Could it rain in dreambubbles?
Nepeta still wasn’t sure what was really going on. There had been stark curdling terror and then the terror had gone away behind the much larger and more intense explosion of utter fury, she’d flung herself down from the vent duct and felt the satisfaction of the tug of flesh around her claws before all of that went away and there was just pain, briefly, and nothing.
She’d been here in this…not-world…for some immeasurable amount of time; every time she slept, or dreamed she slept, she would dream she woke crying out for him, for Equius, for Karkat, for all of them. For Gamzee even, a little, because the thing that had killed her moirail and all the other dead was not the absently sweet troll Nepeta had known. That thing had been a great deal…older, somehow. It had smelled of long sweeps of slowly cooking fury.
Whether or not it could rain in dreambubbles, it was raining, and she was so tired and so cold after ages slogging through this wretched wet forest full of things for all she knew that wanted to eat her, and would be disappointed to find their prey already dead, and she was so alone, and she wanted Equius so much, his warmth, his solidity, his realness; and she slid down a tree-trunk to sit with a squelch in the wet leaf-litter and put her face in her hands and sobbed. Her deadlight eyes still glowed despite her tears; it was merely a faintly greenish, eldritch sort of glimmer.
“Hey, there,” said somebody.
Nepeta jerked to attention, her claws already flicking out from her specibus, and then stopped. Whoever it was, he had sounded familiar.
“Who are you?” she demanded, in a voice rough from disuse.
“People called me the Signless. These days it’s mostly the Sufferer. I still can’t get used to the definite article tacked on the front, it’s difficult as hell to refer to yourself as the anything.”
His voice was light, inconsequential, but in it she heard overtones and harmonics she had only ever heard before in one person, and she thought—she hoped—that he wasn’t dead as well.
“W-what do you want?” Dammit, her voice was shaking because she was: she was cold to her bones, through her bones, every stitch of clothing she had on heavy and stiff and sodden. She couldn’t make her breath even out completely from the hitch-shudder of tears.
“Peace on Alternia, goodwill toward trolls irrespective of hemocaste, possibly a hard-boiled egg, and for it to stop fucking raining,” said the Sufferer. “You look frozen. I was going to find somewhere remotely mistakable for shelter and see if I could start a fire, since this dreambubble has apparently sucked me into it and isn’t showing any sign of passing.”
She didn’t want to trust him, didn’t want to listen, it was too much like his voice, but he moved a little closer and even in the blackness of the soaking forest she could make out several things: he was short, he wore a grey draped cloak, what little of his face was visible under the hood was heartbreakingly familiar, and—and he had the right horns.
Nubby rounded little horns, the sort she’d always imagined rubbing her fingertips over ever so lightly, feeling the warmth of the blood inside them. Little fucking adorable horns.
“Oh, fuck everything,” he said, and leaned down to scoop her into his arms—this would have been a lethally bad move had he been more overtly hostile and she been in better shape—and oh god he was so warm even through the wet cloak, he almost smelled right, if she closed her eyes tight she could almost believe it was him.
She wasn’t completely aware of all that happened until he’d set her down somewhere that it wasn’t raining (a miracle) and gone to do something that made crackling heat touch her face (several more miracles). Then he reached for her wet hat and she woke completely out of her stupor and flailed at his hand, her claws half-equipped, purely instinctual. He snatched back his hand.
“Sorry,” he said. He’d pushed back his hood in the shelter of…some sort of cave, she thought, the leaping firelight threw shadows over rock walls…and his hair was just the same tangled spiky mess Karkat’s had been.
That Karkat’s was, he had to have lived, he had to have. Nepeta fought for control and put her claws away. “No, it’s. It’s. Startled me.”
“You are so familiar,” he said, and when he looked back at her the firelight caught his face at just the right angle and she almost reached for him, a name on her lips. “So familiar. What’s your name, kid?”
“Nepeta Leijon,” she said. “And I’m not a kid, I’m six sweeps old.”
The Sufferer quirked one corner of his mouth up in a smile that wasn’t Karkat at all, it was wry and amused and patient. “Okay, Nepeta Leijon. What’s the name you keep almost calling me?”
She looked down at the cave floor. Sensation was beginning to come back with the welcome heat of the fire; but she was so tired, and so heartsick, and trying to work out what was going on here took up so much energy. “Karkat. He’s not dead. He can’t be dead. He’s our leader.”
Recognition in the voice this time, and rueful sympathy. “Ah. Yes. That would explain a lot, actually. For what it’s worth I don’t think he is dead. There’s some vague weird fucked-up part of me that’s linked on some level to him, and that kid is even worse at running his mouth off than I ever was, which is saying something. But I don’t think he’s dead, Nepeta.”
She rubbed at her face with her hands, trying to stop the tears from welling up again, ugh, this was stupid, she was better than this. “W-who is she?”
“Who you remind me of? She was called the Disciple. She was an olive-blood huntress, just like you. She’s also the reason they’re still whispering my teachings in your time, even if somebody went through and took out all the fucks from the text.”
“You loved her.” It isn’t a question. Quadrants aren’t important right now.
“I love her. And you love him; you’re flushed for him. I’m sorry, Nepeta. The world fucking sucks and miserable shit happens to good people, that’s just the way it is, but I like to think of that as a baseline, something we can try not to sink beneath.”
“I miss him so much,” she choked. “I never got to tell him how I felt. I drew him on my stupid goddamn shipping wall and I never got the courage to talk to him about it and then there was the Game.”
The Sufferer nodded. “Yes. The Game.”
“You played it too?”
“It played us, kid. Look, take off your wet hat and coat, sitting around in that won’t do you any good.”
Shivering still, she did as he said, feeling tiny and unarmored without her constant costume. She stared at the fire. “Why are you here?”
“Honestly? I have no actual idea. The bubbles don’t seem to have a purpose, they just drift. I happened to drift into this one.”
Nepeta didn’t speak for a while, wrapping her arms around herself as if to make up for the absent (large) arms of her moirail, or the imaginary ones of the troll she’d wanted so much to be matesprits with. “…’m glad,” she said at last.”
“That you drifted into this one.”
He sat down beside her and when he put his cloaked arm round her shoulders she shivered all over and suddenly clung to him, pressing her face into his neck, curling up in his lap, greedy for simple shared touch and the pain/pleasure of how much he reminded her of the person she had never had to lose. He smelled of woodsmoke and a little of sweat and something warm and wonderful she didn’t quite recognize but that seemed to sink into her brainstem and calm the shivering, calm the fluttery fight-or-flight waiting just beneath the surface.
She made a little soft noise when a hand began gently stroking her hair, and sighed a little. That was nice. That was…very nice, and very comfortable, and warm, and after a moment or two she was purring. She could feel the little shudder of his chuckle as well as hear it, but she just settled herself more comfortably in his arms and let him work his fingers through her tangled hair, purring sleepily, and when he sang softly in a rough untrained voice she was a wriggler again in Pounce’s paws, and reality itself was the bad dream.