John’s life was a good one. He believed this with absolute faith, the same faith that let him know that if he were ever in trouble Bruce Willis would charge barefoot over broken glass to save him from the German terrorists. Or, failing Bruce Willis because the man had a busy schedule, Dave would put on some shoes first and Jade or Rose would probably remember to call 911. His friends had been with him through thick and thin, through high school, through acne, through him dumping a bucket of red food dye on Cynthia Plattz at Senior Prom (long talk about how that one hadn’t been funny), through freshman orientation.
Part of his awesome social skills, John knew, had to be chalked up to his Dad laying down meticulous guide lines about showers and personal space. When you were thirteen, somebody had to tell you these things. Sure, Jade was stuck with him, genetically speaking, but she wouldn’t have applied to the same school if he’d still thought that Axe body spray was an acceptable substitute for soap and water. Parents were there to teach their children important things, like how many months you had to know someone before that joke about peeing in their beverages actually became funny.
Looking at Karkat Vantas having what appeared to be a nervous breakdown at the copier, John wondered if maybe he’d been raised by a herd of small, easily angered dogs. Karkat was in John’s Intro to Programming course; he had this kind of creepy habit of muttering under his breath at code like that would accomplish anything, but the screeching-growling-swearing was new. And kind of worrying, like learning that your next door neighbor collected dolls, but only the heads. Karkat’s friend – Theresa? Reese? Terezi – had whacked the nearest sniggering bystander in the knees with her cane and then abandoned ship.
John had to admit, it was kind of funny. Super funny, really, the way blood went right to Karkat’s face, ruddying not just his brown cheeks but everything to the tips of his ears. On the other hand, if Karkat’s eyeballs exploded nobody was ever going to get to use the printer, and John had an essay to hand in. He approached loudly, the way you did to make sure you weren’t going to startle small animals or serial killers.
“That one’s tricky!” John gave it a good solid whack to open the door on the side. “It likes to eat paper like it’s Godzilla and paper is tiny, screaming people begging for their lives.” He licked his fingers and reached into the copier’s burning hot innards to yank out the crumpled remains of Karkat’s assignment. “The first ten times it happened I had to call over the IT kid, like the hot chicks that summon Mothra.”
Karkat stared. John chucked the useless papers in the recycling bin and smiled, continued smiling as Karkat continued staring. Karkat inhaled heavily, his shoulders went back, and John worried that Karkat might start really screaming right there in the library in front of the Circulation Desk and everyone. Then Karkat shuddered a little and deflated, posture slumped.
“Thanks,” he grumbled.
“No problem.” John stuck out a hand. “I’m John Egbert. From your programming class?”
Karkat shrugged, his shoulders a thin, sharp line under his way too baggy sweater. “Yeah.”
John took his unshook hand back with the cheerful grace of someone who’d been hanging out with Dave Strider for seven years. He wasn’t really sure he wanted to shake Karkat’s hand anyway, since there was blood seeping out from the edges of Karkat’s chewed down nails. There were deep hollows carved under Karkat’s eyes, his hair stuck out at unwashed angles, and that scent wasn’t Axe body spray. It was Febreeze covering up Comp Sci major.
It was so afterschool special, John half expected Karkat to offer him some weed.
“Good luck next time,” said John.
“Screw off,” said Karkat.
Some people’s children.
“How do you tell someone they smell weird?”
John’s roommate was technically some douchebag with a purple stripe in his hair, but that douchebag had taken one look at him, said something about plebeians and orthodontists, and had never been seen in the freshmen dorms again. John and Dave had taken no time at all in adorning the abandoned side of the room, dubbed Douchebag’s Cove, with every fire hazard they could get their hands on, plus an armchair they’d rescued from the curb.
“Oh my god, John.” Jade looked at him with abject disappointment. “That’s not how you pick up girls.”
She was sprawled in the arm chair, trying to play video games over the obstacle of Dave equally sprawled in her lap. John was almost entirely sure they were dating, but they’d never actually said anything, and sometimes Dave just did things for attention and Jade just didn’t know what personal space meant. It could be they both thought that making out was a fun new way of saying hi.
“No, it’s a guy.”
Dave flipped him a lazy salute. “Welcome to the slow, inevitable trip up the Kinsey scale, my brother.”
“No.” John huffed out a sigh. “It’s just a dude from one of my classes. I feel bad. He’s a little high strung, maybe nobody has stopped to you know. Tell him he smells kind of like a crazy grandma.”
“Ooooh,” said Jade. “You mean Karkat.”
Dave’s eyebrows went up. “There’s some dude running around campus famous for smelling like grandmas?”
Jade abandoned her game. “Kanaya’s in the same dorm as him and she says sometimes she gives him quarters just to make him do his laundry.”
John felt his heart break under the tragic weight of Karkat’s grandma smell. If not even Kanaya had fixed him and seen him trussed up in ribbons and shirts screen printed with inappropriate pictures, then Karkat was obviously in need of a few friends. A few life lessons. Maybe a gift basket from Bath and Body Works.
Karkat’s eyes were painfully bloodshot. “What?”
John claimed the computer next to Karkat, which usually went untouched. “I don’t know if you remember, but I’m John.”
“Of course I remember.” Karkat’s frown could give nuns a run for their money. “I’m not fucking retarded.”
“Jeeze.” John reminded himself that he was on a mission of friendship and charity, and bit down on telling Karkat he didn’t need to be so god damned rude. “So I hear you know Kanaya!”
“Christ, don’t tell me you’re another freak interested in ‘fixing my life’ or casting me to be in a porno or whatever the hell she was on about the other day.”
John paused, his password half typed. “You should be pretty flattered, you know, Kanaya doesn’t usually involve guys in her, um. Pornos.”
Art. John had becoming immensely distrustful of art ever since Rose and Kanaya had started dating. There were chainsaws and ceramic boobs and a couch shaped like a vagina and one time Kanaya had forced John to dress in pajamas and stand in front of a giant fan for two hours.
“Why don’t you back the fuck off, or do they not have personal space on Planet Buckteeth?”
“I have never heard that one before. It is brand new! Thank you for introducing it to me, I’m sure we’ll be fast friends.” John flashed Karkat his biggest, bucktoothiest grin. “But since I just woke up with my teeth this morning, and I was really super surprised by them, I haven’t had a lot of time to think about today’s assignment. I thought we could get it over with together.”
Their professor was big on throwing them into the deep end of the computer pool and cackling madly as they drowned. A lot of days he just took attendance and left the room. It was great for checking facebook, not so great for turning his textbook into something other than a good bludgeon.
Karkat bristled. “If you think it’s funny to mock me you can go jam yourself ass first into a wood chipper.”
“Uh,” John said into the face of anger management issues. “Wow. You’re a jackass, dude.”
“I’m not exporting any fucks into Planet Buckteeth’s economy at the moment.”
“Chill out a little.”
“Chill out? You want me to chill out?” Karkat’s voice was pitching steadily louder. “That’s funny, because I want you to lock yourself in a meat freezer until you get hypothermia, your stupidity gets hypothermia, and your brain contracts and violently implodes in on its fucking self.”
John’s dad had been pretty successful in raising him to be a polite young man. He could be trusted with any number of easily offended old people or kindergartners with the expectation that no one would have a heart attack or learn any fun new words. Mr. Egbert had also taught John that even a gentleman had his limits, and sometimes it was just necessary to remove oneself from a volatile situation before it came down to an unmannerly thrashing.
“You need to take a shower,” John said. “And change your sweater.”
He deleted his half-password and found a computer on the other side of the room, far from Karkat and his lingering mothball smell.
Kanaya and Rose had dragged the vagina couch out onto the quad, where it shone sequenced-pink against the waving green grass and dandelions of spring. Jade and Dave were lounging curled up together in its nethers, and John figured that had to count as at least halfway married somehow. Kanaya was handing out felt tipped markers and encouraging people to sign the couch and ‘commune’ with it. Rose perched daintily on the clitoris, and John decided, retroactively, that he’d never been oblivious enough to have a crush on her.
“Who drew a dick on the vagina couch?” John asked, because he was becoming way too immune to this sort of thing. Rose had once described being an art student to him as trolling without the internet.
Dave waved a lazy hand. “Things were getting way too yonic up in here. Had to represent.”
Kanaya capped her marker and waved away her last communer. “I hear you have made the acquaintance of our dear Mr. Vantas.”
“Is he always a dick?”
“A monumental one, yes. I fear he is not settling in as well as one might hope. It’s probably best to ignore him, though hopefully he does not prove himself an arsonist before he cracks and drops out.”
“We’ve been thinking of doing a documentary,” said Rose. “Our RA has shown remarkable restraint, but I’m fairly certain our RA is. How would you put it?”
“Tripping balls,” Kanaya supplied.
John felt bad again. It was much easier to think of Karkat as tiny and sad when he wasn’t being an asshole to your face. Probably he just needed someone to take him tenderly in their arms and tell him it was all going to be okay. It was pretty unfortunate that John’s list of girls he knew included Jade, rampant lesbianism, and Vriska. Vriska was his BFF and all, but he didn’t think she was much for tender whispering and also she had run away to Alaska to hunt tuna or kill bears or invade Russia, whatever she felt like that week.
Karkat would have to settle for a friend. Maybe John could find him one on craigslist.
Karkat huddled deeper into his third-best hoodie, which had a horrible bleach stain right where it pulled over his ass. He wouldn’t even be wearing except some asshole had told him to do his laundry in the rudest fucking way possible. Who had died and elected John Egbert the laundry police?
Maybe Karkat hadn’t been keeping up on stupid, useless shit like wasting all his quarters in the laundry room and all his time in the shower, lately. He had other things to worry about, like not failing out of his life’s only ambition. Like wondering why the hell Terezi was acting like everything was all right and she hadn’t broken up with him over winter break out of the blue because. He didn’t even know why because. Because evil brain worms had drilled into her skull and turned her into an asshole, that’s why.
Not for the first time that semester, Karkat wondered what he’d do if he dropped out. Or got kicked out for being the most useless aspiring Comp Sci major in this universe and ever other god forsaken universe ever conceived of, even those that hadn’t yet invented computers or science. Maybe he was qualified to work at McDonalds. With his luck he’d end up being the douchebag who slipped and landed face first in the fryer. At least then he’d be able to join the circus.
Karkat Vantas, deep fried freak of nature.
He chewed off another hangnail.
Not even Karkat needed pity help. And if Sollux couldn’t explain all this bullshit to him, Egbert waltzing into his life wasn’t going to suddenly give him mad skills. ‘Start taking other classes,’ Karkat’s dad had said at Christmas. ‘See what you like.’
As if it were that easy, and everyone could just do what they liked. Karkat was tempted to fill out one of those bullshit create-your-own-major forms, see if he could get a Bachelor of Arts in Will Smith. He liked video games and romantic comedies; he was qualified for absolutely fuck all.
Ugh. Karkat let his head fall back against the wall with a hollow thwack. Screw John Egbert.
It wasn’t a voice he recognized. It wasn’t a voice he wanted to recognize, all perky and high pitched. He screwed his eyes shut in the hope that it, and its own, would go away. Far away. Footsteps.
“Heeellloooo.” Inches from his face now. “You’re breathing, so I’m pretty sure you’re alive.”
“Could be in a coma,” said a second voice, low and drawling. God damn it
“What?” Karkat demanded, forcing himself to look at his new tormentors.
A familiar, toothy face greeted him. It was a little rounder, lashes a little longer, eyes green, but John Egbert had obviously cloned a female version of himself as to harass Karkat from all possible angles. She was tall like Egbert, and broad shouldered, but Karkat had to be very careful not to look down her tank top at her cleavage. He looked over her shoulder instead, unimpressed by the whitest scrawny white boy he had ever seen.
“I’m Jade Harley,” the girl said, backing out of his personal space before he was really tempted to bite her. “I’m John’s sister.”
Karkat snorted. “That must be really awful for you.”
“And this is Dave!” Jade continued, as if Karkat hadn’t spoken or simply didn’t exist. He didn’t know who the fuck she was talking to, in that case.
Karkat was pretty sure he had never wanted to punch another human being so much in his entire life. Maybe himself, but not this asshole.
“What?” Karkat repeated, forcing the word out through gritted teeth.
“We were just talking about you, and I was curious!” Someday, someone was going to throttle this girl with her own exclamation points.
“Christ, good to know Egbert gossips about every god damned thing like a girl in middle school. Did he tell you I’m mean or did you get distracted by your hardcore game of truth or dare?”
Dave quirked half a smile. “Don’t ever spend seven minutes in heaven with John, telling you now. He slobbers.”
Harley made an indescribable face. Karkat appreciated her horror independent of its source.
Jade shook herself, reasserted her smile, and leaned back into Karkat’s personal space. “You know Kanaya. Her and Rose are doing an art exhibition thing at Mallory House this Friday. You’re coming.”
“You are!” She stuck a finger in his face. Her polish was black, but someone had meticulously painted little dog heads on each nail in bright green. “And you’re going to be nice or I’m going to put a boot so far up your ass you’ll be coughing up shoe laces for the rest of the semester.”
Karkat was pretty sure this was harassment. He was pretty sure Jade could make good on her threat, since she had a good inch and who knew how many pounds on him. He was also pretty sure the police would take her side.
She whirled on one toe, skirts swirling, and took Dave’s arm. They left Karkat and his burgeoning confusion alone with his beeping dryer.