Her eyes widen and her nostrils flare and you realize that you said ‘you’re’ instead of ‘we’re’. Your stomach drops and you’re suddenly painfully aware of the fact that a pair of cheap black shades are all that stands between you and the heiress to the hellish man that wants you dead.

 Fuck.

 "We hunt them because they're dangerous," Jade hisses, "We have to get them before they get us."

 You’ve heard the argument before, and there’s a voice inside screaming at you to shut the fuck up already, but you press your lips into a thin line.

 "Here's the thing, about the Infected, Harley," managing to bite back some of the emotion in your tone and keep your voice even, "I wager that if you'd stop chasing them down like rats and murdering them in their beds, they'd be less likely to snarl at you as you walk down the street."

 

She looks shocked, and you belatedly recognize that you’ve never actually…defied her before. Or like, gone against her opinion in a way that wasn’t completely passive. You’ve always been too concerned with not giving her any reason to suspect you.

But shit, she’s making you mad.

The shocked look fades though, and Jade’s eyes narrow again, the expression that blooms on her face sending a chill straight up your spine.

“I never took you for a sympathizer, Strider,” she hisses, and you force your face to stay neutral, fighting back the sudden flush of fear, and the light growl building in your throat.

“Call me what you want, Harley,” you say, working hard to keep your voice steady and even, “I’m not a supporter of death.”

And just like that, it’s like you hit the magic switch because her expression kind of collapses and the harsh, murdering look on her face disappears and then suddenly her hands are on your face.

“Oh Dave,” she sighs, and her voice is so full of pity you are actually really fucking offended, “I keep forgetting. You think they’re people.”

Wow, okay. Usually you can handle this but you’re already riled up and so you push her hands away and scoot back.

“Don’t, Jade,” you say warningly. She just looks at you, her eyes all big and green and wide as fucking hell.

“I’m sorry,” she says, and it actually sounds like she really means it, “I shouldn’t say stuff like that around you. I know we disagree on this, and it was wrong of me to bring up stuff I know upsets you.”

She bites at her bottom lip again, and you feel some of your anger dissipate into a cloud of smoke because fuck you really like her. Still.

“I’m sorry,” she repeats, quieter, “I don’t agree with you, and you don’t agree with me, but we’ve both always known that, so why don’t we just not talk about it? I mean, I’m the one who brought it up, and I’m sorry, so can we just not talk about it anymore?”

She’s pleading a bit now, and the rest of your anger kind of wilts and evaporates. You shouldn’t be willing to let it slide so easily, but you really, really like her. And she really, really likes you. That’s the only reason she dropped the argument. Jade Harley has the tenacity of a pitbull and would argue Infected extermination until her last breath. The fact that she stopped and apologized means a lot.

And now she’s looking at you with those big eyes shit.

“Yeah,” you sigh out heavily, because you are big fucking sap, “Yeah let’s drop it.”

Jade looks relieved, but still a bit subdued, and she cautiously crawls across the grass so that she’s sitting beside you again.

“Wanna talk about dicks again?” she asks softly. You don’t reply for a few long seconds, and then you turn towards her slowly, your face stonecold.

“Mine, or yours?”

She’s confused for a moment, and then she snorts and punches you playfully.

“Cause you know Harley, we’ve compared sizes before. Sorry to say, but Dave junior will always outmeasure Mount Harley,” you smirk, batting away her teasing hits with ease. She laughs, and you boop her on the nose.

“Dave, what your dick has in size, mine has in ability,” she teases, and her eyes are all lidded and sultry and you notice that she's suddenly really close and shit.

She’s gonna kiss you, you can tell. She’s leaning over you, and her face is right by yours, and you’re pretty damn sure that Jade’s about to kiss you. You’ve been ‘dating’ for almost a month now, but you’ve managed to hold off on the first kiss thing. You like Jade a lot, and you really enjoy having her as your girlfriend, but…

You’re still just…hung up on baby blue eyes.

But

But that’s not fair to Jade.

She likes you a lot. And you like her a lot. And damn it, if you’re going to be her fucking boyfriend you need to be her fucking boyfriend.

For the first time, you don’t pull away as she leans in, and you relax, resting your hand on her arm as her eyes begin to slip shut and her lips move closer to yours.

Riiiiiiiing.

Both of you spring apart at the high-pitched sound that cuts the air. Jade curses, leaning away from you and fishing into her purse for her cell. You release the breath that you didn’t realize you had been holding, and lean back as well, running a hand through your hair.

You cross your legs and lean your elbow on your thigh, resting your chin in your palm as you watch Jade aggressively flip open her phone and hold it to her phone.

“Hello? What is it?” she snarls, clearly less than happy about the interruption. You sit, partially amused, and watch with some curiousity as her expression morphs from anger, to confusion, to excitement.

“Seriously?” she shouts into the phone, a grin spreading across her face, “Oh man. Oh man. I can’t- Okay I’ll be right there!”

You raise an eyebrow as she closes her phone and turns to you in excitement.

“Dave! You’ll never guess-,” Her face falters midrant, and the jubilant expression fades as she bites at her bottom lip.

“C’mon Jade,” you say, “You can’t start a sentence like that than leave a brother hanging.”

“I’m sorry,” she apologizes, pouting a bit, “It’s family stuff, I can’t tell you right now.”

Oh.

“Oh.” You say, suddenly uncomfortable. “Nah, it’s cool. I get it. Blood’s thicker than water, yada yada yada.”

“Oh please Dave,” she says with a little grin, rolling her eyes, “It’s no huge secret! I just can’t tell you right now!”

Her eyes twinkle, and you feel something warm in your chest at the sight of her so happy.

“You’ll probably find out soon anyways,” she continues, her words beginning to come out in a rush, as if she can barely contain her excitement, “It’s just-, Oh man Dave it’s just the best thing!”

She squeezes her eyes shut and squeals, jumping into the air a little, and you can’t keep your poker face, cracking into a little smile. You wipe it off as soon as she opens her eyes though, and then she’s on her feet, brushing dirt off her dress and replacing her large, face-concealing sunhat on her head.

“I have to go, though,” she says, her face falling a little, “Today…tonight is gonna be busy, probably. In fact, everything might get a little crazy fro awhile!” she grins again, and you almost smile at her, but the warmth in your chest is being tempered with a feeling of unease that is beginning to take root in your stomach.

“Never a dull moment in the life of Jade Harley,” you quip, your voice in deadpan. She laughs at that, and you push your worry aside to give her a little smirk. Then, you stand up, not bothering to brush yourself off as you face her.

“So now it’s a sweet, sorrowful parting until your super secret family duty is done?” you ask, tilting your head a bit as you look at her. Jade gives you a sad nod, but her eyes are still sparkling with excitement.

Now I’m really curious about that phonecall, you think to yourself, wondering what could have gotten Jade so excited.

A dark part of you notes that if it was something family related that has her so happy, it means there’s a good chance the rest of the Harley-English clan is happy about it as well, which means you should probably be very unhappy about it.

And also, afraid.

You should probably be afraid of anything that could get a member of Lord English’s family grinning like this.

But you force yourself to push that thought aside, moving in to give Jade a quick hug instead.

“How does that line go again?” you mutter into her hair, “ ‘Parting is a fucking pain in the ass’ or something like that?”

Parting is such sweet sorrow,” she corrects with a giggle, “And it won’t be that long.”

The two of you pull away from each other, she grins at you, you smirk at her, and her smile fades a bit, her body tensing.

Then, before you can react, she leans up on her toes and presses her lips to yours.

Your brain short circuits for a moment, and by the time all functions have restarted she’s gone, red-faced and calling out goodbyes over her shoulder as she dashes away from you as fast as her legs can carry her.  

You stand there.

….

You keep standing there.

Welp.

That.

That.

You cover your mouth with your hand, mindful of the blush spreading across your cheeks, and the way your lips are being total asses and trying to stretch your face into a smile.

…That was pretty alright.

 

//

 

You are no longer DAVE STRIDER.

DAVE STRIDER has taken the next one-way trip to cloud nine and can no longer be reached by any current means of communication.

Instead, you are JAKE ENGLISH.

You are TWENTY-FIVE YEARS OLD, and are the SON of the LORD OF THIS CITY. You don’t like the title much, however, because there’s not much fun in having a father who’s a lord when he’s too busy lording it up with his high-collared colleagues and their fastidious wives to spare you a glance.

As a result, you essentially RAISED YOURSELF. You have been told that your SOCIAL SKILLS are a bit LACKING, but you maintain the belief that you are a true GENTLEMAN of the most DAPPER sort.

Currently, you are sitting in a small café near the center of the city. You’ve dressed yourself in a hoodie and scarf on top of your usual whiteshirt and khakis, as much to protect you from the fierce winds as to hide your identity. Across from you, your date for the afternoon is looking at you with an absolutely infuriating smirk on his face, clearly finding a sick kind of amusement in watching you swelter under your layers. The bastard is sitting there, snug as a bug in rug in only a white t-shirt and jeans. He doesn’t feel the cold, the bloody tart. He claims that the forcefield of cool that surrounds him protects him from the elements, but you know it’s because he’s…

Um.

Well, he’s not human. Dirk isn’t. Human. Him being human isn’t a thing that he’s doing at the moment. Or that he’s done ever.

It came as a huge bloody shock to you when you found out your best bro was one of the slimy Infected bringing chaos to the city, but after your initial anger and surprise you’d been absolutely bamboozled by the fact that someone close to you could be Tainted. For one thing, Dirk most certainly wasn’t any kind of drooling monster. He was well-spoken and intelligent and liked philosophy and robots. He never growled or snarled and didn’t ooze all manner of questionable substances like some of the folks you’ve come across on patrols. He didn’t growl or spit when he was angry and never made a move to lunge for your throat when you got into arguments, and pretty much fit no description of the Infected you’ve ever received.

And it’s not like they were just stories either. You’ve seen Infected. You’ve seen the Diseased people crouching in the back alleys. Hissing and spitting and most certainly no kind of human.

But finding out that Dirk was Infected reminded you that, yes, you have indeed come across the odd Infected who…didn’t appear to be a mindless monster. The ones on patrol who cringe beneath your guns. Who look human in face, in body. Whose eyes fill with tears when you point your weapons towards them.

The ones you always pushed from your mind as anomalies, or as dastardly tricksters trying to lull you into a false sense of security before ripping your throat out.

All of a sudden, you found yourself wondering if all Infected were truly mindless monsters. You started wondering whether they all deserved to die night after night.

You were confused.

You didn't know.

You saw Dirk again, and were still confused and didn’t know. But then you found out that Dirk’s eyes, while unnatural and orange, were really pretty. And then you discovered that his lips taste like orange soda and rain.

You decided that not all Infected deserve to die.

It’s still hard for you though. Gray areas have no place in the English household, and both your cousin and your father are constantly on your arse about you skipping out on patrols. It’s blooming irritating, considering your father generally barely gives you the time of day. Oh, he parades you around when he goes out to make speeches to the masses and has you strut around in a tux at his stupid galas, but aside from public speeches he doesn’t have much to do with you. He finds you too soft, you know. Not quite ironfisted enough to be English. No, Jade is much more to his liking. Your coz took to guns even faster than you did, and to his delight, loved shooting Infected much more than you ever have. To you, it was always duty. To Jade, it’s duty mixed with revenge. It makes her much more ruthless, much more dangerous, and much more to your father’s taste.

Ever since Jade moved in he’s essentially shoved you into a corner and turned his attentions to her, and it irritates you to no end that he’s suddenly looking at you again when you very much want to be flying under his radar.

It makes sneaking out to meet with your boyfriend ridiculously difficult. The past month or so you’ve been blessed with your father being absolutely consumed with whatever secret project he’s working on in his lab. To add a cherry to the pie, Jade’s been sneaking out more often to see her secret boyfriend.

Basically, you’ve had a lovely month of your entire family being too busy to be up your ass about missing patrols, and too preoccupied to notice you sneaking out of the house during the day.

You’ve had a lot of dates. And gotten used to wearing this awful, sweltering disguise.

Dirk, however, never seems to tire of laughing at you in it.

“You’re a long way from Tatooine, sandman,” he drawls, still smirking at you, “There’s no sand for this wind to whip about. Now I’m no expert, but I think it might be safe for you to hazard showing some skin.”

“Your obscure pre-apocalypse references are hilarious as usual, Strider,” you grumble, “But you and I both know that absolute coverage is necessary to insure we remain undetected by the masses! Drawing attention to ourselves would be the absolute worst course of action!”

“I’m not disagreeing with you,” he says, still with that awful smirk, “But a large hat pulled down would have down. Hell, you could taken off your glasses and worn something that wasn’t green and no one would have recognized you. You have a pretty distinct look that you don’t stray from, Jake. It wouldn’t hurt to use the patterns and routines that this city knows you by to your advantage.”

You scowl at him, pulling down the scarf a bit so he can see. Dirk can be an absolute insufferable prick sometimes, but all the same, you like it when he talks like that. He’s really smart, and he sees thing. He’s observant in a way you’ve never known people to be observant, and while he can drive you crazy, you like hearing his thoughts.

You just like hearing him talk, really.

“Well, I’m dressed as I am and there’s not much I can do about it,” you say with finality, and he snorts a bit. “Jake, you dress like that every single fucking time we meet up during the day, and everytime I tell you the same thing.”

You flush a bit, and huff. “Well, excuuuuuse me if I don’t feel particularly secure leaving the house with only a flimsy head covering between me and mass recognition of my person! Honestly Dirk, I don’t get why I’m the one so concerned about it when it’s you who stands to be in more trouble if we’re discovered together.”

Dirk’s expression remains impassive, but his smirk falls just enough to let you know he’s considering your words with something more than his usual aloofness. He’s hard to read, especially with the large black shades covering his eyes, but you’ve gotten pretty damn good of it.

“It’s not that I’m unconcerned,” he replies, idly stirring his tea, as if trying to maintain his façade of being barely interested in your conversation, “I just don’t like seeing you uncomfortable.”

Oh.

Well.

Your cheeks burn, and he smirks again. Oh, blast him! Dirk has the most infuriating habit of getting you flustered at the drop of the hat. It’s ridiculous how good he is at it, actually, and you wonder if it’s because this is your first relationship or because of how much you truly do care for him.

And how much he cares for you.

“W-well, it’s not like this is a suit of armour for me to cook in,” you stammer, averting your gaze, “And it is chilly out, even if the sun is shining. This bloody wind is ridiculous. I’ll admit the scarf is a bit stifling but over all I’m not too badly off. My comfort is at an acceptable level, so there’s no need for you to worry about it.”

He stares at you, that blank-faced stare that used to make you squirm because you could never tell what he’s thinking. Once you started dating, however, you begun to pick up patterns. If the blank-faced stare comes immediately after you’ve said something, you can expect him to either get up suddenly and leave, offended by something you’ve said, or-

“M-mmph!”

Faster than your eye can follow, Dirk grabs your face and pulls your lips together. Your mouths smash against one another ingloriously, but then they begin to slide and pull in a soothing rhythm that has your heart fluttering and you sighing contently.

Your noses brush against one another, and you feel Dirk smile against your lips before pulling back. Your foreheads are pressed together, and his sunglasses slip down just enough for you to see the bright orange of his eyes.

“You were being adorable again,” he murmurs softly, before returning his mouth to yours. You reciprocate the kiss, eyes slipping shut as you rest one hand on his cheek and open your mouth, motions getting deeper and wetter, before pulling back.

“Everything I do is adorable to you,” you mutter, cheeks flushed, “You kiss me when I stop to tie my shoes for goodness sake.”

“That’s because you look so goddamn determined,” he says, still smirking, still staring into your eyes, “It’s like tying your shoes is your next big mission. Sometimes you even poke your tongue out in concentration.”

You splutter out denials, but then you’re back to kissing, and your protests turn to soft sighs.

The two of you kiss softly for awhile, before you pull away from each other. Dirk’s still looking at you from over the tops of his sunglasses, and you’re momentarily struck breathless by…well, by how much love is in his eyes. You’ve always been told you were awkward, gangly, socially inept and not nearly driven or ruthless enough to be English’s heir, but Dirk looks at you like you’re perfect. Even when you do something stupid, it’s cute too him. He doesn’t see your charity missions into the city as a waste of time, and he listens to your talk of heroes and chivalry without scorn. He teases you sometimes, but never mocks your dreams.

He loves you.

And you love him too.

You’re about to move in for another kiss when your phone vibrates in your pocket, startling you and causing you to jerk in your seat. Dirk sighs as you move away from him, fumbling with your jacket to try and open it and retrieve your cellphone from one of the inner pockets. By the time you’ve reached it, the phone has stopped ringing, and you stare at the ‘1 missed call’ notifier on the screen with a sense of dread.

That sense spikes when you see who was calling.

Oh shit.

You stand up from your seat, cursing profusely in your head. Dirk watches you silently and his sunglasses are placed properly again, so you can’t see his eyes. You try to match his gaze through the glasses anyways, and you think it works to an extent because his impenetrable poker face softens a bit.

“You have to go,” he says, and it’s not a question. You nod, biting at your lip.

“The call, I, uh, the call I missed was from Father,” you force out, swallowing thickly, “I should, I should probably go.”

Dirk’s expression doesn’t appear to change, but you see his jaw tighten just a bit, his fingers curl, as if wanting to form a fist, and you wince. Silence falls between you, and there are a few thick, cloying seconds. But then you see Dirk’s shoulders relax a bit, and his fingers fall unclenched on the table.

“Alright,” he says, his voice surprisingly warm, “See you later, then.”

You’re mildly surprised, but then you smile, remembering that Dirk has been making more of an effort to understand the pressure your family puts on you. It’s awfully good of him, because you know it can’t be easy dating the son of the man who has sworn to kill you.

Sometimes you wonder if you should break it off with Dirk. Fraternizing with you ups the risk of him being discovered tenfold, and you often think you should stop seeing him to keep him safe.

But the mere thought of never seeing him again sends such an ache through your chest that you almost double over from the pain of it. It’s the same for him, you know. Somewhere during the later days of your friendship, the two of you became hopelessly codependent, so that by the time you were in a relationship the idea of separation was an improbable one.

Even just leaving now doesn’t make you feel so swell.

“Alright,” you echo, “Later.”

Then you walk around the table and kiss him. His arms wrap around your neck and pull you in close for a moment, before releasing you. You give him one last look of longing, before turning and walking away. You can feel his eyes on you, and you very much want to turn around and dash into his arms like in the movies, but you force yourself to keep moving forward.

You’ve only just turned the corner onto another street when your phone rings again. You pull it out quickly this time, wasting no time in flipping it open and holding it to your ear.

“Hello?”

Jake.”

Your blood runs cold as you hear your father’s voice, and you swallow thickly, quickening your pace.

“Ah, hello Father! Sorry for missing your call. I was-,”

Stop talking. There’s no time for your useless blathering right now. Come to the lab immediately.”

The swift shutdown leaves your mouth dry, and it takes you a few tries to find your words again. “The lab?”

Did I stutter? Now’s not the time for your empty headedness. Our finest hour is at hand, Jake.”

The insult puts a bitter taste in your mouth, but you’re used to them by now. His last statement, however, sends a chill through you. “What you mean by that?”

I mean the solution to the wretched Infected plaguing our streets is finally ready for use.”

You stop dead in your tracks. All of the noise seems to fade from your surroundings, and your stomach drops straight down.

Just get to the lab.”

Click.

The phone goes dead.

You slip it into the pocket of your khakis and shrug off your jacket and scarf.

Then you run.

//

The lab is full, bustling with scientists rushing back and forth, smiling at each other, patting each other on the back, offering congratulations. Your father stands amidst them, taller than everyone and imposing in his large green coat. Jade is close by, bubbling with excitement, asking your father questions that he waves away, his eyes flicking about impatiently.

You’re standing by the door, leaning against the wall with your arms folded across your chest. You can’t help but feel a surge of jealousy for your cousin, who can talk to your father much easier than you can. She’s a vicious hunter, everything he wishes you were. She doesn’t have any reason to fear him. She isn’t met with a look of disdain everytime he catches sight of her.

You clench your fists and grit your teeth.

Your uncle Harley enters the lab, leaning heavily on his cane, and Lord English’s eyes lock in on him, his lips pressing together tightly. At the sight of him. Jade runs over to help her grandfather, and in that moment your father clears his throat, immediately commanding the attention of everyone in the room.

There’s silence, unbroken except for the hum of the vast amount of equipment. There are several panels, test tubes and small monitors. In the center of the room there is a large tube that appears to be empty, stretching from ceiling to floor. Some of the scientists wae still typing away at workstations, but at your father’s call for attention, they all leave the computers and turn towards him.

“Comrades,” he booms, “Thousands of years ago, the world was devastated by unparalled destruction. It wiped out almost all civilization, leaving only small pockets left. In the aftermath, most of the survivors were unable to acclimate to the new conditions of the world and died out. Only the city of Derse remains in the wasteland of this world, but even we are not exempt from the terrors. We are plagued by those diseased, infected, tainted with darkness and evil. We have been cursed with them for centuries, with no way to purge them.”

There’s a murmur of agreement from all gathered, and you start to feel nauseous. Dirk’s face keeps flashing in your mind, and you suddenly want to be anywhere but here.

But even though he’s addressing the crowd, you can feel your father’s eyes on you. Judging. Assessing. If you show any sort of discomfort and disagreement he’ll call you out on it and shame you in front of everyone.

Again.

So you swallow and hide your unease behind a steely gaze, unconsciously trying to copy your father’s cold eyes, eyes that betray nothing.

“But now,” continues Lord English, a grim sort of smirk on his face, “We have developed a solution.”

Jade gasps in excitement, and you fight to keep your face impassive. You struggle to try and keep your eyes cold and focused like your father’s, but then switch to the blank slate look that Dirk has mastered.

Your father gestures to his scientists, and one of them hurries to the large circle of panels in the middle of the room. He presses a few buttons, and then there’s a burst of green.

There is a collective noise of awe as the large tube behind the panels glows green, suddenly crackling inside with an intense green light. It sparks, and sizzles, and moves within the tube as if it were alive.

“This is the Green Sun,” says your father, a note of pride in his voice, “It is the new source of energy for all weapons of the patrol. Its power sends out waves that connect to the weapons, so that no matter how far away they are, they can draw power from it. The difference between weapons powered by the Green Sun and the normal sort, is that this energy is specifically designed to destroy those with a certain kind of DNA.”

Lord English gestures to the side with his hands, and two members of the Felt emerge from a door. Between them is a gray-skinned man with sharp teeth and curled claws. He’s snarling and spitting and you feel a flash of anger as you see him. These are the Infected you feel compelled to destroy. Mindless monsters who live only to hurt others.

One of the scientists, picks up a gun from a tray. It looks similar to the guns usually issued to the patrol, but there’s a green cylinder at the top. It glows ominously as the scientist levels the gun with the Infected’s chest, then fires.

A burst of green energy explodes from the muzzle and hits the Troll. The two men holding him let go as he screams, falling to the floor. Green electricity sparks all over him as he convulses on the floor. Once. Twice.

Then he’s still.

Silence falls in the room, and you stand with your poker face forgotten and your jaw hanging open. Most others in the room have the same sort of reaction as you, but it only takes a few seconds for someone in a corner to begin a round of applause, and everyone joins in.

“One shot,” says your father, still with that cold smirk, “Is all it takes. You don’t even have to hit them in a vital spot. If you hit them in the leg, the energy will still travel to their heart and kill them. Admittedly, it took two shots for some of the stronger, younger test subjects, but no more than that.”

There’s a buzz of excitement in the room, and Jade looks positively ecstatic, looking at the other Green Sun guns with a type of manic hunger in her eyes. Your grandfather is not bubbling with happiness, but there’s a type of acceptance in his eyes, and you see him nod his head approvingly.

You fight to keep your face neutral, and try to quell the growing feeling of horror in your stomach. So the Felt has better weapons. So what? It just means the patrols will be more efficient. Faster. No more chasing down a mutant who can still run with a bullet in his lungs. This advancement isn’t going to change anything significantly.

You tell yourself that.

But the type of sick glee in your father’s eyes tells you different.

“No longer will we tolerate filth living in our city,” he booms, pulling everyone’s attention back to him. “All of our men will be outfitted with these guns today, and sent out tonight. From this moment on, anyone Infected is not considered a citizen of Derse. They are a disease poisoning our city, and tonight, we will cure ourselves of them.”

There is a hearty cheer from those gathered in the rooms, and your entire body goes cold.

No, you think, fighting to keep your face calm as you realize with panic what’s going on, no no no.

Your father grins, actually grins, before spreading his arms wide.

“Tonight,” he says with finality, “We save our city.”

More applause. Jade pumps her fist into the air, and shouts, “About time!” There are calls of agreement, and you’re frozen on the spot. One word repeating in your head.

No, no, no, please god NO-

“Tonight,” continues your father, gesturing towards the tube of Green death energy.

“Every Mutant, Troll, cursed child and deviant will die.”

The applause and cheering is deafening.

 

 

Chapter Text

You are back to being DAVE STRIDER.

And okay you are just really, really happy right now.

You’ve been doing nothing but walking the streets aimlessly since it happened. Every so often, you lift up your fingers to touch your lips gingerly, smiling as you remember the determined look on Jade’s face as she stretched up and touched her lips to yours.

God she’s so cute.

You honestly don’t want to head back to the apartment just yet. The probability that Bro is there is high, considering the sun is just beginning to set and he’ll be home from his dayjob but won’t have gone to his nightjob. And if you walk in with this dumbass smile on your face that you can’t seem to shake, he’ll tease you mercilessly and hold you in a headlock until he finds out the reason for it.

So you walk about, your hands in your pocket and a particularly un-Strider smile on your face.

The streets are still fairly busy. The sun isn’t all the way down yet, and there’s a fair smattering of Infected about. There are a few normal humans here and there, but you’re pretty deep into the heart of the city, and here, it’s mostly your kind. It’s a nice evening, reminiscent of the nice day. The sky is still clear, which used to be an anomaly in Derse but this summer there’s been a weird surplus of bright, sunny days. Right now, you can see the sun setting on the horizon, the light dying to a pale blue-violet in some place. You tilt your head up to look at it, your hands in your pockets as you just stand and…appreciate it.

You’ve called Derse a piece of shit pretty much all your life, but right now, you admit that it can actually be pretty damn nice.

You’re mulling over that absolutely outlandish thought when you start to hear the screams.

Your sharp ears pick it up before anyone else around you does, and the people walking by give you strange looks as you whirl around suddenly. The streets look the same to you; no one is panicking. No one is hearing anything else a miss. Everyone is going about their business. It’s just you, standing here, a growing sense of dread as you see green light flickering and sparking in the distance.

Slowly, others begin to turn. You see dog ears prick up, fin-like ears flare outwards, and the screams get louder. The atmosphere begins to tense, and the rising smell of fear and panic causes the hair on the back of your neck to rise. You can feel slight tremors beneath your feet, the vibrations of a large group running on the pavement. Some of the people around you have begun to back up, others are flat out running, while still more look about confused.

That ends quickly.

The screams rise in crescendo and there’s a loud bang as something fires into a building in the distance. It’s still too far away to see what did it, but you can see the dust and smoke rising into the air, with that same green light flickering eerily.

Then you start to see the runners.

People race down the street, screaming. Their clothes are torn, some of them are bleeding, and they all have a look of absolute terror on their face. It’s only a few at first, the fast ones, and they’re not stopping for anything. While most of the people in this area are hurrying along, trying to get away from whatever’s happening before it reaches them, others are trying to stop those fleeing and ask them questions.

Heart racing, you urge your feet to move forward, in the direction everyone else is running from. You’ve got a bad feeling, but an enemy you don’t know is the worst kind, and you want to get a look at whatever the hell is fucking with you this time.

By the time you’ve started moving the amount of people racing away has turned into a crowd of terrified, screaming people. Your ears hurt and your skin prickles uncomfortably at the amount of people touching you as they race by, but you don’t stop, you keep pushing forward. Whatever it is that’s causing trouble is around the corner, and you can see flashes of that toxic green light, hear the screams, hear the pounding of boots on the pavement.

They turn the corner before you do.

You stop dead in your tracks, frozen in shock at the sight before you. It’s at least two score of patrolmen. Decked out in armor with shiny new, glowing green guns held at the ready. The street turns into a chaotic mess as they come into view, everyone screaming and trying to get away. Everyone confused, not understanding.

You don’t run. You’re to busy trying to understand what the fuck is going on. The sun hasn’t even set yet. There are still normal humans on the street. You’ve never seen a single patrol that big before. What the he-

They start firing.

Bullets of green energy start shooting off into the crowd, and the screams rise to a deafening level. You watch in horror as a man falls to the ground in convulsions, writhing as tendrils of green energy surround him. More people in the crowd fall, and the troops stop marching and start running, rushing in and around the crowd and firing at will.

Fuck! You think, finally moving your feet to run away. A bullet of green energy whizzes by your ear, and your eyes widen in horror as it hits a young girl in front of you. To your surprise, she merely looks startled for a moment, before her mother scoops her up and continues to run.

Then you see a boy with a tail get hit and go down with a scream.

Infected, you realize with growing horror, looking around at the people dropping like flies and the grimfaced soldiers firing on civilians at will, It only affects Infected.

That adds wings to your feet, and then your sprinting, jumping over upturned garbage cans and dodging cars and others who are fleeing. The soldiers are deep in the crowd and you see green bullets of energy being fired from up ahead as well as behind. It’s not even like the long streams of energy in one of those shitty ghostbusters movies. These are rapid fire balls of green that can be fired one after another. All around you, people are dropping like flies.

Then, as if it wasn’t bad enough, things start getting ugly.

Some Infected begin fighting back, and a large man who appeared to have been hiding rock-like skin under his trenchcoat begins spitting out fireballs at soldiers. The large molten mounds hit the pavement and scatter embers and magma everywhere, burning and sending fire into the crowd. A large group has turned around and is charging the soldiers, but they’re going down quickly under the onslaught of green fire.

The smell of smoke and burning flesh fills your nostrils, and you struggle to find your way. The crowd is thinning as people are killed and people run, but now there are people running about engulfed in flames, people bristling and angry and scared, ready to attack anything that touches them. You bump into a teenage troll and she almost takes your face off, swiping at you fearfully. Then she screams as a bullet of energy hits her in the leg, collapsing into you. You catch her, and hold her as she wails, her body trembling with convulsions. Your own skin is tingling where you touch her, but before you can do anything another bolt hits her in the back, and a sharp lance of pain shoots up into your arms where you’re holding her.

Immediately you drop her, cursing as she falls down dead. You lift your head to find yourself staring down the barrel of a gun, and you duck out of the way quickly, barely avoiding a hail of bullets. The soldier turns to fire again but you deal him a sweeping leg kick and knock him of his feet. He tries to fire his gun at you from the ground but you hiss and flashstep out of the way. Moving too fast for his eyes to follow. You don’t stick around to see how durable that body armor he’s packing is, but before you get even a few steps away the muzzle of another gun is in your face. You twist yourself to the side and electricity crackles inches away from your chest. You flashstep again quickly, feeling your skin tingle painfully where the bullet almost grazed your cheek.

You don’t stop doing it then. You keep flashstepping through the crowd, everything a mess of green energy, burning people, flames leaping to attack the buildings, and dying Infected. Your ears are ringing, your nose and throat hurt from the smells, but you don’t stop. You run, and you run, and you move too fast for anyone to see or catch you.

You clear the main crowd before long, running down an alleyway and onto a new street. As soon as you leave the alley you skid to a stop, backing up to once again press yourself up against a building. This street is littered with dead bodies, a few soldiers walking about. The majority of them seem to have run over to the hell you just came from, but there are still enough here to cause you worry. Especially with those fucking one-hit kill green balls of death.

Underneath the skin on your back, you feel your wings shift, and strain. The sensation of feathers drifting down your back causes you to shudder, and you fight to stop your wings from phasing out. Those things are fucking huge. There’s no way you won’t be seen if you release them.

Biting your lip, you try to push the discomfort in your back to the edge of your mind as you keep a close eye on the soldiers. When all of them are looking in a different direction, or at least, not directly towards where you are, you flashstep across the street, pushing yourself into a small crevice between two buildings.

You fight to keep your breathing calm and level as you press yourself against the brick, and fuck you’re not sure if the thudding you’re hearing is the boots of the soldiers or your own fucking heart.

Okay, so it’s fucking d-day. You think to yourself, trying to stay chill as the full horror of the situation dawns upon you, English finally decided he was tired of all the furry mutants shedding all over the streets. Okay, okay cool.

You’re trying not to panic. You’re trying so hard because you don’t know what to do. If this is really it, if there is really a hit on every single Infected in the city, then…

Then that’s it.

There’s nowhere to go. Derse is a single slice of civilization surrounded by endless wasteland. There’s nowhere to hide. If this is an extermination than they’ll flush out every corner until there are bodies of the Tainted stacked a mile high in the center of the city.

You’re trapped.

Everyone’s going to die.

The sudden realization chokes you, and your knees buckle beneath you, your head banging into the wall. You think of John, and Terezi, and your Bro, and…

Fuck.

The Orphanage.

You jolt back upwards to your feet, your eyes wide with horror behind your sunglasses. Could they know about it? Who the fuck are you kidding, of course they know about it. English wouldn’t have started this if he didn’t think he knew where every single fucking Infected in this goddamn city was.

You’re disoriented from the mad dash through the street, but you try to gage where the Orphanage is from here. But fuck, you can’t tell up from down with the smell of corpses in your nose and the sky thick with screams.

You tilt your head up, and note that the brick has enough holes and cracks for you to find adequate finger holes. Gritting your teeth and wishing you had your gloves with you, you dig your hands into the brickwork and begin to pull yourself up. Your shoes slip at first, but you find purchase in the spots where there are bricks missing and quickly shimmy up the side of the building.

Once you get to the roof, you lie yourself down flat, really not feeling like getting your head fucking blown off by someone down below. Wind blowing through your hair and the ground below echoing with the sound of murder, you inch your way to another side.

You need to get to the Orphanage. You need to find John. You need to do a lot of things. But you just realized you are currently armed with nothing but your fists and dashing good looks.

You need to get to your apartment.

 

//

 

Your name is Dirk Strider.

Earlier today, you had a very nice date with your boyfriend.

Now, the world is burning around you.

You stand in front of the T.V., fist wrapped around your katana as the sounds of screaming and panic phase through the window to your ears. The same news report that just ended is playing again, and your grip on your sword tightens.

“No longer will we tolerate-,”

You grit your teeth.

“Final extermination-,”

Your fists clench even tighter.

Beside you stands your brother, still breathing a bit heavily from his mad dash towards the apartment. His hair is a mess and singed by fire and his clothes are torn and smell like smoke and death. You can see that he’s fighting to maintain his poker face, fighting to keep the fear and devastation off his face as his uncovered eyes remain fixed on the newscaster.

“Lord English’s scientists have successfully developed a type of energy that instantly kills anyone who is Infected,” says the reporter, a note of awe in her voice, “The Green Sun, located in the English Lab, is currently powering all of The Felt’s weapons. The energy it produces has an element that reacts to the mutated DNA in the Tainted, sending electric shocks through the nervous and muscular systems. Overloading the pain sensors and within seconds, stopping the heart.”

Dave remains silent behind you, but you hear him inhale sharply, the scent of fear on him growing more potent. Your jaw grows tight, but you don’t say anything, eyes remaining fixed to the screen in front of you. The report goes on, speaking of the areas most ‘heavy with disease’, and urging citizens to stay inside. There were also warnings of door-to-door checks later, and warning against harboring Infected. The report switched to live video of the streets, and now it’s your turn to struggle to keep your poker face as you see the images of dead people littering the streets, soldiers marching past and through them, glowing green guns held at the ready.

“Is-,” Dave starts to speak, but his voice cuts after the first word, and he falls silent, looking more than a little lost. You turn your head towards him, muting the television with the remote you hold in your hand. “What’s that?” you respond, your voice quieter and hoarser than you would have liked.

Dave just stares forward for a few seconds, but then he swallows thickly, turning his gaze towards the ground.

“Is this it?” he asks quietly, “For…for us. Is this the end?”

Are we going to die. That’s what he’s asking you.

It’s a good question, one you’re not sure the answer to yourself. But you can’t tell Dave that. You’ve always made it out like you’re tough on him. Made it glaringly obvious that you don’t coddle him. And it’s true that you definitely haven’t been soft on him, but you have also always made sure that…he had hope, if that makes any fucking sense. As much as you told him to watch his back and never trust anyone, keep his secret locked tight to his heart, you also secretly made sure he saw some iota of good in the world.

Which is to say, you never told him about your parents.

Well, you did tell him about them. You told him that they died in a car crash before he had his first birthday.

That’s what you told him.

Unfortunately, it’s not the truth.

In reality, your father beat your mother black and blue the day Dave was born, for birthing another ‘demon child’, with eyes even more cursed than yours. He had threatened to kill her if she didn’t drown him.

You told Dave you were adopted by AR immediately after your parents deaths. You didn’t tell him that, at age eight, you had stolen into the cold December night with him, and spent one hellish year on the streets trying to keep yourself and your newborn brother alive.

You kept that from Dave, like you’ve kept other things from Dave, even though you’ve always sworn that you would never cut corners and would always make sure he knew the harsh reality of life.

But, in truth, you’ve always tried to protect him from it.

So like hell you’re going to tell him that you're all going to die today.

The only problem is that you’re not sure exactly what else to tell him. Your world is being torched as you speak. The Infected of Derse are going up in toxic green flames, and there’s nowhere for you to run. In any other circumstance, the combined strength of all of your kind in the city would be enough to hold out against an attack until you could get together, plan, maybe get out of the city (suicide though that may fucking be). But with those green death rays firing everywhere, there’s no way-

You pause.

That’s it.

“You think something like this is enough to take us out?” you ask Dave, forcing your voice to sound as apathetic and confident as it usually does. Your bro’s eyebrows raise a bit in surprise, and you recognize that your silence as you were thinking made him assume the worst. He looks confused, uncertain, and you quirk your lips into a smirk. Exuding a cool, self-assuredness you’re not exactly feeling as your mind whirls and spins to try and make a workable plan as quickly as possible.

“This isn’t the end,” you continue firmly, “Both of us could take all those soldiers under any other circumstances. Underneath all that shiny green armour they’re just humans, and we’re more than that. We’re faster, stronger, and a heck of a lot smarter. The only problem is those fancy green glowsticks they’re waving around. Take them out, and English’s men won’t be able to hold their own against us.”

Dave’s eyebrows knit together. He’s considering what you’re saying, but he doesn’t look completely convinced. Dave stuffs his hands into his pokcets, feet moving nervously as his eyes dart towards the window.

“Okay,” he says carefully, after a few long seconds, “But how the hell do you plan to take out every single one of those death rays?”

Quick as a snake, you smack him upside the head, tutting condescendingly as he splutters and curses at you.

“How many times do I have to tell you to pay attention to what happens around you?” you chide as he shoots you a perplexed look, “The news report, dipshit. All the weapons are powered by this Green Sun thing at English’s lab. Take that out, and all the weapons should lose power.”

Dave stares at you, eyes still apprehensive and unsure, but slowly a light begins to dawn in them, and for the first time since he ran into the apartment, shaken and devastated, there’s a spark of hope in his eyes. He straightens up, losing the defeated slouch to his back, and clenches his fists with determination.

“You think we can take it out?” he asks, sounding as if he’s trying to keep from having too much hope, like he’s fighting to keep his voice cool.

“I think I can take it out,” you correct, “You’re not coming with me, lil Bro. I want you to stay here until I come back.”

Dave’s eyes flash with anger and disbelief, and he takes a step towards you.

“You’re shitting me,” he hisses, hands balled into fists, “If you think I’m just going to sit here while English and his trigger-happy son mow down everything I care about, you’ve got another fucking thing coming!”

An icy silence falls between the two of you as you freeze, suddenly cold as winter on the inside. The biting, not-taking-no-for-an-answer retort that should have been on the tip of your tongue lodges in your throat instead, and you miss the beat completely. Dave notices of course, the lack of a response that should have followed his like clockwork, and his eyes narrow.

You find your tongue again, and swallow thickly. Fuck. Fuck. You don’t want to do this. Now is the worst time to do this. But you have to go destroy this Green Sun shit, and you’d like to be optimistic, but the city is a battleground, and the lab is bound to be heavily protected. You’re fast, but you’re not a god.

You don’t want to leave with big, dark, ugly secrets hanging between you and your bro.

Slowly, you pull off your pointy black shades, folding them up and slipping them into your pocket. Dave’s eyes widen a bit, and you realize that even though Dave usually takes his glasses off when he’s in the apartment, you’ve only ever taken them off when you’re going to sleep.

You have more to guard than he does, though. He’s always thought he has to be so tough and cool for you, but that’s nothing compared to the mask you have to put on for him. Dave’s a nervous kid who worries a lot. He could never afford to know that his big bro was an actual person with insecurities and fears like the rest of them.

But now it’s different.

Now, however much you don’t want to admit it, you might never see each other again.

And there’s no time for coddling your brother any longer.

“You’re dating Jade Harley,” you say bluntly, and the look of sheer horror on Dave’s face would have been a priceless photo any other time. He’s stunned into silence, and before he can recover enough to deny it you keep going.

“Yes I know. Yes I’ve always known you didn’t stop talking to her,” you continue, “But you know what, Dave? It’s okay. I can’t say anything to you, because you have not fucked up anywhere near as badly as I have.”

Dave’s look of utter horror morphs into one of confusion, and you fight to hold your bro’s gaze. It’s harder without the shades to separate the two of you. Your eyes are bare, and easy to read probably. There’s no hiding anything from him now.

“I’ve been dating Jake English for…over half a year now,” you say, keeping your gaze locked with Dave’s, “And he knows what we are.”

A stunned silence falls, and you can see the cogs turning in Dave’s head. He’s waiting for the punchline, the joke, the weird irony behind a confession that doesn’t make any sense. But you don’t give him one, and eventually, his expression morphs into one of shock, then anger, his teeth bared and his pupils slit and his hair bristling, and then…

He looks at you.

Really looks at you.

The look of pure rage dissipates and Dave groans and drops his head down, running his fingers through his hair.

“Fuck,” he says lowly, “We’re just a prime example of two assholes who only think with their dicks, huh? Well, too fucking bad for us I guess. So what, is your rich boytoy with the mass-murderer father coming to shank us?”

“No,” you respond immediately, and a spike of pride for the depth of your relationship with Jake goes through you as you realize that you are absolutely positive he won’t give you away, “He won’t. He won’t tell anyone. I…Dave, I may be an idiot who thinks with his dick, but I wouldn’t do anything to put you in danger. Jake isn’t what the media portrays him as; he’s a really nice guy. Fucking amazing, actually, and he won’t come after anyone he doesn’t think deserves it.”

You turn your head to look out the window, thinking with a bit of an ache of how nice things were earlier, when you were staring into Jake’s eyes and capturing his lips with your own under a bright sun.

“I don’t even think he’ll come out tonight,” you add, because there’s no way Jake would join those fuckers shooting children in the street. He’s much, much better than that.

Dave snorts humourlessly, and he runs his fingers through his hair again, eyes dropping away from yours.

“Wish I could say the same about Jade,” he says grimly, his mouth twisted into a sad, bitter smile, “She’ll be at the front of the pack. Don’t think there’s anyone in this fucking city who hates the Infected as much as she does.”

There’s pain in his voice, and pain in his face, and you’re reminded that Dave likes Jade, possibly as much you like Jake. But unlike your relationship, Jade doesn’t know your secret, and would probably kill Dave without hesitation, friendship be damned.

“I might be able to get Jake to help me destroy the Green Sun,” you say, breaking the awkward silence that had fallen, “He was going to the Lab when I last saw him, and if he didn’t go out, which I’m sure he didn’t, he’ll still be there.”

“You seriously think I’m going to let you go off by yourself to go blow up English’s fucking laboratory?” hisses Dave, eyes narrowed again and shoulders tense, “I don’t care if English-fucking-junior will be there with you. I’m not going to sit at home like I’m a freakin toddler and-,”

“You're right, you can't sit at home,” you interrupt, your voice sharp and not leaving room for any backtalk, “Dave, everyone is dying.”

That stops him midrant, and for a second all his feral rage is gone and the look he gives you is wide-eyed and makes him look remarkably young. For a moment, his eyes shine with a deep realization, and a deep pain to accompany it.

“If someone doesn’t help those people down there against the Felt,” you continue, “It won’t matter whether I destroy the Green Sun or not, everyone will already be dead.”

Dave’s jaw tightens, and he looks away from you, his gaze towards the ground, and then out the window. There are a few seconds of silence, before he turns back towards you, eyes burning.

“You’re asking me to play Batman,” he says, his voice fighting to stay neutral, but wavering a bit, “Protect all the screaming ladies and crying kiddies. Swoop in and vigilante the shit out of Derse until you can stop the city from glowing green, amirite?”

“Pretty much,” you reply, smirking humourlessly, “Think you’re up for it?”

Dave stares at you for a moment, and then he smirks back, holding out his hand in a fist.

“I’m a Strider aren’t I?” he says, tone teasing, “Means I’m as ready as you are. Let’s hope all that sword training wasn’t kid’s play and we can actually fucking slice some salami out there.”

“You best fucking believe we’ll be dicing like the most skilled of sushi masters,” you reply, bumping his fist lightly, “No one can wield a blade like us Striders can, and there sure as hell isn’t anyone who’s faster. We’re gonna wreck all of English’s shit.”

Dave nods in agreement, smirk still in place. Then it falls, and he looks at you, eyes suddenly unsure, nervous.

“Bro…” he begins cautiously, trailing off, and you know what he’s thinking, what he’s not saying, what you know neither of you are going to say.

“I’m proud of you, Dave,” is what you say instead, much to his surprise, “You turned out alright, for a freaky little shit who thinks with his dick.”

Dave hesitates for a moment, then snorts. “Yeah well, guess you didn’t fuck up too badly raising me then, huh? Gold stars to both of us.”

“I’ll pin it on my hat and make all the other bitches jealous,” you say solemnly and he lets out a barely suppressed laugh.

A silence falls between you, and you realize that there’s no more stalling. People are dying, and you can’t keep stretching your time in the apartment because you’re afraid you’ll never see your brother again.

You don’t have time for that right now.

“Alright, Lil Bro,” you say, “Let’s fucking save this shitty city of ours.”

 

//

 

Your name is JOHN EGBERT.

And you really, really don’t want to talk to your dad.

You’ve finally become okay with yourself! You’re not completely cut-up over being a vampire, and you’re actually pretty damn happy! But you know that one disappointed look from your dad, one instance of him flinching away from you, and you’ll probably go tumbling head over heels back over the depression precipice.

You think you give off the impression that you hate your dad for how he acts around you now, but the truth of the matter is that the only thing you hate is how he no longer tells you that he’s proud of you every five seconds.

So you’ve been avoiding him, and you were honestly fucking miserable when he summoned you back for a ‘talk’. You don’t want to talk. Talking is only going to hurt.

But here you are.

With your head cast downwards and your teeth grit, you knock on your front door.

It opens immediately, and then your dad is there, in his usual white dress shirt, black tie, and tophat pulled low. But for some reason, it feels like this is the first time you’re seeing his face in a very, very long time. He seems older, lines you don’t remember being on his face are now there. There’s a bit of stubble around his chin, which is absolutely unheard of for a gentleman of your dad’s caliber.

You realize, with a pit in your stomach, that you haven’t looked at your dad in a really, really long time.

“John,” he says, in a weirdly breathless voice, “You came.”

He seems so relieved, that a swirl of guilt coils in your stomach. Did he think you were going to ignore his text or something?

I’ve been a really shitty son, you think for a moment. Then anger spikes through you, and the thought is replaced with, Well he’s been a really shitty father!

“Yeah,” you say gruffly, foregoing all of those manners that your dad tried so hard to impress upon you. You think you see something flash in his eyes, something like pain, but then he’s moving aside, freeing the doorway for you to walk through. Shoulders hunched and head down, you shuffle into the house that no longer feels like your own.

Your dad walks forward into the house, occasionally checking over his shoulder anxiously to make sure you’re following. You do follow, but you find yourself keeping your gaze towards the ground. Watching each soundless step your feet make on the floor. For some reason, meeting your dad’s eyes makes your heart hurt.

He leads you to the living room, where he sits on the couch and looks at you expectantly. Slowly, you make your way across the room. The harlequins are gone. All hints of clowns are gone. And it’s just you, your dad, and your Nanna’s ashes, up on the mantle piece.

You stand by the couch, but don’t sit, leaning on the arm and keeping your eyes anywhere but on your dad. Your phone vibrates in your pocket, but you fight the urge to check it. You can't ignore your dad, not now, not when you just want to get this over with. There’s an awkward silence between the two of you for a few long seconds, until your dad seems to realize that you’re not going to sit down, and he looks up at you nervously.

“John,” he says hoarsely, and you almost flinch at how tired he sounds, “You haven’t been home in awhile. What…where have you been?”

You turn to him, and you can see the unasked question, the unspoken words. What have you been doing, is what your dad is actually asking. And there’s a fear there, a worry. Have you been stalking the streets at night, John? Have you been terrorizing innocents?

Anger bubbles, and you want to snarl at him. But that would just prove whatever misconception he has about you right now.

“I’ve been staying with Dave,” you say truthfully, looking away from him, “And helping out some friends of ours.”

Should you tell him about the Orphanage? You don’t know, to be honest. He has to have noticed the missing boxes of cake mix by now, and you guess you owe him an explanation for that. But you’re not sure how he’s going to react. Your dad has never been one of the extreme Infected haters, spitting at them on the street, but he, like everyone else (like you used to), considers them a menace, and you don’t think he would approve of you providing for a group of them.

So you don’t say anything else.

Your dad is silent for a moment, and you can just imagine his eyebrows scrunched together, little lines between his eyes as he considers what you say, but you keep your eyes towards the ground.

“Dave is…,” he coughs nervously, and you dig your fingers into the arm rest, “…Dave is like you right?”

“He’s not a vampire,” you reply flatly, and you feel your dad stiffen up and tense at the word, like you used to do. “But yeah, Dave’s Infected.”

You hear a sharp intake of breath, and can imagine your dad with his hand on his forehead, rubbing it, face scrunched up with worry. He’s never particularly liked Dave. Didn’t like the shades or the metaphors. Finding out that Dave was one of them just solidified his dislike.

But Dave is your best friend-, no. Dave is your brother, and he’s been there for you way more than your dad has been this past summer.

“John,” your dad’s speaking again, and there’s a stronger, more determined note in his voice that makes you lift your head and look at him. Your eyes meet, and you tense.

“I want you to come home,” he says, speaking slowly and firmly, “I…I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable in the past. If I…if I wasn’t there for you like I should have been, but-,”

“But what?” you interrupt, a sudden flare of anger sparking thorough you. “That’s just it, you weren’t there from me. At all. You flinched away when you saw me, you wouldn’t look me in the eye, you tiptoed around me like you were afraid I was going to attack you at any moment-,”

You stop yourself, inhaling sharply. You’re almost snarling, your hair is bristling, and you are making yourself look every bit like the monster you don’t want your dad to see you as. And in front of you, he looks shocked. Your dad’s eyes are wide, like he can’t believe what you just saw, and it just sends the worst feeling twisting through your gut.

You close your eyes and take a deep breath, pressing the palms of your hands against your face.

“You used to always tell me it’s what we do that makes us who we are,” you whisper, leaving your hands pressed to your eyes, “But you made me feel like I was a piece of shit just for getting Infected. Like I had no choice to be anything but a mindless monster.”

“That’s not-,” begins your dad, and you lift your head up and snarl angrily.

“It is true!” you shout, your hands dropping down to ball into fists at your side. You note that you’re trembling, and that behind the angry glare there are tears glimmering in your eyes. “

“You made me feel like I wasn’t your son anymore,” you say, your voice lowering to a hoarse whisper, “You just…you just have no idea. I was so sad. I was so messed up, and depressed, and angry, and I didn’t have my dad to catch me anymore!”

Your voice ends off in a yell, and your dad recoils a bit, looking stricken. The expression hurts you, but the way he treated you at the beginning of the summer hurt you more. So you keep going.

“You can’t ask me to come home,” you bite out, voice shaking, “Not when you haven’t made this feel like home for me in months.”

Your dad’s eyes are looking pretty watery now, and he opens his mouth to say something, but nothing comes out. You’re feeling pretty choked up yourself, your throat thick and making it difficult to swallow, but you can’t stop. You’ve been avoiding this talk for so long, if you don’t get it all out now, you never will.

“The only reason I’m not a depressed catatonic mess anymore, is Dave,” you say after a long minute of silence, your voice low again, “He reminded me of what you stopped telling me. That you’re only a monster if you act like one. That I was still John, underneath the fangs and the growling and everything. He made me feel like a person again.”

Shutting your eyes momentarily, you take a deep breath.

“That’s why staying with Dave is what feels like home to me now,” you finish softly, opening your eyes slowly and meeting your dad’s hurt gaze, “That’s why I can’t come back here with you.”

The two of you stare at each other in silence as the last of your words leave your mouth, and your dad’s mouth is hanging open uselessly. You can see the water filling up in his eyes, one of them overflowing to send a single tear dripping down the lines on his face. You can hear his wet, shuddery breaths, and it’s all you can do to stop from crying yourself.

Your pocket vibrates again, but this time you don’t ignore it, relieved to be able to drop your father’s heartbroken gaze.

You pull out your phone and see that the pesterchum app is blinking. Clicking on it, you notice a series of missed messages from Dave.

TG: john.
TG: john are you there
TG: fuck
TG: this is it man
TG: english has called all bets off on the infected in the city
TG: its not rabbit season or duck season or fucking elmer season its us
TG: hes trying to kill us all tonight
TG: just turn on the news
TG: turn it on right now
TG: are you at your house?
TG: stay there
TG: hide or something i dont
TG: fuck
TG: just stay safe

The last message is a notification that Dave has signed out, and your eyebrows knit together in confusion. You look up towards the television, and ignore your dad’s confused whisper of your name in favour of walking towards it and switching it on, your stomach churning.

You flip to the news station.

And you watch.

And you watch.

And you try not to scream.

“This is impossible,” your dad says softly as the newscaster gestures towards the carnage on the street with a satisfied smile, his voice still hoarse, still coloured with pain, “There’s no way they can kill off a third of the city’s population and expect everyone else to just stand by and let it happen. Lord English-,”

“They don’t care about us,” you whisper, and your dad stops, looking at you. You turn to him, your mouth trembling as you fight down the growing terror, anger, and devastation rolling through you.

“The other people in the city don’t care about us, Dad!” you shout, tears beginning to roll down your cheeks. “They think of us the same way you used to! The way I used to! Nobody will bat an eyelid if English murders all of us! They’ll probably be a party in the streets tomorrow!”

Your voice is shrill, you sound hysterical, but you’re scared. Oh fuck, you’re scared. It is now legal to shoot you for existing. You can be shot for what you are. Holy shit. Holy shit. Holy shit.

You think of all the people in the Basement. You think of Vriska, and Terezi, and Tavros, and Kanaya and-

Your eyes widen with horror.

The Orphanage.

You jerk upwards, and your dad gets to his feet as you begin walking/running to the door.

“Where are you going?” He asks, a note of panic in his voice as he moves to intercept you, “You have to stay inside, John. If you go out now-,”

“My friends are out there, Dad!” you snap angrily, desperation in your tone, “I have to go help them!”

“They’ll kill you!” he counters, sounding angry himself now. Sounding scared. “They’ll kill you if you go out! I won’t lose my son that way!”

“They’re going door to door once they finish the streets,” you hiss, “If not now, then later. Even if I could escape their notice, I refuse to live in the basement or in the closet hiding for the rest of my life, knowing that I didn’t go out to try and help the people I care about!”

Then, there’s another heavy, cloying silence. You note that both you and your dad are crying now, his shoulders shaking, and your entire body trembling. It’s then that you are filled with an almost paralyzing sense of regret. You hate that this is what your relationship with your dad has degenerated into. You hate it so much. You wish you could hug him. You wish he would gather you up in his arms and tell you everything was going to be okay, like when you were younger. You don’t want to be angry with him. You don’t want to fight with him. You just…

Your dad steps forward, still crying, still shaking, and he grabs you and pulls you to his chest. He doesn’t say anything, just holds you there, and rests his hand in your hair, and you lose it. You sob into his shirt, because he hasn’t held you like this since you were thirteen. And he hasn’t given you any evidence that he still has any love for you at all this past summer. But he does, but you have to go, but you just want to stay like this, safe in your dad’s arms, forever.

But you can’t.

You pull away from your dad, sniffling and wiping the water away from your eyes with the back of your sleeve. He helps, brushing his thumb across your cheeks to get rid of the excess tears.

“I have to go,” you whisper, meeting your sorrowful eyes to his, “I have to go, Dad.”

Your dad’s face contorts with pain, and he closes his eyes, breathing in deeply.

“I know,” he says, opening them slowly, looking a hundred years older. He untangles himself from you, stepping back, and stepping to the side so that he’s no longer between you and the door.

“I love you, John,” he says, and he’s crying again, hard, and so are you. “I really am so very proud of you.”

The words hit you, and you are suddenly so, so sorry that you spent all that time ignoring your father when you should have been talking to him. Resolving your issues. But you didn’t know. You didn’t know you would be saying goodbye. You didn’t know you might die tonight.

“I love you too, Dad,” you whisper, dragging your sleeve across your face.

You drop your arm and look at him one last time.

Then you take a deep breath.

And leave.

 

//

 

The suburban area around your house was quiet, empty and calm. But as soon as you stepped out of the door you could smell death on the breeze, and your stomach had dropped as you had seen smoke standing out against the darkening sky.

You had run as fast as your legs could carry you, for once, not caring if someone saw your inhuman speed or not, even though it posed more of a danger to you now than ever. It hadn’t taken long for you to start hearing the screams, for the smell of burning and corpses to start stinging your nostrils.

And now, you’ve reached the city’s centre.

And now, you’re in hell.

You tried to keep out of the street, to duck and scurry between buildings and in the shadows, but the mass crowd of people that hit you out of nowhere is pushing you about. The main force of soldiers hasn’t hit here yet, and it’s only a few guns shooting into the crowd, but it’s enough to send everyone into a blind, clawing panic. The screams are making your ears practically bleed, and the pulsating mass of terrified people is pushing and scratching at you until you can’t tell which way you came from, and which way you have to go.

You’re trying to shove your way through, you’re snarling and growling at people and trying to get back to the side of the street, instead of the middle where you’ve found yourself trapped. But then, the volume of shots being fired into the crowd increases drastically as a new column of soldiers marches up the street, the first rank firing at will.

The screams and howls of agony increase tenfold, and everything goes to hell. The dim light of evening is lit up by a sudden hailstorm of green, and then the thick, stifling crowd is thinning out at an alarming rate as the bullets of energy send Infected dropping like flies.

Your heart is pounding in your chest now, because people behind you are dying, and people in front of you are dying, and you are suddenly painfully aware that you can’t move in this fucking crowd, and that you are probably going to die before you even reach the Orphanage.

As if to legitimize your fears, a group of soldiers storm the crowd, not just shooting, but clubbing, and hitting, and attacking everyone. You find yourself ducking down, the hair on your arms standing up as the air crackles with the energy from the guns.

There’s a scream right by your ear, and you look up in time to see the man beside you fall in convulsions, and to see a soldier aiming a gun at your head. Your mind is frozen in fear, but your body knows how to react, and it darts out of the way just as he fires. A growl tears itself from your throat, and you find yourself crouching down, then leaping at the soldier, sinking your fangs into his neck, where neither his helmet or his armour protects. He screams, and you taste blood through the cloth of his uniform. He starts firing his gun wildly, and you snarl, ripping your mouth from his neck and grabbing his wrist, wrenching it upwards so that he’s firing into the air instead of at people.

Just then, you hear a click behind you, and you instinctively launch yourself away, narrowly missing the bullets from another soldier that’s come up to help the other. You hiss as they both turn towards you, the one you attack clutching his neck with his other hand. Your eyes dart around for an escape, but there are too many flailing people, too many bullets of green flying through the air.

You’re trapped.

You’re done.

You watch the barrels of their guns glow green, and then you watch as there’s a flash of silver, a slicing sound, and then the glow fades away as their guns fall to pieces in their hands.

None of you have time to be surprised, because then there’s another flash of silver, another blur of movement, and one soldier is on his knees, blood seeping between his fingers as he clutches at his slit throat. The other collapses beside him, red staining the front and back of his uniform.

And then Dave is beside you.

His hair is wind blown and singed, soot on his face and neck. He’s not wearing his sunglasses, and even in the darkness of the evening you can clearly see the bright red of his eyes. There’s a sword in his hand, dripping with the blood of the soldiers he’s just killed, and you watch as he moves, faster than light, to face the soldiers that have come up around you.

He’s like an angel of death.

With the shower of bullets raining down, it was easy to assume that there were hundreds of soldier attacking you, but Dave flits about like a shadow, avoiding the bullets and dispatching the enemy with ease. With each soldier that falls, the number of bullets destroying the crowd decreases drastically, and soon the remaining soldiers are beginning to fall back. Suddenly, they are outnumbered in a way their Green Sun energy can’t compensate for, and the sight of Dave shoving his sword through the head of one soldier, only to disappear and reappear to turn another into a kabob, doesn’t do wonders for their morale.

It does, however, spur what’s left of the crowd into action.

The Infected around you surge forward, screeching and snarling as they converge around the remaining soldiers. The front of the group falls to the hail of green bullets, but then they’re on what’s left of the patrol, and the Felt go down under a storm of teeth and claws.

You watch in a sick kind of amazement for a few seconds, but then you find yourself spun around abruptly. Before you can hiss or snarl or retaliate, you’re pulled into a hug and then all you can smell is davedavedave. Dave’s arms around you, Dave’s face buried into your hair. You can feel his heartbeat against your chest and a sob you didn’t know you were holding in tears itself from your throat. Then you’re lifting your arms and hugging him back. Hugging him as tight as you can. Because you almost died. Earlier this afternoon, you told Dave, ‘see you soon!’. But you almost didn’t. You almost never saw him again. And that really, really scares you.

“I told you to fucking stay at home!” Dave shout-whispers into your ear, tightening his arms around you. He’s shaking, you realize. And you think Dave must be as scared about all of this as you are.

“The Orphanage,” you whisper hoarsely, letting your head rest on his shoulder, “I have to go help the Orphanage.”

“I’ll handle it,” replies Dave, pulling back to look you in the eyes. He’s showing more emotion on his face than you’ve ever seen him allow himself to show. He looks scared, and tired, and a little angry, and a little of something else. You’re not sure what the something else is, until he touches his hand to his cheek and your mind takes you back almost a month ago, to when he answered your stupid question with ‘no’.

“I cannot,” he says, stressing the word as he keeps his hand on your face, “Have you fucking dieing on me, John. Nope, not happening. It’s not allowed. I forbid it. Hell no. You get your ass back to your house right this freakin’ instant.”

You narrow your eyes at him, and remove his hand from your face, holding it tightly.

“There’s no way I’m going to sit at home when all my friends are being attacked,” you say in a low growl, “I don’t care that you’re a superfast ninja who can take out a whole patrol by himself. I don’t care that I’m a shitty Rainbow Drinker that can barely hold his own against a couple of soldiers. Those are my friends down there, and these are my people getting slaughtered. So if you think I’m going to sit at home and keep my head down, Dave Strider, you must think really damn low of me as a person!”

You’re shouting now, and Dave looks a bit surprised. Then he looks conflicted, tightening his grip on your hand. There’s a slight twinge of guilt that sparks through you, and you’re reminded of the fact that all Dave ever wants to do is protect you. That’s all he’s ever tried to do. But you don’t want that. You don’t want that to be the only thing he focuses on, ever. Especially now, with the word falling apart around you.

There’s no time.

“I’m coming with you, Dave,” you say firmly, “And your big stinky butt is just going to have to deal with it.”

Dave stares at you, just stares, and you can see him arguing with himself in his mind. But there’s still no time, so you let out an impatient snort and pull away from him, fast walking out of the body-littered street and towards the sidewalk. Your stomach twists and churns at the sight of all the corpses. People who were living just moments ago. And your purposeful stride falters. But then Dave is beside you, and he slips his hand into yours, looking at you with sad, but determined eyes.

“Let’s go help the kiddies, Egbert,” he says with sad grin, “See if we can save something before the city goes up in flames.”

It’s not exactly the most inspirational thing to say, but you can’t blame him. The sun has fully set now, and everything is dark. The soldiers have all been killed where you are, but there are still flashes of green lighting the sky. Screams still rent the air, and the scent of death and fear is still heavy on the breeze.

You wonder if this is what it was like living through the apocalypse.

But you don’t have time to dwell on the thought, because than you and Dave are running. Running down the sidewalk in the shadow of the buildings, through alleyways, both of your steps silent. You lost your bearings in the crowd, but Dave seems to know where he’s going.

When you’re both running, you’re about the same speed, but you remember Dave in the crowd. So fast he was invisible. So fast he was like a ghost. And as much as you want to stay with him. As much as you want to prove yourself, you think of the children, and you bite your lip.

You should tell Dave to go ahead of you. So that he’ll get there faster.

But before you can even open your mouth, there’s an eruption of screams from behind you, and both you and Dave turn instinctively. You press yourself close to the building, hiding in the shadows, and watch in horror as a huge group of Infected runs by, pursued by a patrol. Dave curses behind you, and you watch in horror as you note that the majority of the group are youngsters, looking to be no older then twelve or thirteen.

“Stay here,” hisses Dave into your ear, and then he’s gone, only to reappear between the patrol and the fleeing Infected. His appearance momentarily takes the soldiers by surprise, and in that moment Dave is on them, flickering beside one for just long enough to run him through, then flashing behind another, stabbing upwards under his jaw as he turns around.

The group of fleeing Infected runs into an alleyway and safely away as the patrol fires blindly into the night, trying to shoot the phantom that Dave becomes when he uses his ability as a Child of Misfortune to its full capacity. But he’s too fast. Its like he’s made of shadow and smoke, and after half their number is cut down by what appears to be a red-eyed wraith, the rest of the patrol gets the message and retreats.

Then Dave flickers into existence beside you, bangs plastered to his forehead with sweat, and his knuckles white where he’s clutching his dripping sword.

“Let’s go,” he says breathily, and you nod, ready to follow him down the street.

“Wait!!”

Both of you turn, you with your teeth bared and a growl in your throat, Dave with a hiss and his sword raised.

Both of you relax, however, when you see a little girl appear from behind a dumpster, crying, dress torn and feet bloody. Your heart does a flip, and Dave inhales sharply as she runs towards you. Or rather, runs towards Dave.

“I saw you! I saw you!” she babbles semi-hysterically, pulling on Dave’s sleeve, “You can actually beat them! You can beat them and you didn’t die, you didn’t, you killed them, no one else can-,”

“Thanks for the praise, lady, but I don’t need a fanclub,” replies Dave, his voice sounding a bit strained, “Me and my bro have places to be, and you shouldn’t be out on the street alone. So why don’t-,”

“Please help!” she squeaks out, hanging onto Dave’s jacket and crying light blue tears down her dirty face, “There’s a whole group of us- my family- an’ friends- an’ we all live in the same place- an’ the soldiers are coming- an’ a lot of us is old so we can’t run- please help us! No one else can kill the soldiers but you!”

Dave looks a little lost for words, and he stares at the little girl blubbering into his jacket. You contemplate what she said and realize that she’s right. That there’s not a single Infected except for Dave (and maybe his brother), who can stand up to these patrols and their maelstrom of green death.

“Dave,” you say suddenly, turning to your friend, “You should go help her.”

He turns to you in surprise, and he knits his eyebrows together, opening his mouth to argue. You hold up a hand to silence him, narrowing your eyes a bit.

“The Orphanage is hidden,” you say slowly and quietly, “They won’t be safe in the long run, but they’ll be okay for now. But everyone else? Everyone else is out on the street, in the open, or in hovels that are easily found by English’s assholes. And no one can stand up to them. No one can survive those stupid green guns. Except for you, Dave. You’re the only one fast enough to give anyone else a chance.”

You take a deep breath, looking your bro in the eyes and taking one his hands in your own.

“You should go help her, and everyone else,” you continue firmly, “I can go myself to the Orphanage. The rest of the city needs you. Seriously. As much as that sounds like something out of my movies- which are not shitty –you are literally our only hope.”

There’s a silence then, with the girl still clutching anxiously at Dave’s arm. You’re expecting him to argue. He never likes leaving you by yourself, there’s no way he’s going to let you go off when the world is ending in fire and brimstone-

“You know what,” says Dave with a heavy sigh, interrupting your train of thought, “Bro said the exact goddamn thing.”

A silence falls then, and Dave’s looking at you with a really pained expression. That’s when it hits you that you’re about to separate again. You going one way and him the other, and that both of you are going off to fight a war that, realistically, there’s no hope of winning.

You might never see each other again.

You’re suddenly really choked up, and you tighten your grip on Dave’s sleeve, saying his name faintly, trying to find the words to say goodbye.

Then Dave rips his hands out of your grasp, grabs your face, and pulls you into a kiss.

You’re frozen in shock for a few seconds, and in that time Dave melds his mouth to yours. This isn’t a chaste peck on the lips, this is a kiss, and Dave seems to be pouring as much emotion and pent-up passion into it as he can.

You can’t help but kiss back.

You clutch at his shirt, and tilt your head to the side, and let your lips slide against one another and your breaths mingle. You feel him sigh- or maybe it’s a sob –into your mouth, and you clutch at him tighter.

Then he’s pulling away, and you’ve never seen Dave look sadder, more heartbroken. And then you’re angry. You’re fucking furious at him. Because you knew it, you goddamn knew it…

“You dumbass,” you hiss, tears stinging your eyes, “Why didn’t you just tell the goddamn truth. Stupid Striders, too cool to show their true feelings. You’re such a butt, Dave. You are such a butt!”

“I know,” he says, and there’s a glimmer in his eyes that mirrors yours, “I’m so sorry, John.”

“I love you like a brother, Dave,” you hiss, cheeks wet, “But I know I could have loved you as something more.”

Dave flinches a bit at that, and closes his eyes, breathing in shakily as he tries to blink away the tears. You’re shaking a little, but you walk forward and thud your head into his chest, wrapping your arms around his waist.

“Stupid, stupid, stupidy stupid head,” you mumble as he hugs you back, “I better see you again, ‘cause I gotta kick your ass. We have beef now, Strider, you’re not getting away from this.”

Dave laughs roughly, and hugs you tighter.

“I’m shaking in my boots, Egbert,” he says, and even though it’s lighthearted you can hear the pain in his voice. You both pull back at the same time, and you just stare at each other.

Then the little girl (who you admittedly forgot was there), lets out an impatient whine, and Dave’s head snaps towards her.

“Sorry kid, got a bit sidetrack kissing my sweetheart goodbye,” he says with a humourless smirk, voice still a bit strained. Then Dave turns to look at you one last time, eyes sad and regretful.

He turns back to the girl, extending his hand towards her.

“Show me the way,” he says simply, and the girl lets out a relieve squeak before grabbing his hand and pulling your best friend away from you into the darkness of the night. Dave doesn’t look back over his shoulder, and you know it’s because he wouldn’t be able to leave you if he did. God, you really are living one of your movies right now.

It hurts.

Taking in a shaky breath, you turn away, continuing in the direction you were originally going. You know where you are now. You’re almost there. The Orphanage should be down the street that’s on the otherside of this alleyway.

You hurry.

It looks like this side of town hasn’t been reached yet. There are no bodies on the streets, and all the doors are still attached to the buildings. Everyone in this area is probably hiding inside, hoping that the storm will pass over them.

But you know that it will be here any moment.

You cross the street, heart hammering, and hurry down the sidewalk to the door that leads to your destination. As you approach it, you release a breath you didn’t know you were holding, relieved to see that, from the outside at least, the Orphanage appears to be undisturbed.

Looking behind your shoulder nervously, you scan the streets with your sharp eyes, making sure nothing followed you to this still peaceful area of the city. Then, you turn back to the door, knocking tentatively.

You wait for almost a full minute, but there’s no response, and you knock again, louder this time.

“Guys, it’s John,” you whisper against the crack of the door, “It’s just me, I swear.”

You stand back with a frown, not sure if they heard you, but not willing to whisper any louder. You fidget nervously for a few seconds, but then the door creaks open, and before you can react a clawed hand snakes out, grabs the front of your hoodie, and yanks you inside.

You stumble as you’re pulled into darkness and the door shuts behind you. It’s only your natural poise as a Rainbow Drinker that stops you from tumbling down the stairs, but as soon as you have your balance back, someone (Karkat it smells like), is tugging you down the steps by the sleeve, so fast you almost trip over your own feet.

The lights at the bottom of the step are all turned off, but your eyes adjust to the darkness quickly, and you note that the living room is empty. But you can hear the children, you can hear voices and the sounds of shuffling and shifting around, and soon, Karkat is pulling you in that direction.

You walk down a short corridor and towards a door at the end of it, which you know leads to the children’s bedroom. Karkat knocks on the door when you reach it, and almost immediately it opens.

Mama D doesn’t even stop to ask questions, she envelops both of you into a hug and tugs you inside. The door shuts behind you, and then suddenly you hear a chorus of tiny voices, whispering questions as they tug at your clothes.

“Sh!” hisses Mama D quickly, shooing the kids away from you as she releases you and Karkat. You look around, and note that every single child in the Orphanage is here in the small room. Ususally some sleep with Mama D, or in the living room, but right now they’re all here. Most on the bed, some under the bed, a large number on the floor, a few on shelves, and others sit atop of Mama D’s shoulders or cling to her skirts.

In the far corner, you can see Sollux standing awkwardly against the wall, holding one of the babies and looking like he would rather be doing anything else. The other babies are lying on the bed, and one is being held by one of the older kids. The room is filled with wide, scared eyes, and you’re filled with a surge of hatred for English and his family. For the people who would try and hurt these kids, when they haven’t done anything to hurt anyone.

Your thoughts are interrupted by Karkat’s claws digging into your arm as he tugs on you insistently, making you turn and face him. His eyes are narrowed, gold-rimmed and angry in the darkness of the room, and you narrow your eyes back instinctively.

“What are you doing here?!” he hisses, his voice an angry whisper, “This is the absolute worst time for a fucking visit, Egbert, or haven’t you seen the news?”

There’s a note of ragged hopelessness in his voice, and you’re reminded of the fact that you guys are all trapped. Trapped down here. Trapped in this city. When the soldiers come knocking, there won’t be anywhere for you to go.

The thought leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, but you swallow it down and try to ignore it.

“Yeah, I’ve seen it,” you reply quietly, “That’s why I came here. I wanted to make sure you guys were alright.”

“Well, we’re doing jutht fucking peachy,” snaps Sollux, his different-coloured eyes not hidden behind shades like usual, and glowing slightly in the dark room, “Hiding in thith hole like ratth, waiting for the Felt to butht our door down with their green death rayth-,”

“That’s enough,” growls Mama D, looking back to glare at Sollux, “I won’t have that kind of talk around the children. As long as we’re alive, there’s hope. Don’t you forget that.”

An awkward silence descends, and you can hear some of the children whimpering, sniffling, some of them outright crying in whatever corner they’ve huddled into. You feel some of them snuggle up to you, clutching at your legs, and your heart breaks a little.

“How bad is it,” asks Karkat flatly, leaning against the wall and soothingly petting the head of a child who has attached herself to his side, “Outside. We haven’t left here since we got the news that our status had dropped down from ‘pariahs’ to ‘target practice’.” Karkat’s lips curl back over his fangs, and he looks back at you, his eyes less angry now, and more hurt.

You remain silent for a moment, but then you cast your eyes nervously to the ground, not sure what to say without scaring the children.

“…This street is still fine,” you begin cautiously, “There are no…The Felt hasn’t gotten here yet.”

You hesitate, and wonder if you should continue. You don’t want to scare them by talking about the streets filled with dead bodies, about the screaming, about the bodies convulsing in pain as they’re consumed by the light of English’s Green Sun.

So you don’t talk about that.

“Dave is really kicking ass in the other parts of the city,” you say suddenly, the smile on your face not quite as forced as it might have been, “He’s destroying those patrols. He’s too fast for them to hit him, and he’s protecting all the people who aren’t safely inside like us.”

Sollux raises an eyebrow incredulously, and Mama D’s eyes light up with fresh hope. Karkat looks apprehensive, like he’s afraid to believe that you’re not actually going to die a horrible, gruesome death, but something lights in his eyes as well, and he looks like he’s about to say something.

He doesn’t get a chance to though.

“Seriously?” squeaks a boy loudly, as he and a bunch of others crowd around you. Mama D shooshes them, but they all continue tugging at you, asking excited questions about their favourite Uncle Dave and his asskicking. You smile at them, and even though seeing your best friend mow down people like they were ants wasn’t exactly something you ever wanted to see, you make it sound awesome and heroic. You play it up, like you’re telling them a superhero story. Soon you have the entire group gathered around you, and you start making stuff up. Talking about Dave dropping from the sky into a group of soldiers, talking about him sweeping in to save a beautiful girl from the Felt’s clutches. Your stories get pretty wild, and you can’t imagine Dave’s reaction if he ever heard them.

Mama D sits on the bed, shaking her head slightly at the absurdity of some of the things you’re saying, but with a slight smile on her face that doesn’t quite reach her eyes. Karkat has joined Sollux in the back corner, and they’re both talking in quiet, hushed tones. If you concentrated, you’d be able to hear what they’re saying, but you’re too busy telling the kids how Dave beat one hundred Felt soldiers single-handedly.

Until you hear a heavy thud from behind the door.

You all hear it, and you all freeze simultaneously. Your stomach drops, and Mama D is on her feet in an instance, ushering the children to the back of the room. Karkat and Sollux both hurry to the front, to stand in front of the door. Neither of them are armed, but Sollux’s eyes crackle menacingly, and you’re reminded that he’s a mutant a well as a Troll.

You help Mama D usher the children behind the bed, and in the back corners. Once they’re all situated, you position yourself in front of them, shielding them with your body as you turn and watch the door. Mama D does the same, arms spread wide as she hides as many children behind her as she can.

“John,” whispers a little girl, tugging at your sleeve despite you shushing her, “John, is Dave gonna come save us?”

Your stomach twists, and you suddenly feel guilty for filling their heads with superheroes and miracles when there’s no one here to protect them right now but you. A seventeen year old kid who likes to play pranks and the piano.

You don’t get a chance to answer her, because at that moment, you hear the sound of heavy footsteps coming down the hallway.

Some of the kids start crying, and you don’t dare make a sound to try and quiet them. Your breath is caught in your throat, and your chest feels constricted, your heart pounding painfully.

Voices are talking from right outside the door, and you can see tears in Mama D’s eyes, her arms shaking where they’re spread to hide the children. You fight the urge to close your eyes. To just cringe and wait for the end to come. When the door opens, you have to fight. You have to fight and try and save these kids. You can’t lay down and let them die. You-

“Wait!”

Your head whips to the front towards Karkat. He’s stepped forward, away from Sollux, and towards the door. His hands are clenched into fists, and there’s a determined look in his eyes.

“State whether or not there are Infected behind this door,” says the muffled, filtered voice of a soldier from outside the room. You hear the shuffling of feet, the clink of armor, and a chill runs up your spine.

There’s silence for a moment, and then Karkat swallows thickly and takes a step closer.

“Babies,” he says, his voice surprisingly level and controlled, not the usual rage-filled tone, “There are kids behind this door. And yeah-,”

He lifts his head proudly, eyes alight, “Yeah they are fucking ‘Infected’. But you know what? It’s not their fault! They were born this way, they haven’t done a single fucking thing to hurt anyone. These children aren’t older than seven. And you want to shoot them just for existing? How the flying fuck is that supposed to help anyone? How can you strut around in your lime green Felt get ups and pat yourselves on the back for creating a ‘better world’, when the road to that world was paved with the bodies of murdered kids?”

You stare at Karkat in shock, and a little bit of sadness, because does he really think saying that is going to do anything? These guys were shooting people on the street like it was a sport. You’re pretty sure they’re not going to stop and listen to him.

You wait for them to kick the door down and burst in, guns blazing.

….

 

They don’t.

“...The Infected fill our city with taint, and ruin the lives of the innocent,” says a voice, mechanical, self-assured.

…But is that a note of doubt you hear?

“If you want to make a perfect society, murder is definitely not the way to go about it,” snaps Karkat, though he’s working to keep the growling tone out of his voice, to discredit the stereotype of a snarling, mindless monster as best he can.

“If it’s so fucking important to you to ‘rid the city of taint’, then why don’t you just let us leave?” he continues, and Sollux shoots him a sharp look. You narrow your eyes as well, because what the hell? You can’t leave. There’s nothing but desert and wasteland out there. You’ll die.

But you’ll die if you stay here, a voice at the corner of your mind notes, and you bite your lip.

“Tell English to stop letting his trigger-happy minions run wild, and let us have safe passage out of the city,” continues Karkat levelly, “We’ll walk right out of his fucking hair, and leave your precious city to rot any way he wants it to. You don’t have to go around murdering us. We get the fucking picture, you want us gone. So let us go, and don’t kill these kids!” His controlled tone cracks as he goes on, and his voice goes a little shrill with desperation.

Silence falls then, and you can practically hear your heartbeat thundering in your ears. You can hear the soldiers quietly conversing, arguing, debating, trying to decide whether they collectively see you as monsters not worth a thought, or actual people worth a chance.

The arguing gets louder, more heated, and both Sollux and Karkat back up from the door a bit. There’s a loud cry of ‘Fuck this!’ and the door bangs open as someone kicks it in.

And begins firing.

The first shot hits Karkat, sending him tumbling backwards onto to ground. The second and third both hit Mama D, who collapses back onto the bed with a strangled shout. The rest go flying into the children, and you spring forward with a snarled ‘No!’

Sollux beats you to it though, and the soldier is sent flying backwards in a burst of red and blue. The one behind him raises his gun, but it explodes as Sollux rushes into the group, teeth bared and eyes crackling.

You stand in the center of the room, growling and hissing, and not sure what to do. You want to attack, oh fuck do you want to attack, but Mama D is on the bed, empty eyes staring up at the ceiling, and Karkat is twisting on the ground in pain, green shocks rippling across his body. And Sollux is in the thick of them, eyes sparking destructively. You can’t leave the kids.

But then, you see Sollux go flying backwards, green crackling all over him. His redblue psionics get between him and the energy, but the force of the hail of bullets send him crashing into the wall. Kids are screaming, kids are dead, and you howl and tackle the man at the front, grabbing his gun and pinning him down with it at his neck, crushing his windpipe.

You feel the heat of another gun about to fire, but before you can react the soldier standing above you goes down with a gurgle. You smell fresh blood in the air, and you rip the gun away from the man under you in favour of sinking your teeth into his jugular and tearing.

Your stomach rumbles and you feel your instincts beginning to claw away at your reason again, but before you can attack the next soldier, a knife materializes in the side of his neck, and he goes down, Vriska Serket behind him with teeth bared and eyes narrowed.

You jump to your feet, blood dripping down your chin, and flinch to the side as a burst of psionic energy blasts from the back of the room, toasting the remaining soldiers and sending them flying in a smoking heap at the back of the hallway.

You stand, eyes darting about, teeth red and bared as you look around for the next enemy. Vriska is beside you, throwing knives in hand and her own lips curled back over her teeth. Sollux strides forward, limping, with his eyes still crackling. He scans the room from one side to the other and relaxes, his psionics stopping.

Then, with a strangled sob, he falls to his knees and scrambles towards where Karkat is curled up on the floor.

The curtain of bloodlust rises from your eyes, and you blink, looking about with a growing sense of horror.

About a third of the kids have been killed, lying with their eyes staring wide, unseeing, their faces twisted in expressions of pain. Mama D is dead, and so are the kids who were clinging to her, killed when the shocks of the bullets transferred from her body to theirs.

And Karkat…

You’re barely conscious of your feet as they begin to carry you forward to where Sollux is hunched over Karkat, his shoulders shaking as mustard coloured tears drip down his face.

You hear Vriska curse beside you, and faintly hear the remaining kids crying in the background, but your eyes are centered on the Troll lying still on the carpet.

“Karkat?”  

Chapter Text

Your name is-

….

Your name is….

..

Fuck.

.

What was your name again?

You bat your head against the walls of your memory, and then stop, because everything hurts and batting your anything against your anything is a really fucking horrible idea. Stopping doesn’t do anything though, and you feel the steady throb of pain grow more and more intense, until you’re fighting to move. Fighting to claw at the painful electricity crawling under your skin. Fighting to open your mouth and scream.

It doesn’t happen.

You can’t move.

What does happen, is you becoming steadily more aware of more than just pain. Sound bleeds into your world. You hear voices. You hear shouting. You sense movement and feel warmth. You hear a steady thump right by your ear and realize that your head is leaning against someone’s chest. Your entire body prickles with pain and you feel too hot, too cold, you want to move. You need to move. Your legs and arms and chest and back and head all hurt and you still can’t remember your fucking name.

You still can’t speak.

So you listen.

“-no use. We’re all doo-,”

“-can’t fucking leave. Do you-,”

“-not planning on dying in the waste-,”

“-writhing in agony when the Felt-,”

“-can’t keep arguing there’s no time-,”

“-have to leave. KK thaid-,”

“-Yeah, and look at Vantas now!”

KK?

Vantas?

Oh, wait.

Shit.

Jesus dick how the fuck did you forget something like that.

Your name is KARKAT VANTAS.

And opening your eyes is a hell of a lot harder than it ought to be.

Remembering your name opens the floodgates for all the essential memories that make up your person, and you recall that you’re a pariah in your society, that you’ve been trying to change that for years now, and that everything went to hell. You remember masked, metal faces, arriving in a shower of wood from a destroyed door and a storm of green fire.

Then you remember screaming. And pain. Lots of gutwrenching, blood boiling, agonizing pain.

Pain that you are still currently feeling.

You’re filled with the urge to dig your claws into something, to hold onto something for dear life, as if that would somehow relieve your pain. You want to open your mouth to scream, to moan, the swear profusely, anything, but you still can’t even manage your eyes at this point.

You struggle with it for a few long seconds, the heated argument in the background growing louder as you elevate further into consciousness. It’s like you’re inching up a rockface, trying to get to the top, and there’s a rope dangling a few inches from your face. You know that if you grabbed it, it would haul you up top so fast your fucking brain would turn into a well-pureed smoothie in your spinning cranium. But it’s just out of reach, and you’re stuck trying to claw and scramble your way up a wall of rock slick with oil and devoid of footholds.

But fuck if you’re going to lie here slumbering like a wriggler while jackasses stand around your still warm pre-corpse and gossip about you like the bunch of bulge-sucking dick princes they are. So you climb. And you fight.

And your eyes flutter open.

You close them again quickly at the sharp lance of pain that shoots through your head at the action. The pain flows down to your chest, into your limbs, and you shudder, a whimpery hiss escaping your cracked lips.

You feel whatever you’re lying on stiffen, and then there’s warmth on your face, a hand, patting insistently at your cheek. The feeling is uncomfortable, sending prickles on your oversensitive skin, and you jerk your head away, hissing again.

There’s an urgent growling behind you, and a sudden flurry of hushed voices above you, and with a slight growl of your own, you force yourself to open your eyes.

The pain, while still there, isn’t as bonecrushingly debilitating, and the throb in your head isn’t as bad as the consistent pulse of pain everywhere else in your body. This time, you manage to keep your eyes open past the unpleasant flare, and you squint at the fuzzy images hovering above.

It takes long seconds for your vision to stop doing its best impression of a T.V. with no signal, and then longer for your eyes to adjust to the darkness.

When everthing stops pretending to be a carousel out of one of those shitty amusement park horrors, you’re able to make out the faces of the people crowding themselves as far into your personal bubble as possible.

“Karkat?” whispers the blurred mass of red and blue that has come into focus as John, with eyes luminescent in the dark and dried blood crusted around his mouth. He opens it to say something else, but then he’s unceremoniously shoved out of your field of vision, and his spot is taken by blue and red eyes on one side, and unseeing crimson on the other.

“KK, can you hear me?” Sollux’s voice is more desperate than you’ve ever heard it, and you open your mouth to bitch at him for it, only to find your throat dry and your tongue leaden.

“Give him some space!” hisses Terezi, pushing Sollux back with a snarl. Then she’s right in front of you, her face in a lost expression you’ve never seen on her before

"Stop...s-squabbling and sssshoving each...other. You look like…wrigglers…fighting over a fu-fucking toy. And despite my f-f-flawless complexion and ela-el…a…stic l-limbs, I am not, in fact, a doll to be…to be fought over. Back off."

Your speech is punctuated by you wheezing and struggling to gather enough breath in your lungs to speak, and once you've finished you descend into a fit of painful coughing, curling up and clutching at your chest as your body twitches and spasms, pain wracking you mercilessly.

Whoever you're leaning against- You are 110% sure it's Gamzee -pulls you up so that you're not lying on your back across their lap, but are leaning against their chest instead. It's not comforting though. It just makes you feel too hot. You feel hot all over. It's like you're burning up inside and out and your breathing gets heavier. You can hear the concerned voices from everyone around you but they're too loud and you don't want to try and make sense of them. Your eyes are closed and your breath is rasping in your ears as you try to get past the intensifying headache adding to the burning all over your skin and the constant ache in your body.

Everything fucking hurts.

You grit your teeth as the pain in your cheat flares up, holding back a whimper. It's all centered there. You can feel the heat, the ache, and the throbbing spikes of pain that shoot up into your head all culminating there. Your mind flashes back to the moment when the door to the Orphanage flew open and a rain of green flew at you. You don't remember getting hit. You don't remember what happened next. But you have a good idea, and you're suddenly consumed with a feeling of dread.

You try to force your eyes open, but then give up, deciding it's not necessary. Instead, you turn your head slightly, angling it toward where you can hear the muffled voices of your friends who are gathered around you worriedly.

"What ha-," your statement is interrupted by painful coughs, and you hunch over, feeling someone rubbing your back soothingly.

"Don't talk, brother," you hear Gamzee say, his voice softer than you've ever heard it, "You should all up and save your motherfucking strength."

The only response you manage is a forced wheeze, but you shake your head anyways, lifting it up from where it's leaning on Gamzee's chest and opening your eyes.

"Orphanage," you rasp, swallowing thickly, "What...,"

There's a sudden hush, and the flurry of voices around you ceases. You're grateful for the lack of noise pounding against your skull, but even in your pained haze you know that the silence means absolutely nothing good.

"They attacked uth," whispers Sollux, his voice strained, "They juth....opened fire into the room. It wath...it wath tho fatht. Me and JN fought, and VK helped when she came, but we couldn't...,"

"Those fucking pieces of shit killed Mama D and half the kids," That's Vriska, hissing some where in the background-

Wait.

What the fuck did she just-

You attempt to jerk yourself up into a sitting position, but the resulting jolt of pain tears a screech out of your throat and sends your limbs into a spasm.

Immediately, you sense everyone crowding around you, hear the rush of concerned voices, but you’re deaf to them. Your mind keeps whirring, keeps replaying the skinny, scared faces in a slideshow of guilt and remorse and self-disgust in your head. Vriska’s words echo and bounce within the confines of your skulls, and you barely register when you start to shake. With rage, with disbelief, with helplessness, and with grief.

The kids....

The kids.

You've been through a lot in your just-barely-twenty years. You've always had the worst of it, being born not just a Troll, but a mutant Troll who never quite knew his place. You were born at the lowest rung of society's ladder, but managed to find those who hadn’t let Derse crush the spirit right out of them. People who were beside you, and supported you. You survived four hellish years on the street and then met Mama D, and discovered that there was hope. That not everyone was scum.

That was when you began to dream of a better future.

That was when you began to believe that things could change. That maybe, if everyone fought (with words, not claws or fangs or weapons fuck knows those never did any good), that you could somehow change this city into a place where everyone could live. Infected, or otherwise.

But then that asshole, that hate-consumed bigoted asshole in his fancy green cloak, had gotten up on T.V. Had looked grave and serious and triumphant and smug and announced that you and your friends and your family were no longer people. He’d unleashed a storm of misplaced vengeance and senseless rage upon you and sent you all cowering and hiding in fear of an impending death.

You’d crouched and hid with the others, your mind whirring, trying to think of a way you could still salvage the situation. Still somehow survive in this city. You and Sollux had discussed in hushed tones possible plans. But the toxic green of the Felt’s one-hit murder weapons had burnt holes through any possible action.

There was no way you could survive in Derse anymore.

None of you.

You figured that out in the Orphanage, looking at all the kids whose lives had been robbed from them. You’d figured it out, and your heart had finally started to lose the battle it had been fighting your entire life, beginning to sink below the waves of despair that you’ve been trying so hard to stay above. But you’d fought it. You’d fought it and you’d still tried to plan for something, anything that could save your people.

“W-we need-,” you begin hoarsely, your voice raspy. Your chest is tight with pain, and it feels like it’s getting harder to breathe. There are painful pins and needles in your feet and hands and legs and arms and the pounding in your head is getting unbearable.

Someone shushes you, but you curl your lips back over your teeth and snarl, lifting your head and forcing your eyes to crack open.

“We need to leave,” you growl roughly, each breath you take to form a word tugging painfully at your chest, “We can’t stay in Derse anymore.”

There’s a chorus of dissent and you squeeze your eyes shut again, the noise is too loud, and the pain is too much and you can hear white noise eating away at the background sounds. Your head is consumed with static, and you lose your ability to hold it up, letting it thud against limply against Gamzee’s chest.  

The talking and the shouting and the arguing fades into nothing, and it’s like consciousness is a bar of soap in a communal shower. The fucker is slipping and popping out of your hands and making every effort to fall to the water slick floor. You fight to keep your hold on it though, clutch and grasp at the sounds that are pulling away from you. Because you have the distinct feeling that if you drop that bar of soap and bend over to pick it up, you will never stand up again.

You feel frantic patting at your cheeks and hear a sound of panic from behind you and realize that you didn’t release your last breath and haven’t been breathing for the past twenty seconds. With some effort, you open your mouth and release the air with a whoosh, inhaling sharply after and then descending into wracking coughs.

Sound narrows and focuses and comes back into existence, and you stop dangling over the precipice of unconsciousness, your eyes flickering and opening again.

Gamzee’s face is right above yours, and it looks more scared than you’ve ever seen it. His eyes are wide with panic, not glazed over with drugs or half asleep. Terezi’s face is beside him, and she looks the closest to tears you’ve seen her since she first went blind.

You force yourself to take another deep breath, and you fight against the spasms that wrack your limbs and the crushing pain in your chest. With much effort, you exhale, your lungs rattling and wheezing. It takes serious concentration for you to start breathing again semi-normally, and you try not to think about what that means because it’s fucking scaring you.

There are still people arguing in the background, but those gathered around you, Terezi, Gamzee, Sollux, John, Vriska, Nepeta, Tavros, and others, are all silent as fucking death. Which, now that you think about it, is the absolute shittiest metaphor you could have possibly made.

“We need to leave,” you repeat quietly, your voice raspier and more strained then it was previously, “If there’s a-any chance of-,”

Your chest seizes up and you can’t breathe again. You release a startled wheeze before falling back into open mouthed gasping, heaving and struggling to make your aching lungs work again.

Your world narrows to a single point and you can feel yourself falling away. The sound’s disappearing, the feeling and the heat and the cold are all vanishing, and slowly, the pain begins to leech away.

You experience a sensation of utter calm, the ceaseless pain that’s been torturing you fading into something still present but in the background. You can hear your laboured breathing, as if at a distance, and the muted sounds of concern. But you feel as if you expelled all your energy in that coughing fit, and you let your body go limp and relax, drifting into a kind of half-unconsciousness and feeling yourself hover perilously close to that same precipice. You feel really fucking relaxed and it would freak you out if you weren’t so busy feeling really fucking relaxed. The sounds in the background are just barely loud enough to be irritating, but the thought of yelling at them to shut up slips away from you as you float and float and float.

It’s only after what seems like days of drifting pleasantly, feeling and sensation begins to seep back into your world. Ragged breathing becomes more than just a sound in the background, but a painful presence in your chest again. Your skin prickles and tingles and then flares up into redhot pain. The slow trickling of sound speeds up into a wall of noise that hits you and yanks you right back up into the fan-fucking-tastic world of consciousness.

You release something between a gasp and a moan, heavy with pain, and you dully register that while the sound around you is still way too loud, it doesn’t sound so loud as it did before. If you tried hard, you could make out the words, but you’re not trying, you’re tired. God you’re fucking tired.

You huff out a breath, and roll your head to the side with a little sound from the back of your throat. Fuck fuck fuck. You’re too hot. Too fucking hot. It’s like you’re cooking inside your own skin and it’s worse because you can’t stop shivering at the same time.

You growl in discomfort and roll your body to the other side, everything aching in protest and your sweat-soaked sweater peeling off your back. A sudden chill hits you, and you are filled with regret for that absolutely fucking useless movement.

You feel a hand descend gently onto the top of your head, and you almost hiss at it because it’s really not fucking helping the feeling of hothothot that’s threatening to consume you, but there’s the familiar up and down voice of your moirail and you force your shoulders down and your body to relax.

“You back with us, palebro?” he whispers, voice softer then you’ve ever heard it, “All up and left us there for a moment. Scared the motherfucking shit out of me and our blind sister.”

You feel a cool hand on your forehead then, and hazard opening your eyes. The pain isn’t so bad this time. That pseudo-nap you just had seems to have taken the edge off a lot of it, and you stare up at Terezi and her sightless eyes with your own half-closed.

“Hey,” you rasp quietly, too drained to say anything else, still shivering.

Terezi sucks in a breath, and her hand moves down from your forehead to your cheek. It still feels to hot, but you’re focused on her face, and the worry lines that shouldn’t be there. And you’re so fucking sorry that you went and got yourself shot, that you’re so pathetic right now.

“Hey,” she whispers back, her own voice disturbingly quiet, “You’re going to stay with us now, right Karkat?”

Terezi, Terezi, Terezi. She’s always so fucking put together. She smells futures of blood and death and it never rankles her. She’s immovable and a rock of jagged teeth and cackling laughter. And it fucking hurts you to hear her voice shake with uncertainty. You wish you could tell her yes. You wish you could lift your goddamn leaden hand to hold hers. But it’s all you can do to keep the breath pumping in and out of your lungs, and your pain must be really obvious because her breath hitches and she squeezes her eyes shut, resting her forehead against yours.

You’re not sure how long the two of you stay like that, you with your uncontrollable shivering and feeling too hot and aching all over. And her, shaking just a little, her breath ghosting against your nose, one hand still on your cheek and the other now entwined with one of yours.

Someone clears their throat behind you, and you feel Gamzee stir and turn slightly, while Terezi doesn’t bother lifting her head away from yours. You slide your gaze to the side, and make out forms in the darkness and then you remember that there were other people here. Actually, it’s way to fucking quiet. What happened to all the yelling and cussing and screaming? It’s still loud, but nowhere near what it was when you lost consciousness.

That’s when you realize it’s because only one person is speaking.

“-and think! You honestly want to sit here? Lay down and die?! I’ve just become Infected, and maybe I don’t know anything about what it’s really like to live like this day after day, year after year. But I do know that we have been living. That we make it through every day, stronger, because we’re together.”

John? You think, with a high level of incredulity, because the John Egbert you know wouldn’t be yelling down at a group of scared, violent mutants. He’s not the quivering mess he was when you met him, but-,

You pause in your thoughts, strain your ears, and listen.

Holy fuck.

It is John.

“I don’t care if you guys try to claw each other’s face off every five seconds and if you snarl to say hello,” he’s saying, and you can imagine his lips curling up slightly and his eyes flashing in the darkness. “We’re in this together, we’ve always been in this together, and you can deny it, but every single Infected in the city helps each other constantly. You’re like…you’re like a support system or something. One that never collapses. You keep living, and stay strong, because you’re together, and you may fuck with each other but you don’t let anyone else fuck with you. And that’s great, because we have spirit. We have so much of it! Otherwise, we wouldn't have made it. We would have been squashed out so long ago by everyone who’s afraid of us. But we’re still here, because we gave them the finger and said that we deserve to live. And we fought to live. And now- now you’re saying you just want to give up?”

His voice goes a bit shrill, and you can imagine him baring his fangs, maybe waving his arms around in that overdramatic way. For some reason, the image brings a smile to your face.

Fuck that!” he continues, “Get your heads out of your asses and stop throwing yourselves a pity party. Everything sucks, but we’re not dead. We’re wanted and hunted, but we’re not dead. We’re here, and we’re living, and we should keep on living, because that’s what we do, what we’ve always done, what we should continue to do. What we have to continue to do.”

The club has gone silent, and you’ve managed to find John with your eyes, and you and everyone else are staring at John with a kind of stunned awe. He seems to wilt for a second, when he realizes that every eye is on him, but then he puffs up again, and his eyes burn with an intensity that’s actually pretty breathtaking.

“I’m going to get out of Derse,” he proclaims, and it’s something of a growl, he’s saying it with so much force, “I’m not going to lay down and die. I’m going to march out of this city, and if someone tries to stop me, I’ll fight. I’ll fight, and maybe I’ll die, but at least I won’t die cowering in the dark! I won’t die giving up on everything I’ve struggled so hard to keep!”

“And neither will I!” Heads turn, you sense, but even though you can’t quite move yours you recognize Vriska’s voice.

“I’m so done with you losers,” she hisses, “I can’t believe you’re seriously going to show your bellies to those green fuckers like cowards. If I’m going down, I’m taking ‘em with me. But don’t get the wrong idea. I don’t intend to die. I’m gonna dip from this shitty city. I don’t care if all there is out there is wasteland, at least I won’t have died down here, trapped like a rat.”

“Damn straight,” echoes a snake-skinned mutant you don’t know the name of, and with that, the spell that silenced the room appears to be broken, and you hear voices shouting in agreement or dissent. Your eyes are still on John, and you see him deflate a little, looking wide-eyed and like he can’t believe that he just did that. Quite frankly, you can’t believe it either. Who knew the little bucktoothed kid who had come straight from behind the white picket fence had so much fire in him?

It’s getting too loud again, and so you shut your eyes, kind of half wishing to slip back into that weird-ass floating existence, even though you know there’s a good chance you won’t wake up from it.

You feel Terezi’s hand on your forehead, moving up to pull through your hair, and that brings you back a bit. She makes a quiet sound, and twirls locks of your messy locks around your fingers.

“They’re going to agree,” she says quietly, her face so close that you can feel the puff of air from her words, “Not all of them obviously, but most of the people down here are going to follow John out of the city.”

You don’t bother asking if she’s sure. If she hadn’t smelt it with all certainty, she wouldn’t have said anything. Terezi only leaves things to chance when she’s sure the odds are in her favour. Which is to say, she never leaves things to chance at all.

“Good,” you rasp, with some difficulty, “We can’t stay here anymore.”

She makes a quiet noise of agreement, and then sighs heavily. You don’t blame her. Just because you’re leaving doesn’t mean your safe. If you pass through the city gates, you’re entering the part of the post-apocalyptic wasteland that wasn’t salvageable. The part no one could live on. It’s unprotected, resourceless, and full of mutants far, far worse than you. Crazy as all fuck, rabid and wild, and starving.

Realistically, it’s likely you won’t end up much better than them if you head out there.

But Egbert and his little pep rally were right. You can’t just lay here and die. You have to try. You have to fight for your right to live, even if it’s only living an extra day to die out in Hell. 

“Terezi,” you say, and you manage to lift a hand to touch her cheek gently. She breathes in sharply, and you’re painfully aware of how hot you are in comparison to her. A difference that can’t be equated to your difference in blood colours.

“Yes?” she breathes, as if she’s afraid that just talking will break you. Which is bullshit, because all-seeing blind Terezi isn’t afraid of anything. And you are so fucking sorry that you’ve made her so terrified right now. But you can hear the people around you moving, standing, getting ready. You are going to leave. There’s no doubt about it. And like hell you’re going to lie here like a sick wriggler and be left behind because the Felt fucked you over.

You inhale and force yourself up, gritting your teeth as your limbs twitch uncontrollably before falling limply, your entire body thudding against Gamzee’s chest heavily. Your breath grows short again, and you spend a few seconds catching your breath before you look up at your matesprit and moirail.

“Let’s go.”

//

Your name is JAKE ENGLISH.

And you are having a cup of tea with your father.

He’s removed his green jacket, leaving it hanging on the back of his chair, and the difference that makes is astounding. He’s less of Lord English now and more of your father, if marginally so.

You’re sitting in his office, a large spacious room in the same building as the lab, but separated from it by a hard metal door and soundproof walls. There are no windows, and the dark green surrounding you is more than a little claustrophobic. Your father seems quite unperturbed, however, sipping his tea calmly while eyeing you over his cup. You, for your part, are quite the bundle of unhinged nerves. Your eyes dart about the room and your fingers drum on the table anxiously. At the moment, your mind is a whirlwind of confusion and panic. About an hour ago, your father announced his intention to eradicate the city of any Infected by killing them on sight, regardless of any crime they may or may not have committed. Your mind went immediately to Dirk at that time, and it’s still on him now. His hair and eyes, his fingers, the broad expanse of his back between his shoulders and the flat, unyielding lines of his stomach. You think of his unsmiling mouth and the smile unseen behind his shades, the feeling of him drumming beats up your back, down your side, up your cheek. And you think of the continuous beat he puts inside your soul, in time with your heart and his.

You think of all that, and you want to scream at your father. Except you also don’t. You don’t want to scream at your father because you don’t want him to scream back and you don’t want him to look at you with those eyes you hate so bloody much. Disapproving. Condescending.

His eyes are scary, but his words are scarier, because aside from your emotional response and your love and worry for Dirk, you can see the sense in his words. You’ve always been taught to put the facts and the figures, the cold logic, the hard truth, the reality and the reason, above all else. And your father has logic on his side. The majority of the Infected are constantly trying to drag this city down around your heads, to succumb to the anarchy and ruin that consumed the rest of the world. You know Dirk doesn’t believe that, but he’s- well he’s not one of them. Heavens no. He’s leagues and leagues away from the ruffians and scoundrels that you deal with on a daily basis. But Dirk is more than a little biased. He cares for his people, and he takes the numerous eliminations each night quite hard. Dirk doesn’t seem to be able to distinguish between the rare accidental murder of an arguably innocent Infected and the necessary retribution that keeps the city safe. He’s right on some accounts, and he’s convinced you that not all Infected are out to cause havoc, but there’s what you see during your patrols, with the beasts who spit acid at you and growl and snarl wordlessly, with no shred of humanity or reason. They are a true problem, and there never seemed to be an end to the bloody villains.

But now your father has a solution. A failsafe way to keep Derse safe from the disease constantly eating at it. Unfortunately, it leaves no room for case-by-case examinations. No time to see whether or not an Infected is a true threat or not. It’s a single sweep, with no room for discrepancy. Effective and merciless.

As of this moment, you’re conflicted and confused. On one hand, you’d like nothing better than to see Derse become permanently safe from the monsters that plague it. But on the other hand…

Not all of them are monsters. Dirk’s not. His friends aren’t. He knows lots of Infected that are good people, and they don’t deserve to die. When your father had first made the announcement, you had been filled with more disgust and horror and dread than you ever had in your life. Because this plan, however effective, condones murdering innocents. Killing children and ladies and those who don’t deserve it. And if it goes through, that makes you the monsters, and not them.

Your hands curl into fists, and your jaw tightens.

For reasons you’re not entirely clear on, your father called you to stay behind with him as all the patrols mobilized and were sent out with weapons. You’re stomach had dropped at the time and you were quite sure that he was going to take the chance to thoroughly chew you out for your lack of attendance in patrols and your generally less-than-enthusiastic efforts towards Infected eradication.

While initially apprehensive, you had steeled yourself and reasoned that it was a perfect opportunity to really sit down and talk to your father. Perhaps attempt to convince him that a total sweep would kill those who didn’t deserve it.

In reality, there is a slim chance of it working, but you would prefer being in here then being sent out along with the Felt. You honestly don’t know what you would do. Could you fire at someone without a written document detailing their guilt? Could you pull the trigger with all the ‘what-ifs’ circling around your mind?

And what about Dirk?

A pang of worry twangs through you and you look at your father sharply, huffing in impatience.

Yes Dirk. Dirk Dirk Dirk. What about Dirk? Your boyfriend, your lover, an Infected who you’ve known intimately and who understands you better than anyone in your family does. He’s out there. He’s a mark. He’s out there, and you’re in here, and you’re not out there trying to protect him, help him, stand by him….

But would you?

Would you side with Dirk over your family? Would you fire on your own men to protect him?

You don’t know if you could.

At this point, you wish the two of you could just run away with each other. Leave the city and somehow survive in the wasteland beyond the city’s borders. Oh god, oh god. You bloody wish you could. Just you and Dirk, without any of the complications that family and duty add to your relationship.

But you can’t. Not yet anyways. Your father has you here, and even though he’s currently sipping at his tea like he hasn’t got a care in the world, you know he wants to speak with you, and it has to be important, because he wouldn’t be wasting his time on you otherwise.

Finally, your father sets his cup down and regards you with his strange, shifting eyes. You wilt in your seat automatically, and swallow thickly. You never could sit tall with the weight of the expectations you constantly fail to meet pushing down on your shoulders.

“We haven’t spoken much, have we Jake?” says your father finally, his eyes holding yours tightly, while betraying nothing in their depths, “I feel as if we see very little of each other.”

You prefer it that way, is what you think with a shred of bitterness, but you merely nod, not wanting to give him a single thing to pick at you with.

“Well, let’s rectify that,” he continues, folding his hands atop the table and looking at you expectantly, “I think this is a perfect time for a heart-to-heart, don’t you?”

“Wh- now?” you splutter before you can stop yourself. Your father holds time in the most highest regard, and you can’t fathom the possibility of him voluntarily spending it with you when he is currently in the middle of an operation.

“Yes, right now,” he replies coolly, and you’d think there was a kind of amusement in his tone if that wasn’t completely implausible in every way, shape, or form, “If there is anything you want to speak to me about, Jake, now is the perfect time.”

Your suspicion is immediately aroused, and you tense a bit. He couldn’t…he couldn’t know could he? That…oh, oh god. You honestly cannot think of anything worse then your father finding out about you and Dirk. Bollocks. Bloody hell. What are you supposed to say?

You try to calm your panicking thoughts and refer back to your original goal for this meeting: attempting to dissuade your father from this all-out, no-boundary attack.

“Father, I think you should reconsider your…method for this attack,” you begin slowly, attempting to put conviction in your voice and sound as much as you can like an adult discussing matters and not like a child begging something from their parent.

“Oh?” he replies with raised eyebrows, and the tone of his voice leaves you with no doubt that he expected that statement from you, and the thought thickens the pool of dread in the pit of your stomach.

“Yes,” you affirm, trying you absolutely bloody hardest to hold Lord English’s gaze and not let yourself wilt, “While the majority of Infected are undoubtedly a serious danger to Derse and its citizens, the fact remains that not all have the desire to do us harm. So to call for an nondiscriminatory extermination-,”

“The fact?” interrupts your father, looking at you with that same grim sort of amusement, “You said ‘the fact remains’. What fact, Jake? Do enlighten me as to what esteemed source has you so convinced that the monsters in this city are not actually monsters?”

The breath disappears from your lungs, and all you can see are your father’s eyes, boring into your soul. Scrutinizing, and easily uncovering every single one of your closely guarded secrets.

“I-,” you begin, and you regret it instantly, because your father has always told you not to speak if you have nothing worthwhile to say. And right now, you can’t think of a single thing to fucking tell him. You can’t very well say that you personally know an Infected, and that he’s shown you that the situation in Derse isn’t as black and white as Lord English would have everyone believe. And it’s not like your father would take anything you say seriously anyways.

To your surprise, your father doesn’t sneer at you, or tear down your feeble argument, or belittle your intelligence and essentially your entire existence.

Instead, he sighs. Rubbing a hand between his eyes and looking really and truly…

Regretful?

Upset?

…Sad?

What in the name of tarnished Danish dandelions-

“Jake,” your father is looking at you, and he’s looking at you like he’s never looked at you before. Looking at you like he’s…concerned? Cares for you? Doesn’t see you as a bumbling barely adequate excuse for a son? It’s freaking you out, and you begin to wonder if this whole thing is one ridiculous dream brought about by too much pumpkin tea.

“Jake,” he repeats, and your father truly looks like it’s paining him to speak right now, and not in the exasperated you-are-a-waste-of-my-time look that he usually gives you either.

“Jake, I know about Dirk Strider.”

And that’s when everything spinning mercilessly in your head grinds to an unforgiving halt. It’s an awful lot like someone pressed mute on a television, and blacked out the screen, because for a moment all sound and sight disappear from your world and you sit in silence and darkness, save for a consistent thudding which you recognize is your heart.

You’ve literally been struck dumb, and it’s like your entire world has been flipped upside down because your father is just sitting there, looking neither angry or disappointed or enraged or smug. Just looking…regretful.

“I have known for quite some time,” he continues, and you feel bile rising in your throat, “About…this relationship you chose to pursue. But I chose to stay silent, so that you could learn from this encounter.”

Your short-circuiting brain fizzes and whirrs helplessly as Lord English reaches under the table and pulls out an unassuming pale grey folder. You watch dumbly as he flips it open, and you only just bite back a sob of despair as you see Dirk’s picture on the first page, a grainy shot of him leaning against the wall, shades on and hat pulled low.

“Dirk Strider,” begins your father, and hearing your lover’s name on his lips makes you jolt in your seat, the nausea in your stomach increasing tenfold. His eyes flicker towards you, and for a moment that old coldness is back. Contempt and disgust at your weakness. But then his eyes go back down to the document, and he clears his throat as he continues to read aloud.

“Age unknown,” he states flatly, “Relations: Younger brother, also Infected. Degree of Infection: Level 10.” Your father looks at you again, but you’ve nothing to offer him but a horrified, stricken face, and he shakes his head a little, before returning to the document.

“Child of Misfortune,” he continues, his tone growing grimmer and his eyes becoming darker, “High level Infected, with enhanced senses, speed, and strength as well as further ability specific to the individual. Subject Dirk Strider is known to have powers pertaining to the area classified as Heart.”

Your father lifts his head and looks at you again, this time with his face blank, cold, with an unreadable emotion in the depths of his gaze. You feel like his eyes are smothering you. His words. The folder. You can’t breathe, you need to get out of here, you need to warn Dirk and tell him they know about him and his brother-,

“Do you know what Heart powers do, Jake?” he asks, and you think you hear a bit of a sneer in his voice, a break in that fatherly persona he’s chosen to present in this confrontation, “They affect the emotions of others. They play on the feelings of whomever the user chooses. Children of Misfortune who affect heart can make people feel as they please.”

And Lord English looks at you, with a queer sort of sympathy in his eyes, and you almost lose your lunch right then.

“They can make people love as they please.”

And that’s when something cracks within you. A thin fracture from which all your emotion and pain and anger come spilling out, your teeth gritted and eyes filling up.

“You’re wrong!!” you scream, finding your voice at last and jumping to your feet, fists clenched, face red, and tears threatening to spill out onto your cheeks, “You don’t know anything!! That fucking profile doesn’t tell you a single thing about Dirk! He would never use whatever godblasted manipulation powers you’re prattling on about you bloody-,”

“Jake, do you even hear yourself right now?” replies your father with the barest hint of a snarl in his voice, eyes flat and flinty and unforgiving, “You’re defending an Infected. You are claiming that one of them has a hint of morals. You are going against everything you’ve known for the past twenty-five years, and because of one man? How can you honestly think these things you’re feeling are real?

 “SHUT UP!!” you cry out, and you sound like a petulant child, and you look like one with your hands slammed over your ears because you’ve wondered this exact thing yourself. You’ve wondered how it was possible for one man to undo everything you’ve believed your entire life and you thought it was implausible but that it just showed how much you loved Dirk and oh god oh god nonononononono.

“You know I’m right, Jake,” says your father coolly, ignoring the tears trickling down your face and the nonononono that’s streaming forth endlessly from your mouth, “He used his powers on you to make you think you loved him. He deluded you into thinking that the Infected weren’t a menace, and has been playing you like a fool. It’s because of him that you haven’t been going out on patrols. It’s because of him the patrols you do go on haven’t been as effective in eradication. You’ve been letting Infected go, letting them run free, and it’s all because the man you ‘love’ told you to.”

Nononononono

You’re curled up into a ball, and Dirk’s face keeps flashing through your mind. With his beautiful orange eyes, and ridiculously spiky hair, and his blink-and-you-miss-it smile. And you love that smile, and that stupid hair, and the unnatural eyes. Unnatural because he’s Infected. Unnatural like everything you’ve been told to hate since before you can walk.

No stop stop stop you love him it’s Dirk he’s perfect STOP IT.

“And you tried to convince me not to go through with this plan. This plan that will solve the problem we’ve been dealing with once and for all. Why would you go against your family and the safety of Derse? Why would you go against what we’ve been working towards for years, if someone wasn’t manipulating you?”

Dirk loves me, he loves me! You shout inwardly, and you hold on desperately to all the memories you have with him. Of the dates, and the nights in the park, the passionate kisses and the passionate touching and the feeling when you move together as one. You think of the last time you saw him, and of when you first met, and when you first realized you loved him-

Wait.

You pause.

The first time you realized you might have feelings for Dirk was after your confrontation in the park. When he’d revealed he was Infected, whipping off his sunglasses for the first time.

It was the first time you’d seen his eyes. The bright, vividly orange eyes that seemed to hypnotize and pull you in with their depth…

Oh

Oh my god.

You stop your wild denials, your internal screaming, your despair, and you freeze. Your hands slowly drop down from your ears to cover your face, and the force of the realization and the resulting horror makes your vision go white for a moment, and you almost succumb to the nausea that’s been plaguing you.

He’s right…you think, and you can feel the cracks in your heart growing deeper and longer the more you come to accept it. You feel it become riddled with holes and fissures, your heart that you’ve always worn so plainly on your sleeve, now punctured and leaking everywhere.

Dirk’s been playing you. He knotted you up in his Infected voodoo and turned you against your family and everything they stood for.

Your hands go to your chest, and you press them against it, feeling as if your heart will spill out between your fingers. Dirk once told you your best quality was your huge heart. Turns out, that was just because it made you an easy, susceptible target.

And then, you’re angry.

The broken off shards of your heart gleam sharply within you and you feel daggers and razors in your chest. Your breath hitches and a last tear falls from each eye, before you grit your teeth and bring your hands down to clutch at the table, nails digging into the woods.

You taste copper and salt and blood and if you try hard you can taste Dirk’s mouth on yours and you want to scream and shout and you are so fucking angry at yourself and at Derse and at the Infected and at him and you want to tear your hair. Tear your skin. Tear into your chest and tear out the traitorous organ that did this to you. That betrayed you. That let him play you like one of his fucking turntables.

“Jake.” And that’s your father, talking again. All he does is fucking talk and he’s talked to you before and he’s talked to you now but he couldn't say something when you first came home starry-eyed because Dirk-fucking-Strider had swept you off your feet? You want to punch him. You’ve been scared of Lord English your entire life and yet have always aspired to be like him, but right now you just want to punch him. Punch him in his face. Punch him, punch Dirk, get your guns, shoot everyone. Yes.   

Whatever your father is about to say to you doesn’t get said, because at that moment, there is a knock on his office door. You don’t lift your head, staring at the desk with crescents dug into it where your fingernails sit, at the hands that touched and stroked and caressed. Dirty hands, stupid hands, you are so angry.

Hurt.

Heartbroken.

Enraged.

“Enter,” booms your father, and you suppose he’s going to be done with you now that’s he’s proved his point. Weak, gullible, too trusting. He’s called you all of that before. Now he’s proved it. Proved it as hard and as brutally as it could be proved. Let a damned Infected play hacky-sack with your heart so he could point at it and say ‘I told you so’.

But that’s the English way, isn’t it? Ruthless, until your point is made. Until you get the results you want. That’s the way you should be. The way you’ve never been.

Perhaps it’s time to change that.

“I have a troubling report, Lord English,” says whatever blooming dandy has appeared before your father, sounding a bit rankled and more than a bit concerned, “We have two reports of highly powerful Infected evading the Felt’s attack and destroying units at a troubling rate. One in the Lower Town and one not too far from here, on the Upper West End. They’re both believed to be Children of Misfortune.”

Your head jerks up a little, and a little more blood pumps out of the holes, cracks, fissures in your heart. Trickling, dripping. Molten like lava. Fire in your veins, burning hurting, fueling this anger you’ve embraced in the place of your all-consuming hurt.

You are so very positive that one of the Children of Misfortune is Dirk.

Your father seems to have the same idea, because he turns his head towards you, a challenge of sorts on his face. Show me you understand, it says. Show me you will do your duty.

Show me you can make me proud.

Lifting your head completely, you match your gaze to that of the messenger, and there must have finally been something of your father in your eyes, because the young man flinches.

“Tell me the last known location of the Infected on the Upper End,” you command, your voice flat, authoritative, just like your father’s, “I will deal with it.”

The messenger looks surprised, because you’re not known for your assertiveness, and you’re not known for a face as cold as the one you know you’re currently presenting. A part of your stomach churns, but then you see your father and-

And he’s smiling at you.

He’s smiling at you, and it’s genuine, he looks happy. It unseats you completely for a second and you don’t know what to do. He’s never looked at you like that. He’s looked at Jade like that, but he’s never looked at you like that. Not once. Not when you hit the target dead on for this first time. Not after your first successful patrol. Not after anything.

“I’m proud of you, son,” he says firmly, still smiling eyes as warm as they ever can be, and one of the holes in your heart starts to scab over, the trickle of blood lessening.  

“Now go take care of that thing.”  

//

There’s something oddly comforting about being on the hunt, with the background noises fading away, and your focus solely on finding and taking care of the target. You’ve foregone the usual gaudy emerald of The Felt and the English family, and are instead dressed all in black, with the only hint of green being behind your glasses and the sinister glow that your guns emit. The energy of the Green Sun hums and whirrs in your weapon, and you tighten your hands around them. The new addition makes your familiar pistols seem less of an extension of your body. You’ve had them for years, and nothing feels so natural as having them in your hands, usually. But the crackling energy unbalances the weight that you’re used to, and the humming sound of raw energy rocks into your quiet and breaks your concentration.

Your guns feel heavier, and the green glow plants a seed of discomfort and foreboding in your chest.

But you push aside your misgivings, and hurry through the streets. The area is mostly untouched, as few Infected live on the Upper End. Small Felt units patrol the area, in case any of those do surface. But aside from the clack of their boots on the pavement, the area is silent.

But the noise from the other parts of the city still echo in the air, and the sky is lit up by the continuous green glow from the rougher parts of the City Center and all of the Lower Town. The city is at war, and you are a lone soldier doing his sworn duty. Focused. Ruthless.

(But your stomach is still churning, and your heart still aches, and if you stop and think about everything for just a moment, your eyes begin to sting with the threat of tears. It hurts to think, so all you’re doing is acting.)

A Child of Misfortune was last seen on the edge of Upper Town, heading inwards. He’d somehow come up unmolested, silent and invisible to the patrols, but had finally been confronted by a Patrol on the East End, only to completely destroy them, and continue inwards, towards the area you’re in now.

Your fingers clench and unclench around your guns, and your eyes flicker about the empty streets. The lights flicker on the corners, the sound of nearby patrols is muffled and far-off, and you feel completely alone as you walk, driven by a need to keep doing. Keep moving. Regardless of any ill placed misgivings you may have.

The quiet is beginning to get to you though. You’re finding it difficult to block out your thoughts and concentrate on the task at hand, when all you’re doing is walking through the streets with your target-

(You stutter over the word target in your mind)

-nowhere in sight.

It’s then, as if in answer to your frustrations, that there is a sudden chorus of shouts down the street to your left, and the night lights up with green. Your head snaps to the side immediately, and you find yourself running in that direction, heart hammering. You tell yourself that it’s from the excitement of the hunt, but a part of you scoffs and admits that it’s dread.

But you’re not thinking about seeing him again. You’re not thinking about him as a ‘him’. He used you, yanked you around like a blindly obedient monkey on a chain. He’s Infected, he’s a menace, and right now, he’s your t-target.

You turn the corner with your guns held at the ready, but at this point, all you see are felled soldiers. The crimson leaking out from their armour and the splashes on the wall and on the ground turn your stomach. And it’s only because you’ve turned your head away from it that you notice the shadow disappearing up the wall onto the roof of a building.

A layer of ice coats your insides, and for a moment you’re completely frozen, staring up at where the familiar build just passed. Your heart sinks, and your stomach rolls even more violently. Suddenly, all you want to do is back away and cry. You don’t want to see him, oh god no. Because, fuck, there’s still something there. Still something of whatever shit he did to you despite all that you know and you don’t want to see his face because you still think it’s perfect.

But.

But you have your duty.

You have your duty and you also want to hurt him like he hurt you.

(Except not really)

And you need to punish him for thinking he could use an English like a fucking puppet.

(But you don’t want to)

And you just think of how proud your father will be when you return to him with news of your victory.

(A surreal thought, and the only one that spurs you into action)

Your feet finally begin to move, and you hurry towards the building’s fire escape, shoving your guns into the holsters at your hips and grabbing the cold metal, climbing swiftly. The ladder sways and the rust scratches your bare fingers, but you ascend undaunted, and are soon pulling yourself up over onto the roof.

He’s waiting for you there.

A lump the size of a bowling ball appears in your throat, and it feels like your limbs go to jelly. But you stay standing, and you stay firm, and you don’t make a single move as he turns around.

Dirk’s not wearing his shades, and the orange-amber colour is as striking as ever. Strangely enough, his emotions don’t appear to be as closed off as usual, and you think you can see something in his eyes for once. Fatigue, anger perhaps, and shock.

The last one twists your stomach, but you quickly reason that he’s certainly just surprised that you’ve broken free of the dastardly spell he’s had cast over you for the past half year.

You straighten your back and let your hands fall close to your guns, not saying a word, and Dirk’s eyes widen further.

“Jake,” he begins, sounding breathless and stunned, and just the sound of his voice drives you crazy with the hurt and you snarl at him, whipping out your guns in one fluid movement.

“Don’t you say a word!” you hiss, leveling the muzzles of both guns with his chest, “Your manipulative peepers won’t work their magic any longer, Strider. I’m free of your spell, and I’m ready to deal out the justice that’s been a long time coming!”

The disbelief spreads across his face, and he goes pale. You register that you’ve never seen him this expressive, and you reason that it’s because you’re no longer blinded by his voodoo.

“No,” he breathes out, and you want to laugh at his disbelief because hah! He didn’t think you would break free, did he? He thought he had you snarled nice and tight, didn’t he?

But you also want to cry, because the disbelief sounds like how you felt when your father told you that Dirk is playing you. It sounds like betrayal, and you don’t want to think about why he sounds like he’s being betrayed. You don’t want to think. Everyone always says you never think. Everyone says you believe too easily. But your belief is shattered, and you’re hurting so fucking badly, and you just want this godfuckingdamned pain to go away.

You want it all to go away.

“God Jake, what the fuck did he say?” Dirk keeps talking, why is he still talking. Oh god, why did his voice crack. Why does he sound so agonized.

“What did he say to you?” he continues, taking a step forward, “It’s not true, Jake. Goddammit, it’s not true. I...fuck…

Dirk stops as you move backwards away from him, tightening your grip on your guns, and you can practically see the moment when he sees that talking to you is useless. That you’re not going to believe any of the hogswallop he has to say. And you would laugh in triumph, but instead of looking angry or defeated, Dirk looks…

Devastated.

Mr. Ice-cold Dirk Strider looks like his whole bloody world has come tumbling down around him. And it’s not the look of a monster whose fiendish plans have been thwarted. It’s the look of a man whose heart has been torn out. It’s the look of a man whose hope has been ripped away, and you think his eyes must look just like yours. Hurt, and pained, and confused, and disbelieving, and like his heart is ripped full of holes and leaking. Leaking, leaking, leaking. Like your heart, and your eyes, and you want to scream.

“Shut up!” you yell hoarsely, even though he’s not talking. “God, shut up, please...”

“It’s not true,” he stresses quietly, ignoring your absolutely shameful pleas, “It’s not true, it’s not true, it’s not fucking true! I wouldn’t. I can’t. I can’t fucking mess with people that way and I wouldn’t if I could. I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t Jake please.”

He’s panicked, he’s pleading, and he’s quiet. He’s quiet because Dirk is always quiet. He almost never yells. He’s cool as ice and snow, and he smiles small smiles and frowns small frowns and his face never ever never contorts into pain like it has right now.

Your breath hitches in your throat and tears cloud your vision and your hands shake. Your guns are blurs of green before your eyes and they’re shaking. Shaking just like a fucking drenched dog in the midst of a hurricane.

“It doesn’t make sense,” you whisper, hard exterior cracking and all the pain and hurt leaking out all over your chest, “It doesn’t make sense. Why would I love you? Why…why would you love me? How could something as convoluted and outlandish as this work in reality?”

You shudder, and lift your arm to wipe the tears away on your shoulder.

“It wouldn’t,” you growl, some of that old fire, old anger searing into your veins again. “It wouldn’t work. That’s the catch. It wouldn’t, it wouldn’t and you’re a fucking li-,”

“Green for forests,” Dirk says suddenly, and you’re halted right at the beginning of what was about to be an enraged tirade. You’d be even more angry at the interruption, if you hadn’t been stopped dead by the words tumbling from Dirk’s mouth.

What?

“Green for forests,” he continues, quietly, but forceful, “You wear the English green because you like the colour. You wear it on your jacket and on your pants when you go out casually not because it’s your family’s colour, but because you’ve always wanted to see a real forest, with bright green leaves and sun dappling down between them. You want to turn back the apocalypse not because of what humanity lost, but because of what the Earth lost. And your room is full of potted plants and mini pumpkins and you suck at growing them but you try anyways. You try because you want to make the world beautiful again. You want people to be happy to go outside. You want people to look at trees and not see something warped and black and twisted. You want there to be birds and bees and life again. And you don’t want it for yourself. Because fuck Jake, you never do anything for yourself. You always want to bring happiness to people, and that’s why you work so hard. Why you fight so hard. You want to bring peace to Derse in anyway you can, and it’s not about revenge, and not about eradication, but about happiness.”

You’re struck dumb by the words, and even as your mouth stops working, your chest starts to swell with a familiar warmth. You try to fight it back, you try to fight because you need to be firm in your resolve. You need to be steely and cold and a true English.

But no one ever talks to you the way Dirk does. God help you, no one understands you like he does.

“And that’s why you’re different, Jake,” says Dirk, and there’s something light and warm in his voice that starts to seal up some of the cracks in your heart, even as a voice protests and tells you that you’re being gullible. But fucking christ on a cracker no one talks to you like this. No one sees the little things. No one sees you.

Except for the man whose chest you’re pointing your guns at.

“You’re different,” Dirk keeps talking, and you let him, your face like stone as tears still trickle down your cheeks, “Because you’re kind. You’re kind and nobody sees it. Your family thinks you’re weak and it’s wrong. It’s easier to be cruel than to be kind, trust me. You’re stronger then them because you don’t let yourself be dragged down by Derse. You’re stronger then them because you don’t claim to help Dersites through murder and taxes and fancy galas and speeches. You buy ice cream, and you read to children, and you do it because you care, and because you’re you. You’re you Jake.”

His voice is starting to crack, his voice is starting to crack and his breath is hitching and hell no. Absolutely not. Dirk Strider does not cry. Dirk Strider does not start breathing heavily like he’s about to fucking break out into sobs like a four year old who’s lost his marbles. Like a man who’s heart has been broken. Dirk doesn't do that. Dirk doesn't… Dirk…Dirk…

“Dirk…” His name slips from your mouth before you can stop it. Your father’s face flashes in your head as your arms begin to lower, and his words and accusations echo in your mind.

But Dirk’s voice is louder.

“Your eyes don’t even look like Emeralds, like everyone says they do,” he says, and it’s less of the smooth talking you usually associate with Dirk and more of a jumbled attempt to get out everything he’s feeling in one go. And it’s so awkward and unexpected and so real.

“They look like the real forests you want to see so much,” he continues passionately, warmer then you’ve ever heard him sound. “Your eyes, fuck. I love them so much. I love how they light up, and how they squint, and how they get so insulted and easily worked up and excited. God I love it when they’re excited. You find amazement in the littlest things, Jake. And you don’t fucking know how much I love it when you find a penny on the sidewalk and it makes your day, even though you have more than enough money in your family. Or when you see a family together and you smile longingly but not jealously or angrily. When you see a couple and waggle your eyebrows at me. Or when you just…just kiss me. Out of the blue. Because you’re spontaneous and full of surprises and one of the biggest surprises of my life was finding out that Jake fucking English had a bigger heart then anyone else in Derse. And maybe you do believe easily. Yeah, you believe everything. You believe in a better world. You believe in happiness. You believe in forests, and planting gardens, and children, and you believe in people. You believed in me when I showed you my eyes, and it was the best fucking moment of my life. And I-,”

Dirk chokes. He actually chokes. And he lifts one hand like he wants to reach out and touch you, but it stops mid way and stays frozen in the air.

“If you think I’m playing you, I-,”

His voice is strained, and then he chokes again. He’s shaking. Dirk is shaking. And you just stay where you are, you don’t move, you don’t speak, and you watch as he squeezes his eyes shut, a single clear tear snaking out from underneath one eyelid.

“Fuck, I-,”

He wipes the tear away quickly, swearing under his breath and clenching his teeth. His shoulders shake and he lifts his head and looks at you with this bloody thrice-darned look.

“I love you, Jake.”

The words hang in the tense air. Your guns hang at your side, still crackling with electricity. Still charged with death. The file on your father’s desk, his words, his accusations, the logic behind his statements, they all fly through your mind. The acceptance of your own weakness, the way you believe too readily.

You’ve always believed to easily. It’s your greatest fault.

You close your eyes and take a deep breath, the air rattling in your lungs. Your hands tighten around your gun and you make a decision. You decide as Jake English, heir of Lord English, and lover of Dirk Strider.

You lift your head.

“Believing has always been my greatest weakness,” you say flatly, voice hoarse from all the sobs that have been torn from your throat this evening. You think you see something break in Dirk as you say it, and something breaks in you too.

“But Dirk,” you continue, and you’re stepping towards him, tears in your eyes, another sob threatening to tear itself from your throat, “You showed me that it’s also my greatest strength.”

You see Dirk’s eyes widen, widen and light up and he’s walking towards you with quick, jerky little steps. None of that cool striding, just a hurried lurch towards you as he whispers your name over and over.

You believe him. You believe him. Oh god how could you have ever doubted him?

He’s almost reached you, and you can see the strands of his hair and the orange of his eyes and wetness gathering there. The freckles on his skin that you like to count and kiss, across his cheeks and down his neck. The rippling muscles under his shirt and the strong hands you love to hold. He’s your lover who you believe, and who you’d be a fool not to trust. Because your father can tell you that Dirk doesn’t love you, but Dirk’s the only person you’ve ever known that actually seems to know what love is.

You lift your arms slightly, preparing to drop your guns and envelop Dirk into a tight hug and never, never let him go.

But before you can, Dirk is enveloped in a flash of green.

And your budding smile twists into an expression of sheer horror.

It’s blink and you miss it. One moment Dirk is inches away from you the next he’s on the ground in convulsions, his voice torn from his throat in harsh screams and green electricity snaking out from his back to tear at the rest of his body.

“I got him, young master!”

You look up from where Dirk lies twitching at your feet, to stare in shock at the Felt soldier waving at you from the nearby rooftop. His gun is smoking and crackling, and oh god he shot him. Dirk’s been shot with the one-hit-is-all-it-takes Green sun bullets oh fuck no no nonono

You fall to your knees immediately, ignoring the Felt soldier, ignoring even the idea of putting up a pretense, and crawling towards Dirk. Green still licks and flickers about his body, but he’s still now. Oh god. His eyes are closed and his face is pale and you can’t see his chest moving oh fucking christ no.

This can’t be happening, you think, just a little hysterical in your mind as you raise a shaking hand to feel for a pulse in that freckled neck you love so much. No….nonono Dirk please…

“Best to hit him again, sir.” And now the fucker is here. He’s leaped across the narrow space between the buildings and is striding towards you without a care in the blooming world.

“They say it takes more than one shot for the strong ones, and this one’s a Child of Misfortune.” You can hear the disgust in his voice. The disgust, the contempt, and out of the corner of your eye, you see him raise his gun.

What happens next is a bit surreal, as you don’t recall standing, or raising your gun. All you know is that the young soldier had his mask smashed in by your pistol, and was stretched out on the ground unconscious in a few short seconds.

The implications of striking one of your own men slides off your back like butter, because all you care about right now is your boyfriend, your lover, who you think is dead.

You fall to your knees and choke back a sob, cradling Dirk’s head in your lap. Fuck. Fuck this is all your fault. Dirk’s too fast, and too smart, and he’s bloody untouchable. He wouldn’t have gotten shot if you hadn’t been weighing him down with your drama. He wouldn’t have gotten shot if he hadn’t been distracted by his boyfriend not trusting him.

You are Jake English, and your father was right everytime he treated you like a colossal fuck up. Because you have murdered the only truly good thing you had in your life. You’ve lost him. You’ve lost…you’ve lost…

A sharp intake of breath, a pained hiss. You look down and, thank the fucking heavens his eyes are fluttering. Dirk’s eyes are fluttering, and then he’s looking at you.

A gust of air escapes his lips with a soft sound, and it takes you a few seconds to realize he said your name. Weakly, as if he barely had enough air in his lungs to breathe, let alone to speak.

You place a trembling finger to his lips before you break down entirely.

“I’m so sorry,” you sob, pressing one hand to your eyes as they begin to well up and spill over for the third time tonight, “This is all my fault I’m so fucking sorry-,”

Dirk makes a sound like a growl in the back of his throat and you jerk backwards in surprise. With another pained sound and a string of curses, he pulls himself up off the ground, his torso thudding into your chest.

“Not now, Jake,” he says breathlessly, the rise and fall of his chest seeming much more laboured than it should, “There’s no time.”

And then he’s up again, leaning on you heavily as he attempts to rise to his feet. He’s barely up an inch off the ground before his body erupts into spasms and he releases an anguished shout, collapsing into you. His limbs jerk spastically and he shakes with tremors as his skin grows clammy and slick with sweat.

All you can think of is your father’s test subject falling down dead in convulsions. And his proclamation that even if a bullet didn’t kill right away, it’s properties would eventually send the victim down a particularly painful route to the grave.

You bite back another sob and squeeze your eyes shut, wrapping your arms around Dirk and pressing yourself as close to him as you can.

You stay like that for a few minutes, and you can feel Dirk’s heart beating, erratic and offbeat. You can also feel his chest’s uneven movements, short shallow breaths that wheeze and rattle painfully.

“Jake,” repeats Dirk once he’s caught his breath, and he moves back a little so that he can look you in the eye, “The Green Sun h-has to be des-destroyed. Now.”

The stutter in his normally perfectly smooth voice says wonders about his current condition, and you protest as he tries to rise to his feet again.

“You can’t go in this state! You’re-,”

Dying. You’re dying Dirk. Oh god help me you’re dying.

No. Stop. You can’t think like that. Dirk’s right, there’s no time. Innocents are dying, and it’s the fault of you and your family. There’s no time. You can’t start practicing that selfishness Dirk said you lacked now.

And maybe there’s a cure. Maybe there’s something to stop the rampage of the Green Sun’s energy through his body.

But you have to save the city first.

You’re too badly hurt,” you say firmly, and glare at him as he begins to protest. “No! You’ll not get anywhere like this. Dirk, I’ll go. I’ll destroy that fucking green ball of death and stop all this senseless murder.”

Dirk falls silent for a moment, but then his hand tightens in your shirt, and he gives you sad, tired look.

“Could you, Jake?” he says softly, his voice raspy and rattling as his breath continues to clatter painfully in his lungs, “You’re father’s there, isn’t he? All the Felt. Can you. R-really go straight to…to English labs and betray them?”

The words hurt, and if it was anyone else you’d think they were bitter. Bitter because you had turned on him so easily for your family. But you know that Dirk is thinking about you. He doesn’t want you to be torn. And he also doesn’t want you to hesitate.

But you won’t.

“My father has done nothing but hurt me over the years,” you say, and it surprises you a little because you don’t think you’ve ever admitted it out loud with such venom before, “He’s belittled me, mocked me, scoffed at me, and disrespected me on all accounts. I always thought that he was right. That his efforts to make me more of an English were in the city’s best interest and mine. But tonight, he manipulated me in the worst way possible. And- and he made me fucking turn my- No, no he didn’t make me do anything. He played upon my own insecurities and my need to please him to get me to do something I never should have done. To get me to turn my guns on you. And that’s not something a father would do. That’s something a…a monster would do.”

Another puncture in your heart, even as you say the words with conviction. Because he’s your father, and no matter what he does you’ll always wish he loved you. You’ll always wish he’d been proud of you, truly. But you understand now that your father’s approval is worth shit, and you can’t let yourself be sidetracked by your childish longing for him any longer. Dirk is hurt because him, and because of you, and that’s not something you can ever forgive.

“And I’ll say that to his face,” you continue, your voice sharp and sure, none of that past uncertainty and nonsense in it now, “I’ll tell my father exactly what I just told you, and I’ll do it while destroying that disgusting green weapon of his.”

You expect a degree of skepticism from Dirk at the end of your proclamation, but when you look down at him, you’re greeted with a small, pained smile, and tired eyes, hurt and heavily lidded, looking into yours.

“You don’t ha-have to face him alone,” he says, and though he’s keeping his voice mostly steady there’s a strong undercurrent of pain that makes you want to cringe on his behalf, “I’ll be there beside you, Jake…We…We’ll destroy it together.”

You almost protest, because Dirk is in no condition to be destroying everything. But then he rises shakily to his feet, one hand on your shoulder as your rise with him. He stands unsteadily, but he’s standing, and as soon as he’s upright he shoots you a look that dares you to challenge him.

It’s so very Dirk, you almost smile. He’s stubborn, and he always wants to do everything himself.

But you’ll be beside him this time.

You loop one of his arms around your shoulders and stagger towards the ladder, not saying anything else but nodding to him. You reason that it makes more sense to take him with you, then to leave him here helplessly. Though really, you just know that there’s no way you could make him stay. Your Dirk Strider is quite the force of nature. Immovable and resolute.

You can feel him struggling to maintain steady breathing and you have to fight back a fresh wave of tears because you love him so fucking much. You love him.

“Dirk,” you say suddenly, stopping right before you descend the ladder, “Before we go, you have to promise me something.”

Dirk turns his head to look at you, one eyebrow raised. The expression is familiar, and it sends a feeling of nostalgia through you. A longing for the simpler days. Hell, a longing for this morning, when you had been on a date and the city wasn’t going up in blazing green death.

“You have to promise me you won’t die, Dirk,” you say, and you probably sound like some cliché female love interest in an action movie but fuck you mean it. Dirk is weak right now and he’s always so focused on completing the task at hand that he never takes himself into consideration. Whether it’s working on a robot for three days straight without food or sleep, or charging into the lab without an ounce of self-preservation.

Promise me,” you plead, tightening your hold around his waist.

“I promise I won’t leave you,” replies Dirk after a few moments of tense silent. “I promise that I will never leave you, Jake English.”

//

You are now DAVE STRIDER.

And you’re dancing.

Slice.

Cut.

Slash.

Slice.

Cut.

Slash.

It becomes a rhythm, a waltz, and you barely register the blood on your hands, face and neck, soaked into your clothes and flying through the air as your sword sings.

Patrolmen fall before you as if you were chopping logs. Your sword finds their weak points easily, stabbing into the chinks in their armour and biting into the area between helmet and breastplate.

The sound fades around you so that all you can hear is your own slightly ragged breathing. The shouts of the Felt and the screams of the Infected are muffled and distant, and the swish of your sword through the air and squish of your sword plunging into soft tissue.

Breathe in, breathe out.

Your hand stills only when the man in front of you falls and three more don’t spring up in his place. Your sword lowers to your side, and sound bleeds back into your world. You become aware of the bruises and the cuts dotting your person, and the blood splattered all over you feels hot and sticky.

There’s a score of dead bodies around you.

The area is otherwise clear. The Infected that were being attacked have long since fled, and it’s silence except for the sound of the attacks and fighting in the other parts of the city. You should go there. You should be there. You need to keep fighting and saving people.

A drop of blood drips from your hair into your eyes, and you feel like a monster.

You lift your head and look up at the sky.

There’s no glimmer of starlight tonight, and everything’s covered by the blanket of smog and pollution. Occasionally, a far away highpowered gun will light the sky green, like there was emerald lightning crackling upwards from the ground, but otherwise, the heavens look relatively undisturbed.

You feel kind of small, like everything that’s happening to you is insignificant, miniscule. Your world is falling around you, but it doesn’t matter. You don’t matter.

The weight of the blood on your clothes is pulling you down, and you’re tired. You want to stop being a monster, stop letting it run free and massacre and attack in the name of your people. Because you’re still killing, and even though they don’t see you as a person you know that these soldiers are people, and have families and-

You’re fighting because they see you as a monster, and you don’t believe you’re a monster. To protect yourselves and others, you’ve let yourself become a monster.

Ah, the ironies.

You dully register the sound of someone coming up behind you, and you can’t tell whether it’s Infected or a soldier. The smell of blood and death is messing up your senses.

But there's a falter in their step, a sharp intake in breath and a disbelieving hitch in their breathing that has you whirling around.

You're almost not surprised when you see Jade standing there, her Felt uniform dirty, torn, and scorched, and her boots splashed and speckled with the blood you just spilled. Her hair is pulled tightly back into a single braid, and her dorky circular frames have been replaced by thick black goggles. With a rifle in her gloved hands and the sickly green of the English house all over, she looks every bit her Uncle's child, and very much the Felt soldier.

You can only imagine how you look to her.

The dried blood on your face is itchy, and the blood on the ground around you is soaking into your shoes, but you don't move. Well, more like you can't. Her eyes, green as grass, as leaves, as emerald and jade beads. They shine through her goggles, bright. In the darkness of the street, light.

And you, with your red, on your chest, on your head.  The bird of death flies, and the blood's reflected in your eyes.

Sick beats. Here are some literally ill slams you can get behind.

You're not wearing your sunglasses.

The street is silent, and you can hear your own heartbeat quickening, your own breath hitching, and you see Jade's hands in her gun, shaking, she's breaking, and her wide open eyes, betrayed by your lies are making, you hurt.

You hurt.

You lick your cracked lips and open your mouth to try and break the heavy, cloying silence that smells of the blood and the death and the untruths between you.

You've barely taken a breath before the gun whirs and a bullet of green blasts by you, tingling your skin uncomfortably and smelling of death.

Sizzle, pop, flash, the gun smokes, it wafts and shivers, quivers, like her hands. Clenched tight and trembling, just barely resembling, the girl you knew. Now she's emerald, and you're crimson, and there's a great divide between you.

The gun glows green and you're silent, you stare. There's a beat beat beating of your heart, and you can hear hers, they're in time, you're apart, and she's right there. 

"You-," her voice cracks and you almost shatter. If she was angry it would be okay. Fuck, you could have handled her being angry. Just angry. Cause she is angry, she's angry, but not just. She's also sad, she's hurt, she's disbelieving, and you can hear the crack in her heart to match her voice, and the one in yours.

"Jade," you say thickly, and you try to take a step forward but the blood on your pants is weighing down your legs, "Jade, I-,"

"SHUT UP!!!" she screams, and four more shots whiz by your ear. That side of your face is starting to hurt, and you try to take a step to the left, only for her to fire seven consecutive shots on that side.

"DONT MOVE!" she screams, and she sounds so desperate, so raw, crack split shatter goes the clock face and time stands still.

You don't move.

Silence, except for the ragged sound of her breathing and the rabbit quick tick tock of your heart and hers. You wonder if you really did stop time, because you can't hear anything but the two of you, and your vision has narrowed to her wide green eyes and smoking gun.

"You..." shake-shake-shake goes her voice crack splinter shatter broken sobs and smashed breath you think she could be crying behind those goggles. But Jade doesn't cry, that’s not a thing she does. Jade shoots and slashes and bangs away the things that make her sad. The things that hurt her.

And you're the red-eyed demon dripping in blood and gore standing in the darkness and making her hurt.

You wonder if she'll shoot you once, or shoot you again and again until there's nothing left but a mound of smoking used-to-be flesh. Bury that in satin with cornflowers and poppies and a eulogy written by Terezi. Here lies the man who would stride. Instead he died. Smelling like cherry coke and lime green soda. A-motherfucking-men.

It will rain, and the drops will melt the skin off the bones of the bystanders like acid. Everyone dies. Curtain call. Goodnight, sweet prince.

Fucking Horatio, you never did shit the entire play who even invited you.

It was probably her.

"You're one of them!!!" she shrieks shrilly, sounding disbelieving and so fucking shocked and now you can hear the sheer outrage in her voice. She's mad now, and it's showing in the tightening of her grip, the aggressive shift in her stance, the bared teeth. All of them are signs ticking down to your demise. You're fast but you're not fast enough to avoid the gun of the girl who kissed you.

Emotions and feelings and heart shaped manacles chain you down and turn your legs into lead. You’re dead. You’ll lose your head, to the mad princess upon whose heart you tread.

"You lied," she snarls, and sobs, and chokes, "You acted like you were my friend and you kissed me and I hate you, I hate you, I fucking hate you you goddamn bloody Infected you-,"

"That's not true!" you shout out, and this time you don't flinch as a sickly green bullet goes speeding past you, "Jade I fucking swear I was never playing you or acting please-,"

"SHUT UP!!" she screams again, and she sounds hysterical and crazed but haha you can't really talk about crazy when you're somehow hoping she'll understand and forgive when you're standing here dressed up in the blood of her men. Bright crimson suit, material of the perfect viscosity, dripping and and plip-plipping onto the pavement.

Your sneakers and socks are soaked through.

"How could I have been so stupid?!" she's hisses shrilly, half to herself, and there's a note in her voice that makes your chest ache.

"No, no it wasn't you," you say, and it's less like you're talking and more like you're pleading, "I should have told you. I'm so fucking sorry, Jade. I shoulda told you that I was-,"

Another howl, another hail of bullets, and these ones cut close. You actually have to move away from them to avoid going up in a ball of green. But the fact that they haven't really come close to hitting you says something, you think. Jade Harley is a crack shot. Jade Harley does not miss, no matter how fucking stressed she is. Not unless she's trying to miss. 

And that gives you just enough courage (or motherfucking stupidity), to take a step towards her.

"I didn't tell you because I was scared," you continue, moving forward even as she backs up with a hiss. You hold your sword downwards, in the most non-threatening position, "But I never faked our friendship! Jade, I didn't know who you were for three years. Everything we've ever shared was real. I have not been playing you Jade Harley! You've always been my friend!"

You're shouting by the time you've stopped walking, about a meter in front of her. Her shaking hands are that much more evident up close. The large front teeth, digging deep into her lip. The bright green, narrowed and hurt from behind goggles. The uncertainty of the finger on the trigger.

You think she might have said something. Something that would have made or broken the both of you. It might have ended up with your heart stopped and your skin cold. But she never gets a chance to open her mouth. You never get a chance to continue talking. Because something roars.

Something. Fucking. Roars.

Both you and Jade jerks your head to the side, and you see Jade's jaw drop and her grip slacken a bit. It's rare that something ever takes Jade Harley by surprise, and you're pretty rattled yourself by what sounds an awful lot like your washing machine choking on a shuriken you forgot in your belt.

But the main thing you're getting from this hellish sound is that things are about to go from bad to worse. And you can barely fucking handle what you're dealing with right now. As much as you want to talk it out, make it better, sit down and chat with your girlfriend (former, now that you've cleared this thing with John. But she's still one of your dearest friends), you just don't have the time.

So as soon as Jade has turned her head and loosened her grip on her gun, you're moving, fast as you ever have, until you're behind her.

She starts to turn with a panicked hiss, but you're fast, you're the monster, you're the red-eyed demon, and you whisper a regret-filled apology before you put your hand to her neck and press.

She collapses like a rag doll, backwards into your arms with her eyes rolling back into her head. You're momentarily surprised by how heavy she is, but you look at all her gear and armor and the guns at her hips and you remember that this is a soldier, not a girl.

You wouldn't know it though, looking at her face right now. There's none of that manic intensity, and she looks just like she does when the two for you lie by side in your warped central park, staring up at the sky.

Bitter clear liquid salt stings the bright red in your eyes and you pull your ex-girlfriend ex-friend over to an abandoned alleyway.

You lay her down behind a pile of bodies, and almost laugh because wow you're the absolute worst. Didn't even have to the power to lay her on a bed of flowers, a glass case, nothing less, a resting place fit for your homicidal little princess.

But you're not a prince, and the kingdom's at war, and there's no place safer for your soldier-princess sleeping beauty then amidst corpses where anyone who sees her will think she's taking the deepest sleep of all.

She'll be safe, for now.

You step back, and back, and back again until you're in the street. Blinking away all of Dave Strider's pain you slip back into the monster's skin and tense, sniffing and listening and wary for the first glimpse smell sound of whatever made that godawful roar.

The first thing you note is that everything smells...green. English's energy smell is heavy in the air, which isn't strange, but it smells....

Different.

Worse.

Less like a toxic radioactive Lima bean and more like...A toxic radioactive swamp full of dead dogs. Dead dogs and blood.

You raise your sword and listen.

Far-away feet pounding the pavement, running and chasing, far-off screams echoing in the night. Your grip tightens and your feet itch to run there, but you need to find it first. Holy fuck, you need to find it first because it smells like death, like your death, and you actually don't want to die just yet. Thanks for the offer, but nah you're good. 

You listen.

You listen.

And you hear.

Screams, mixed in with the same enraged roar from before. Sickly green dead dogs reeking of corpses and blood sting your nostrils and you start to run towards the sounds and scents. Everything in you is telling you to get the fuck away because it's death, that thing is death and you're moving closer to it and fuck no no this isn't fight or flight this is run. No moron, in the other direction!

But you don't listen because the people screaming are the ones you swore to protect.

It doesn't take long for you to being seeing the bodies of those you swore to protect scattered in your path. Not just smoking and crackling with the Green Sun energy, but stabbed through the torso, or with their heads lopped off.

The Felt doesn't fight with swords.

As the body count increases, your feet slow down. You have the distinct feeling that it's in your best interest to proceed with caution, and the sound of your own breathing begins to feel way too loud in your ears.

Suddenly, the smell increases in strength and you feel a sharp chill run down your spine. All of the hair on your body stands up, and you whirl around, sword held at the ready and teeth bared in a snarl.

There’s nothing behind you but wisps of green floating in the air. Little sparks that disappear into nothing. You stare at them in confusion, before you get that oh fuck feeling again coupled with a noise that sounds like a growl from behind you and you turn sharply again.

This time, it’s still there.

Your name is Dave Strider, and you’re pretty sure that you’re staring death in the face.

A huge bipedal black dog, one head taller than you, with white slits for eyes and jagged daggers for teeth. Two black wings extend from its back, a black sword is held in one hand, and its entire body crackles and burns with the noxious energy of the Green Sun.

In seconds it’s leaping at you, and you raise your sword to meet the black one with a snarl. The force of the hit has you sliding backwards on the pavement, and you duck away from his blow, flashstepping behind him.

But no sooner are you moving, then he's disappearing in a flash of green from your vision. You only have a moment to be confused before there’s a sharp pain in your back and chest, and a feeling of coldness spreading from the center of your body outwards.

You look down to see the point of his black sword protruding from your chest, and a sea of red spreading across your shirt.

Then the sword is gone, pulled out, and you’re falling. Down, down, down. First to your knees, then onto your side, blood pooling in your mouth and limbs useless.

The last thing you see before darkness overtakes you is the creature disappearing in a flash of green.

Then you’re gone.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

bump.

bump.

ba-bump.

ba-Bump.

.

Ba-Bump.

BA-BUMP.

BA-BUMP.

 

 

The flesh is weak, but the spirit is strong.

 

.

 

Your feathers rustle, and you open your eyes.

 

//

Your name is JOHN EGBERT.

And you are trying to be strong.

You are trying to be strong because you have spent far too much of your life as weak and always depending on others. And it’s funny, because you don’t think you ever realized it before? Like, how absolutely useless you were. Always dependent on others. Never able to get anything done without someone-

-Dave-

-holding your hand.

But you’re done with that now.

And you’re definitely not depending on the hands that you’re holding right now. Nepeta on your left, squeezing tightly and her face pale with fear, and Vriska on your right. Her grip firm, unyielding, but her palm damp with sweat, her knuckles white, and her tense posture betraying her fear.

But their hands are warm, and they’re giving you strength. They’re keeping your feet moving, keeping your eyes forward and your breathing even. Keeping you in motion even as the night sparks and flashes with green and the sounds of shouts and gunshots pound relentlessly at your ears. But you’re not depending on them. No, you’re done with that. Now, you’re all supporting each other. All holding one another aloft. Keeping all of you marching forward, together.

Another hail of bullets fires at you and your breath hitches, but Vriska squeezes your hand, you squeeze Nepeta’s trembling one, and none of you stop.

If you stop, you’ll die.

The red blue of Sollux's psionics surround your entire group. A group which consists of the hundred or so Infected that were in the basement, and the hundreds and hundreds more that have joined you in your march through the city. You’ve probably cracked a thousand at this point.

A telepath named Aradia is levitating cars and slabs of metal pulled off of machines and buildings, and whenever a new group tries to join up, Sollux creates a hole in his force field and Aradia shields them with debris. The psionic troll is marching at the center of your group, sweat beading on his brow and breathing slightly strained. You don't know anything about psionics, or mutants at all really, but you can't imagine it's easy protecting all these people while walking forward under heavy fire.

You pause in your thoughts for a moment, and a hazard a glance to the side.

Felt soldiers still line the street, guns at the ready and whispering urgently with one another, but aside from the random flurry of shots, the mass firing that occurred when you guys first emerged and began your long trek to the city gates is over.

Well, you really, really, hope it's over.

You may be protected, but having blinding green blasting you from all sides is…well, it’s kind of terrifying! You thought your heart was going to beat right out of your chest with every explosion of green that hit Sollux’s forcefield. But Vriska was cursing and shaking, and Nepeta was crying, and you needed to be strong. Like, really be strong, for the first time in your life.

Because when you walked out of the Basement, everyone followed you. No one ran in front of you, no one yelled at you anymore. Everyone fell into step behind you, and when you stopped walking to see if Karkat was okay, everyone stopped as well, looking uncertain, scared. Confused and lost the second you were no longer moving forward.

Somehow (and you're really not sure how) you became the leader. Which is probably the absolute most scariest shit that has ever happened to you. How the fuck are you supposed to be a leader? How are you supposed to march at the head of a thousand mutants who are all counting on you to save their lives and lead them out of the city? What’s going to happen if-when you get out of the city? Are they still going to follow you? Are they going to expect you to know what you’re doing? Because you don’t. Like, at all. You’re not even sure if this is the quickest route to the outer gate. You are so so so so scared that you’re going to let everyone down. And in this context, letting everyone down means letting everyone die.

But, since there was apparently a secret ballot that no one told you about, you are the leader, and you can't be scared! You need to be strong. For...for your people.

Another barrage of bullets hits the field and you suck in a breath. Some people in the crowd scream with panic, but you march forward, unfaltering. As long as you don't stop, they won't stop. That's still really scary to you, and you wish you didn't have all the people depending on you, but...

But.,.

You can't look back because people would worry, but you know that a few steps behind you, Gamzee is carrying Karkat, who is barely clinging to consciousness, Terezi holding his hand and marching resolutely beside. Karkat was the defacto leader of the Trolls in Derse, probably the only Infected in the whole city who had tried to organize you guys as a group. He should be leading everyone out of here. The Trolls would have followed him without question. The others would have joined.

But he's hurt. He's...he's...his life is in danger.

And there's only you.

Just something else to add to the list of terrifying things brought about by this whole horrible situation.

There is only you.

You breathe in sharply as another hail of bullets hit the force field, and for a moment, you want to close your eyes and pretend that you're back at home with your piano in front of you. Old and plunky but sounding warm and familiar. The smell of your dad baking, the smoke from his pipe mixing in with the scent of eggs and flour and vanilla. You never minded his baking as much when it was from scratch, without the batterwitch tainting his perfect recipes. It was something consistent. Something he always did. Something that characterized your home, and your life.

But no! Nope nope nope. You can't drift away. It's not fair. You need to be here, and be present, and be strong. You can't pretend that the world isn't falling down around you. You can't pretend that one mutant isn’t all that stands between everyone that's put their trust in you and certain death. You can’t pretend that Karkat's not dying, you can't pretend that Dave will somehow manage to save everyone else, and you can't pretend that you'll ever see your dad again.

You have to stay in the present, in the now, and face the truth. And the truth hurts. It really, really hurts! The truth is Karkat's labored breathing in Gamzee's trembling arms. The truth is the blood around your mouth from the man you killed. The truth is the dead bodies of Mama D and those innocent kids who never got a chance to live, and the truth is the sky lighting up with green as the Felt try again and again to kill you.

You'd like nothing more than to squeeze your eyes shut and pretend that all the bad things don’t exist, but you keep your eyes forward, your head high, and you walk.

You walk on.

The march seems to go on forever, punctuated by the sound of children crying and the injured sobbing in pain. The angry jeers from the soldiers gathered beside you and the constant hum of Sollux's psionics.

The sounds blur together and time blurs with it. Your feet pound rhythmically and you start to lose yourself. Step step step step there's no end. There's no goal anymore you just have to keep walking. Your feet hurt, and your legs and spirit and head and heart are all so tired. But there's absolutely no stopping. You hone in on the thud of your feet and hold on to it. Follow the beat John, and don't stop. Just follow the beat.

You think of Dave.

Your breath hitches and you suck in air harshly. Your eyes sting, and your chest constricts.

Follow the beat and don't cry John. Whatever you do, don't cry.

"John?"

Vriska's voice, more unsure, more tired, then you've ever heard it, breaks into your timeless, meaningless bubble and pretty much slaps you across the face. Wake up, Egbert! You have people to save!

You turn your head towards your troll friend, but note that her eyes aren't on you, but are forward. Wide and uncertain and maybe just a little scared.

You follow the direction of her gaze, and you find your breath catching in your throat.

The street has widened, and is no longer black pavement bordered tightly by imposing, dark buildings. The ground is potholed, missing chunks of asphalt, uneven and uncared for, moreso than the rest of the city. The tall buildings are gone, replaced by half-destroyed structures, rubble, burnt out and forgotten. It's sad and horrible and dead and you wonder why this blatant reminder of everything the world lost when it ended is still here.

You think maybe it's just that no one wants to live this close to the Outlands, no one wants to work near the Outlands, and so no one takes care of the buildings close to the wall.

Because that's what’s rising up in front of you now.

You can feel your heart hammering in your chest and hear the sound of your own harsh breathing, because haha, wow.

Wow.

You've never seen the wall before. It's not really a thing you've been encouraged to go and see. The armed guards walking around were never a high attraction, and the thick wall of brick and iron and everything they could throw into it to keep the badlands out and the people in is kind of more of a shit-your-pants thing than enjoying-the-sights-of-the-city thing.

It looms up into the sky, dark and imposing, and you can just barely make out the figures situated on top of it. The gates are firmly shut, and they look like they’re practically welded together with iron. Your stomach drops, and you wonder how the hell you expect to get through those fucking things. Get Sollux to blast them with whatever energy he has left? See if Aradia can rip the doors right of the structure? You don't know, and you can’t think. All you can do is walk forward, and hope that they’ll let you through. Hope that they’ll understand that you just want to leave. Hope that they’ll just let you all fucking live.

You remember having that hope in the Orphanage, and you cringe.

But you can’t let those types of thoughts get you down! If you don’t believe that you’re going to get out of here, that you’re all going to escape and live, then there’s no way that you’ll make it. You have to have some goddamn faith, and believe a little bit. There’s nothing else you can do really, and if you let yourself despair you’ll never lead your people to freedom.

So you squeeze Vriska and Nepeta’s hands reassuringly, take a deep breath, and increase your pace. Just a little. Just to show that you’re not balking, not stopping. That you’re not going to falter. Just enough to keep everyone else moving and have faith.

That’s when things start going wrong.

First, you feel something…off. It’s like the air is suddenly charged with something, more than just the green energy from the weapons that are trained on you. The hair on your arms and on the back of your neck stands up, and you feel your entire body tense.

The others notice it too, and you hear concerned whispers rise up from the crowd. Equius, on Nepeta’s other side, makes a low growl, and you feel Nepeta clutch your hand tighter. Vriska is looking around somewhat wildly, searching for the new threat that you can all sense but none of you can see.

Sharp, unprecedented fear runs through you, and your step stutters. You feel a growl build unconsciously in your throat, and you fight to keep your cool, eyes flicking about for whatever is coming. You’re too close! The wall is right there! You just have to make it there, and then you can deal with whatever the hell the city and English wants to throw at you. Whatever it is that’s looming over all of you, that’s dangerous and murderous and close, just can’t mess this up. Not now.

That’s when there’s a flash of green, a roar, and splintered shards of bright blue and red exploding in blinding light as Sollux’s shield is smashed to pieces.

You only have time to breathlessly think NO before you and everyone around you are knocked off your feet, and your head slams into the pavement with enough force to send stars dancing in front of you and have black eating away at your vision.

You lay there, stunned, with eyes staring sightlessly upwards and screams and shouts sounding far away and muted. But the sounds progressively get louder until your vision clears and you blink back into full consciousness, pulling yourself upright and looking about wildly.

And

There’s

A Monster.

A huge black thing with black wings and a black sword and green energy sparking and spitting. And it’s flying and jumping and stabbing and slicing and all the people that you’ve been trying so hard to save are dropping like flies.

NO!!”

You scramble to your feet, snarling with your teeth bared, and leap for the demon. Completely disregarding the sparks of green energy rippling across and off of its body.

But before you can reach it, sink your teeth in and tear, the demon is gone. Blinking out of existence in a green flash.

You land unsteadily, looking around for it.

As you look, you become more aware of what’s going on, breaking through the primal haze that had descended upon you.

It’s not good.

Oh shit oh shit it’s really not good!

Sollux’s shield is down, and for all you know, Sollux is down too. You can’t see him anywhere, can’t see the flicker of red blue amidst all the screaming, panicked people. And no Sollux means…

No shield.

You turn around rapidly to stare in fear and horror at where you had seen the soldiers standing by, and…

They’re still there.

And ohgodfuckingdammit they’re raising their guns please no…

The lines of Felt begin to glow green as they charge up their guns, and you want to just, just, fall to your knees. Fall to your knees and clutch at your hair and laugh and cry because did you really think you could do it? Did you really think you could lead these people out of here? Be their leader? Their savior? No. There’s nothing you can do but stand here and die with them.

Just.

Just die.

All of you are just…going to die.

Even as you’re resigning yourself, the hair on the back of your neck is prickling, your body is tensing unconsciously, and you find yourself growling deep in your throat.

Then the demon reappears.

Decision to give up violently pushed aside by the monster inside you, you immediately dash for it, howling in anger as it murders your people viciously with noxious green and obsidian black. But before you can reach it, bullets of bright green whiz by you, and fresh terror descends on the street as the soldiers begin firing.

It’s a goddamn massacre.

Much like earlier that night, you find yourself unable to move in the sheer chaos of fleeing, panicking bodies. You can barely breathe through the cloying scent of fear and death and the Felt and their guns. The demon’s smell is worse then all of them put together. Someone beside you gets hit by a bullet and falls against you, and you scream as the Green energy dances across your skin.

Your legs collapse beneath you and you tumble onto the pavement, gravel biting into the skin of your cheek and the feet of all your people pounding over your back. Your breath wheezes out of your lungs, and you faintly notice that green bullets have stopped whizzing through the air.

The momentary shock of pain subsides, and you push yourself up, fighting against the crowd of people threatening to trample you. Blood is dripping down your face, your back and legs hurt, and your head is spinning. The road tilts and slides in front of your vision, and for a moment, you find yourself squinting as if you still needed your glasses.

But the dizziness subsides into something tolerable and your vision rectifies itself. You look about blearily and…

Oh

Oh wow.

The demon is attacking The Felt.

The demon is treating the Felt like Dave’s Bro treats salmon on sushi day.

His sword slices through their armor like it’s nothing, and you watch in sick fascination as he rends limbs from bodies and sends legs flying. The dark red liquid flying through the air captures your attention for a moment, and your stomach rumbles disturbingly. But then your eyes are drawn back to the demon as it releases a terrifying roar and turns away from the scattered soldiers, baring its teeth and leaping back at the fleeing Infected.

This time, it doesn’t notice you as you snarl and leap at it, and you throw your full weight into bodychecking the creature.

The smell of death is overwhelming, and you gag as your body slams against it. It’s covered in fur, but its body isn’t at all soft or squishy or warm. Its cold, and hard, like slamming into a thick shell.

You only have a moment to contemplate it before a clawed, cold hand is around your neck and you’re wrenched away, flying through the air with a strangled yelp.

Your head and back meet the pavement hard, and stars burst in front of your eyes as your entire body flares up with pain. Your head spins and consciousness is threatening to leave you. But the smell of dangerdangerdangerdeath is stronger than ever. So you force your eyes open as soon as you’ve stopped sliding across the road, and try to push yourself up onto your elbows.

Your vision is blurry and spinning, but all you can see is black.

Black standing over you, black with green sparking all over it, and a black sword descending down towards your chest.

Your thoughts desert you as you stare your death in the place, but at the back of your mind, you register the sound of flapping feathers. And then-

Wait.

What the fuck?

One moment you’re staring death down the muzzle, the next, something large and feathery (and maybe a bit red?) is crashing into it, sending the demon flying backwards with an enraged howl.

You stagger to your feet, wiping blood out of your eyes and…

Holy fuck.

Steel clashes on steel as the demon fights its attacker. Everytime it teleports so does its opponent. They match each other blow for blow, the monster all snarling teeth and crackling green, and the challenger all black feathers and red eyes.

It’s Dave.

And you’re not exactly sure how. Your brain is having trouble processing what your nose and eyes are telling you. The scent is the same, the blonde hair is the same, and the clothing is the same (except for the bloodied jacket tied around his lower chest), and the red eyes that you’ve previously caught glimpses of is the same…

But those eyes look feral and wild and don’t look like Dave’s eyes at all. He’s…he’s blinking all over the place in some weird sort of teleportation that you didn’t know Dave could do. And he’s attacking the demon with a type of wild ferocity that you don’t associate with Dave’s cool, controlled method of fighting. He never attacks head on, but flits about like a ninja. Usually. Not now.

And, of course, there are the huge black wings protruding from between his shoulders.

You think he’s mentioned them before? But you’ve never seen them. You always told him that you thought it was cool that he had huge wings. That they were badass and awesome. But…

But you think you can understand why he hid them.

Because they’re really, really scary.

The wings are huge and black and jagged and, okay, you don’t want to sound mean, but they kind of look like something out of a nightmare.

But that’s what you’re in, isn’t it?

A nightmare.

And Dave, even if he looks scary and different, is fighting against the nightmare. He’s fighting for all of you, just like he always does.

Your bruised and bloody hands curl into fists on the ground, and you grit your teeth.

The least you can do is get off your ass and help!

You push yourself up to your feet, ignoring the pain that lances through every single part of your body. You stumble, nearly folding over and tumbling back down. But you right yourself, regaining your balance and squeezing your eyes shut for a moment until the world stops spinning. The clanging of steel on steel never stops ringing in your ears, and when you open your eyes you see Dave and the demon crash into a building, swords still caught with one another.

Your heart twists, because you wish you could help him. You wish you could fight beside Dave and make it so he didn’t have to give the monster inside him free reign in order to protect anyone. But you can’t. You’re not strong enough.

But even now, even after the world’s gone up in flames again, you’d like to think you’re strong enough to help your people to freedom.

You turn away from the battle in the sky back to the crowd. Everyone’s in a complete panic. A mass scurry to nowhere. They’re running in every direction, completely forgetting that the whole point is trying to get out of the city. Not run back into its heart where there are still soldiers itching to kill you!

But you know that no one’s going to listen to you right now. They’re too scared. In too much of a frenzy.

You need to get someone whose voice is a little farther reaching.

Someone, perhaps, with the ability to speak directly into minds? That would be a handy ability to have in this sort of situation.

Luckily, a little while ago, you happened to discover that a good friend of yours is quite versed in speaking in other people’s minds. And you think it’s probably in everyone’s best interest that you find her now.

It’s useless to look for her in this total clusterfuck that the street’s become, but you try to pick out her unique scent through the thick shroud of fear. She was the first Troll you ever caught the scent of, and it stands out to you.

You fight to catch her scent on the breeze, and fight harder to get through the moving mass of panic and fear. The smell of blood stings your nostrils, and a sharp sting of terror shoots through you as you wonder if she’s already dead.

But then you catch sight of her, stumbling through the crowd and clutching her left arm, blue staining the sleeve of her jacket and dripping down her face.

Your chest twists painfully, and you move faster, outright flinging people out of your way to get to her. You don’t have anytime. All of you are out of time!

“Vriska!!” you call out, your voice hoarse and strained from your bruised throat. She turns just as you reach her, stumbling slightly as you catch her by the good arm.

“John?” she asks, her voice uncertain again, as well as ragged and tight with pain, “Fuck. I thought you... You just completely vanished into thin air when big black and ugly smashed everything to hell...”

A shudder runs through her, and her good hand reaches out to clutch at your jacket, her head bowing a bit as her body trembles.

“I thought you…shit John, everyone’s dying. Everything’s completely fucked.” Vriska laughs brokenly, her face cracked and tempered with repressed sobs.

“No it’s not!” you shout, shaking her roughly. Because no. There is absolutely no giving up going on here! You won’t allow it! Not now!

She looks up at you surprise, and you bend your head a bit so that you are exactly at eye level.

“The demon’s distracted,” you begin lowly, but still loud enough to be heard over the chaos, “The Felt has scattered. The gate’s right there. Vriska, we can still make it! I’m not done, and neither are you, and neither is anyone else!”

A menacing roar accompanies your statement, and both of you lift your heads to see Dave being flung across the sky, crashing into a rooftop with the demon diving after him. He parries the sword thrust that would have killed him, and his wings flap frantically to get him back in the air. But you can see he’s lagging, he’s faltering, he’s getting tired under the unyielding assault of the black monster.

“Vriska!” you scream, your voice shrill and urgent and startling her gaze back to you, “There’s no time! Dave can’t hold him off for much longer! You have to do it now!”

“Do what now?!” she screams back.

“You have to tell everyone to get to the gate!” you yell back, fighting to be heard over the panic around you, “Everyone’s running everywhere but the right way! If we don’t go now, we’ll never have another chance! Use your powers, speak into everyone’s mind, and tell them to run towards the gate!”

“I can’t control that many people at once!” she protests, and you shake your head.

“Not control!” you scream, “Tell!”

Her eyes lit up with understanding, and for a few short moments, the two of you remain there, gazes locked and clutching at each other.

Then Vriska swallows thickly, and nods. You see her forehead crease, and then you feel something pulse in your own head, and you wince.

“Hey losers!” says Vriska’s voice, more loud and commanding in your mind than the wavering, strained note it has in person, “Good job scattering like fucking animals! Did you forget that the goal was to run towards the gate? The purpose is to escape, not to run back into English’s arms!”

All around you, people are stopping, hesitating. Some are looking around wildly, others are clutching at their heads and panicking, while some appear to be listening intently.

“In case you haven’t noticed, the Felt has scattered and the demon is occupied with Strider in the sky. But Strider can’t hold it back for long, so if you morons don’t get your asses in gear now you’re going to skewered! And guess what? No one will be there to save you, because we are leaving now! With or without you! So MOVE!”

The last word is forceful, and Vriska squeezes her eyes shut and collapses forward. You feel your legs beginning to move forward of their own accord, and you have to fight to shake off the powerful suggestion she put into that last word so you can support her and hold her up.

All around you, people are turning, moving in a flow towards the gate. Some are marching blindly, pushed forward by Vriska’s mind suggestion, while others, the stronger ones, are simply agreeing with her, walking with purpose. Others are shaking their head, stubbornly fighting against her influence, and still others are unaffected, looking confused.

But the majority is back on track, running towards the gate, and you wrap your arm around Vriska before joining the crowd. Her nose is bleeding, and her breathing is laboured, but she shakes off your arm and instead maintains a light hold on your jacket, running beside you as you join the mad dash to salvation. Or the closest thing to it.

The gates are large, menacing, and have guards on them. But they’re your only hope. So regardless of your chances, you run for them.

You run, and you don’t stop.

//

Your name is DIRK STRIDER.

And okay, there is a possibility that over the years, you’ve come to consider yourself as something akin to invincible.

It’s a mixture of confidence in your own abilities, and the image of yourself that you’ve always presented to your brother. Dave’s always been painfully aware that the two of you got the short end of the stick in life, but you’ve always made sure that he knew the two of you could get through anything because you were Striders, and particularly because you, his Bro, were at all times a master planner, fighter, and it was absolutely impossible to catch you off guard. You saw everything coming, and you were ready for anything. That’s the image you’ve always given Dave.

You’re not vain enough to think you’re actually prepared for anything, but you do believe that you can predict and adequately prepare for most things that Derse can throw at you and your brother.

And yet, somehow, you never made plans for you being grievously injured.

Fatal flaws are fatal for a reason, and almost always unknown. It would seem yours is a pigheadedness you thought was beneath you. Which is probably part of the problem, to be honest.

The fact remains, you didn’t expect this, you didn’t account for being fucked over in your plans and…

And you think you’re a liability.

You can barely hold yourself upright. Your legs, once arguably the fastest pair in the city, barely work beneath you. You frequently miss steps, and it’s only Jake’s arms around you that have prevented you from faceplanting numerous times.

Jake…

His arms around you are warm and strong around you. His breathing is slightly laboured from the fast pace and having to drag you along, but he’s relentless. Resolute. He won’t stop pushing forward, and pushing you forward as well.

You’re not going to blame Jake for this. Hell no. You should have been on guard. For fuck’s sake, you’re in the middle of a war zone! The world’s not going to stop just because you’re having a dramatic moment with your boyfriend; you should have known that.

It’s your own fault you got shot.

And you don’t blame Jake for doubting you either. You understand- well, no. You don’t understand because you’ve never experienced anything like it. But you’re aware of the pressures Jake’s family and positions put on him. You’re aware of the inner conflict he always felt between what you told him and his duties, and you know that from the time he was a little boy, all Jake has ever wanted is to be accepted by his father.

So no, you don’t blame him.

That doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt though.

That doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt worse than anything you’ve ever felt before when he turned his guns on you. Because it did. Your chest burned and you swear you felt your heart rip itself in two. Your perfect poker face was gone with the wind and it was all you could do to stop yourself from starting to scream.

You don’t think you’ve ever felt that much pain in your life. Though you’ll admit, getting shot by that death ray bullet came a close second.

The pain wracking your back and shooting into your chest and down your limbs is bad, but comparatively worse is the knowledge that your plans are royally fucked. You always have back up plans for your back up plans. You are beyond meticulous, and leave no room for error. But for such a short notice plan, few backups could be laid in place. Destroying the Green Sun hinged on you sneaking in undetected, as your skill would allow you to do, and getting out just as fast. Or not getting out, if that’s what it took to complete the mission.

Getting put out of commission before you even reached the lab was not something you had taken into consideration, as you getting that badly injured had ridiculously low probability.

You were so fucking arrogant.

But now, in all honesty, you are more of a liability to the plan. There will be no speedy entrance and exit with you like this, barely able to stand and body wracked with uncontrollable spasms. It’s so infuriating when they hit, when your body shakes and shudders and you can’t control it. Jake will stop walking when those happen. Pat and stroke your cheeks while muttering apologies and begging you to stay with him. As soon as the seizures are finished you berate him angrily for stopping. Yell at him to keep going.

He never looks hurt when you yell, just sad.

You steal a glance at him now, with his jaw firm and unyielding and his eyes straight ahead. Fuck, you really love this man. You love him from the spike of his hair all the way down to his toes. You’re still stupefied as to how you ended up like this, with your heart completely given to another, but there’s no reversing it now. You’re stuck with him, and you’d do anything for him.

So there’s no way you’re condemning him death by holding onto your pride and forcing him to drag you along with him, when he’d be able to do it so much better himself. And it’s hard, because you don’t want him to go by himself. It’s dangerous, and unfair, and you can’t stand the thought of him facing the Felt alone. But you have to remind yourself that as far as they know, he’s one of them. And that he stands a better chance than even you did.

You take in a deep breath, ignoring the protests of your chest. Then you lift your head towards him, and lick your lips.

“Jake.”

His eyes turn towards you immediately, and his steps slow just a little. His eyebrows are knit together with concern, and he’s biting at his lip a bit in that worried way he tends to. You just stare at his face for a moment, even after he responds, because you feel like you’re never going to get to see those cute expressions of his again.

But you don’t have time for thoughts like that, and you shake yourself mentally and focus on what’s happening around you.

“Jake,” you say again, your throat dry and voice rasping, “I think…I think you should go on-,”

“No,” interrupts Jake flatly, and you’re momentarily surprised. There’s no look of shock on his face. It appears that he anticipated the question, and his eyes are steely with no hint of being swayed.

But he’s being irrational, and answering out of emotion. Logically, you’re next to useless now, and it would be better for the entire pla-,

“And I’ll tell you why, Dirk,” continues Jake, interrupting your train of thought. “I bet you think I can just waltz in their all sunshine’s and smiles and the soldiers will roll over and show their bellies, right? Not so! I am positive my father will be suspicious if I return so suddenly, and, I don’t think any excuse or explanation I give him will suffice. Particularly if I attempt to enter the sector in which the Green Sun was housed. Moreover, the scientists aren’t all that fond of me either. I really don’t get on with the entire English staffing half as well as you may think. It won’t be a walk in the park. With or without you.”

“However,” he continues swiftly, noticing you opening your mouth in the starts of protest, “However, I believe it will be significantly easier for me to get anywhere if I have something to, ah, add weight to my loyalties? Perhaps, a prisoner? Or rather, an Infected that was found to be uncannily resilient to the Green Sun energy, that I have insightfully brought in for further testing?”

Jake smiles weakly at you as he finishes his explanation. The smile doesn’t reach his eyes, and you know he’s not happy with the plan. He’s not happy with the situation. But he’s still trying to look ‘chipper’. Trying to not completely succumb to the nightmare that you’re both in.

“…I see,” you say after a moment, closing your eyes briefly.

It’s…well, it’s not a solid plan. But it’s decent justification for you staying with him. You think, if you weren’t so pressed time, if your brain was functioning at full capacity instead of addled by pain, or if you weren’t inwardly straining to stay with Jake for as long as you can, you would have had objections. You would have pointed out flaws.

But you’re aching all over, and Jake’s arm around you is the warmest thing you’ve ever felt.

So you nod once, before straightening yourself up through gritted teeth, and trying to increase the pace the two of you are hobbling at. If you’re going to tag along, you need to at least be more than dead weight.

The lab isn’t incredibly far, and it’s not long until you see turn a corner and see it all in its glory. The lab isn’t painted that English/Felt green on the exterior, but instead is a dark, metallic looking silver. The building has several floors, all with the windows bright from the light shining inside. The main doors look thick and metal from where you stand, and imposing. Going directly through them seems laughable and stupid, but that’s where Jake’s steering you, his own body tense with apprehension.

“No going back now, old boy,” he murmurs, his voice shaking slightly as he tightens his hold around you, “We’re going to stand together, Dirk. And we’re going to win this. I’m with you, always.”

Jake turns to you just as you turn to him, and your eyes meet. You wish for all the world that you could kiss him right now. It feels like it’s been forever since you kissed him. But you’re too close the building now, and the guards outside have already seen you. The ball is rolling, and it’s time to enter the stage for the final act of this play.

“Now play dead, Dirk,” Jake whispers urgently, turning his gaze back to the front, “Look hurt and in pain—moreso than you already do, but also weak. And-and growl a little, uh, and hiss maybe? I don’t know? Be difficult. Try and strugg-Whoa!”

With a small, self-indulgent smirk to yourself, you wrench yourself away from Jake. The growl that tears itself from your throat is more of a raspy, pained moan, but it’s loud and menacing and judging by the movement of the guards out of the corner of your eye, effective.

Jake’s immediately on you again, arm around your waist and free hand pinioning your wrists together. The uncomfortable position sends pain shooting all through you and sets off a spasm that has your legs jerking out from under you. You go limp, and fall backwards into Jake’s strong grip with a weak hiss.

Jake’s breath hitches, and even as the pain pulses in your mind, you mentally will him to keep character. This plan of his could work, seriously. The two of you just have to stay strong.

You feel him breathe in deeply, before continuing to drag your limp body towards the door, a little rougher than before.

“Identify yourself and state your business!” you hear a guard shout, and you can imagine them training their guns on you. It freaks you out a little, and injures your pride, to be in such a helpless position in front of the enemy. But you trust Jake, more than anything, so you let your eyes roll back in your head and your body sag while letting half-hearted growls rumble in your chest.

“Jake English!” you hear Jake call out in response, the slight quaver squashed from his voice, “Bringing in a subdued Infected for Dr. Droog to look at! Surprising amount of tolerance to the Green Sun energy!”

You hear the guards emit surprised noises, and the clank of boots on pavement as one of them walks closer. You lift your head and snarl at them, lunging forward weakly. All three of them swear and back up, and you see them raise their guns and retreat just before another spasm shakes through your body and your vision goes white with the pain.

“Wait!” you hear Jake yell, and there’s a slight note of panic in his voice, “This is an important test subject! Killing hi- it would ruin the chance for important data collection! If my father were to find out-,”

You’re panting heavily, your entire body in a cold sweat. The pain is back in full force, and your forehead scrunches up as you try to stop yourself from crying out. Fuck. Fuck. What the hell? Why did everything just get about 100 times more painful? It’s just a few notches below what you felt when you first got shot, and your vision begins to go dark at the edges. Your legs decide to take an away-without-leave and collapse from underneath you, and you thud heavily against Jake’s side. Your breath rasps in your lungs, and you feel consciousness begin to slip away along with your hearing and sight.

Don’t you even fucking think about it, Strider. You berate yourself strongly, clawing at the edge of the pit you’re beginning to fall off. You don’t have time for this. There’s no time for this. Get UP.

Your eyes snap open, and you gasp loudly, struggling to get your feet back under you. You feel way too hot, and you struggle to push away the stifling warmth that feels like it’s suffocating you.

“Dirk?” There’s an arm under your arms, supporting you, and a hand patting your face. Your vision is swimming and it takes awhile for it to focus, but then pinpricks of green appear in your vision and slowly turn into concerned forest green eyes.

“Oh thank heavens, you’re awake.” Jake whispers, in a voice heavy with relief. The pats on your face turn into rhythmic stroking, and he sighs, leaning his forehead against yours. “Goodness, you gave me such a bloody scare-,”

“Where-,” you struggle to say, your chest feeling uncomfortably tight. You lift your head, and turn your eyes away from Jake, observing your surroundings.

You’re in a white corridor, with blank walls and a low ceiling with hanging lights. The floor is white and cold, and there’s a light breeze that’s painful on your overheated skin. The hallway is complete empty besides the two of you, and your laboured breathing is loud and echoing.

“We’re in the Lab,” replies Jake lowering his voice as if just remembering the fact himself, “You passed out while I was trying to get past the guards; which almost blew the whole thing by the way. But I managed to convince them that your apparent weakened state meant that we only had a short amount of time to ‘collect data’ or some like-sounding hogwash. I had to namedrop quite a bit, but I got us through!”

He smiles, a weak one that leaves his eyes still pinched with stress and squinty with sadness. You’d like to say something witty, one of your sarcastic quips to lighten the mood and remind him that you’re okay. But you can just barely gather enough air in your lungs to breathe, and instead of trying to smile for him, you concentrate all your energy on getting your feet back under you, leaning heavily on Jake as you do.

You’ve wasted far too much time.

“We need to move faster,” you wheeze out, forcing your feet to slide forward. A part of you grimaces and balks, because for fuck’s sake you’re a Strider. And here you are, reduced to hobbling along like an old man with a bad hip. Your speed is gone, your grace is gone, and your strength is gone.

But you won’t stop. Not for anything. Not now.

You ignore Jake’s cautionary hand on your back and the sounds of concern he’s making, pushing yourself further. You feel so fucking hot, but you’re shivering, and your entire body is aching, and every step sends jolts of pain spiking through you.

But you don’t stop.

You can’t.

Jake doesn’t agree though, you can see from the way he’s looking at you, biting his lip and with his forehead all scrunched up. He still has his arm wrapped around you, and the other is outstretched in preparation for catching you if you happen to fall.

“Dirk,” he begins slowly, with a note of panic in his voice.

“Jake,” you say, interrupting him before he can wound your pride any further and waste more time, “Jake, please.”

Jake hesitates, and the expression on his face gets tighter. He looks like he really, really wants to say something, so you appreciate it when he just leans his head on your shoulder, breathing into the crook of your neck and shaking slightly as he clutches at your shirt.

Jake is scared you’re going to die, that much is obvious. He didn’t want to leave you alone because he didn’t think you could defend yourself and was worried that the injuries you already have might overcome you. And he’s scared now that just walking around is going to kill you. It would be insulting in a way, if you couldn’t hear the rattle of your breath in your lungs, feel the skipped beats of your heart, and see the world slip and fade with your faltering vision.

But you have no intention of dying. Not before you finish here, at least. You made a promise to your brother to fix this, and a promise to Jake to stay with him. You don’t know if you can keep your promise to Jake, if you’re being honest, but you will keep your promise to Dave.

So as soon as Jake straightens up and lifts his head of your shoulder, you’re off, moving forward as fast as you can force yourself to go. Jake takes his arm away, but holds onto your bicep while still looking at you like you’re going to drop down any second.

By this time, you’re almost used to the pain, and you push yourself relentlessly. Both of you maintain a steady pace as Jake leads you down the twisting hallways of the facility. You run into scientists a few times, workers, and each time you immediately collapse into Jake and pretend to struggle against him, snarling while he curses at you. Utilizing his position as Young Master is usually enough to get them off your back, though you’ve had a few offer to help take you down to the experimental area. And worse, you’ve had others question why you’re going up when the ‘holding cells’ are down.

It shouldn’t have surprised you, since you’ve seen the smug, stern face he puts on for the press to present himself as English’s heir. But seeing Jake snarl at people, growl at them menacingly for daring to question him, and get right up in their faces with flinty, narrowed eyes, was a bit of chilling experience. As soon as you got past whatever troublesome scientists you’d run into, he always seemed weary and frazzled, and that always reassured you. He could act, he could put on a face, but he never liked it.

Once more, you’re almost knocked over by a strong wave of affection, and you wish you could stop, gather Jake into your arms, and kiss him silly. But you don’t have the strength, or the time.

Time really has become your greatest enemy.

The walls begin transitioning from white to a darker grey, and the doors start having locks that involve punch-codes, then fingerprints. You wonder if your technological skills would have been enough to surpass them, or if you would have been completely screwed had you tried to attempt this mission alone.

The hallways get emptier and emptier, and finally, the two of you are traveling down a long hallway with foreboding dark grey walls enclosing you. Jake’s grip has moved from your arm to your hand, and you can feel his palm getting clammy and his fingers tightening within yours. Your own skin is prickling with anticipation, and you swallow thickly as the two of you reach the door at the end of the hallway. It’s thicker than all the others, and metallic with metal and technology, a little glowing screen on the wall beside it. Jake leans forward, and a red light emerges from the screen, traveling across his face and moving back and forth across his eyes. A little noise of acceptance pings from the screen, and the door begins to slowly slide open.

Jake turns towards you, and there’s a look of question in his eyes. An ‘are you ready?’ kind of question.

Are you ready? Your head is pounding, your senses are fried because of your temperature fluctuations, and your body is still pulsing with pain.

But pain is something you can handle, and it’s tolerable now. Your legs can support you again, and the feeling in your hands has returned.

With your arm steady, you reach back and pull your sword out of its sheath to answer Jake’s unasked question, before giving him a quick nod.

You see him swallow, and then he’s leaning upwards and pressing his lips to yours.

It’s not some open-mouthed fiery French kiss. It’s short and sweet but your heart melts anyways. Because love. Because it might be the last chance you get to press your lips to Jake’s like this. Feel his breathing warm against your mouth. The flutter of his eyelashes against your skin. The kiss lasts less than a second, but it’s the longest, sweetest second you’ve ever experienced. And then you’re both staring at the door as it finishes opening.

Originally, you hadn’t known exactly what to expect in the main lab. You thought scientists, for sure, maybe a few guards for extra safety, but nothing you couldn’t handle.

Once you’d been shot, you thought a multitude of scientists might be problematic, and you weren’t confident that you and Jake would be able to take them all out if guards were thrown into the mix. Not with you the way you are now. Your only chance was to strike hard and fast.

But what awaits you behind the door is neither scientists, nor guards. In fact, the room, lit up with green and the tube of energy standing tall in the center, has only one occupant.

You hear Jake suck in a breath, and you curse internally.

Lord English is standing in the center of the room, wearing that impressive green coat you’ve seen on the news so many times, and with his back turned to you. His entire figure is silhouetted by the green glow of the Sun’s energy, and as he turns, the shadows in the crevices of his face give him a skeletal look.

There’s no use pretending. He would see right through any ruse anyways. So you raise your blade into a ready position, and hope that Jake meant what he said about standing up to his dad.  

You hazard a glance at him, a bit wary of taking your eyes off of Lord English, and catch him just as his face transforms from an expression of horror to a cold, angry mask. A chill runs down your spine, because the angry set to Jake’s jaw and flinty steel in his eyes is real this time. Lord English seems to notice as well, because his gaze locks on his son and the expression on his face darkens, the twisted smile downturning into something more sinister.

“Jake! What a surprise,” begins English, a poorly suppressed sneer colouring his voice, “I see you that, once again, you have proved yourself incapable of fulfilling even the simplest of tasks.” His eyes flicker to you, and you tense and snarl. He’s Jake’s father, but he’s the monster that’s brought down everything you’ve ever cared or lived for down around your head. You advance towards him, and he immediately flicks open his coat, revealing an absolutely nasty looking gun, with a sinister green glow along its sides and emerging from the muzzle.

Your body flinches back automatically, and Lord English’s face curls into a smirk.

“I see you’ve had a taste of this already,” he says, his voice all smug and self-satisfaction, “Infected are such sick creatures. To think, you came all the way here just to get another dose!”

His voice rises and his tone curls into a snarl as he finishes his sentence, and you tense and growl, preparing to jerk to the side as he levels the gun with your chest.

“No!”

And then Jake’s in front of you, arms spread wide to shield you with his body. You can’t see his face, since he’s facing his dad, but his shoulders are tense and shaking.

“Ah, Jake,” sighs Lord English, not lowering his gun a fraction, “Are you really going to let this thing corrupt you so easily? You’ve always been weak of mind, but to think you’d succumb to its poison even after I informed you-,”  

You’re about to protest, you’re about to scream at him to shut up because no, you love Jake, you love him and how dare he talk about him like that. But before you do, before you can step forward and say anything, Jake, well, he growls for lack of a better term, and stalks forward a few steps. You’re behind him, but you get the distinct feeling he’s looking his father directly in the eyes, and you also get the feeling that this is the first time that it’s happened.  

“Shut up,” snaps Jake, cutting his father off, “Just shut the fuck up father, and let me tell you something about yourself, instead of boring us with the same old drivel you always spill about me.”

Shock flickers across Lord English’s face before his eyes narrow and his features twist into a sneer. He flexes the fingers on the trigger, but continues to hold the gun level with your chest. Rage and frustration rolls and boils through you, because you have honestly never felt this fucking helpless in your life. You’re not fast enough to avoid his shots now, you know it, so you’re best chance is to hope Jake can distract him enough for you to move and destroy the toxic green tube in front of you.

Your head is ringing and your skin is burning, but you swear you can hear the screams of all of your people dying out there, so you grit your teeth against the pain and wait for a complete lapse in Lord English’s focus, and an opening for you.

“Father,” begins Jake, his voice flat, steady and full of real, suppressed anger, “You’re despicable. Actually, genuinely, despicable! What you’re doing out there is nothing short of senseless murder, and-,”

“Senseless?” interrupts Lord English, a mock aghast expression on his face, “Jake, surely you don’t mean to say that you believe we should continue to allow the Infected to run wild in the city? You’ve seen what they do every night! What they did to Jade’s parents!”

“Punishing the many for the few is the work of a poor leader,” growls Jake, and the mocking expression on his father’s face falters, “You can’t solve the problem with anything other than murder? Father, this shows more poorly upon you than it does on anyone else. I can finally bloody see it now! The reason this city gets worse and worse is because you beat down and murder and oppress a third of our people and force them to live in poverty! Where they have no choice but to cheat, and lie, and steal, in order to support themselves and their families!  And then, you kill those people without a fair trial, leaving their families to fend for themselves. And what choice do they have but to cheat, lie, and steal? And all of this bullshit is bound to build up a shittonne of resentment, from which the crazed ‘monsters’ attacking everything in sight are born. They’re not monsters, they’re people without hope! People who have been robbed of their hope. No father, you did this. You broke this city and broke it further in your shitty attempts to ‘fix it’ by blasting away your problems with guns!”

A note of pride swells in your chest as you’re listening to Jake’s impassioned speech, and fuck, you can’t even begin to explain how amazing it feels to hear him talking like that. So long, you fought to get him to believe you when you told him that all the shit that the media and his family fed him about the Infected wasn’t true. So long you’ve been fucking telling him that the Infected aren’t the reason Derse is a mess; they’re just the products of it.

And here he is, screaming out everything you’ve been trying to convince him of.

But you can’t dwell on that, and you watch as Lord English’s expression becomes angrier and angrier, as the grip on the gun slackens, as his body tenses and he begins to lose himself to rage.

You wait.

Then you strike.

With a snarl, you jump forward and to the side, away from the still glowing muzzle of Lord English’s gun, and towards the Green Sun. You hear the man whirl around with an enraged shout, and a few bullets whiz by you before Jake clubs his father across the face with his pistol and tackles him down with a shout.

Worry for your boyfriend spikes through you, and you almost falter, but you stay true to your path, and launch yourself at the mass of toxic green in the center of the room. You swing your sword as you fly forward, and the blade collides with the glass forcefully, sending green sparks flying everywhere.

You don’t see how much damage you do, because the next moment is nothing but undescribable, excruciating pain.

A scream tears itself from your throat, and you collapse onto the ground, your hands falling away from your sword and your body twitching with minor convulsions. Fuck fuck fuck, you can’t control your arms and legs, you can’t control anything, your skin is burning, with fire and ice, and your chest is clamped in a vice, air prevented from flowing in and out of your lungs. You feel your mouth flop open uselessly as you fight to draw in a breath, writhing on the floor uncontrollably as your entire body seizes and twists.

You can faintly hear Jake screaming your name, and overtop of that, hear Lord English’s cracked laughter, his smug tone and mocking voice, and you force your eyes open with another agonized shout, the light from the Green Sun burning into you and turning your skull into a throbbing mess.

You can faintly see your sword, stuck into the tube of what, apparently, is not glass, with forks and sparks of Green flicking about it, and small spider thin cracks branching out from where it’s lodged into the cylinder. Your chest loosening a bit, you suck in a breath, rolling your head to the side to see Jake standing in front of you, facing away with his dual pistols pointed at his father.

“Put the gun down!” he screams shrilly, and you dimly see the same large gun in Lord English’s hand, glowing the same green that’s still dancing across your body. Your chest heaves as you fight for each breath, and internally, you scream with frustration. You’re so fucking helpless. Your limbs won’t obey you, your attack on the tube did jack shit and left it decidedly not destroyed, and you can’t help your boyfriend in what must be the hardest confrontation of his life. All you can do is try to goddamn breathe.

“Oh how far you’ve fallen, Jake,” sighs Lord English, a sneer colouring the fake mournful tone of voice, “And you were so low down to begin with. How deeply this creature has corrupted you,” he concludes with a little shake of his head that reeks of crocodile tears and muffled laughter.

“Corrupted me?” Echoes Jake, his voice a little shrill, “Oh, fuck off with all that goddamn bloody hogwash you’re spouting! Go bugger yourself with all your talk of corruption and purity and that bullshit that you’ve been feeding me! You’re wrong, father! You don’t understand anything about Derse, about the Infected, about Dirk, or about me! Because you know what? You’re a heartless, soulless, piece of shit that doesn’t know a single fucking thing about love. Love! Because love-,”

Jake’s voice breaks, his breath wavers, and you see him suck in air deeply.

“Because love is what Dirk and I have,” he continues, his voice hoarse and choked with emotion, “It’s what you never had for me. What you never had for anyone.”

“How romantic,” drawls Lord English sarcastically, “I imagine you think the love that the two of you share is enough to conquer all the problems in the world? To make the desert and badlands disappear? Remove the toxins that are still in the underground water supplies? Suddenly make it so that there’s enough food and living space for everyone? Grow up, Jake!” The man shouts, finally breaking his façade of scornful mockery. “You think I’m some degenerate murderer with no purpose other than to kill? Please. Derse is one city in a sea of carnage. Do you actually think we can support all the people living here? Do you think that the death rate would match the birth rate if left alone? No! The Felt is more than a law force, it’s population control, and it’s the only reason Derse hasn’t succumbed to starvation and chaos. Perhaps you can make an argument against Infected being monsters, but they are the degenerates in our society, and if a group needs to be eliminated in order to ensure the long term of the survival of the majority, then I have no qualms with nominating them for the sacrifice!”

You see Jake falter, clearly surprised by the words. To be honest, they caught you off guard as well. It’s funny in the most non-humourous way, but you honestly never thought about the sustainability of Derse, simply because it never appeared to be a problem.

Because Lord English kept it a secret, you presume.

The whole thing leaves a bad taste in your mouth, and you grit your teeth and will your hands to move, to clench, for your muscles to obey you again.

“R-regardless,” begins Jake, the slight stutter in his voice revealing how deeply his father’s rebuttal shook him, “Murder to the scale of what you’re implementing is unfounded and wrong. If you’re the leader of our city than you should fight to save everyone!”

“You’re beginning to bore me Jake,” replies Lord English, his eyes dark and his fingers once again twitching and curling on the trigger of his gun, “Do you know why I’m here? In this room? It’s because I expected this. I expected you to continue on your path of absolute incompetence and come trundling back here with that silly little head of yours caught up in some new noble idea of ‘justice’.  I came here-,”

In one fluid motion Lord Englishs’ gun is no longer aimed at you, but with the muzzle leveled square with Jake’s chest.

“To rid this world of the biggest mistake I ever made.”

Jake’s face is a mask of horror and disbelief. Even now, even after all of this, he probably thought that family meant something. That deep down, his father had some affection towards, some notion of kinship. But it’s clear now that Lord English means to kill him.

You’re not going to let that happen.

Since you so ungraciously collapsed onto the ground, you’ve been trying like mad to get your body working again. To work yourself to your feet.  To get your fingers to curl into your palm and your muscles to flex and everything that disconnected in the shock of green to reconnect again. Your heartbeat is pounding far too loud in your ears, but you can feel your body again, feel the floor and the air. You have an idea of your center, and, you think, you have just enough strength to save your boyfriend’s life.

So the moment Lord English turns his gun onto Jake, you spring.

You lurch up from the floor in less of a pounce and more of a flinging of your body across the room and into Lord English’s bottom half. Every part of you screams in protest, but the man goes down with a curse, while the gun fires uselessly into the air before you knock it out of his hand and it clatters to the floor.

You immediately roll on top of him, pinning his wrists with your hand and covering his thrashing body with your own. He’s surprisingly skeletal under the huge, commanding coat, and despite the pain causing tears to bead in your eyes and uncontrolled agonized noises to spill from your mouth, you’re able to keep him pinned. You’re not confident you can hold him there for long, however, and you’re about to call out for Jake to fucking do something when, amidst the loud, frenzied cursing from beneath you, and the hum of the electricity in the room, you hear a quick succession of loud gunshots.

The sounds too loud, and too close for your already acute hearing, now oversensitive, and you flinch. Lord English throws you off of him, and your vision goes white as you hit the concrete floor and slide. The tingling pain on your skin has suddenly spiked in intensity, and you feel your body curl up into a ball. Your chest begins to constrict again, and your mouth falls open as you try to suck in breath. Behind your eyelids, you can see glowing green, and it fucking burns. Your heart is pounding in your ears, and behind that sound is the static of white noise, growing louder as everything else grows fainter.

You can faintly hear agonized, distraught shouting but it’s fading along with everything else. The fire on your skin has rise to an unimaginable crescendo, but at this point, you’ve lost the ability to vocalize.

You experience a vague sensation of someone touching you, of arms around you, of your feet dragging along the floor. But it’s so distant, you’re so far away from it, that it barely seems like it’s happening to you.

Darkness is beginning to over take you.

You’ve spent your entire life fighting to stay in the light. To not succumb to the madness that took hold of Infected with nothing left to live for. Your life was such a textbook case. Your parents abandoned you after Dave was born and eight years old you were left to try and survive on the streets with a newborn. You spent a horrific two months out there, before AR took you in, and you never once gave up. You never stopped fighting, and you never fell into the darkness that threatened to consume you.

But you are just so, so, fucking tired.

Your body feels heavy, too heavy to keep up, and you start to fall.

//

Your name is JAKE ENGLISH.

And you are trying your very, very hardest to keep running and move forward despite the tears blurring your vision and Dirk weighing heavily in your arms.

It’s your fault. You should have gotten him out of there before you shot the Green Sun. A dozen shots into the control panel, and a flurry of shots at the tube itself. Energy had just spilled out of it and washed over all of you, filled up the room with crackles of electricity. Dirk had completely folded in on himself on the floor as the room filled with Green, not even shaking or convulsing like before, but deathly still, except for the slow movement of his chest as he struggled to breathe.

You had dashed towards to him immediately, yelled desperately for him to get his behind in gear and run, because the control panel in front of the cracked and shaking tube was sparking and smoking dangerously. The entire room was shaking around you, and smoke was filling the air. Your father- your horrible, traitorous murdering father who had been about to kill you, stupid you, who still hung on to the hope that he had felt something for you- had ran towards the Green Sun in absolute panic. Trying to douse the flickers of flame and smoke with his large jacket, staring at the holes in the tubing and the cracks spreading out from them with indescribable horror, and finally, letting out an agonized wail as parts of the panel began exploding.

It was then that you’d given up trying to wake Dirk and just scooped him up, wrapping your arms around his torso and dragging him along as fast as your legs could carry you. Another explosion sounds behind you, and a blast of hot air heats up your back and trousers, tearing a curse out of your mouth and causing tears to bead in your eyes as smoke fills the hallway.

“Dirk!” you shout, hauling your boyfriend up so that his head is resting on your shoulder, “You need to wake the bloody fuck up! We’re not going to get out in time if you don’t get up!”

You make it down the long hallway and turn the corner, running into panicked scientists as you do. Everything is flashing red as alarms and sirens sound, and you can hear the shouts of lab workers and hear their footsteps pounding down corridors.

Your arms hurt, and your lungs are beginning to ache as well, but you put on a burst of speed, struggling to keep Dirk aloft, and turn another corner, ducking into a small alcove in the wall and letting Dirk fall against it.

You get down in front of him on your knees, breathing heavily and taking his face in both your hands. There’s a sheen of sweat over his skin, and he feels cold. So cold. Far too bloody cold oh fuck.

Oh fuck he can’t be

“Dirk!” you whisper-shout urgently, feeling another explosion rock the building, “Oh god please, please wake up. Please! We need to get out of here! We need to get you away from all this fucking green, we need to get away from the fire. You need to get up. Open your eyes, Strider oh fucking god please just open your eyes!”

You rub your thumbs against his cheeks, tracing over the light dusting of freckles and following the lines of his cheekbones. His face is drawn and pale and the area around his eyes look bruised and sickly and oh fuck no he’s dead. He’s dead. He’s dead. He’s gone and died on you and it’s all your fault. Everything is your goddamn fucking fault!

“Don’t leave me, Dirk!” you sob out, crashing your forehead into his and wrapping your arms around him. The air is getting thick with smoke and a cough wracks your chest but you bury your face into his neck, bringing one hand up to card into his hair. He’s cold. Every part of him is so cold.

But then you feel his body tremor slightly, and then- oh, oh goodness yes –he’s coughing, he’s coughing and you can feel his hands beginning to open and clench at the air and he’s alive thank the blooming fates.

“Dirk!” you exclaim joyously, pulling back to cup his face in your hands again and search it for some hint of consciousness.

Lethargically, and with what appears to be great effort, one of Dirk’s eyes crack open, a sliver of orange in his otherwise colourless face. His dried lips open a crack, and a painful wheeze hisses out from between them. It sounds like he was trying to say your name, and you shush him immediately, finger on his lips and the other rubbing at his cheeks.

“Don’t talk right now,” you say urgently, another explosion rocking the building and bits of mortar and plaster beginning to fall on top of your head, “We need to move. This whole place is going to blow, and if we don’t get out-,”

“Can’t.”

You freeze, staring at Dirk’s tired, barely open eyes with incomprehension. He stares back, his breath hissing out of his mouth as the smell of smoke strengthens in the air and you begin to sweat from the heat of the fire.

“B-beg you pardon?” you stammer out, trying to ignore the part of you that knows exactly what’s he talking about, squashing the piece of your heart that’s given up hope, “D-don’t be ridiculous, Strider. You just have to get to your bloody feet and-,”

“Jake,” he interrupts, his voice hoarse and quiet, “I can’t.”

Your words die on your lips, and you get tunnel vision for a moment. Your mind whirrs for a response, your heart beats frantically as it tries to deny what’s right in front of you, and your breath shortens in your lungs as you begin to panic.

Dirk may not be dead, but he’s dying. He’s dying and he’s so far gone that he can’t…he can’t move. He can’t get up. You won’t make it out if you carry him, it’s impossible. You can’t get him out.

“Jake.”

Dirk’s voice is a mere whisper, nothing like the confident and comforting tone that you’re used to. You’re still holding his head in your hands and it’s resting so heavily on your palms that just know that he hasn’t the strength to keep it up himself. Your breath hitches, and you struggle to find something to say, fight to think of something to do. Something to get you both out of here before the Green Sun explodes and the lab gets blasted into the heavens.

But at the heart of it, in the darkest place inside you, that hopeless place called rationality, you realized that there is no way. There is no way you can Dirk out of here in time. The walls are shaking and the air is thick with smoke and you’re both sweating buckets from the heat that’s intensifying by the moment.

And you think Dirk realizes it too, just from the way he said your name, and the way he’s looking at you now.

“No,” you say immediately, shaking your head and coughing a bit as smoke gets into your nostrils and lungs, “No, I won’t! I’m not leaving you here to die, Dirk!”

“You h-h-haveto,” he slurs, choking on his words as he begins to cough himself, “Jake, i-it doe…doesn’t matter. I…I’m gunna d-d-die any-,”

“NO!” you scream out, and you pull him towards you again, clutching him against you tighter as the building shakes again and the lights flicker, your lungs protesting against the smoky air as you dissolve into a fit of coughing again. You feel Dirk’s body shaking as well, and you’re not sure if he’s crying or coughing or both.

“I’m not leaving you!” you whisper shout as soon as you’ve gotten your breath back, “I refuse. Not now. Not here. Not like this!”

He makes a sound of protest, and weakly pushes against you, growling into your ear, and you shake your head furiously. Because no, no you can’t. You can’t leave him. You tried leaving him once before and your soul almost tore itself in two. There’s something between the two of you that’s more than any cliché, silly romantic fling. Your heart beats with his and your spirits are intertwined and you couldn’t live without him if you tried.

You don’t want to try.

A sudden feeling of calm washes over you as you make your decision, and you slowly pull back from him, taking his face in your hands again. He looks tired, frustrated and scared, breathing heavily through his mouth as he tries to convince you to leave. You shush that nonsense immediately, leaning back against the wall with him leaning against your shoulder, and taking one of his hands in yours. The building is shaking consistently now, bits of ceiling raining down on you, and the smoke thickening in the passageway. Your lungs feel tight, and you feel lightheaded, but you turn towards Dirk with a smile, lifting your other hand to again brush your thumb against those freckles you love so much.

Yes. Just like this. Like this, it’s alright.

“Did you know, Dirk,” you begin slowly, still smiling and touching his face gently, “That when I first saw you, sitting on that park bench like you owned the place, my original intention was to knock you off your high horse?”

Dirk looks at you with slight confusion, and you can tell that he’s slipping away. His eyes are drooping and looking vacant, and his breath is harsh and grating through his mouth. But he gives your hand a light squeeze, so you smile through your tears and continue.

“Surely you must realize how you look when you strut around with those shades on your face?” you say with a slight chuckle, “A bit like a posturing peacock, if I’m being quite honest, and I thought it’d be fun to annoy you a bit. But,”

You turn so that you’re facing him directly, one hand on his waist and your nose almost touching his. His eyes blink lethargically, and his body is completely limp against you, but there’s the slightest of smiles on his lips, and he moves his head just the slightest bit to brush his nose against yours. You smile again, and lean your foreheads together.

“But you surprised me Dirk Strider,” you whisper softly, closing your eyes and feeling his breath, warm against your face, “You were so much more than what you appeared to be. You’re warm, and kind, and so bloody smart, and so bloody strong. And funny, and insightful, and fucking patient to put up with my nonsense all the time, I must say.”

You laugh again, and then wince as another explosion sends a hail of debris down upon you. You pull Dirk closer to you, and cough through all the dust that rains down. You’re still coughing as you feel Dirk’s hands pull lightly at your shirt, and you look down to find him smiling up at you, his eyes, still half-closed and sleepy, regarding you with a new kindling within them.

“You were j-just…f-f-full a surprises,” he wheezes softly, his words slurred and voice barely audible, “An’ I loved everyone of them. Dunno h-how y’did it. F-f-fell so hard for you. Could…c-couldn’t h-help it. Goddamn, Jake. S-so amazing. S-s-so beautiful.”

His chest seizes and he shudders in your arms. You shush him softly, and rub your hands up and down his back. All the strength appears to go out of him, and he collapses against you completely, looking up at you with sad, tired eyes.  

“I love you, Jake,” he says hoarsely, before he lets his eyes slip shut and his head loll limply against your chest. You place a hand overtop of his heart, and close your eyes and hold him tighter as you feel that familiar beat beginning to slow.

“I love you too, Dirk!” you shout-whisper, curling around his body with your own and bracing yourself against the waves of heat that are washing over you and the increasing amount of wall and ceiling raining down on you.

The shaking increases, the heat spikes to an unbearable level, and all sound disappears as you see a flash of green behind your closed eyelids.

And then, there’s nothing.

//

In the center of the city, a tower of energy bursts through the roof of the English lab, shooting up into the sky and lighting the night green. The bolt of energy remains until the building begins collapsing in on itself, crumbling at the center first and then collapsing in a cloud of fire, smoke, and dust.

.

All of the Felt weapons blink out, and the guards who had had their guns trained on the hoard of Infected outside their gates move back. Suddenly outnumbered and apprehensive.

The gates in front of John Egbert open, and he hesitates just a moment before walking through them, the hundreds of people who have put their lives in his hands following suit. A slow trickle out of the city begins, as more and more Infected emerge from hiding to join the procession into the much-cursed badlands.

John presses onwards, and doesn’t look back.

.

A huge bipedal Black dog monster pauses just before plunging its sword into the chest of its fallen adversary, and lets out an agonized scream. The hard shell of its body falls apart, revealing a small black Agent, robbed of the unholy power bestowed upon it by the Green Sun.

Dave Strider lies in a crumpled pool of his own blood and fallen feathers, helpless as he watches the creature recover from the trauma, pick up a shard of broken glass and walk towards him menacingly.

Each step the creature takes is a beat in Dave’s ironic ode to himself, a pieced together medley of pesterchum conversations, platonic bro sleepovers, and first dates in the summer sun. The bloodlust that overtook him during the battle is dissipating, and he’s just a teenager again. He remembers the girl he kissed, the boy he kissed, and that last bottle of apple juice he never got to finish.

Limbs leaden and wings broken, he sucks in a breath as the Agent raises its makeshift knife over his head.

And promptly explodes into shards of black and a spatter of red blood, the knife falling uselessly from its dismembered hand.

Still unable to move, Dave watches the gun smoke drift in the air, hears the sound of boots pounding on the pavement, and sees the familiar stockinged legs of a girl he once knew appear in front of him.

Slowly, painstakingly, he lifts his gaze upwards until his tired eyes are on her face.

Jade’s all tears and passion as always, with her hands firmly on her rifle and fingers poised over the trigger.

Dave Strider doesn’t hesitate before closing his eyes.

//

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Dawn breaks, and the sun rises over an empty city.

Fire scorched walls and streets full of corpses open the morning. The entirety of the lower city has been deserted, the majority of the midtown is empty, and in the heart of uppertown, a pile of smoke and rubble is all that remains of the great Lord and his cherished son.

 Dersites awake to a city that is completely silent.

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"The weary souls retire, a brighter light that they have sought…

The shouting ceased when the walls did crumble

A future seen by those who saw…

Not a single tear

Not a single prayer

The entire city was silent ."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Your name is JADE HARLEY.

And today is the first snowfall of the year.

You stare out of your bedroom window, watching the white flakes drifting down lazily from the dark grey sky, landing on your windowsill and thickening into a blanket there.

The glass is cold, and a chill runs through you as a you press a hand against it, watching your warmth melt a handprint into the fog on the window.

Normally at this time of year, the Felt patrols would be increasing. Cold weather means people have less chance of surviving on the streets, and there’s always an increase of crime from desperate Infected madly struggling to stay alive.

But the streets of Derse are empty this year, along with scores of buildings, houses, stores and playgrounds. A full third of the city is vacant, and the silence is deafening.

It’s a lot quieter than you thought it would be, when you used to wish all the Infected would disappear. You guess you thought it would just mean the nights would be safe? You didn’t think that…you didn’t think that the day would be affected as well.

But streets all throughout Derse are empty now, and it’s a bit scary when you think of what that means. When you think of how many Infected used to walk about just like normal people, completely undetected.

It gives you a sick feeling in your stomach, but not for the reason you thought it would.

You stand up from your windowseat, brushing hair away from your face and sliding your bedroom slippers back onto your feet. Your day starts earlier now, because even with the lack of Infected threat, you have many more duties to attend to than you ever have before.

Pulling on your robe, you tie your hair back into a ponytail, before taking a deep breath and exiting your room.

You step out into the hallway and are met with the same silence that plagues the entire city. It causes painful panging in your chest, and you wrap your arms around your middle, like you’re trying really hard to hold yourself together.

But it’s just a precaution, because you’re definitely not going to fall apart! You’ve done all your crying and all your grieving, and now you’re ready to lead your city out of the dark slump it has fallen into and take care of all your people.

You reach the bottom of the stairs and pad across the floor to the dining room. You used to always skip to breakfast, but now, you don’t like the way your footsteps echo in the empty mansion.

You and your Grandfather dismissed a lot of the servants in the aftermath. There was a huge shortage of workers in the city following the purge of the Infected, and the factories and food mills needed every spare hand that they could get. Besides, why did only two people need a whole arsenal of servants? It was stupid. The idea of it was stupid.

But the complete loss of warmth in your home is pretty much tangible, and you shiver as you push open the main doors and walk into the dining room.

You swallow thickly, because even though it’s been months, the emptiness of the table, and the room, still hurts. You used to come in here to every type of food you could ever imagine awaiting you. Now, you have whatever food is available and not in demand, and only ever just enough for you and Grandpa. Derse is dangerously close to a food shortage, simply because all the people who worked in the food processing plants and indoor farms are gone. You can’t afford to be frivolous anymore.

So instead of waffles and tarts and pancakes and sausages, there’s a single plate of eggs for you, and one for your grandfather, who sits at his usual place on the other side of the table. He looks up as you enter, and offers you a sad smile.

Your Grandpa has always been ageless to you, but over the past few months his face has become lined and his hair completely grey. It makes you sad, but you understand. You feel like you’ve aged a million years since that September night.

“Good morning, Grandpa,” you greet quietly, before walking around the table and giving him a peck on the cheek, just like you’ve always done. He returns the greeting as you sit down beside him, giving your arm a light, comforting squeeze.

“Morning, m’dear,” he replies, his voice as quiet as yours, “Did you look outside?”

“Yes,” you reply, and your heart twists again. Last year, on the first snowfall, you and Jake ran outside and built a snowman in the back gardens. It had been taller than both of you, and had lasted all winter long.

But there’s no time for that this year, and no cousin to build with anyways.

“We’ll have to see about organizing road clearing crews,” continues your grandpa, stirring some sugar into his coffee, “I fear the normal company won’t have enough manpower to get the whole city done.”

“They won’t have to do Lowertown, though,” you point out solemnly, poking at your eggs, “There’s no one there anymore.”

Grandpa pauses a moment, and it looks like the lines in his face deepen. He nods without a word, resuming eating in this horrible silence that you hate so much.

The two of you run the city now. Your Grandpa helps you with understanding how the economy is supposed to work and what’s wrong with it now, and what you have to do, but when it comes to addressing the people. To going out and seeing things first hand. To talking to factory owners and people and physically organizing committees to solve the problem of employee vacancy; that’s all you. Because your grandpa is way too old to be running around Derse, and the people are more likely to appreciate a young face than someone who has long since passed their prime.

So it’s you. Not-quite-eighteen-year-old Jade. You’re the one who’s the face of the English family now. You’re the one who’s running Derse.

You suck in a breath and begin eating, determined not to cry. What would your uncle say if he saw you whining just because you had a bunch of added responsibility? He’d be soooo ashamed of you. After all that time he put into making you strong.

Of course, you’ve been given reason to doubt your uncle’s credibility as a role model of late, and your grandpa has flat out told you that Lord English was not all that he seemed to be, and that his treatment of the Infected was not completely well founded.

But you had already started to figure that out on your own.

But you’ve spilt enough tears over your uncle, over your cousin, over your dog who was still in the lab when it collapsed, and over your city. All that’s left is to keep pushing forward, and to try- and succeed –at keeping everyone alive.

The door to the kitchen opens, and you lift your head as a servant walks out bearing a tray, containing the same breakfast that you’re now eating, plus a glass of apple juice. You tense up as you see her, and beside you, your grandpa lifts his head. He looks at her for a moment, before turning his gaze onto you.

“Why don’t you take the tray up to him, Jade,” he urges softly, gesturing with his hand towards the servant for her to stop walking, “You haven’t gone to see him in awhile.”

You look up at him sharply, mouth opening in preparation of an excuse not to go. But your grandpa looks down over the rims of his glasses at you, and you wilt under the stern words reflected in his eyes.

Stop hiding, Jade.

Wordlessly, you rise from your seat, walking over to where the servant is standing and taking the tray from her. She doesn’t meet your eyes, just curtsies swiftly before turning on a heel and returning to the kitchen.

You feel that stupid stinging sensation in the back of your eyes again, because it’s not just the fact that there are less servants. It’s the fact that the servants that are still here…don’t act the same.

And you know why. It’s because your family has told the entire city year after year after year that the Infected were nothing but a mindless menace out to destroy and undermine society as you knew it. But then the purge happened, and everyone was either killed or fled. Suddenly, the entire city was empty, services and shops that had been open one day were deserted the other. Factories were suddenly devoid of any workers, and you all realized that something wasn’t right.

The Infected weren’t just creatures that went bump in the night. They had been a part of Derse, living amongst the normal people. Over 3,000 of them, almost a third of the city, far more than you ever imagined.

And when you realized it, so did every other Dersite. When you and your Grandpa realized that a horrible mistake, everyone else realized that their sworn protectors and rulers had done something that royally fucked them over.

And what’s worse, the man who had orchestrated it all had up and died on them.

Maybe Uncle English had a plan for this, a way to overcome the economic fallout of losing so many members in a society. Maybe he knew this was going to happen. But he died. He’s dead. And it’s only you and Grandpa that are left. Left to try and placate the thousands of angry, betrayed people in Derse.

Your citizens no longer trust you, and you no longer take walks through the city you love so much.

Biting at your bottom lip, you slowly make your way back towards the staircase, tightening your grip on the tray edges.

It would be so much easier if you still had someone to blame! The Infected used to be the cause of everything. The cause for homelessness, for hunger, for crime, for sickness. For the goddamn apocalypse itself. But now there’s no one to blame but yourselves, and it hurts.

It hurts because you feel like you’ve been nothing but a stupid little girl all your life, who knew nothing of what was really going on around you. You thought you understand everything about Derse, and about the world. But it turns out, you had rose-tinted glasses taped to your face, that showed you a world where you could kill every night and claim it was for the good of all.

You squeeze your eyes shut, choking back a sob as you ascend the staircase and step onto the landing. You feel stupid and sick and tired and too old and too young. You had everything you ever knew and stood for yanked out from under your feet. You’ve always seen the Infected as nothing but monsters, but now you’re being forced to accept that they aren’t.

But…

You turn down the hallway, towards the flight of stairs at the very end that lead to the attic.

But…

Placing the tray on the floor, you pull open the door, before picking it up again, and beginning to climb, head down and teeth digging into your bottom lip.

But…you guess you already started to accept that.

Otherwise you wouldn’t have left him alive.

You slide the tray onto the floor before pulling yourself up into the attic space, sliding across the floor until your legs are free of the staircase.

By the light coming in from the single window, you can see that the room is mostly empty, containing only a small bed pushed against the wall, with a nightstand beside it. There is roll of clean bandages and a glass of water there, and a pile of dirty bandages on the floor.

The room is empty, and you’re only confused for a moment before you pick up the tray and place it on the bed, and then walk towards the window. It’s open, and stray flakes of snow are drifting in. Goosebumps raise the hair on your arms, and you shiver as you place your hands on the windowsill and peer out.

He’s sitting on the edge, one leg dangling over and the other hugged against his chest. His head is bowed against the wind so that you can’t see his face, and he’s shirtless with nothing but a thick blanket wrapped around him.

Like always, your stomach and heart do all sorts of stupid things when you see him. Part of you wants to recoil away in disgust from those red eyes, while the other remembers warm summer days, and hours spent chatting on pesterchum.

You shiver again, and pull your robe tighter around you.

“You’re going to get sick,” you call out flatly, and Dave lifts his head, too-long bangs hanging into his face as his gaze turns towards you. You’re proud of yourself for not flinching when you have to look at those eyes head on, and you don’t reel backwards or look horrified, or scared, or any of the other reactions.

You’re just here to tell Dave that you brought him his breakfast. And that he’ll get sick if he hangs out on ledges when it’s snowing out.

He’s silent for a few long seconds, but then he draws the blanket closer about himself and begins crawling back along the ledge. You lean back away from the window and watch as he hops back into the room. The second that he could move, Dave was climbing out onto the window ledge to peer out at the city. He’d spend the entire day up there, rain or shine, unless you came up and yelled at him to come in.

When you found Dave…when you found him you thought for sure he was dead. There’d been blood everywhere. His…his wings had been torn and shattered, he had had holes punched and stabbed through his body, and his limbs had been bent at horrific angles.

You...you were going to shoot him. Because that’s what you were supposed to do. Shoot and kill Infected. You’d been about to pull the trigger when he just…looked at you. Dave looked up at you and even though his eyes were red and he had monster wings he was Dave. He was Dave and you remembered the taste of lips and the feel of his hand clasped in yours.

You hadn’t fired. You hadn’t killed him.

And you hadn’t let him die.

Your Grandpa had messaged you to let you know that something had gone wrong at the Lab, and you replied asking him if he could come and help you with something.

And somehow, you’d ended up making sure that your sworn enemy didn’t die. You’d spent long nights battling infections and fevers and stitching up torn open wounds. It was only when Dave woke up in a mostly lucid state that you stopped going near him, started avoiding him unless your grandpa urged you to interact. You told him all about your past relationship, and for some reason, he seems to want you two to make amends. Or something.

But you don’t think you can. You just can’t. Sometimes, when Dave was still stuck in bed and you’d bring him his food, he’d reach out a hand towards you, and open his mouth like he wanted to say something.

The first few times you had dropped the tray. Afterwards, you just jerked away and left without a word.

Now, you’re not so skittish. But…but you’re still not comfortable with the idea of touching him. Not yet. Not…not yet.

The two of you stand awkwardly in the center of the room, until you turn to go, biting your lip.

“Jade, wait.”

You freeze, and have to fight the urge to bolt. You always run when he tries to talk to you. Always run when he approaches you. You can’t face him. Can’t talk to your once-boyfriend. Can’t look him in the eye when you only ever knew him as human, but were raised to hate the monster he actually is, only to have everything you know now tell you not to hate him.

You feel too much when you look at him, and your heart can’t take it.

But…

You pause, and then turn hesitantly, your breath caught in your throat.

Grandpa told you to stop hiding, and he’s right. This is no way for the leader of a city to behave. Running from the things she’s afraid to face. You can’t just leave him up here and push him to the back of your mind. He’s almost fully healed, and you need to talk to him, whether you want to or not.

“Yes?” you squeak out, your voice higher than intended, “Wh-what do you want?”

Dave seems surprised that you actually responded, and you see his throat bob as he swallows nervously.

“Jade I-,” he licks his lip, pushing back his overgrown hair away from his face and lifting his head so that he’s looking you straight in the eye.

“I just wanted to say that…that you can do it, fix the city I mean. I know you’re stressed as hell and worried about it…but I think you can do it.”

That catches you by surprise, and you stare at him with a look of incomprehension on your face.

“And you don’t have to do it alone, either,” he presses, a note of passion entering his voice. He threw his coolkid persona to the winds ages ago. “You don’t have to be alone. I…I fucking know that…that this is all messed up and you’re still not down with it. But if you wanted, I could help you Jade. I want to help you. Derse is my city too, however many times it may have fucked me over, and I-,”

Dave sucks in a breath and looks away from you, his face red and pinched.

“You don’t have to be alone,” he finishes quietly, his gaze now directed at the floor.  

You stare at him blankly, though you can feel your face paling and your breath hitches.

You’ve accepted that you were wrong about the Infected, and about everything else. But prejudice runs deep, and so does betrayal. You were so, so angry about Dave lying to you. So angry with him for everything. You were angry with him for not telling you he was Infected, angry with him for looking at you like that so that you couldn’t kill him, angry with him for getting hurt, and angry with him for never once getting angry with you.

Never once.

Because the one person left in Derse who has the biggest reason to be angry with your family, is the only one not flinging accusations and hateful stares.

Instead, he’s offering you his hand.

It’s scarred, and calloused, just like it’s always been. His nails are dirty, but not long, fearsome claws, and there’s something so simply human about the gesture and the hand that you start to cry.

You were wrong, you were so, so wrong.

Stepping forward, you take his hand in yours, and touch him for the first time since he woke up. His skin is warm and hard, and tears drip down your face as he squeezes gently.

“Let’s flip the disc and start a new track,” he says quietly, and it’s the first metaphor you’ve heard from him in what feels like a lifetime, “I know we can’t go back. You know we can’t go back. The city knows we can’t go back. So let’s move forward. Will you try, Jade?”

He hesitantly laces his fingers with yours, and you wish that you weren’t such a stupid little coward. A little kid unable to shake off the past completely. You want to hug him, bury your face into his chest. But you’re afraid. Right now you’re afraid.

But this handshake is something. It’s more than what you had before. And you think, you think that maybe you can build from this. That maybe you can move up and forward, with his hand in yours, just like this. That maybe you’ll be able to see past the red, and focus on something as human as a calloused palm.

You squeeze his hand back.

“Alright, Dave,” you whisper hoarsely, “Let’s make this happen.”

//

Your name is DAVE STRIDER and you’ve accepted that life’s never going to be the same. Your former girlfriend may never be fully comfortable around you again, and the boy who might very well have been the love of your life is lost to you forever. Your brother, and thousands of your people are dead, and the city you live in is sliding into economic ruin.

But Jade’s not shunning you anymore, the people are getting organized, and the initial shock of that horrible September night is wearing off. Your wounds still hurt and you can’t bend over without the fear of splitting at the seams, but the city is recovering.

You think that hope is fleeting and hard to hold onto, but fuck it, you’re a Strider, and Striders don’t let darkness take them over. You’re ready to jam to whatever new beat that life is laying down, and remix it into something lively and bright. It’s time to banish the darkness and embrace the dawn, carving your own paradise out of the smoking ruins of your former hell.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

He thinks it’s a mirage at first.

Huge walls rising up in the distance. Large and yellow and standing out in the dark wasteland they had been wandering in for weeks.

But consultation with sharper eyes than his own had confirmed that there were indeed walls in the distance, and that they were in direct alignment with their path.

The creation of a goal fuels new fire in the hearts of the entire company, and the young Rainbow Drinker leader thanks whatever deities might still exist for it. Even if it turns out to be nothing but an abandoned shell, it’s something to rekindle hope. And after over a month of wandering with no destination and no real chance of prolonged survival, a little hope can go a long way.

The sick, the wounded, and the majority of the very old and very young have perished at this point. They leave a trail of shallow, unmarked graves behind them. Some of the ones that dropped unnoticed during marches have no graves at all. There is only one marked grave among the dead, and that one lies almost directly outside the walls of Derse.

A single stone placed over top of the grave, with the symbol known as ‘cancer’ painstakingly carved into it. A memento to the first leader of their people, and the one who fought so hard for change in their unforgiving old home.

They leave him, and so many others behind, in the shifting sands and resourceless ground of the badlands abandoned by civilization. It’s a company of mostly the young and strong that approach the high walls, tied, hungry, and bedraggled, but encouraged onwards by the young man at their front.

It’s somewhere around the 8th week mark when three figures are spotted riding towards them, from the direction of the wall. Panic immediately spreads through the masses, as they’ve already had their share of attacks from prowling badlanders.

But the words of the tired young seer with the red scarf around her eyes tempers their fear. She tells them that the three figures are not to be feared, and that they’ve come to end their journey.

John walks out to meet the riders, accompanied by only one other extremely strong Troll. He notes with some surprise that the center rider is a lady, with short black hair and light blue eyes, shrouded in a cloak of yellow-gold. 

“From where does your company hail, good sir?” asks the lady as her horse stops in front of John, and her partners pause a few steps behind her.  

John blinks, because he’s never been called sir before, and because there’s not a shred of hostility emanating from this woman, despite his mutated eyes being in view, and also because he didn’t know horses still existed.

“A city called Derse,” he says cautiously, “It- we- It’s very far away. And we’re not going back. I mean- We can’t.”

The young leader is nervous and unpracticed in speaking to anyone new. Quite frankly, he feels like he’s describing his group as a band of fugitives, which isn’t going to help them get on this lady’s good side.

To his surprise, the lady laughs once, before her face morphs into something else and looks down on him with something akin to pity.

“You’ve certainly come a long way,” she says softly, “I’m sure you and your group are tired.”

The lady looks over her shoulder, past her companions and to the high walls that are less than a day’s walk, if that.

“Our watchmen have watched your approach for the past day or so,” she says, turning back to face John, “And I was sent to determine or not you were a group just passing by, or one who would attempt to breach our city’s walls.”

The word ‘city’ startles both John and Equius, who had always been told that Derse was the only remaining pocket of civilization left. But John recovers quickly, and he shakes his head.

“We-we don’t want trouble,” he assures just a little desperately, “We just- we’ve been walking for a long time, and so many of us are hurt…or sick…or just tired. If we could-,” He licks his dried, cracked lips, thinking about water that he hasn’t tasted in days, “If we could just rest a bit. If that’s okay. If you don’t mind that we…that we all are…,”

The young man trails off and looks at Equius, who is so obviously Infected with his jagged teeth and gray-tinged skin. The large Troll appears to wilt a bit, while the lady merely looks at them in mild confusion.

“There will be no discrimination against your Alternians, if that’s what you’re asking about,” she says gently, “Nor will there be discriminations against Rainbow Drinkers, or any others, so long as they do not intend anyone else harm.”

They both look up at her in surprise, and her smile softens with pity once more.

“Young ones,” she continues with a bit more force, her smile brightening as she lifts her head high, “As the daughter of the Mistress of the city, I believe that I can say with the utmost certainty, that your hardship and wandering is at an end.”

There’s a silence as the two travelers attempt to digest her words, and John takes a hesitant step towards her, his heart beating fast with hope, but his mind cautioning against believing anything too readily. Against daring to hope for salvation after so much pain.

“What do you mean by that?” he asks quietly, his voice cracking with both uncertainty and fatigue.

“What I mean is,” she continues with a small smile, “That you have come across a sanctuary. A city that takes in all that come across it. Prosperous and thriving, despite the misfortune of this world.

"Prospit welcomes you all, my young friends. Your journey is at an end.”

 

Chapter Text

So guess what? A group has come together to VOICE ACT The Entire City Was Silent!! How cool is that? Really cool. 

It can be found here: 

http://theentirecitywassilent.tumblr.com/post/58390566445/chapter-one-5-52-original-fanfic-by-natcat5 

I'm sure it's super amazing, haha. I'm actually too nervous to listen. I keep trying and then just pausing and rolling about with my hands covering my face. Ahhhh, it's just because my writing improved so  much over the course of this fic, that reading the first few chapters is embarassing. ;^_^ I'll listen to it soon! But I've heard great things, so you all should definitely give it a listen and tell me (and the group) what you think. 

Edit: I HAVE NOW LISTENED TO THE CHAPTER and it is really, really great! The audio editing is fantastic and the voice acting is really good and just ahhhhh good job production team super awesome good job!