The wardrobe was a bitch. It had been built a bitch, it had aged into intensifying bitchdom, and now--eighty years old if it was a day--it was a sour old bitch, and one in whom the years seemed to have gathered like physical fucking weight.
Dave glared at it. Renting a house pre-furnished had seemed like the greatest fucking idea ever when he and John and Karkat had talked it over--no shitty cinderblock-and-plank bookshelves, no fucked-up Ikea futons as comfortable as lying on a stack of pizza boxes and metal bars, no milk-crate coffee tables--but then they’d got here and they had found that the pre-furnished furniture apparently dated from the Hideous and Ridiculously Heavy period of cabinetry. Together they’d managed to haul one of the extra unnecessary fucking dresser things out of Karkat’s room and move his wardrobe out from in front of the window (who the fuck stuck a wardrobe in front of a window, what was even this lady’s deal) and Dave figured he could move the one in his room on his own. Didn’t look too difficult, all he had to do was get the right angle and he could scoot that piece of shit across the ancient floorboards to the perfect space right in the corner, and then he could set up his turntables and his mixing gear there and his desk over here.
The thing to do was get the fucking wardrobe up onto a bit of cardboard as a sort of makeshift sledge. He’d disassembled one of the moving boxes already and had it close to hand: now he gave the wardrobe an extra-evil glare from behind his shades, set his hands under the edge of it and heaved.
Nothing. Shit was like cast fucking iron. Dave tried to get a better angle and had another go and this time he got the side up enough to slide the cardboard under the legs. See? Fucking piece of cake. He ignored a warning twinge from the left side of his lower back and went round to the other side of the wardrobe. Once this was done he’d go bully the others into ordering the good kind of pizza and they could fucking chill out for the first time all day.
He positioned his hands--fuck, they were gonna bruise--and locked his knees and pulled and there was a nasty gristly little clicking noise from somewhere in his back and an astonishing flare of pain knocked the breath out of him with a grunt. The wardrobe crashed back down to the floorboards and Dave barely heard it, gritting his teeth and waiting for the sensation that all the nerves in his lower back had been wirestripped and were now being clamped in a white-hot fucking vise to ease off a little. He’d fallen to his knees, both hands pressed against the small of his back, fingers splayed and jittering slightly as if electric current were running through him.
Ah God I think I’ve crippled myself, he thought, and then with a fucking wardrobe Jesus Christ shit is so dumb it can’t even be classified as ironic, and then I wonder if I can actually move.
Well, okay. Yes, but he’d bitten his lip hard enough to taste salt and copper so as not to yell; bending at the waist at all in any direction was enough to make him feel more than slightly sick. He couldn’t spend the rest of the evening, or his natural life, half-kneeling against the side of this malevolent fucking chunk of furniture, however, and after some exceedingly painful experimentation he found that he could jam his fingers into the crack between the wardrobe and its door and use it to lever himself more or less upright.
The pain was receding a bit, right? He thought it had to be. He figured this was the kind of thing you just tried to ignore and it would go away. Once when he’d been a kid he’d turned his head weird or something and out of the blue his neck had started hurting like fuck if he tried to twist it at all, and he’d said something to Bro about it and Bro had said sack up, little man, sore necks do not excuses from strifing make.
(Bro had been pretty nice to him afterward and made him icepacks and stuff like that, found him a couple of ancient dusty advil, didn’t argue when he claimed the remote after dinner.)
He’d been right, though; Dave’s neck got better on its own after several (intensely uncomfortable) days. This was the same thing, he’d just get some ice on it, maybe drink a beer, think about something else. Like how not to let the others know he’d fucked himself up trying to move furniture, because really, that shit was beyond pathetic.
Dave wiped at his mouth, wincing at the smear of blood from his bitten lip, and managed to straighten up a little further; some angles seemed to hurt less than others and if he could just stay like this he thought he could handle being remotely cool about shit.
...Yeah, ice sounded good.
The others had ordered the good kind of pizza and there was beer to be had and John and Karkat were thankfully too busy sniping at one another over shitty movies to pay much attention to Dave or the fact that he wasn’t sitting down or sprawling in his usual fuck-you attitude all over their couch. Or that he was barely nibbling at the pizza, or that he had gone a funny color and was sweating a little. He thought Karkat gave him a couple weird looks, but Karkles gave everybody weird looks, that was just kind of his thing.
It...wasn’t getting better. Normally when he damaged himself shit hurt like a motherfucker and then died back to a kind of bearable throb except when he banged the injured limb on something or got hot sauce in a wound or that kind of thing; this...wasn’t going away, and it was making him queasy and ridiculously exhausted. Hurting was apparently hard fucking work.
He figured it was kind of convenient that the other two were obviously doing that stupid hateflirt argument thing that people in the first half of romantic comedies indulged in, because they were far too interested in bouncing popcorn off each other and coming up with increasingly creative insults (Karkat) or obnoxious rejoinders (John) to care much when he said he was gonna crash early. “Need my beauty sleep.”
“Fuck yeah you need your beauty sleep,” Karkat said distractedly, “anything to ameliorate your goddamn ugly mug is tops in my book, what the fuck, Egbert, did you just actually tuck popcorn in your fucking nostrils, you are the most bizarre waste of space I ever fucking even talked to.”
Dave hobbled slowly off to his room, jaw set and poker-face rigidly in place. He had some advil somewhere in one of his boxes, he was pretty sure; a couple of those and maybe just lying down flat would take care of this bullshit. Because it had to.
The alarm clock said it was half past one.
Dave blinked at it, and up at the ceiling, bleary with the wash of orange streetlamp light from outside; a tear rolled down his temple to wet the silent cup of his ear. He’d woken himself up by twisting or something and the resulting stab of pain was enough to bring out a cold sick sweat on his face and chest, enough to make him swallow a whimper, eyes welling with pain-tears.
Deal with it, said Bro in his head. You’re a fucking Strider, behave like one.
The Advil had maybe taken the edge off it before, enough for him to fall asleep. Okay. More of those, then. In order to obtain more Advil he would have to actually sit up and get out of bed and make it the few steps to his dresser, where he’d stupidly left the bottle like a complete fucking moron.
He reached over to turn on the light and that tugged at something and he went nngh and shut his eyes tight for a moment or two before he could make himself move further. The light was crazy-bright when he flipped it on, actinic, insistent.
He wanted Bro.
Even if all the guy would do was tell him to quit whining and get on with it, he wanted Bro.
Dave took a deep breath ow and shut his eyes and thought of rooftop strifing and made himself sit up, levering himself upright with his hands. Oh, fuck, fuck everything in the universe to death, this was like his whole back was one giant abscessed rotting tooth, that sick drilling fulsome pain that knotted his stomach and curled awful tendrils round his testicles, this was the worst fucking thing he’d ever felt. Little scintillating scotomata flickered at the corners of his vision. He wasn’t entirely sure who was making that high helpless little whining noise until some of the worst of the pain faded a little and he realized it was actually himself.
He was breathing shallowly because anything else hurt, and the simple act of going from horizontal to mostly vertical had left him out of breath. He didn’t know how long he sat there on the edge of his bed before gathering up the motivation to get up and go get the fucking pills.
He didn’t have any water to take them with but right now Dave did not give even an infinitesimal fraction of a shit. He would happily chew the fuckers up and bear the unbearable bitterness if it meant getting this to stop, getting it to fucking stop or at least let up even a little.
Okay. Phase two. Get the fuck up.
Dave was straight-up legitimate fucking crying by the time he’d hobbled the few steps to his dresser and wrapped his fingers round the plastic bottle. God, these things were old, he’d had them for like years now, he never took painkillers except when he’d really fucked himself up, did ibuprofen even go bad?
He squinted at the bottle. Discard after...uh, January of last year. Fuck it. Anything was better than nothing at the moment.
God he wanted Bro.
It was not even surprising when, in the process of lowering himself back to the stupid bed, something slid wrong over something else and a soundless burst of pain made him stifle a cry--and drop the fucking Advil to clap his hands to the spot as if to stop himself from coming apart. The bottle hit the floor with a sad little rattle and rolled a few feet away.
Dave stared at it.
There was...no fucking way he could actually bend over to pick that up, even if he could get off the goddamn bed again in the first place. It was just not a thing that was happening. Striders had limits, even if they were far beyond normal people’s ideas of limits, and he had just bounced off his own.
Fuck, he thought, sniffling. What the hell am I supposed to do now?
He was cold, now, pain-sweat sticking his t-shirt to his chest and back, but doing anything that required moving such as crawling back under his bedcovers or going to fetch something warmer to wear was just not on the agenda right now.
He could hear movement in the next room--oh, shit, had he woken up the others? Fuck, he’d tried to be quiet but that last twinge had wrung noise out of him beyond his control--
Someone knocked on the door. “Strider.”
“Sup?” he managed.
Oh shit the knob was turning and Karkat was there in the yellow light of his bedside lamp and Dave wiped hurriedly at his face. “--’d I wake you? Sorry, man--”
Karkat’s black hair was sticking up vertically on one side and plastered to his face on the other with a couple of rogue tufts attempting to emulate those weird Christmas-tree tube-worm thingies on the Discovery Channel. He was also sporting an impressive set of pillow-wrinkle marks down one cheek and an absolutely world-class scowl.
“Jesus fuck, Strider,” he said, taking in the tableau, and rubbed at his face. “What happened?”
Dave figured at this point anything other than the actual truth would be veering into farce, and he didn’t do farce. “Fucked my back up earlier. Kinda hurts.”
That wasn’t actually a scowl, he realized, that was a frown.
“Kinda hurts,” Karkat repeated. “Which is why you’re sitting frozen stiff on the edge of your bed looking like sixteen kinds of microwaved shit. Goddamn, Strider, why didn’t you say something? These aren’t thick walls, you wouldn’t even have had to yell.”
Dave blinked at him. “Uh,” he said brilliantly. “Didn’t want to wake you guys.”
“You are an idiot,” said Karkat, and came over to have a closer look at him. “When did you do this to yourself?”
“Oh my fucking God such an idiot. Did you at least put ice on it?”
“Yeah,” Dave said, “it kind of helped a bit, but...”
“Well, good.” Karkat’s frown intensified. “Oh, hell, Strider. You really did a number on yourself, didn’t you. Does it hurt less when you’re lying down flat or if you have your shoulders up a bit?”
“Flat,” Dave said, a little lost. God, he felt sick.
“Okay. Here.” Karkat reached to push the covers back for him, and offered Dave his arm--and he found that while it still hurt enough to make his eyes water, having some support made lying down a less utterly miserable experience. He was exhausted enough to not even really notice when Karkat lifted his feet onto the bed, sparing him the effort of moving, but he did reach for Karkat’s hand as he pulled the blankets up.
“Karkles,” Dave managed, horribly and absurdly close to tears again. “Thanks. Thank you.”
“Shut up, Strider, I haven’t even done anything,” he said, but there was a smile in his voice if not visible on his face. “You just stay put and don’t try anything stupid like moving, I’m gonna get you some more ice and some painkillers.”
Lying down helped considerably; it was apparently the only position his back didn’t violently object to, and with the covers over him Dave felt less miserably chilled. The idea of yelling for help had legitimately not crossed his mind.
When Karkat came back he was collected enough to be able to pay more attention to his housemate. He really must have woken him up, that was some fucking epic bedhead he had going on there, and Dave noticed now that he apparently slept in black boxers with little grey 69s all over them--kinky, man--and a worn-thin T-shirt featuring Pizzazz and the Misfits. Heh. That was the kind of shit he would pull.
He also noticed that the shirt was old enough to be almost see-through here and there, fuzzy-soft, and that it clung to Karkat’s shoulders. Why he would notice any such thing, especially in extremis, escaped Dave, but luckily he was distracted from the point. “Okay,” Karkat was saying, “these here are Aleve, and I guess one of these won’t do you any harm, it’s a muscle relaxant.” He counted pills out into his hand.
“...how do you know all this?” Dave asked, unevenly.
“You are not actually the only person ever to fuck yourself up by accident, Strider, hate to break it to you.” Karkat handed him the pills and then a glass of water with a fucking bendy straw in it, jesus christ, he’d even thought of that, Dave didn’t have to sit up to drink. “Good. Give that shit a chance to start working and then we can put some ice on you. --What were you even doing?”
Dave could feel the tips of his ears go pink, but he thought on the whole that he’d already plumbed the depths of humiliation for one night and a little more couldn’t do much harm. “Trying to move that fucking thing,” he said, glaring at the wardrobe. “Denser than a fucking neutron star.”
“Ah, shit, Dave, no, never try doing that on your own,” Karkat said seriously. Dave wondered if he was aware he hadn’t called him Strider. “You really want to risk lifting a whole goddamn universe? No wonder you threw your back out.”
“...I didn’t even think of that,” he said, and he had to laugh, and that felt weird but it didn’t actually hurt. “Goddamn portals to other worlds all hiding inside items of furniture, shit’s unconscionable.”
“It was in the lease. In little teeny font. You should read things before you fucking sign them.” Karkat’s mouth quirked upward in a little weird smile he hadn’t seen before--hell, hadn’t seen any kind of smile on that face, really.
“I’m the worst tenant,” he agreed. Oh, thank fuck, whatever Karkat had made him take was doing something, the edges of the misery were beginning to recede. It made him think of a tide going out, gradually, almost imperceptible, but there.
“How you feeling?” Karkat asked, obviously noticing a change in his expression.
“...fuck, like I might survive the night, man. It’s a fucking miracle.”
“It’s naproxen sodium,” Karkat corrected. “Okay, good. Ice now, and then go back to fucking sleep, it’s like two in the morning.”
Dave was aware of sleep pulling at him now that the pain had begun to ease. “Mmmh,” he agreed. When Karkat helped arrange the icepack against his back and propped him in place with pillows he smiled sleepily up at him.
“Goddamn,” Karkat said, a long way away. “You are such a fucking idiot, Dave Strider.”
He thought Karkat reached out to stroke his hair. A little later the icepack disappeared and more blankets were pulled over him, and after that there weren’t any dreams at all.
“Not my name.”
“Still not my name.”
“Karkles, it huuuurts.”
“Of course it does, it’s gonna go on hurting, we’ve been over this, Strider.”
“But it huuuuuuuuurts.”
“And if you do not shut the fuck up right now I am going to stop making you pancakes and you can just lie there on the fucking couch and bemoan your sorry state without my company. And I won’t even save you from John’s bouncy sympathy when he gets back.”
“I hope you know I am giving the ceiling this really fucking pitiful look of woe and personal hurt,” Dave said. “I can’t actually twist around to direct it at you but it’s there, all right. It’s there.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” said the voice from the kitchen. “Do you want blueberry syrup or whipped cream on these, idiot?”
“Why the fuck did I even bother asking,” Karkat sighed. “I’m not doing smiley faces on them, Strider. One has to draw the line somewhere.”
“You are the best housemate, Karkles,” Dave said. “Hands fucking down it is you.”
“You damn right.”
Dave settled back against the couch, smirking. Okay, renting a pre-furnished house maybe hadn’t been the worst decision they’d ever made.
now illustrated by the wonderful givenclarity!
“—What’s up with you?”
“Karkat, what’s up with Dave?”
“Comprehensively fucking damaged himself attempting to move a wardrobe, leave him alone or he’ll whimper and I do not personally feel strong enough to handle that shit.”
“…are you making pancakes?”
“No. I’m flying a fighter jet, can’t you tell? —Back off, Egbert, noli these fucking tangere.”
Thwap, with a spatula.
“Owwww, Karkat, you don’t have to be mean about it.”
“I do and you know it. Go away and let me finish this and then you and I can have ordinary non-crippled-people breakfast.”
“Oh my god are you making Dave special pancakes? You are so making Dave special pancakes Karkat that is absolutely adora—”
THWACK with a spatula.
“—okay okay okay you make your point, jeez.”
“Sometimes I have to make it three or four fucking times before it sinks in. Did you at least get your ID shit straightened out?”
“Yeah, turns out they’d transposed two digits on my student ID number, took like a second to fix that. Then I stopped by the store on the way back and got shit like notebooks because I figured we were gonna need them.”
“My God. An actual instance of fucking forethought from John Egbert. Hold me, I shall swoon. —Get off, jesus. If you’re going to stand around and get in the damn way do me a favor and go put a plate in the toaster oven at three-fifty, set it on Keep Warm.”
“As you command, man. Oh fuck, you got the good whipped cream!”
“Put that down, Egbert, or I’ll—”
“…I hate you. I want you to fucking know that, John, I fucking hate you with a powerful and coruscating hatred the likes of which your feeble brain could never contemplate, I just opened that can this morning and the rest of us might have wanted some of it on our fucking food before you got Egbertian germs all over the fucking nozzle.”
“Lighten up, Karkat, if I’m carrying anything you’ll both have it by the end of the week anyway.”
“…I hate it when you’re right. Put the fucking can down and go deal with that plate.”
In the living room Dave winced a little as he shifted against the sofa cushions, but mostly he was aware of a sort of stupid simple contentment he wasn’t used to.
Karkat didn’t do smiley faces on the pancakes, true to his word. Instead they had blueberry-flavored >:( faces on them, and Dave laughed hard enough to wince. The others had come to join him in the living room, Karkat crosslegged on the floor and Egbert perched on the arm of the sofa. That kid could balance fucking anywhere, it was insane.
“...so what’s the plan for today?” John asked, crunching up honey-nut cheerios. He’d put whipped cream on them. Karkat had shuddered. “I mean, if you’re basically sidelined until your back gets better it’s all up to me and Karkat to finish unpacking, right? So we get to decide where all your stuff goes.”
“Actually, no, we get to locate someone STRONG to finish moving all the fucking furniture,” Karkat told him. His Cheerios were innocent of anything but milk, and it was a good thing he hadn’t seen John take the carton out earlier and help himself to a good long swig. “And then we can torment Strider by arranging his things in inappropriate locations. The shitty anime swords, for example, might go nicely in the fridge.”
“You’re insane, Karkles,” Dave said, mouth full of pancake. “Completely bonkers. Those swords are not shitty, for one thing, and for another they do not go in the goddamn fridge they go in the cabinet under the sink, what even are you thinking.”
“Fuck, I’m sorry, I should have known, this is some bullshit ironic feng shui thing, right?”
“You haven’t reached a sufficiently high level of ironic enlightenment for me to tell you, dude.”
Karkat pegged a Cheerio at him, which seemed to settle the matter to general approval.
A little while after they’d finished breakfast and made a couple of brief but important phone calls, the wardrobe that had damaged Dave had been suitably tamed and made to settle becomingly right where it ought to be, and his desk and sound equipment relocated accordingly. The shitty anime swords remained where they were.
Dave was feeling considerably less at one with the universe several hours later when he hauled himself off the sofa--with Karkat’s help--and found that yeah, he still hurt like an absolute stone-cold motherfucking bitch. “--Fuck,” Karkat said succinctly. “That bad, huh?”
He could feel sweat standing out on his face. “You just went the color of old mushrooms, Strider, give us a heads-up if you plan to do any hurling in the near future just as a general courtesy?”
“Don’t...think the floor’s in danger of being decorated,” Dave said after a moment, leaning heavily on him. “Jesus fuck this hurts though. You got any more of those miracle pills?”
“Yup. But if you’re still like this tomorrow your ass is going to the clinic.” Karkat helped him to the bathroom without being asked, and Dave wondered not for the first time how many hidden depths it was possible for one grumpy little asshole to contain.
When he eventually hobbled out again John was sprawled on the sofa reading one of his screenplay-writing texts. “--Hey, sorry, I stole your place, man,” he said, rolling over and just catching himself before he fell off the edge. Dave waved this away.
“‘s cool, man. Kinda think I might go lie down properly for a while, you have the sofa. You’re, like, using it for official school purposes and all.”
School didn’t actually start for a few more days, thank fuck. Hopefully by the time he was expected to do shit like leaving the house he’d be able to, well, leave the house.
John was getting up anyway, coming over, stupidly blue eyes wide with sympathy behind his glasses. Dave was very, very grateful for the window-tinting privacy of his own shades. “You’re really feeling shitty, huh, man. Want a hand back to bed?”
He swallowed and nodded. “Yeah, that’d be good. Thanks, Egbert, sometimes you’re a helpful and competent derp instead of a standard garden-variety derp, it’s a wonderful phenomenon.”
“Fuck you, Strider,” John said cheerfully, and ducked slightly to let Dave lean on his shoulder. He was bony and angular and wiry underneath his hoodie, the build of someone who hasn’t got his full growth yet but is well on his way there.
Dave wondered again what the fuck was up with him noticing shit like that all of a sudden.
The process of regaining horizontality was about as pleasant as he remembered, and he just lay still for a moment breathing hard with his eyes shut when John helped him down to the bed. “Dude,” John said, sounding worried--Egbert sounding worried, what the fuck--”you really don’t look so good. You need to go to the doctor?”
“Nah.” Dave swallowed. “Just...strained something is all. It’ll fix itself, just need some painkillers. Karkles has like mad knowledge of pharmacy shit, I guess.”
“Yeah, I’m sure.” Dave located something resembling a smile and equipped it. “Go get your learn on, Egbert, I’ll be fine.”
John left, with another mistrustful look. Dave was pretty sure he hadn’t convinced the guy but fuck it, there was only so much one Strider could handle at any given time. Now that he was properly supine he could start to think more clearly as the pain receded.
“Egbert thinks you’re on your deathbed,” said Karkat from the doorway. “He’s composing epitaphs. It’s kind of adorable, or it would be if he weren’t so damn shitty at it. I think he’s trying to rhyme things with Strider.”
He looked up. “Bullshit.”
“Later I might make him read some of them to you. --Here you go, miracle pills as requested.” Karkat looked at him critically. “You want anything else? I think there’s apple juice in the fridge.”
“Water’s fine.” Where had he even gotten bendy straws from, Dave wondered. He sure as hell didn’t recall picking those up at the grocery store. “Thanks, Karkles. You are the very best of housemates.”
“I sure as fuck am. I think this is soon enough after breakfast that you should be okay without like crackers or something, but shriek in agony if your stomach hurts, yeah?”
“Shriek in agony, check.” Dave swallowed his handful of blessed chemicals and set the glass aside. “Fuck, I’m tired, Karkles, I don’t even know why.”
“Don’t fight it, man, the more you’re asleep the less you’re actively in pain.”
Dave watched as he scrubbed his hands through the bird’s-nest of his hair, and couldn’t help remembering Karkat in the yellow glow of his bedside lamp, hair sticking out all over the place, pillow-wrinkles pressed into one cheek. “Mmh,” he said.
Karkat just pulled the blankets over him and told him to go the fuck to sleep.
“Dude, I’m serious, he looks terrible.”
“I know. You didn’t see him last night, it was a whole shitload worse. --Get off the fucking counter, Egbert, you’re as bad as a goddamn cat. Here. Look. You want something to do so badly, you can peel and chop the carrots if you promise not to cut your fucking fingers off with my good knife. I’m not having that knife get nicks in it from your derpy-ass fingerbones.”
“You say the sweetest things, Karkat,” John said, with a cloudless smile, and wrapped his arms around Karkat from behind in a patented Egbert-hug. As usual, it made Karkat flail and curse and whap at him with the spatula, which--as usual--led to a brief tussle ending in retaliatory headlock noogies from Karkat and John giggling like a complete and utter twerp.
“Get to work, you colossal retard,” Karkat said, letting him go and handing over the peeler. “Shit is not going to prepare itself.”
“I still can’t believe you’re making chicken soup.”
“I am not making chicken soup, we’ve been over this. This is what we in the world of grown-ups call chicken stock, which can be used as the base for soup and also in a myriad other applications to add fucking flavor, get this shit clear.”
“You are so making chicken soup, Karkat. You even got the noodles.”
“Peel those fucking carrots, Egbert, or I will come after you with the goddamn microplane, don’t fucking test me.”
John subsided, still grinning his bucktoothed grin, and got on with his task while Karkat browned chicken thighs in the big black cast-iron frying pan he’d insisted on bringing. “When the fuck are you going to use that, Karkles?” Dave had asked, snickering. “To brain intruders?”
“Yeah, but also to fucking cook in, you goddamn philistine,” Karkat had said, swinging the pan in a loose-wristed vertical circle the way show-offs did with swords. There was something about the way he did this which had convinced Dave to change the subject without much delay.
The whole world of cookery was pretty much a closed book to John beyond things you could put in the microwave and then take out and eat, or alternatively things you could put in the toaster oven and then take out and eat. He was pretty much down with those two modes. Peeling carrots was a task that made him feel like Gordon Ramsay, on whom Karkat had a not-so-secret mancrush. Actually chopping them up with Karkat’s good knife required concentration!
Karkat watched him, a little one-sided smile flickering across his face, before he turned his attention back to the pan and got on with the job at hand. “--If you survive the carrots you could maybe have an attempt at the celery, Egbert. I just mention it in passing.”
It was...nice, when John wanted to do something Karkat liked. He didn’t think too much about it, because he didn’t need to: simply nice, a pleasant experience. By the time he was done with the chicken and deglazing his beloved skillet, John had finished dismembering both carrots and celery and had come up beside him to peer at what he was doing. “So is that like it?”
“Largely. Now I stick these in this pot and add the onion and your vegetable carnage and all the herbs and shit and fill it up with water and let it simmer for the rest of the day. I told you this wasn’t complicated, Egbert.”
“But you’re like...making it. Not just opening cans.”
“My God you are perceptive.” Karkat dumped ingredients into his dented stockpot. “And when it’s done it’s gonna go in ziploc bags and get frozen and I won’t have to fuck around with making it again for a while. See how this works?”
“I guess,” John said, leaning against the counter, fidgeting. “Karkat, seriously, um.”
“Seriously um what?” He was grinding pepper on top of the stuff in the pot. “Be more communicative.”
“Seriously what if Dave’s not okay?”
Karkat put down the pepper grinder and sighed. “Then we’ll take him to the clinic. I think he’s just strained something really fucking badly, but if he’s still in this much pain tomorrow I’m at least calling them to say what the fuck do we do.”
“I never saw him like this before,” John said. “Like, okay, back in high school one time he broke his wrist doing some dumbass stunt and he had to have been in a shitload of pain then, cause, uh, broken wrist, but he didn’t look as gross as he does right now.”
“He’ll be fine, jesus.” Karkat glowered furiously at him and then sighed and put a hand on his shoulder, which apparently was permission for John to wrap tightly around him in a hug. “--erk. Christ, Egbert, not so damn tight, I need to breathe here. Relax, okay? Calm your tits and be of fucking use helping clean up.”
John eased off on his infant-gibbon imitation and gave Karkat’s back a couple of manly if belated whacks. “Right! Cleaning up. How come Ramsay never needs to do his own cleaning up?”
“Because he probably spent his entire fucking young adulthood doing just that very thing,” Karkat said drily. “Not a lot of envy for the life of a professional chef. --No, that doesn’t go in the dishwasher. In fact you know what, fuck the dishwasher, it was making really uncouth noises yesterday and I don’t think I want to risk it throwing up all over the kitchen. We got enough to deal with as it is.”
When Dave woke up in that weird not-twilight of late afternoon he wasn’t sure what day it was, or how long he’d been asleep. This was why he hated napping during the day, it fucked with your sense of present time passing, and he’d always kind of been super fucking sensitive to that shit.
He shifted a little and that woke up his back, and although it was enough to make him groan out loud it seemed--oh fuck he hoped it seemed like it was less fucking terrible than it had been before. Reaching out to turn on the light didn’t make him want to die, for example, which it had done not so long ago.
He rubbed at his face, reaching for his shades, feeling better the moment the familiar weight settled on the bridge of his nose; with the world at bay beyond that barrier he could deal with how he felt without having to try and keep his eyes expressionless. Slowly he became aware that the house smelled interesting, sort of homely--and that he was fucking starving, had he really slept all day with nothing but a handful of pain pills and Karkat’s frowny pancakes to sustain him? Jesus fuck. That would not stand.
Dave...wasn’t sure he was actually hungry enough to chance waking the pain up all the way by trying to get up on his own and go find the others. It represented a sort of paradigm shift in his thinking: the concepts of caution and self-preservation had been introduced as valid variables in a shifting world of stoicism, pragmatism, self-sacrifice, and general bloody-mindedness.
That concept had got away from him a little, he thought, and closed his eyes again. He was going to have to get up, though. Just a couple more minutes of lying perfectly still and he’d make an attempt, at least. He had to make the attempt.
Knock knock. “Dave?”
He blinked behind the shades. “--Huh?”
The door opened and John poked his head through--from this angle Dave could just make out a shock of black hair and a blue sleeve, he wasn’t about to try twisting around to get a better look. “You feeling any better?”
“Some,” Dave said. John came into the room and peered down at him anxiously. Anxious on John didn’t really work very well, aw, jeez, that was fucking stupidly adorable.
What did he just think.
“--Karkat made dinner if you want some. Uh. You kinda don’t look like you should be out of bed, though, dude.”
Dave lifted a limp hand and let it flop. “I’m fucking useless, Egbert. Ripe for the culling. Woe.”
That got a better half-smile out of John. “Well, he was all making huffy noises and looking for a tray, so I guess he’s not set on making you get up and be all formal and shit.”
“Egbert,” said Karkat, muffled through the door. “Come here and open this fucking door like a half-sensible human being, I only have two goddamn hands.”
Dave didn’t miss the way John’s face lit up. He’d totally been right about the hateflirty romcom thing, he thought. They were fucking sweet. He swallowed hard as John opened the door for Karkat, who came in carrying a tray with...what the fuck, looked like actual food, not pizza or takeout. “You cooked?”
“He totally cooked. He made chicken soup! From chicken! And other stuff.”
Karkat was going an amusing brick color. “Shut your face before it gets shut for you, Egbert. I told you I was just preparing stock, that’s all.”
Dave had to swallow again before he was entirely sure he’d sound the way he planned to. “Welp, that’s it, Karkles. Will you marry me?”
He was not prepared for the even deeper flush in his friend’s face. “Fuck you, Strider. Eat your damn nourishing homemade soup. --Can you sit up, actually?”
“Dunno. Let’s find out.”
It was...maybe kind of a relief that John was the one to offer him an arm while Karkat fussed with the tray, and Dave was exceedingly gratified to find that while it hurt, it didn’t hurt to the point where he felt queasy, and presently he was settled with the tray on his lap indelicately slurping soup. “--Jesus Christ, Strider. Your table manners are atrocious.”
“Mmf,” he said. “Karkles, this is really good. Like really good. You should do this all the time.”
“You should!” John said. “If I damage myself by accident will you make me soup?”
“I did make you soup, moron, what the fuck do you think you’re eating, and no, just for that I will not. No soup for you. No pancakes either. You can get your own goddamn nourishment, I know when I’m being manipulated.”
John pouted at him and Karkat glowered, and for a moment Dave felt like it was last year again, last year in the quad room they’d all shared since their fourth roommate had dropped out. That had been good times, but the fucking housing fees on campus were through the roof and when they’d seen this ad in the paper they couldn’t resist it. A whole fucking house for the three of them. With all the fucking furnishings provided.
He had to admit this was a pretty okay bed, all things considered. Way better than that dinky little dorm single. It had been a challenge to sleep on that narrow child’s bed with anybody else and wake up in the morning with both parties still a) on the bed and b) remotely comfortable.
“Seriously though,” he said. “Thanks.”
“Mhh. You’re welcome, asshole. We can’t move the TV in here but if you want I can go get your laptop if you wanted to watch netflix or whatever.”
“Hey, yeah, that’d be awesome. I still have like half of Breaking Bad season two to get through.” Dave smiled at him, and thought probably the smile looked a bit weary, but hoped it did its job nonetheless. He thought Karkat might have flushed again, but couldn’t be sure through the shades. “--You guys wanna watch that with me?”
There was enough room on the bed for one of them on either side of him if they were careful.
“...yeah, okay,” Karkat said, grudgingly, and John bounced to his feet. “Go get the ice cream, Egbert, and don’t eat the fucking whipped cream out of the fucking can that is fucking disgusting, were you raised in a den or something?”
When John had gone he looked seriously down at Dave. “You sure you’re up for this?”
“Yeah, I’m cool,” he said. He even thought it might be something close to true.
By the time classes started Dave was more or less back to normal. He was still having some difficulty doing shit like bending over without making a bunch of gross noises, but on the whole he was ambulatory and more or less not dying of brain-melting agony. It was funny how quickly the whole episode retreated into a bad but dim memory; experiencing pain like that was difficult to recall with any clarity, mostly because his brain seemed to refuse to believe it was possible. He wasn’t complaining.
The only good thing about that entire fucking episode had been Karkat’s cooking. And, okay, yeah, chilling with the pair of them and watching netflix on his computer.
Sophomore year was much nicer than being freshmen: the sensation of knowing absolutely nothing and being everybody’s punchline was replaced with a comfortable awareness that they still had some time to fuck around and enjoy themselves before they had to get down to the business of actually working on their majors for realsies. He was taking a bunch of electives, having done the core requirements for the most part in his first year. Today it was Speculative Fiction, and they had already broken into groups to workshop assignments, which worked on the honor system. Dave and his group had a system in place whereby they powered through the actual work and proceeded to spend the rest of the class period fucking around in the library. Free wifi was a thing of fucking beauty.
He and John had a couple classes together but for the most part the three of them parted ways when they got to campus in the morning; he occasionally ran into Karkat before his two-forty music theory class and Egbert right after it at four-thirty, but they didn’t spend much time together during the day.
So it was kind of weird when John called him at half past one on Friday. He knew Egbert had a class at one-twenty so he either wasn’t there or he was sitting far enough back in the room to get away with using his phone. And John wasn’t an inveterate class-cutter, unlike Dave.
“Dave?” He sounded distracted.
“No, Liza Minnelli. What the fuck, Egbert, aren’t you in class?”
“No. Well. Uh. It’s Karkat.”
Dave straightened up and quit walking a quarter across his knuckles. He was getting better at it, but he still needed practice. “What is?”
“He’s...not feeling so great? He says he has a real bad headache. And sparkly shit.”
“Where are you?” The quarter went back into his pocket.
“Lewis quad. Dave, hurry, okay?”
It was hot as fuck outside and very bright, and Dave was exceedingly glad of his shades as he crossed the courtyard between the library and campus center, heading for the north side of campus and the arts and policy building. The sun gave him shitty headaches half the time even with the shades on, but he hadn’t had one of his specials in a while; he was beginning to hope that maybe he’d finally grown out of those miserable fuckers. When John had said sparkly shit he’d squinched his eyes shut in reflexive memory.
Lewis quad was between the arts building and the first set of dorm halls, and at least there was some shade from the trees. John had gotten Karkat to a bench out of the direct sun and was kind of fussing awkwardly at him with a water bottle, but Dave could tell even from a distance that their housemate was in a bad way. It was supremely weird to see Karkat sort of putty-pale under the gold-brown of his skin and sweating all over--and for once without the fuck off and die, universe expression.
John looked up with obvious relief as he approached. “Um. I don’t...know what’s wrong, if...should he go to the health center? He’s like seeing stuff, Dave.”
He shook his head--shh--and sat down on the bench beside Karkat. “Hey, man. When did this shit start?”
Karkat cracked open an eye and immediately shut it again. “Hng. Like half an hour ago maybe. I’ve got the, the aura stuff.” He gestured, one hand sliding through the air in the nauseating frictionless drift Dave remembered very clearly. “Little sparks.”
John was looking at the pair of them with enormous worried blue eyes. Worried still didn’t look good on Egbert. “Okay. Gonna get you home, man. Here, put these on.” Dave took off his shades and winced at the sudden brightness. “Egbert, I’m commandeering your shitbox Nissan, hand over the keys.”
Karkat looked a little less miserable with the sunglasses on, but only a little. “What the fuck. No. I’m okay. I just. I need to. Sit still for a while is all.”
“Keys,” Dave said. John made a face at him, but fished around in his backpack and handed them over.
“Seriously. I’m fine.”
“Dude, do you know how loud you would be fucking yelling if either of us pulled this shit? You look terrible. Gonna take you home and you can lie real still in a dark room and wait for the fucking sparkles of doom to go away.”
“Hng,” said Karkat, and John tugged at Dave’s sleeve.
“Is he, like, having a stroke or something?” John hissed in his ear.
“...Egbert, you are adorable,” he said. “No. I got this, okay? Do not fret. Fretting’s not in your idiom. Also, you are late for class and you said there was a quiz today.”
“Fuck!” John clapped his hands over his mouth. “--Sorry. Um. I. I better go. If you guys are sure you’re okay--”
“Go, Egbert,” Karkat rasped.
Dave watched as John scooped up his backpack and departed at a gangling inelegant sort of run. “He thinks you’re having a cerebrovascular accident. I actually dunno whether that’s more adorable or depressing. You get these often?”
“No. Well. Sometimes.” Karkat leaned on him as Dave helped him to his feet, moving very carefully, as if the air was heavier than usual. “It’s stress.”
“Man, and you are never under any of that,” Dave said, and sighed. “Okay, we’re walkin’, we’re walkin’. No, I got that.” He grabbed Karkat’s bookbag and slung it over his shoulder, his back giving a warning twinge. “Just give me a heads-up if you’re gonna heave.”
Karkat didn’t say anything, just let Dave steady him, and that alone was an indication of how abysmally shitty he must be feeling. It was generally difficult to get Karkat to stop talking at all.
As a matter of fact he didn’t get sick during the short unpleasant walk to the parking lot, or during the short but not particularly enjoyable ride back in John’s excuse for a car (he’d curled up in a knot in the passenger seat and pressed his forehead against the window; Dave drove with his unshielded eyes squinched tight against the glare). He waited until they got back to the house and Dave let them in, whereupon he bolted for the bathroom.
Dave sighed and went to go dump Karkat’s bookbag on the couch with his. It was coming up on two; he should probably head back once he got Karkat sorted out. If not for the sake of actually making it to class, it was kind of a dick move to leave John stranded on campus without a car. Karkat could handle the situation, right? He was capable of taking care of himself, there was zero reason Dave should stick around, he’d probably even want Dave to fuck off and not see him like this because it was so utterly unlike him...
The third time he heard the toilet flush Dave said a bunch of bad words and went to go knock on the bathroom door. “--You okay? Fuck, that’s a dumb question.”
He expected a snide response, really that deserved one, but there was nothing other than a faint unhappy hiccupping noise. Aw, hell. He pushed open the door.
Dave had never really realized how much of Karkat’s physical presence was due to his personality. He didn’t ordinarily think of the guy as being short or small or in any way vulnerable because you couldn’t even see that under the thick shell of belligerence he projected like armor; now, with all of that gone, his first thought was fucking Christ he’s tiny.
He was slumped with his head rested on his folded arms, draped over the toilet. Dave was distantly aware of noticing his shades neatly folded on the edge of the sink, and reached for them: behind that mental window-tinting he felt much more himself. “Hey,” he said. “Karkles.”
“...d’nt...call me that.”
“I do it out of love,” Dave informed him, and settled on the floor beside Karkat. “True love.”
“Hey now, not before you buy me roses. I’m not that kind of girl.”
Karkat’s shoulders heaved a little in a damp shred of laughter. There: Dave had the feeling of the world settling back into its proper tracks again. A moment later he was steadying Karkat through another exhausting, empty spasm of retching, rubbing circles on his back--shit, he was skinny under those huge hoodies he wore year-round, that was his fucking spine under Dave’s hand, all knobbles and points, birdlike--and talking to him, dumb inane shit that didn’t need to make sense, didn’t need to have meaning at all, just verbal white noise to block out some of the misery.
When it let go he didn’t take his hand away, feeling Karkat’s breathing shudder under his fingers. “You done?”
A pause, then “...think so. For now.”
“‘Kay. Wanna go lie down?”
“You don’t have, like, Imitrex or anything for these?”
“No. Don’t...didn’t have them often enough. Doctors are fucking assholes.”
“A-fucking-men to that. Here.”
Dave gave him a hand up and steadied him while he washed out his mouth. He couldn’t shake the new awareness of Karkat’s actual fragility, even as he wanted to: the bumps and angles of bone under his hand were inarguable. Christ, and he’d always thought of the guy as almost stocky--how much of that was baggy sweatshirts and how much was attitude?
He remembered--vividly, unlike much of the rest of that few days--Karkat giving him a shoulder to lean on while he hobbled around the place. He’d let Karkles take a lot of his weight and he hadn’t noticed any birdlike breakability then, he’d felt solid as a fucking wardrobe-of-death.
Shit was weird.
He’d never spent much time in Karkat’s room, either. Granted, they’d only been in the place a month or so but still, there was this kind of unspoken rule that Karkat’s room was his lair and nobody, Egberts included, was allowed to barge in there without direct invitation. Dave was unsurprised to find that it was neat as a fucking hotel suite, without the piles of clothes and books and random electronic shit that distinguished his own quarters. He deposited Karkat on the bed and went to turn off the light. “Gonna get you some water, man. Tell me what pills you want.”
In the dimness Karkat’s eyes glittered. “Excedrin. And the trash can.”
“A fine selection, sir.”
He was totally going to go back to campus. Just as soon as he found Karkat’s Excedrin. That was a thing that was going to happen. Also, he was going to get hold of a spare pair of shades to leave in John’s car, because wow, driving without them fucking sucked.
The medicine cabinet contained a bottle of Flintstones vitamins, a thing of Pepto, a green Excedrin bottle, Aleve, and whatever the fuck magic stuff Karkat had given him to make his back quit seizing up like a busted engine. For a moment Dave could feel that pain again, a stab of it that almost brought tears to his eyes: with it came a flash of memory. Karkles had found a fucking bendy straw for him.
He closed the cabinet and poker-faced at himself: yeah, okay, not too shabby, even if his forehead did still have faint pink frowny lines from squinting in the car. He could carry that off. He had sufficient swag.
He had shit to do that didn’t involve worrying about his stupid goddamn housemate who just had a migraine and was going to be fucking fine.
It was a very tiny voice, almost inaudible, and so fucking hopeless his chest tightened. Jesus twiddlyfuck Christ, he’d never heard Karkles sound like that before, and he grabbed the Excedrin and hurried back to the bedroom. “--Oh, man.”
He hadn’t been quite finished after all. Dave was impressed to see that even in semidarkness with drifts of sparkles obscuring his vision Karkat had managed to aim for the trash can, not that he had much left to bring up. It was so weird seeing this shit from the outside: he knew perfectly well how utterly fucking vile these things were, he could remember being the one pressing his fingers tightly against his face to stop his skull from bursting, breathless with pain and nausea, but he hadn’t known what it looked like on someone else.
Shitty, is how it looked. He was curled up like a discarded party streamer on the edge of the bed, leaning over the edge, slowly getting his breathing back under control. “Dave,” he said again in that very little voice. “I feel terrible.”
It occurred belatedly that this was the third time he could remember Karkat ever calling him Dave rather than Strider. “Yyyeah. Yeah, I’m getting that. Picking up precisely that which you are laying down, man. You want to try these?”
Karkat shook his head ever so slightly, and then obviously regretted doing so. His hair was damp with sweat, more tangled than usual, which was saying something. “No. I can’t...fucking keep anything down when it’s like this.”
“They always this bad?” He set down the water and the bottle of pills beside Karkat’s bed.
“Normally I can...kind of tell when one’s coming on and if I can take something in time and stay real still, it just limits itself to feeling like wisdom tooth surgery behind one eye, but...” Karkat’s shoulders drooped; something in Dave’s chest hurt sharply for a moment.
“You’ve been staying up real late for a couple of days,” said Dave. “Stressing.”
“How the fuck am I supposed to not stress, I’m in fucking college...” Karkat pressed his hands tighter to his face. “Nngh. Fucking....biology midterms coming up in...”
“In a fucking month, Karkles, jesus dick, would you fucking lighten up and relax before you do stroke out---fuck.” Dave stopped, realizing how much his voice had raised, and ran a hand through his hair, messing up the careful white-blond swoop of bangs. “Sorry. Sorry. Here. Let me just deal with the fucking trash can, dude, I should all kinds of not be giving you a hard time when you’re feeling like shit...”
Oh, God. Karkat had turned a little to scowl up at him and those were tears on his cheeks. Yep, definitely tears.
“Fuck,” said Dave, and sat down on the bed without further comment, reaching over to put an arm around him. Karkat stiffened, but only for a moment, and then he was pressing his face against Dave’s neck, breathing in little gasps, and Dave was hugging him very tightly indeed. Shit, he was wiry, not just skinny, there was muscle in there along with all the sticky-out bits of bone.
He sat like that for a couple of minutes, just hugging Karkat, not at all sure what to do; but when the rapid gasps had slowed and lost the hitching threat of tears he gave Karkat’s back a rub. “C’mon, lie down, you’re a fucking wreck. I got you, Karkles.”
Karkat made an indistinct noise into the shoulder of Dave’s shirt, which was now somewhat damp, and pressed his face harder against Dave. “--Nah, I know, I know, pressure sort of helps, but believe me, you’ll be happier horizontal. Gonna sort you right the fuck out, just you wait and see.”
The thing in his chest that had been hurting on and off for the past hour seemed to have stopped being unpleasant and just bloomed into a weird sensation of warmth. Hey, look, check it out, Dave Strider knows what the fuck to do in this situation. Like all other situations, of course, but this one is important.
Carefully he disengaged Karkat and let him lie back down on the bed, taking off his gross battered Vans (“ew, dude, your feet are fucking gnarly”) and fetching him some stuff to change into, before going to wash out the trash can and find a bag to line it with in case of further eruption. It was...fuck, it was half past two, he was not going back to campus. Nope. Fuck going back to campus, Karkles needed fussing and Karkles was going to damn well get some fussing, that was all there was to say on the matter.
When he got back to the dim bedroom he thought for a minute that Karkat was asleep, and was about to tiptoe the fuck back out because sleep was the best thing, the best possible thing that could happen to him right now, but the lump on the bed stirred and groaned. “Strider?”
“Naw, the Avon lady. Here, a nice fresh trash can for your hurling pleasure and also move over, okay, I gotta sort of sit on this side of the bed--”
“What...are you talking about?” Karkat sounded unsteady but not teary, which was a vast improvement.
“Shhhhh,” he said, and scooted over to sit against the headboard, cross-legged, resting a pillow in his lap. “Lie down, Karkles, I’ma do a magic trick for you.”
“Str...Dave, I am so not in the mood for--”
Karkat blinked at him, eyes hollow and shadowed under the mop of hair, and then just obeyed, lying down with his head cradled in Dave’s lap and his arms wrapped round his middle. “Right,” said Dave, and swallowed, and hoped to fuck this worked on other people the way it did on himself, and pushed the sweaty hair away from Karkat’s forehead and temples and set his fingertips against the damp skin and gently began to rub.
Once, only once, Bro had done this. He’d been little. It was one of the real specials where he was briefly kind of blind, and he’d thought he was dying, thought something in his head had gone spectacularly rotten and burst in there, and he’d been sick over and over and over again and he couldn’t not cry because it hurt, oh it hurt so bad, and then there had been these cool callused fingertips out of nowhere and they traced firm little circles over his temples, over the aching edges of bone that cradled his eyes, working into his hair and over the vault of his skull to the back of his neck. He remembered the astonishing awareness of pressure rather than pain, but not for very long because he had fallen asleep with his brother still massaging the back of his neck, and in the morning he’d felt bright, open, empty, somehow new, like a bubble, like a blown egg.
All of the memory flickered through his consciousness with the speed of thought, and was forcefully pushed away back into the murky corners of his mind where it had come from. Dave bit his lip, looking down at Karkat’s pinched face as he worked, and he thought for a long time that it wasn’t working, that he’d made everything worse, but then a sort of puzzlement rose to the surface of Karkat’s expression, and he sighed.
Just a sigh, but it was enough to tell Dave that yeah, he should keep doing what he was doing. After that he could feel Karkat relaxing, bone and muscle leaving their anxious locked tautness behind; and after a while longer he thought it was possible that Karkles was asleep.
When he started to drool Dave felt confident in reaching for his phone in the depths of a pocket and texting John.
karkles is doing better now but im kinda stuck here
this is your official notice of being stranded on a desert campus
Now that Karkat was sleeping a lot of the lines of pain and habit had faded from his face. Dave looked at him, upside down: he looked younger, stranger.
His phone vibrated.
you suck, strider. you know that right?
like a motherfuckin electrolux yo
meh. is he ok though?? he really scared me earlier!
with all the seeing shit that wasn’t there, i mean.
yep hell be fine now
gave him some of the patented strider tlc
shit should really be synthesized and distributed to a grateful world
for the general good
just a really shitty migraine is all
ooooh. is that what it was? he never said anything about those before.
how do you know all this??
personal fuckin experience is how
anyway sorry man seriously i know it isnt cool ditching you on campus like this but i kind of cant move right now
hes got me pinned
you had better not be doing anything kinky, strider!
you caught me
i was totes about to ravish the hell out of our housemate john
ravishing was gonna happen
fucking ravishblocked man
ha! i am awesome. actually don’t worry about the car thing, i ran into jade. she’s giving me a ride home but we have to stop at the takeout place cause apparently they didn’t go grocery shopping or whatever and she has nothing to eat. should i pick up anything?
He looked down at the sleeping Karkat. At this point he thought the hurling was probably over and done with, and even if Karkat wasn’t up for food tonight he’d be lethally hungry in the morning.
get a thing of that soup stuff he likes you know with the basil and spices and anise and shit in it
and i demand pad thai
with extra hot sauce
make it so
pff you are not picard, man.
ok a thing of that soup and pad thai, check. i should be back in like an hour. wish us luck!
go with god my child
He set the phone down and leaned back against the headboard. Karkat shifted a little and made a small noise that after a moment or two Dave deduced to mean something close to contentment.
“Hey, Jade. Thanks for giving Egderp a ride, seriously. Logistical nightmare. --Oof.”
Jade Harley squeezed him violently in a classic tacklehug attack. “You suck, Dave. You are literally the worst housemate there is, all leaving poor John at school while you swoop off in his gross fucking car.”
He nuzzled her hair and hugged back. “Mind letting go, I need those ribs? --Yeah, yeah, mea fuckin’ culpa, I know. Shit was of the emergency persuasion. --Yo, Egbert. You get the stuff?”
“I got the stuff, you got the money?”
“We can do business.” Dave nodded over Jade’s head at John, who put down his fragrant brown paper takeout bags on the kitchen table. “Thanks, man.”
“What are bros for?” John came over and prodded Jade in the ribs until she let go of Dave, giggling and flailing. “See, I even rescue you from the Harley. How’s he doing?”
“Better now,” said Dave. “He’s been sleeping for a while, best thing for him, poor fucker. I think the worst is over, though. Tomorrow, Egbert, you and I got a fucking quest to embark upon.”
Jade beamed at the pair of them. “Ooh, can I help?”
“Hell no, your womanly sensibilities would screw everything up--ow!”
“You deserved that, dude.” John was grinning.
“Yeah, okay, I did. But here is the quest. We go to the fucking store. Like adults. And we buy ingredients. And we come back here and we make real motherfucking food, because I am betting Karkles is not gonna be up for his regular weekend cookstravaganza shit.”
“...Whoa,” said John. “Hardcore.”
Thanks to rainbowbarnacle and mercurialmalcontent for betaing, you guys are THE BEST.
John and Dave ate dinner in front of the TV--turned way down so as not to wake Karkat--and after a brief tussle over who got to pick the menu for the next day’s adventures John had taken himself off to his room to get some homework done. After a while Dave had given up on shitty cable programming and gone to do much the same, which translated to plugging himself into his sound equipment and trying for the fourteenth time to get this one track to fucking work correctly.
It was getting on for eleven when he finally had the upper-register back-echo doing what he wanted it to do, and his back was hurting from spending so long in the same half-hunched sitting position. Bluh, he thought, and saved the files again--paranoia always helped make sure you didn’t lose your data--and shut down the system, going to see if they had any beers left in the fridge.
He was doing that thing where you open the fridge door and stare blankly at its contents without actually making any move to take anything, as if just looking hard enough will make what you want materialize itself, when someone shuffled into the kitchen behind him. He turned to see Karkat leaning against the doorframe, in ratty sweatpants and a Z? shirt, looking bleary but something close to functional.
“Oh, hey,” he said, giving up on the hope of wishing beer into existence and grabbing a Diet Coke instead. “You feeling any better, man?”
“Mnurgh,” said Karkat. “Fuck. Time is it?”
“Just about eleven. You’ve been sleeping since like midafternoon, dude. Want anything to eat?”
Karkat was still paler than usual and he was sporting some truly impressive under-eye bags, but he’d lost the worst of the miserable expression and the cold sweat. He shuffled into the kitchen proper and flopped into a chair. Dave considered this example of bedhead not quite on par with the one he’d had the night he had rescued Dave from his own stubborn idiocy, but pretty goddamn epic nonetheless. “We have that weird unpronounceable soup stuff you like.”
Karkat looked up at him, eyes still heavy with sleep. “You got me pho?”
“Well, Egbert got you pho, but I told him to, so I’m taking credit.”
“Fuck. That...goes some small way toward making up for his bullshit with the reddi-wip. Not all the way, but some.” Karkat rubbed tiredly at his face. “Nuke me my pho, Strider, and I might actually survive the night after all.”
“That’s the cheerful and positive attitude we like to see.” Dave smirked at the double bird-flipping this earned him, and went to retrieve the take-out containers from the fridge. “--Seriously, are you feeling better? Egbert was Concerned with a capital C.”
“Mmh. Yeah. I feel less shitty, but then again I don’t know that it’s physically possible to feel any more shitty than I was. Christ, that was a bad one.”
“Looked like it. Much sympathy, dude. I used to get them when I was a kid, they fucking suck.”
The microwave beeped, and he set a steaming bowl down in front of Karkat. “There you go, full of nourishing and ominous ingredients. There’s more if you want it.”
He had to admit the stuff smelled amazing, but he’d read the takeout menu and things like tripe and tendons were mentioned, at which point he had stopped reading the takeout menu and started thinking about something else. Some things man was not meant to consume, even if Karkat seemed to be enjoying himself considerably.
Which made him think about their planned adventure quest, and he had to smile. Karkat looked up in time to catch it, and scowled fiercely. “What.”
“Nothing. Eat your nice tendons, Karkles, all manner of thing is well.” Dave leaned against the counter, arms folded, and couldn’t help thinking about the way all the tension had finally faded out of Karkat’s face, out of his body, as he’d gone on rubbing little circles over his temples. It was weird, how satisfying that had felt, just the awareness that whatever he was doing actually seemed to help.
“You’re thinking things,” Karkat said after a couple of minutes. Dave looked up to see that he’d finished the bowl and while he still looked unwell he looked a lot more like himself now, which was reassuring. “I worry when you get that look, Strider, it tends to end with someone on academic probation or getting squirrels thrown at them.”
“That was just one time,” Dave protested. “I dunno why everybody’s got to harp on stuff, man. A squirrel here or there, what’s the big deal?”
Karkat chuckled raspily. “I think it’s very possible that nobody involved in that incident will ever forget about it. Ah, fuck, Strider, you’re one of Nature’s originals.”
“That’s me,” he agreed, “one of a goddamn kind. Want any more?”
“Nah. That was good, though. Thanks.” Karkat yawned, scowling. “What the hell, I’ve been sleeping for hours and I’m still tired. Did you roofie this when I wasn’t looking?”
Dave snapped his fingers. “Shit, you caught me. I was totally gonna take advantage of you, Karkles. Have my wicked way. Get you teen pregnant.”
“Well, there goes my chance at higher education, you fucking scoundrel.” Another yawn, and he rubbed at his eyes. Dave couldn’t help noticing that this was objectively adorable. “Oh, well. Shit’s beyond my control, I guess.”
“Yup, you might as well get used to it. John’s gonna have to be godfather, you know. He’ll be so proud.”
“Fuck you, Strider,” Karkat said through another yawn. “Mngh. This is stupid.”
“Migraines are crazy exhausting, dude. Go on, go back to bed, I promise I won’t ravish you in your current vulnerable state.” Dave flapped a hand at him: shoo. “Take it easy, okay? Seriously. You were pretty sick.”
Karkat sighed and hauled himself to his feet. At the door he paused, and turned. “Dave?”
“Hmm?” Dave was washing up the soup bowl.
“About, um. Earlier. Thanks.”
He twisted to look at Karkat over his shoulder and went still: that was an expression he’d never really seen before on that face, a sort of mixture of pride and vulnerability that did something exceedingly uncalled-for to his innards. “--Oh,” he said, and his voice cracked ever so slightly, goddamnit. “Hey, no problem, dude. Like I said, I sympathize.”
Karkat was gone before he could think of something suitably Striderian to say.
There were worse ways to wake up than via having John Egbert bouncing on your bed. Dave was sure there were. He just couldn’t call any to mind at the moment.
“Nnnnnnngh what the fuck time is it why are you even in here stop bouncing.”
“C’mon, Dave, wake up, we gotta go buy stuff before Karkles is all up and about and grumping at us. It has to be a surprise.”
Dave shoved him off the edge of the bed, which didn’t work: the kid was bouncy as all hell. He fumbled on the bedside table for his alarm, glanced at it, and groaned, flopping back down to the pillows. “Egbert. It is six-thirty in the morning on a fucking Saturday. This is not a time when sane people are awake unless they haven’t been to bed yet.” Pause. “Which is why you’re awake, right, I walked into that one. Be a good kid and fuck off, okay?”
“Daaaaave,” John said, prodding him. “Daaaaaave, you gotta, it’s a motherfuckin’ quest, you said so yourself. Besides I want pancakes and I can’t make them myself.”
“What makes you think I can? --Actually, shit, how hard can it be?”
Half an hour later Dave had burned one of his fingers, John had climbed on the counter to unhook the smoke detector from its wall bracket, all the windows were open, and any hope of letting their housemate sleep in had departed minus forwarding address. It was not what you might call an auspicious start to the day.
“The hydrolyzing fuck are you two cretins up to?” Karkat inquired from the doorway, waving carbonized-pancake smoke away. He had added a ratty grey bathrobe to the similarly ratty sweats and t-shirt and Dave thought if possible his bedhead was even better than it had been the night before. “I swear to God if you burn the house down I will kill both of you in full Viking blood-eagle style. Tell me you are not burning the house down.”
“We’re not burning the house down, Karkat,” John said obediently and went over to peer at him. “You look not as gross as you looked yesterday, that’s a good sign, right?”
“Thanks ever so. Oh, fuck me, fuck me in the eyesocket with a goddamn microplane, you didn’t use my skillet, tell me you didn’t use my...” He elbowed John aside and stared down into the sink, then leaned on it, slumping in relief. “Thank Christ for that. We’re gonna need a new non-stick piece of shit, but at least I don’t have to start the day with double homicide, resurrection, and then double fucking homicide a second time.”
Dave nodded sagely. “Yep, that’s our Karkles, all right. Egbert was worried that you had broken something in your brain, I think I mentioned. Worse than it is currently broken.”
“Sorry to disappoint you, Egbert, but I am fully armed and operational and you two are going to clean the livid deathless hell out of this kitchen. I say this not as a suggestion but as a clear and prescient prediction of the fucking future.”
John threw his arms round Karkat and hugged him tight, beaming. Dave watched him curse and flail and attempt to free himself for a moment or two before taking pity and handing over a spatula.
They had honey nut cheerios for breakfast again. Minus whipped cream. John had insisted Karkat recline upon the sofa, so he was again perched on one arm and this time Dave was on the floor beside the coffee table, listening to John relate the tale of his rescue via Jade and the news she’d told them. “--you ‘member that one party last year where Eridan passed out after like one cider and Dave wrote I hunger for dong on his forehead with a magic marker?”
“That was a shining moment of triumph I’ll treasure forever.” Dave sighed.
“Joke’s on you, turns out he does hunger for dong and he and Sollux are now A Thing. Imagine the bitchfights. Lisping warbly purple-haired bitchfights. Jade says it’s amazing.”
Karkat laughed hard enough to make himself wince and shut his eyes for a moment. “Fuck. Oh, man. I fucking called it orientation week. Eridan and Sollux sitting in a tree, bitchfighting. That’s beautiful and Jade is either totally bugshit insane or a complete saint, or more likely both, to put up with them. Like me, putting up with you. Bunch of saints round here.”
John threw a cheerio at him. “Fuck you, man. So Dave and I have plans for today. We’re gonna cook.”
Karkat looked up at him from under his mop of hair. “No you aren’t.”
“Yep, we totally are.” Dave leaned on the coffee table and smirked. “It was gonna be a big secret thing but then we kind of fucked up with the pancakes and you woke up anyway and found us kind of in mid-fuckup.”
“I’ve already shouted at you two about the goddamn kitchen once this morning, can’t you give it a rest?” He closed his eyes wearily. “I’m not at my best, in case you hadn’t noticed, you imbeciles.”
“Exactly. Which is why we’re gonna cover the making of the food for this week. You always take care of us, it’s our turn.” John did that head-tilt puppy-eyed expression that Dave knew perfectly well almost always got him what he wanted; he could see Karkat’s resolve withering in the face of that look. “You can totally tell us what to do and we’ll follow your instructions. It will be fine, Karkat.”
“I have absolutely no faith in that statement whatsoever,” said Karkat, and rubbed at his face with both hands. “Nnngh. Fuck. I suppose even you, Egderp, and you, Strider, can’t manage to screw up something super simple that doesn’t involve the use of a frying pan in any way whatsoever. Note my emphasis on the lack of the frying pan. This is key.”
“I solemnly swear I will not touch your frying pan,” John intoned, adding “psst, Dave, you have to swear too.”
Dave swore, left hand on the TV Guide and right hand raised in a dignified manner. Karkat nodded, and winced, and lay back down. “You have to hit the grocery store. Shit, this is the worst buddy movie ever, all we need is like some friendly dead guy to sit in the back seat or maybe you get kidnapped by some crazed gun-toting maniac and end up having to be grimy heroes. Go find something to write down a shopping list.”
“What’s the difference between all these anyway? Except for some of them are way more expensive. Like, they’re all cow. What’s a top round and a bottom round?”
“--Well, when two rounds love each other very much and decide to engage in intimate carnal relations...”
“Pffffuck you, Strider. Seriously, which one was it Karkat wanted? Gimme the list.”
“Oh hell no, this list is my responsibility and will not leave my keeping, yo. He wants....let’s see...uh. I guess the little cubey stuff that says FOR SLOW COOKING on the label? Go for that one. And he wanted a thing of ground beef too--80/20, whatever that’s all about.”
“Ground beef, check. What’s next? Can we get Cheetos? Are Cheetos on the list?”
“What the squigglyfuck, how can a tiny jar of dried-up leaf bits even cost $6.95?”
“I dunno, but why are there six kinds of salt? Whoa, check it out, this one’s from Tibet. And it’s pink. Pink buddhist salt, Dave, can you dig it?”
“Lemme see that...whoa, dude, buddhist salt costs even more than fucking marjoram. Guess we’re gonna just have to live with plain old white-ass atheist salt.”
“We’re ignorant and uncultured, man. One day when I’m super crazy rich I will totally buy Karkat floofy pink zen salt and he will have to marry me out of sheer gratitude. I’m planning ahead.”
“You will look stunning in the dress. No, put it down, we don’t need organic tele-something peppercorns either, jesus.”
“Why did I not know that buying atomic fireballs in bulk was a thing.”
“Dude, chill out, you’re, like, showing actual emotion there. Pull yourself together, Strider.”
Karkat was dozing when they got back, still stretched out on the sofa; underneath the mop of hair his face looked uncharacteristically peaceful. Both John and Dave paused briefly, looking down at him, and then looked at one another, somewhat embarrassed. There was a brief awkward silence.
“--I guess ‘I hunger for dong’ is played out,” Dave said, and John laughed, and the awkwardness receded. “I could just draw a curly mustache on his face, but it’s like, man, once you hit the high point of the dong line everything else is just kind of not good enough.”
“Sad but true, man. Let’s put this shit away, these bags are heavy.”
They were arguing over whether tomatoes went in the fridge or not when Karkat padded into the kitchen and elbowed them aside. “Jesus, that took you two forever. Did you get lost in the wonderland that is the grocery store or what?”
“We found buddhist salt,” John told him solemnly. “And Dave had to buy all the atomic fireballs. All of them. Every last one.”
“Not all of them. I left like three or four behind, I’m not greedy, jesus.”
“...I don’t actually think I want to know.”
Their cunning plan of mastering the art of basic cookery without bothering Karkat devolved into Karkat sitting at the kitchen table and issuing orders while the pair of them bumbled about and managed not to drop things.
"I thought we weren't allowed to use a frying pan."
"You're not allowed to use my frying pan. You are welcome to use the horrible cheap little nine-inch we picked up at the yard sale, because I have no deep personal attachment to it. Which one of you is less likely to set himself and/or the house on fire if I let you actually use the stove?"
"He is," said Dave and John almost in unison. Karkat snickered.
"Fair enough. Egbert, you're on ingredients. Strider, I'm trusting you with fire, don't let me down."
Dave turned, pressing his hands to his heart, and batted his eyelashes at Karkat behind the shades. "This is the proudest moment of my entire goddamn life, Karkles, I want you to know that."
"Fuckin' A. Okay, turn the burner on low and put the olive oil and butter on to heat up."
"How low? How much?"
"Use some goddamn initiative, Strider. --Yyeah, yeah, about that much, that's good. Swirl the pan around a bit, you want to get the whole bottom of it covered."
"Whoa, the butter's all frothing, is it supposed to do that?"
Karkat facepalmed. "Yes. That's fine. Wait till it stops frothing and then dump the mushrooms in. Egbert, are you done chopping up that onion? It doesn't have to be in perfectly symmetrical pieces, jesus christ, just hack it up with your usual attention to detail. Okay. Garlic? I'm...gonna suggest you use the press instead of trying to chop that up by hand. No, forget the carrots and potatoes for now, they go in later."
Dave stirred the sliced mushrooms in the pan, not at all sure he was doing it right, but Karkat didn't say anything at all, just watched. He had to admit this smelled pretty good, even if he had no clue what he was doing.
"When the mushrooms are sort of sogged down and a bit brown--Strider, attend, I'm instructing you--take it off the heat and move them to the big pot, then put the onions in. Same deal with those, push them around with the spatula. I told you this shit was rocket science, didn't I?"
"Karkat, I think your onion is murdering me," John said, somewhat muffled because he'd taken off his glasses and was wiping his face on the sleeves of his t-shirt. "My eyes hurt."
"That's a thing onions do. They're evil little fuckers. Don't worry, the tear gas wears off."
"I can't believe people do this for fun," he grumbled, but blinked away the tears and went back to inexpertly dismembering the onion. Dave chuckled, but he too had to admit his eyes were stinging. Karkat had never said anything about this before, jeez, cooking was hazardous fucking work.
"...You're enjoying this, aren't you," he said. "Sadist."
"I am full of pure and perfect motherfucking glee." Karkat's smile was as insufferably self-centered as a cat's. "Get on with it, you'll burn the mushrooms and you'll have to start all over."
As it happened, John didn't cut his fingers off with the second-best knife, Dave didn't burn the mushrooms, and Karkat declared himself grudgingly pleased with their joint efforts to brown the floured beef cubes evenly. Once that was done, he talked the pair of them through deglazing the pan with some of the shitty red wine he'd ordered them to buy, and soon enough the potatoes and carrots and herbs joined the rest of the stew and Dave fiddled with the burner to his satisfaction.
"Now what?" he asked.
"Nothing, is what," Karkat said, yawning. "You put the lid on and you let it get on with simmering for a couple hours. No, wait, actually, now is when you do the clearing-up, because fuck having to do that and the dishes at the same time."
Dave groaned, but began gathering up bowls and spatulas and spoons and cutting boards nonetheless. "So does this mean we're, like, unbanned from the kitchen?"
"We'll see. Scrub, me hearties, scrub like you mean it."
He sounded tired, Dave thought, and again something in his chest twinged. "Fine, fine, Sergeant Vantas. Fuckin' KP duty, check. Go chill on the couch or something, Egbert and I can probably handle cleaning up in here for the second time today without killing each other too permanently."
"I'm not driving either of you fuckers to the emergency room for life-threatening dishwashing injuries, I'm just telling you that right now." Karkat glowered at the pair of them, but he did get up and ruffle John's hair on his way out to the living-room. After a moment the TV clicked on.
"...You think he's really okay?" John asked, leaning over to grab the sprayer attachment to rinse a cutting board. "He's kind of...subdued, I guess. It's weird."
"I noticed. I figure he's just tired or something." He shrugged. "He woke up pretty late last night, came out to get some dinner round eleven or something. Maybe he couldn't get back to sleep."
Or maybe Karkat, too, was feeling decidedly weird in the chestular region for no reason he could clearly elucidate, Dave thought, and was surprised to find the thought raised the little pale hairs along his arms. He'd had such an odd expression on his face the night before, leaving the kitchen. Dave couldn't help remembering Karkat's temples beneath his fingers, or the little sigh he'd given as they began to actually soothe some of the pain.
Later, much later, as the three of them actually sat down at the table like civilized folks to a pretty undeniably awesome dinner of collaborative beef stew, he was aware of feeling more at home, more part of a group, a family, than he had in years. It was corny as all fuck but he couldn't pretend their shared culinary adventure hadn't been some kind of bonding experience.
Then John threw a rolled-up pellet of bread at him and demanded to be re-told the story of Dave Strider vs. The Shitty College Mixing Boards, an epic tale featuring electrical tape, chewing gum, canned air, and two very surprised (and impressed) upperclassmen. He grinned and kicked John under the table. "Dude, you know this one by heart, what the hell."
"I just like the bit where they're all like "haha look at the freshman, what the fuck does he think he's WHOA OMG HOW DID HE MAKE THAT THING STOP BEING BROKEN," John protested, giggling. "Do the voices."
"Man, twist my arm, Egbert," he said, grinning, and flicked a bread-pellet back at John before launching into the story--but for a flicker of a moment, out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of Karkat watching the pair of them. The expression on his face was...happy? Contented, maybe? The word that came to mind was fond.
Dave's chest did that hurty thing again and he pointed his mind firmly toward his own heroic exploits, but he couldn't get that look out of his mind for the rest of the evening--or even afterward, as he brushed his teeth and washed his face and went to bed, he could still see that uncharacteristically sweet little curve of Karkat's mouth. He took it down into sleep with him, and it followed him into his dreams; and that was good, that was maybe a little better than good, after all.