Karkat, his blood color revealed to the Alternian public for the mutant hue it is, barely escapes being culled by throwing himself off the edge of a cliff and into the water below. Equius, after learning of Karkat's blood color, is conflicted between his hemocaste bigotry and his rough friendship with Karkat. This internal conflict only becomes worse when Aurthour drags a barely-breathing, sodden, ragged, comatose Karkat through the door.
You are not the last to hear the news, but you’re certainly not the first. It’s Vriska who tells you, laughing that particular slightly-unbalanced laugh that means something really unpleasant is happening to somebody other than Vriska.
It...comes as a surprise, but not much of one. You had always wondered what he hid behind that stolid grey allcaps facade, what color his eyes would be when they started to fill in. What he’d do when that happened. He had to have a reason to hide his caste, and you’d always thought that was a deeply inappropriate thing to do, but on the other hand you couldn’t help liking Vantas just a bit. There was something illogically appealing about his constant rage balanced with his inexplicable desire to make things better--a desire you’ve never shared except inasmuch as you are a perfectionist and you never stop creating things.
(Also, Nepeta’s flushcrush on him went some little way to automatically raising Vantas on the scale of your estimation, little as you would like to admit this.)
“He’s red,” Vriska says, grinning her predatory grin. “Candy red. He’s a mutant, Equius! A fucking mutant! I knew it’d be something like this.”
“Language,” you tell her.
“Fuck your language, I can talk however I want. You better go tell Leijon her dreamboat is on the run, she’ll eat that shit up, it’s practically a romance novel.” She punches you in the shoulder. You think this is Vriska Punch #5, Vaguely Friendly Expression of Excitement.
You have a lot to think about. In fact when you message Nepeta she’s offline; you wonder with a sudden horrible shock whether she already knows and is out there somewhere with Vantas, because as much as you have an awkward lack of loathing for the...the mutant, all right, his blood is disgusting, it’s unprecedentedly awful...you would gladly see him culled right in front of you to protect your moirail.
Then you remember she’d gone out hunting, she’d packed supplies for a couple of days, she’d been heading for the forests north of your hive; probably she’s not even in range of a wireless hotspot. That makes you feel a little better. You...don’t know what to think about Vantas. You don’t want to think about Vantas.
You think about circuitry instead.
He deserves to be culled, blood like that is an abomination, it’s beyond foul.
He hasn’t changed from what he was before you knew about this.
You think about circuitry, gosh darn it.
Later: you check online to see if...you just check online, all right, and oh dear. Oh dear. There’s a blurry long-shot picture in the news article, a dim figure by the edges of what looks like the cliffs over the Dragon’s Teeth rockspires, on the coast, not so far away from where you live. The Teeth are pretty famous for destroying any craft that happens to veer in range of their jagged underwater peaks, and you don’t give a lot for the chances of any poor idiot who happened to go cliff-diving in that area.
Vantas, you think. You’re going to have to tell Nepeta he’s dead. The authorities seem pretty convinced that nobody could’ve survived the fall and the Teeth; according to the article he never surfaced. You don’t know exactly why you need to break things all of a sudden, but you do, you really do, and where are all your fresh towels. “Aurthour?”
He’s not there. Where the heck has your lusus gone, he’s usually so good with things like your towels and your milk and putting up with your glowering. “Aurthour.”
You slam the husktop shut and hope belatedly you haven’t cracked it and you stalk off in search of appropriate drying utensils. Your hive is built atop a series of tunnels and caves you haven’t even completely explored yet, and it’s possible Aurthour’s gone wandering around in some of these passages; if he doesn’t show up soon you’ll have to go looking for him.
You won’t have to go looking for him because he’s found you, and in the dimness his bone-white lusus-pallor seems even more lurid by contrast with the sodden, ragged bundle he’s carrying in his arms. He walks out of the tunnel-mouth, hooves clicking on the rock, and approaches you.
You say a lot of very inappropriate words. The...the mutant, Equius, get that through your head...looks terrible. He’s sickly-pale under the grey tint of his skin, soaking wet, the snarled mess of his hair plastered to his face in salty tangles; he smells of the sea and of desperation. He’s breathing, which you weren’t actually expecting, but it is not a nice noise at all.
You should cull him, because he’s off the hemospectrum and so utterly far below you as a blueblood that even being near him is probably inappropriate. You should cull him right now because if anyone finds him in your hive your future is uncertain.
You take him from Aurthour, instead, and he is so light in your arms, so small, barely more of a weight than Nepeta, and he looks broken in a way you just cannot deal with.
He’s met the Teeth, all right. One of his arms is broken and he’s cut and scratched and bruised all over, but you think he’s miraculously lucky to have come out of it with just that amount of damage. It’s still something of a mystery how he got out of the water without anybody seeing him, and how he came to be lying in a huddled heap where Aurthour found him in the distant tunnels beyond your hive.
You get him cleaned up and set the arm properly. Now that you’ve apparently made the decision to repair Vantas instead of finishing the ocean’s job, things are less difficult to think about, but you’re aware you’ve pushed the whole question of what on Alternia you are going to do with him out of range for the time being--but it will come back. Mostly you’re just trying not to notice how thin he is, how fragile now that all the blustering rage is turned off and quieted. Was he always this delicate, you wonder. You’ve never thought of him as anything other than short and stolid and constantly spewing out invective like a small nubby-horned volcano, but the troll now lying on your table looks as if he could be broken with a touch. His face is closed, distant, the dark shadows around his eyes more noticeable than ever.
(What must it have been like hiding that mutant blood, his whole life? What had he had to endure every day?)
(Could you have done it?)
You’re not all that concerned with the various cuts and bruises, or even the arm, that’s a clean break and should heal easily enough (unless mutants have some sort of limited healing ability, goodness, what a lot of things to think about); you think he’s not concussed, you can’t find any lumps on his skull indicating he’d been knocked on the head. How had he escaped and how the dickens had he gotten into your tunnels?
He coughs, a wet ragged sound you don’t like at all, and stirs a little on your table. When he opens his eyes you hiss in a little surprised breath because they are so odd and so beautiful.
You did not just think that.
The red is brilliant, utterly unnatural, and it’s coming in astonishingly evenly: bright scarlet rings around the outside of each iris, sending snaking rays of color inward to the pupil like sunrays in reverse. Your own ultramarine is appearing in blotchy patches that give your eyes a sort of mottled bruisy look you think is deeply unfortunate but Nepeta assures you is purrfectly all right.
Why are you staring at his eyes.
He seems to have trouble focusing them, but you can see the pupils contract sharply when he does recognize you. It’s sheer terror. He tries to push himself backwards, away from you, and his broken arm refuses to obey him and that’s even worse--you can see the desperate need to flee written in all the lines of his battered body. You raise your hands, palms open. “Vantas,” you say.
He lets fly with a completely incoherent muddled string of expletives and then starts coughing again, helplessly, face screwed up in pain. You think probably he’s gotten a little seawater in his lungs, by the sound of it. “Vantas,” you say again over his coughing, and then you say a bad word and you get your arm round his shoulders (which are so wretchedly thin, how had you never noticed that before) and help him sit up. After a moment or two he can catch his breath and he just droops against you, exhausted, and you wonder if he’s too warm because he’s a redblood mutant or because he’s running a fever.
“...what the fuck, Equius,” he says when he can talk. “You should be culling me. Why aren’t you culling me. Did you miss the fucking planetwide memo?”
“How did you get into the tunnels?” you ask in reply.
“S-sea caves. Under the surface. Sheer fucking luck I didn’t get skewered on one of those goddamn rock things.” He coughs. “Got...sucked under, I guess. Why aren’t you culling me?”
You consider. There must be a connection somewhere between the tunnels under your hive and the cave system; the odds of him a) surviving the fall from the cliff, b) surviving the Teeth, c) not drowning, and d) making it into a passageway that actually led to your property are astonishingly small. Sheer luck indeed, or one of the Highblood’s miracles.
“Why aren’t you--”
“Hush,” you tell him. “It’s impolite to repeat your questions. I don’t know why I’m not culling you.”
“That’s...really fucking reassuring,” Karkat says weakly. “How’d you find me?”
“My lusus did. He brought you here.”
Those bizarre eyes widen, meet yours again. You can almost see the thought process: why did Aurthour bring him to you, what did Aurthour think you were going to do with him, and you can’t help feeling as if Aurthour knows you a little better than you know yourself.
Not the most comfortable of feelings. You sigh, push hair out of your face. “Everyone thinks you’re dead. I imagine it would be possible if not easy or particularly enjoyable to disguise yourself and move away from inhabited areas to stay undetected.”
“Why are you helping me?”
“I don’t know,” you tell him, honestly. But you’ve started, and you don’t leave things unfinished once you start. He lets his eyes close again, looking evanescent, tired almost beyond rest, and you are suddenly completely sure you are now committed to seeing that he is not culled.
There has to be an exception to every rule. The hemospectrum is the law of your society, the backbone of everything that governs how you live and how you think, but he is not on the hemospectrum, is he? He exists outside your frame of reference. “I don’t know,” you say again. “But you will come to no harm here, Vantas. I can at least promise you that much.”
He blinks up at you, and then you can see the physical exhaustion roll through him like a wave, and he stops talking and just rests his head against your shoulder. One of his little round horns pokes you in the neck; you nudge him to settle more comfortably.
Your life has become a great deal more complicated than it was just this evening, but you find you do not actually mind.