"The trouble with getting all you superheroes together," says Slick, "is that you're all either too goddamn proud, or you got self-esteem issues the size of Derse."
You nod as if you know what the fuck he's talking about this time, or any time, and he takes a drag on his cigar again, smoke swirling around his head in incomprehensible spirals.
"Us superheroes," you repeat slowly, continuing to nod until you're dizzy from it. There are others. Others like you, and they're all superheroes. Girls in catsuits, men with robot parts - it's all the same as god tier, in the end, except for maybe they can die and you can't.
"Well." He laughs, a short, barking laugh, sneer in place. You can't really tell why he thinks it's all that funny. "There's one or two that ain't got any powers or whatnot, but--"
"No, I know, I know," you interrupt, springing from your seat, digging your palms into the table as you lean over to look him in the face as close as you possibly can. "But they're different. Like me. Right?"
He raises an eyebrow, stares back at you with an indifferent sort of reverence that you have no idea how he's managing to convey.
"Different like you? Suppose so," he sniffs, shrugging. Crosses his arms, tapping his metal fingers on his bicep. "Y'know, maybe this ain't such a good idea, puttin' all you freaks in one place to wreak havoc as you damn well please."
"No!" you yell before you can stop yourself. He stares, and stares, and stares, an unimpressed facade betrayed by his wholly intrigued demeanor. "God, I just." You sink back down in your chair, humiliated, defeated, and pass a tired fist over your face. There are handprints in the table. "I need this, okay? I need this."
A smirk washes over his face.
"Shit, kid," he says, amused, "never asked you to beg for it, did I?"
"What do you want, Slick?"
"... This is the glasses, isn't it."
"God damn it," you mutter, throwing down your wrench and running a hand through your hair.
"So what if it is?" Auto replies, smug. "What if Dirk is busy? He never signed over his soul to your ego parade of an agency, Slick. He has his own life and, uh, interesting shit to do. The life of a billionaire, Spades, is fraught with many a difficulty."
"Just give me the bastard, AR," you sigh, and Auto buzzes him over to your headset with a disapproving click just as Slick starts in on a tirade about respecting your elders, no matter what goddamn species they are, thank you very much.
The suit can wait.
He goes silent for a second, then grunts and says, "You're only rich because your brother died and left you all his cash."
"Thank you for your sensitivity and warm sentiment regarding my brother's untimely death. You know, the one that you failed to stop from occurring?"
"Would you just shut your trap and let me tell you what I'm calling for?" he shouts, and you know you've got him. He's apologized before - bring it up and he's putty in your extremely wealthy and technologically proficient hands. Papers rustle in the background, and another voice yelps as Slick growls, "Gimme that!"
You lean back in your chair, grinning, and wait for the beautiful shitshow to begin.
He coughs. Pauses.
"Uh, first of all..." Another too-long pause. "Sorry - again - about the brother thing. Couldn't be helped."
"Yeah, yeah," you say, staring at your nails in an attempt to appear as nonchalant as possible in case they have cameras around. They probably do. "These things happen, slipped through the cracks, et cetera. What else you got?"
He clears his throat, mumbles something under his breath. "Anyways," he grumbles, "I, uh - we need something from you, Strider."
"We?" Interest peaked, you sit up a little straighter.
A new voice this time. Somebody young, probably around your age.
"Um, hey," the guy says, coughs pointedly. "Dirk."
The way he says your name - it's like he's lost something and you're the only one who can help him find it. Like he's desperate to know you, or he did a very long time ago.
"I'm listening," you say slowly, eyes narrowed, arms crossed, feet propped up on your desk. Your chest is aching, so you pull your shoulders back, groan quietly, try to readjust yourself into something resembling a comfortable position. It's a pain you've gotten far too familiar with over the past two years. By now, you could deal with it in your sleep (and in fact, you do).
"It's called the Alpha Initiative." Slick's voice sounds bored, rehearsed, like he's said it a thousand times, or practiced it in front of the mirror that many times, at least. "We're gettin' a few... Special agents together to try and beat the game. And... Her."
"Now we're talking." A smile is creeping onto your face again - you wish every day of your life for a chance to get a good, personal shot in at the Batterbitch herself. It seems your day has come.
"Yeah, well. We need you and your suit to--"
"Swoop in and save the day at the last minute, like always?"
"No, to help us," he grits out, clearly frustrated, and damn, you're enjoying this. "On the list, we got you, and this Egbert kid--"
"Hi!" intones the Egbert kid cheerfully. You can nearly hear him waving. Impressive.
"-- and Lalonde, and two other idiots. You in or what?"
"Hmm, I dunno. Let me think about it for a while." And Slick's blood will reach its boiling point in five, four, three, two -
"Strider, I swear to god I will take every knife I own and stab you in the--"
"I'll do it, I'll do it! Jeez." You have to bite your lip to keep from laughing. "Do some yoga, drink some warm tea or something, damn. Calm down."
He exhales heavily on the other side and Egbert is a weird kind of silent. Somewhere in the back of your consciousness, you dearly hope Egbert isn't the poor guy's first name.
"So," he says gruffly after a period of halfway-comfortable silence, "d'you want to recruit Lalonde, or should I?"
No matter how hard you try to restrain it, a quiet laugh escapes you.
"I haven't talked to Roxy in a very long time," you say, and you breathe in deeply, lean your head back and stare up at the ceiling as if you could see past it and into the night sky. "I'm sure we'll have a lot to catch up on."
"You could have everything you ever wanted."
The Condesce is beautiful, if beautiful is a sufficient word - terrifying and beautiful. Her hair falls and flows around her body, envelopes her, a protector in itself; her eyes narrow and shine with your every word, her mouth a thin magenta line. It forms around her promises, her lips stealing your faith much in the same way that her daughter took your heart so long ago, in such a way that neither her threats nor her lies seem very empty.
As far as you know, she has made neither to you.
"You could have everything you deserve," she whispers, chin resting on her fist, legs crossed at the ankles in her ornate throne. "You are royalty, young Ampora."
"Ampora," you repeat breathlessly, swallowing hard, and then, "royalty." Though you are kneeling, with your head down, even, you make it a point to straighten your back as much as you can possibly manage.
Royalty's got to remain dignified.
"Thank you," you choke out, though you're not sure what for. You don't want to come across as stupid, you don't, but it's so hard when you're faced with Her Imperious Condescencion herself. "I--"
But you clamp your mouth shut, because she has uncrossed her legs, has stood from her throne - is walking deliberately towards you, hips swiveling, heeled shoes clicking menacingly against the marble floor.
She stops only a foot from your face - you're shaking. Hard. You feel unworthy even to be this close to her ankles, even though - oh, god - even though you're only one place below her on the hemospectrum.
"Royalty," she says again, more harshly this time, lowering herself to your eye level. It's awful to look her directly in the face. She is something more than anyone you have ever met. Even Feferi.
"It's such a shame," she drawls, tracing circles on the back of your hand with one of her long, long fingernails. They are impeccably painted and even more impeccably filed into sharp points. You're shaking, harder than ever now. "Such a shame that you were raised to believe you were a mutant-blooded freak when you could have had all the respect you deserved."
Your throat is dry, and you are trying very hard not to be insolent, but the words force themselves out.
"But Your Highness." Tilting your head down even further, shutting your eyes so tightly that your vision flashes with bright colors, you ball your hands into fists. "My f - I. The - the king. His blood, it's--"
"The Signless," she hisses, "is a figurehead. He is useless to me." Carefully, she rises. Standing in front of you, gold bands gleaming from her arms, hands resting elegantly at her sides, she is regal and wonderful and terrible. "I was planning on, ah..." She pauses, fingers tapping against her thigh. "A little accident, anyway."
On instinct, you inhale sharply, lift your head, stare up at the Condesce in utter horror. Your father.
She smiles, teeth pointed and sharp and white, lips taut, the color of her very own blood.
"I'm sure it's something that could have been easily arranged," she continues, bored, and you're fighting to keep your breath steady because she is a monster - but she is a monster who will give you anything you want, so long as you do her bidding.
And oh, you want. You want so much.
You don't dare to stand just yet, but you know that your voice is strained when you say, "And what about Karkat?"
For a moment she is silent, brow creased in thought (and whether she's only pretending for your sake, you'd rather not know).
"I suppose an accident could be arranged for him too, if you would like."
"No," you say before you can stop yourself, "you can't, not Karkat," and then your blood has run cold and you've clamped a hand over your mouth.
The Condesce's eyes are wide with disbelief, and you wish you were dead. You wish you had never been born in the first place.
"I - ah. Apologies, Your Highness, please, it's--"
"No," she says softly. "It's all right, Eridan."
The way your name rolls off her tongue chills you to the bone, and she is looking at you, head tiltled slightly, inscrutable.
"You want the mutants to live," she says. "You have affection for them. This is understandable." She steps closer, extends her hand and runs a finger over one of your horns. You shudder.
"Thank you," you say again. This time there is a reason. "Thank you. And--"
"And?" She continues to look down at you, finger still moving gently over your horn, back and forth, back and forth.
"And." Gulping, you rub your hands over your thighs - they're sweating. "And I was - I was wondering if I could speak to Feferi."
Her reaction is immediate: In less than a second she has torn you from the floor by your horn, thrown you across the room. You land hard and your head is screaming out in pain.
"You aren't even worthy enough to say her name!" She laughs, snarling, anger and enjoyment deep in her eyes. "Just because your blood says you're royalty, that doesn't mean you've every right to say whatever you wish." She laughs again, and the sound is high, like bells or nails scratching a chalkboard, you can't decide which. "That is something you earn, Ampora."
"I'm sorry," you hear yourself saying. "I'm so, so sorry."
"Sorry gets you nowhere," she growls. "Leave."
You scramble to your feet, skidding on slick marble to the door, desperately, before she sets the guards on you. Your heart has never beat so fast.
Her voice trails behind you, every syllable loud and clear.
"You have earned nothing so far."
Unsurprisingly, Roxy is drunk.
"Di-Stri!" she slurs, half sing-song, when you call her up. "What's the happenings, babe?"
"Hey, Rox." You can't help but smile at the sound of her voice, and god, you've missed this. "I just, uh, wanted to catch up, I guess. Haven't talked to you in a while."
"I'm good, I'm great." She doesn't speak for a second, and the sound of heavy breathing fills the receiver. "I. You haven't even seen great until you've seen me, I'm tellin' you."
Very suspicious. "That's... Hey. Where are you?"
"Oh, I'm," she starts, but she stops talking and instead hums pitifully. "'mnot telling you. You'll get mad."
"Rox," you groan, head in hands. "I won't get mad about that, I just need to know, okay? There's... Stuff. There's stuff going down."
There's a loud thump, and Roxy hisses, "oh, shit."
Your heart nearly stops.
"Roxy? You okay?" You have no idea where she is and she's drunk and you haven't talked to her in months and you just want your best friend to be all right.
"'mfine, 'mfine," she mutters. "Bluh. Okay. So... I've been laying low at WV's place for a couple weeks, and--"
"Oh my god."
"You promised!" She scoffs, deeply offended. "You promised you wouldn't get mad, Dirk."
"But," you say, trying so hard to contain your worry and anger and confusion, "do you have any idea how dangerous that is, Roxy, they know you used to live there, it's the first place they'll check!"
"Yeah, whatever, can't tell me what to do, you aren't my real mom, ect, ect."
"... It's et cetera." You will not be removing your head from your hands any time soon.
"Anyways," she says pointedly, "like I was saying, I'm staying with WV and he's got this nifty little basement cubbyhole place I can sleep! It's a kinda tight fit though."
"I could tell." You sigh. Small talk is getting you absolutely nowhere. "Okay, look, I lied. I have a good reason for calling."
"Knew it!" she hisses, infinitely pleased with herself. "Liarrrrrr. So spill, spill, spill! I want all the deets. All of them."
The squeak of mattress springs floats around in the background, and you just know she's bouncing around on her bed like a thirteen year old at a slumber party. The image is kind of adorable, actually.
"C.R.E.W. called," you say in lieu of mentally making up for Roxy's lost childhood, and she makes a disgusted sound, the kind that comes from the back of her throat.
"Ugh, Slick? What did he want?"
"Us," you say. Again, she goes silent.
"What d'you mean us?" she asks; you can tell she's piecing it together. "I worked for him once. We all know how well that turned out."
"Same here." You laugh, and she's laughing too, and something between the two of you is sewing itself back up. "He said - I don't know, he said something about gathering a team up to beat the game."
"To beat it? That's... God. I don't know. You think we can?"
Even though you're well aware she can't see, you shrug. "I think it's possible."
There's a break in her voice, one that could be a smile, or maybe something else.
"Well, we've always worked in the business of possibility, haven't we?"
"We certainly have, Ro-Lal." You glance over to the case where your suit stands, and without thinking about it, your hand moves to your chest. "We certainly have."
In your head, there are a thousand things, and none of them are allowed to come out of your mouth.
It's not as if you can't speak. They taught you how. There are just some things you can't verbalize, no matter how many words you know.
It's like a movie constantly on loop in your mind, a story about - about you, but it isn't you, not really, and faces that float in and out of view, two girls and a boy, maybe, a book full of pranks and knitting needles and sunglasses and a dog with no eyes. You feel like you're flying and screaming all at once, red and purple and green and there is blue all over your hands, all over your body. And there are breaks, scratches in the disk, skips and backtracks and fast forwards where there shouldn't be, people with gray skin, a world of colors exploding in your head -
The doors slide open.
In three seconds flat - a new record, says the computer in your head - you're across the room, up against the wall, bow and arrow aimed and at the ready.
"Clone J11," the room's voice says, "you have visitors."
Still breathing hard, you relax the bow, eyes wide.
Gosh, you've never met anyone in person before.
It has been four months since you woke up, and the room has taken care of you since then. It provides nourishment and shelter and clothing and everything you need. There has never been a need for another person to intervene.
"I'm Jane Crocker," you say, because the room has taught you to be polite, if nothing else. "Clone J11, if you prefer."
"We know," says one of the men. He's short and bald and dark and shiny, and obviously very rude. The other one -
The other one is you.
You stagger forward, suddenly breathless, desperate to get a good look at his face - memories flood your head, cause your vision to spin. His hair, his skin, yours, all yours - his eyes are blue, like yours, and he has glasses, just like you.
You never knew why you needed glasses when the room could have surgically provided you with perfect vision.
And now you do.
He stares back, frightened, mouth hanging open like he means to say something but can't.
You understand, you truly do.
"Told you," is all the shiny one says.
"Yeah," says the one who is you. Your memories are his. You head is his, and it all makes sense. "Yeah, you did."
And he says, "I might be sick."
"Oh no," you say, stumbling back, hand flying up to your mouth, "I'm sorry, gosh, I'm so sorry," and his eyes go wide and he cries, "No! I didn't mean - it's not you! Um. Jane." The word - your name - appears to feel strange on his tongue. "I. It's not your fault, I'm just - wow, I'm not used to this, not even a little bit."
Somehow, even through your humiliation and discomfort, you're giggling. "Neither am I!"
"I'm John," he says, "John Egbert." As an afterthought, he awkwardly extends a hand which you take out of politeness, and the two of you engage in what must be the most uncomfortable handshake of all time, but you still can't stop the grin from spreading over your face.
"John," you repeat. "Specimin J1. It's nice to meet you, it's so nice to finally meet you!"
"It's." You're nearly bouncing on the balls of your feet, and he stands there, exactly eye level with you. You have the same nose. "It's nice to meet you too."
The shiny one clears his throat loudly.
"Sure, whatever, everybody thinks it's nice to meet everybody else, yeah. I'm Slick." He doesn't even bother shaking your hand, keeps his own clasped behind his back. Rude. "We're here to hire you, Crocker." The look he gives you is incomprehensible, a mix between annoyance and concern. "Your time has come."
"Hire...?" Your arms fall to your side for a brief, hesitant moment, and then you fold them tightly around yourself, shake your head slowly. "I thought--" J1 - John, John - is standing near the door, unsure, staring at the both of you. You lower your voice, surprised at how much you already know. "I thought you were only supposed to come get me if - if he didn't--"
"Well, I'm here anyway!" he barks, and you scramble back, hand to heart, gasping. He rolls his eyes, runs a hand over his face. "Look," he says, and you can see that he's very tired, "this whole thing? It's turned out way bigger than we ever thought. We - we need all the help we can get, kid." Gruffly, he places a hand on your shoulder. You think about attempting to squirm away, but decide against it. "You were made for this. Literally. You were literally made for this."
You gulp. It's not like you didn't want this - you just didn't think the day would come so soon.
You've always wanted to see the world.
"What do you need me to do?" you say, calmly as you can manage. Slick finally produces something resembling a smile.
"We'll locate you to your new quarters immediately. Stay there and wait for orders."
You nod, breathless. This is happening.
John looks at you, reaches out, pulls his hand back in. He shakes his head, blinks. Reaches out again.
Hand in hand with the boy who has your face, you step out of your room for the first time.
"Let me make this very clear to you: You are not to drink on the job, Miss Lalonde."
"Hey, fuck you," is all Roxy says, taking a defiant sip from her flask, smirking and never once taking her eyes off Snowman.
Snowman takes a deep breath, closes her eyes for a moment, and when she opens them, she simply says, "It impedes your ability to fight." Every syllable is enunciated, every word entirely clear. "We want you as alert as possible at any given moment."
Snowman is a really scary woman, you think.
Ever since you arrived at C.R.E.W. headquarters, it seems that she's everywhere, scolding you for everything you do. Slick says she's his assistant, but you aren't so sure that she isn't secretly the one calling the shots.
"John," she says suddenly, turning towards you without flourish. You nearly jump out of your seat in terror.
"Y - uh. Yes ma'am?
She smiles and reaches into her pocket for a cigarette, lighting it without even glancing.
"Are you all right?" she says. "You look a little... Shaken." One hand on her hip, the other holding a cigarette up to the invisible line of her mouth -
Yeah. She's scary.
"Oh, I'm fine!" You laugh, nervous, eyes flickering down to your hands, fidgeting in your lap. That's a lie. You're not fine - in fact, you're pretty freaked out. You keep looking up at Roxy and thinking, hey, funny story, so, there's this one time that my dad fell in love with alternate universe you, and several times you've caught yourself seconds away from calling Dirk by his brother's name.
Four. Four times. You counted.
And then there's Jane - you try to glance over nonchalantly but she's always staring back at you, eyes wide like she wants to take in every detail of your face. It's a little bit weird since she's almost genetically identical to you and everything.
This room is full of people who are not the people they should be, and it's all so, so wrong.
But Snowman is still looking at you expectantly, so you repeat, "Seriously, I'm all right!" and sit up a little straighter in your chair. There's nothing you can do about it now but get used to it.
Dirk may not be Dave, you think with a weird, sad twist in your stomach, but that doesn't mean he can't be your friend too.
"All right, all right, shut up," comes Slick's voice from the doorway, and then a loud slam. "Time to get down to business." He pauses and takes a second to look around the room, at Roxy with her disheveled hair and a death grip on her bright pink flask, at Dirk with his pointy sunglasses and feet resting on the conference table, at you and Jane, who give him identical anxious smiles.
"Nice group," he deadpans. Dirk laughs. "Well. We got one more recruit, and then we can get to work. What d'you pansies say about that?"
Everyone just stares - at Slick, at each other, until you say, "I think it sounds like fun!"
Slick blinks at you, slowly, and then turns away and pretends you never said anything at all.
"So that I don't have to go alone and get Snowman to babysit the lot of you - which you don't want, believe me--" the corner of Snowman's mouth turns upwards - "does anybody wanna volunteer to go and fetch the last kid?"
Roxy's hand is in the air before he's even finished talking.
"Ooh, I'll go! Pick me!" She claps excitedly, grinning, and next to her, Dirk pinches the bridge of his nose. "I'd love to get out of here."
"Roxy," Dirk says, and it's a warning, "before you came here you were living in a basement in the slums because you're on the run from the government."
She shrugs, wiggling her flask around.
"At least WV lets me drink," she says, leaning back in her seat, incredibly satisfied with her logic. "So where's the dude live?"
"On an island in the middle of the pacific ocean," Slick says matter-of-factly.
The room freezes - then Roxy says, "Cool!" and she stands, takes one last long swig from her flask, waves daintily, calling, "I'll be packing if you need me. Later haters!"
Dirk continues to shake his head as if it's all he can do, and your stomach drops when you realize, oh.
There's only one person left.
Your father is standing at your door, tall and strong and calm and everything you have ever wished you could be.
It makes you so fucking mad.
"Karkat," he says, and you roll over, burrow further into the side of your chair.
"I don't want to talk," you mutter, and in the split-second after you've said it you're hoping that he didn't hear.
"You can't keep up like this, Karkat," he sighs, and you hear his footsteps coming nearer and nearer. "You're nearly nine sweeps old now. A grown man. You've got to learn to take these things in stride."
"You knew," is all you can choke out, still not removing your face from the back of the chair. It's very soft. If need be, you could totally stay in this chair forever. "You knew he wasn't like us."
Your father says nothing. The footsteps have stopped.
"Where did you even find him, was he on the street, did they want to trade him for something, was it - did you--" You're trying so hard to stay calm, but despite your best efforts, a sob wracks your body.
You are worthless, says the voice in the back of your head. You are weak. How could you be king when you will never amount to anything?
"Worthless, stupid, goddamn, fuck," you mutter, gritting your teeth and wiping tears from your eyes. The red on your hands is not unlike blood. You'd like to imagine it is.
Finally, you turn from your hiding spot and look at your father, blinking furiously to fix your eyes to the new light - immediately, you regret it. He's tired and worn and old, more so than ever, his gray skin wrinkled. Under his eyes there are bags, and in them, remorse.
"I'm so sorry, Karkat," he says. You know he means it but you don't want to believe it, if only to keep fueling your raging self-hatred. Sometimes you think maybe it's the only thing keeping you alive. At least you're self-aware. "I only wanted the best for the both of you. For all of us."
"Why did you take him?" You want to scream. You want to take back everything you said to him.
Your father walks slowly across the room, his body heavy, and sits in the chair across from you.
"I," he begins, then hesitates. "He was born while I was at a conference of highbloods, in a seadweller land camp. He was... Small of stature and they were prepared to cull him, so I - I told them I would slaughter him myself and snuck him back home to your mother in the dark of night. It was only days before you were born. I'm sure they all knew, or figured it out eventually, but no one stopped me."
His fingers dig deep scratches into the leathery arms of the chair, searching for something, for anything else he could have done but did not, any choices he could have made that did not lead to this moment. He keeps talking, like maybe he could find answers in words he's never let himself speak aloud before.
"We took him to an old woman," he continues. There are tears in his eyes, but he isn't crying, isn't shaking. "She hid her blood, but I suspect she was a highblood, maybe a subjugglator's widow - she said she could help us. Make him look like our own child." He is silent for a few moments, and in the dark, there's only the sound of breathing. "I don't know how she did it, god, I'd like to, but - she hid his gills. She cut his hand and he cried but his blood was red and his tears were red and from that moment on, he was just as much my son as you, Karkat." A deep breath. "Always."
You have no words. There is nothing you can say without sounding like a complete and utter douchenozzle and all you want is your brother back.
"I told him to go," you say, voice as steady as it can be. "I told him to go and he left. I don't know where he went."
You father says, "He, ah... I believe he went to confer with the Empress."
"Then I'll go to her!" You nearly knock your chair over in such a hurry to stand, but your father stands with you, holds out a hand to make you stop.
"He's not there anymore," he says carefully. "I... He told me she said he wasn't worthy, so he was going to - to earn her approval as fellow royalty. He went down to try and conquer Earth, Karkat."
Your digestion bulb sinks down into your feet.
"Then I'll go there!" Your father starts to shake his head but you beg, "Anywhere, father. I'll go anywhere. I have to - god, I have to fucking do something."
There are two things you need to save, now:
You have to save the Earth from Eridan, and you have to save Eridan from himself.