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Red and Black and Doomed All Over

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John was worried.

This in and of itself wasn't a problem, since he had a whole lot of important things to do! Like to try and save at least three universes all while keeping as many of his friends and innocents alive as possible. And for the previous three years of his life, he had also been worried about trying to keep his friends from fighting like sprite-cats and god-dogs - and also trying to teach all the salamanders and nakkadiles and such how to play video games.

But now it was time to get down to Serious Business (c) and he had to start conferring with the other friendleader!

The problem was, Karkat wanted nothing to do with him. And he had no idea why.

"Cupcake, darling?"

He gave Nannasprite a dirty look out of the corner of his eye as he sat cross legged on a bench on LOWAS, staring out into the charred landscape.

"I'm kidding. Hoo hoo!" She chuckled, then as her grandson resumed staring out into oblivion with his chin in his hands, she gave a breathless sigh and floated closer.

"It's hard when someone you like doesn't seem to like you, isn't it?"

John's expression softened, though he didn't meet her eyes. "I just don't know if I did something wrong or not. Maybe he doesn't see me as a leader or..."

Nannasprite said nothing, letting him talk his problems out.

"I guess I should just try and... talk to him again? Maybe I came on a little strong, you know. He's not really that friendly most of the time, eh heh."

Nannasprite chuckled along with him, her voice hollow, ghostly and sounding like it came through cheap speakers instead of a mouth.

"Maybe... he doesn't see himself as a leader?" John stopped, weighing the phrases in his mind, trying to see if any felt right. They sort of did, especially the last one, but it was all still so confusing and dumb and frusterating because he couldn't even talk to Karkat about it.

Unless...

"Nannasprite, do you--"

And his dad's PDA, much the worse for wear but still functioning, was plunked into his hands.

---

Karkat was worried.

This, too, was common especially considering all the dying shit that had gone down, and was still going down, and would be going down when they faced down Jack Noir or whoever ended up being the big boss of this messed up clusterfuck of a game. But this time it was a stupid worry. It was a relationship worry.

The problem was that Karkat was afraid to talk to John, or be around John, or do anything involving the windy boy who insisted that they be equal and have 'friendleader meetings' like either of them would actually be competent enough to take down a real threat. He was nervous about sending mixed signals, or sending the wrong signals, or a billion and a half other concerns he had about a boy who he wasn't even sure he wanted in his quadrants.

His feelings were like this big tangle, and he was trying to sort them all out so he could lay them out all next to each other, and then suddenly he would be able to have this magic epiphany that would tell him exactly which quadrant John would fit best in because at this point he had no fucking clue.

Also the fact that John had heard about Vriska's death through Karkat didn't help matters much. Seeing the boy just kind of crumple up for a few moments before forcing a smile had slammed the troll with the kind of mind numbing pity that came along once in a millennium.

But he still kind of hated him, but not as much as he hated himself for overthinking this.

Karkat was still sitting, nervously hunched up in his desk chair when his computer beeped.

-- ectoBiologist [EB] started pestering carcinoGenecist [CG] at 22:39 --

EB: hey
EB: are you
EB: are you there?

Karkat blinked at the now-lit screen, trying to get his eyes adjusted to the light after staring in the dark for so long.

EB: i guess that's a really stupid question, because if you're not then you won't see this!
EB: at least until later.
EB: heh

He shifted in his chair, scooting over closer to the monitor and trying to figure out what to say.

EB: i guess you're not.
EB: sorry for bothering you
EB: it's just that
CG: NO, I'M HERE.

He winced, having sent his message at the same time as John's.

EB: oh, good! because i have something to say.
CG: REALLY.
CG: I HAD NO IDEA THAT YOU WOULD MESSAGE ME BECAUSE YOU HAD SOMETHING TO SAY.

The wince had shifted into a full out grimace, but he couldn't stop. It was like someone had pushed a boulder of stupid down a hill and it was time to get the fuck out of the way and let it roll.

EB: oh.
EB: um...
EB: is this a bad time?
CG: WE DON'T HAVE TIME TO WASTE WAITING FOR RIGHT MOMENTS AND WRONG MOMENTS.
CG: EXCEPT MAYBE STRIDER. GOD TIER, NOT SPRITE STRIDER.
EB: i figured.
CG: GOOD.

There was an awkward pause. Karkat laid his hands in various positions on the desk top, trying to find a place that was both comfortable and would let him type a reply quickly without indignant flailing. But by the time he looked at the screen again, he saw several lines of lonely blue text.

EB: i just wanted to kind of... ask you something.
EB: about why you don't really seem to like being around me.
EB: and that's totally okay! no one has to like me.
EB: i'm just me.
EB: i mean, like, i'm sorry if you don't like me and i want you to like me
EB: but i don't want you to like me out of guilt or anything
EB: and i don't want to make myself into something i'm not just to make you like me but i do want to know if there's anything i've done that made you not like me so i can not do that anymore
EB: maybe???
EB: ugh, i'm a fucking idiot.
CG: IT'S FINE. I THINK I KNOW WHAT YOU MEAN.
EB: really?
CG: NO.
EB: oh.
CG: I MEAN, I KNOW THAT I KNOW WHAT YOU MEAN.
CG: WAIT...
CG: WHAT KIND OF 'LIKE' ARE WE TALKING ABOUT HERE?
EB: how many kinds of 'like' are there? do you guys have crazy affection quadrants too?
EB: like, there's bodylove, represented by the lustful green triangle
EB: then there's soulkinship affiliated with the ethereal blue circle
EB: and then hobbyfriends of the harmonious yellow square and then the stressed white pentagon of fixerpairs
EB: karkat?
EB: where did you go?
EB: fuck, i'm sorry, i didn't come here to be culturally insensitive.
CG: JOHN YOU IGNORANT SLUT. I WENT TO GO GET DAVESPRITE BEFORE KANAYA CHAINSAWED HIM INTO DOOMED ORANGE DOUCHE-NUGGETS FOR MAKING A GIANT NEST OUT OF ALL OF HER YARN.
CG: AND I COME BACK TO THIS GIANT SLOPPY PILE OF SHIT.
CG: DO YOU EVEN KNOW HOW STUPID YOU SOUND?
EB: i said i was sorry!
CG: DAMN IT.
EB: hey!
CG: NOT YOU. ME.
CG: WE'RE GETTING OFF TOPIC.
CG: UNLESS YOUR TOPIC WAS TAKING A VIOLENT SHIT ALL OVER MY CULTURE'S TRIED AND TRUE SYSTEM IN WHICH CASE, FUCK YOU AND FUCK ME FOR EVER HAVING CREATED YOU.
EB: no, it wasn't!
CG: GOOD.
CG: GET TO IT THEN.
EB: okay, uh
EB: karkat, do you not like me?
CG: AND WE ARE BACK TO SQUARE ONE.
EB: harmonious yellow hobbyfriend square one?
CG: JEGUS FUCK, EGBERT, YOU'RE DUMBER THAN YOUR OWN CONSORTS.
EB: sorry, i couldn't resist!
EB: but what i mean by like is
EB: wait
EB: do you still have your totally-not-weird hatecrush on me or something?
CG: NO.
CG: AND IF I DID, WHAT WOULD IT MATTER TO YOU?
EB: nothing!
EB: well i mean your feelings don't mean nothing but
EB: um
EB: when i say 'not like' i don't mean 'hate'
EB: at least not blackrom hate.
EB: did i get that right?
CG: SHOCKINGLY, YES.
EB: ha ha
EB: /sarcastic
CG: I HAD NO IDEA YOU WERE BEING SARCASTIC THERE. YOUR CLARIFICATION WAS NOT A TOTAL WASTE OF OUR MUTUAL, AND NEED I REMIND YOU, DWINDLING TIME.
EB: jeez, fine.
EB: what i mean by 'like' is, as a person. a friend.
EB: or even friendleader!
EB: i guess what i'm really asking is
EB: i want to be your friend so we can work together and take whoever we end up facing in the end out!
EB: and is that going to be possible?

---

The waiting was almost unbearable. Sure, it had only been a minute or so, but the last phrase he typed sat there, mocking him. John couldn't stand to look at what he'd said as he'd blundered through their conversation like a fool, but he didn't want to see Karkat's reply a moment too late.

EB: you still here?
CG: YEAH.
CG: JUST GIVE ME A SECOND.
CG: FUCK.
CG: OKAY, YEAH. IT'S POSSIBLE THAT WE CAN WORK TOGETHER. NECESSARY, EVEN. BUT I DON'T KNOW IF I WANT TO.
EB: oh
CG: DON'T YOU EVEN THINK ABOUT SULKING, EGBERT. IT'S NOT THAT I STILL HARBOR BLACK FEELINGS FOR YOU.
CG: AND I TOTALLY DON'T HAVE A TRACE OF RED ONES EITHER.
CG: NOT A SINGLE FEELING IS BEING FELT ABOUT YOU RIGHT NOW.
CG: SO DON'T START FREAKING OUT ABOUT YOUR CREEPY GIRLS-ONLY FETISH AND LET ME FIGURE OUT HOW TO SAY THIS.

There was another long pause. John fidgeted, and started concentrating on sweeping greasy ashes off the cobalt rocks of his planet as best as he could with the Breeze just to keep his mind off things.

CG: IT'S ALL JUST KIND OF DIFFICULT FOR ME, ALL RIGHT? I MEAN, WE BOTH KIND OF FUCKED THE OTHER'S SESSION AND SO IF YOU AND I TRY TO LEAD THIS ASSORTMENT OF GODS, TROLLS AND CONSORT WE MIGHT END UP FUCKING EACH OTHER.
CG: I MEAN FUCKING EACH OTHER OVER. BY GETTING EVERYONE KILLED.
EB: *raises eyebrow*
CG: YOU BETTER LOWER THAT BUSHY BLACK ABOMINATION OR I WILL COME FIND YOU AND CUT IT OFF THEN WEAR IT AS MUSTACHE.
EB: hehehehehehehehe.
EB: but seriously, karkat! have some faith in yourself!
EB: we can still get advice from everyone but first you and i need to talk. or at least get along.
EB: what a good friendleader does is make sure everyone on the team can work together!
CG: THANK YOU FOR THAT VICIOUS REMINDER OF MY FAILURE.
EB: no, wait!
EB: karkat, did you forget that you got your whole team through the game?
EB: i mean, it can't have been easy getting 12 angry trolls to work together. but you did! you even took out your session's boss, which is more than we can say!
EB: eh heh.
EB: but seriously. i have a lot of faith in you. and i trust you too.
EB: so, what do you say?

 

There was another brief little pause, the screen shaking slightly in John's nervous hands.

CG: FINE.
CG: THE FIRST OFFICIAL MEETING OF THE PALHONCO FRIENDLEADERS IS SET TO START IN 3 HOURS.
EB: yes!!!!!!!!
EB: your place or mine?
CG: MINE.
CG: SEE YOU THEN.
EB: okay!

Chapter Text

A couple minutes before the appointed time, the door for Karkat's room was subjected to a little rhythmic series of taps. His fingers twitched like dying spiders as they hovered over the keyboard, having paused at the sound.

"Enter," he gritted out after a moment, still a little uneasy about letting someone else into his room - he blamed the instinctive territorial nature of his people and the paranoia his blood color gave him, but the real truth was he was just plain nervous.

John slid the door open and smiled. "Hi, Karkat."

The troll spun around in his chair, nodding in the direction of a chair he'd stolen from the main computer lab specifically for this occasion. His guest and fellow friendleader (ugh, the term was sticking) plomped down on the chair and pulled out a handheld communication device.

John's face then attempted a serious expression. "All right. I now call this meeting of friendleaders to order."

Karkat crossed his arms and glared at the device. "What's that for?"

"Taking notes of course! This is an official meeting of serious business, and we should totally take notes."

"Oh, we should? Well, it's such a shame that no one ever invented some kind of fantastic program that would let two people communicate across long distances through text, isn't it?"

He was beginning to feel like this was all a very, very bad idea.

John didn't seem to share his misgiving, however, and rolled his eyes. "Gosh, Karkat, you're such a pain in the ass."

"You almost sound surprised," he snarled dryly, picking up his legs and resting his heels on the seat as he built a tiny barrier of limbs between himself and the other boy. "Seriously, this is stupid."

"Trying to save everyone's lives is not stupid!"

"No, but your way of doing it is stupid."

"And yours is so much better?"

As soon as the words are out, John's mouth snaps shut. He goes pale, as does Karkat, but for a totally different reason.

"Shit, Karkat, I--"

The troll spun away from him. "Whatever."

"Noooooooo," he crooned suddenly, and the fact that Karkat distinctly heard eight o's in there made it worse when John wrapped his arms around him from behind and hugged. "I'm sorry, Karkat."

"Let go of me," he growled, but there wasn't much venom in it. His shoulders were still tense from confusion and flight instinct and the effort of trying to keep his flush feelings down.

It wasn't working.

"Noooooooo," John cooed again, nuzzling Karkat's shoulder, skin meeting skin for the briefest of moments before sighing and retreating slightly - his fingers still laced together, arm draped around Karkat's chest and keeping him somewhat trapped in the chair.

"Egbert. Off."

"Are you upset?"

"Get off."

"Are you upset?" John pressed again, both literally and physically. "I mean, you're always upset about something. You're Karkat Vantas - I wouldn't know what I'd do if you ever stopped reminding me what a dumb fuckass I am."

"First of all, I am not always upset about something." Karkat tugged at the other boy's wrists (gently), then hunched forward sulkily. "Second of all, Jade calls you a fuckass more than I do."

"Thirdly?"

"You are not going to drop this, are you?"

John's voice, he discovered, dropped in pitch when he was being serious. It also vibrated pleasantly against his neck when John rested his chin in between Karkat's horns.

"No."

"Thirdly," the troll continued, his voice a little quieter as he relaxed unconsciously into John's touch, "I'm not mad at you. You're right. I'm... I'm just sorry. Will you let me go now?"

"I'm sorrier."

"The term is 'more sorry,' you brainless buffoon."

"I don't care."

John heaved a shivery sigh, then his voice dropped into a whisper and his lips were just hovering away from the shell of Karkat's aural sponge. "Can I tell you a secret, Karkat?"

Trying to ignore the tingling sensations running up and down his body, the troll grunted.

"I wanted to come see you because... I'm scared."

Karkat went very still. John continued, squeezing him a little tighter.

"I don't know if I can face Noir again. Last time I did, I got a sword through the chest in less than a second of strife. I know that this time will be different - it has to be. I've-- we've been preparing for this day for the past three years, but...

"I asked Dave if he could see when Noir found us - how we did. He says he can't see anything, and I think-- I think we might be in a..."

"Don't say it," Karkat rasped suddenly. Fear was gnawing in the back of his mind, hitching his breath and he was fighting it frantically. He'd seen a couple versions of himself in the dream bubbles and ignored them pointedly. Was this what he'd had to go through countless times and countless sessions separated by things that could have been as simple as choosing what to eat in the morning?

If they named this fear, he reasoned like the little grub who closes his eyes in the face of the monsters, perhaps it would become manifest.

John took in a breath, held it, then let it out in a heavy sigh.

"It doesn't matter anyway," and he finally let go the exact moment Karkat stoped wanting him to, "we have to do our best."

---

The next few days settled into a bit of a pattern. By day, everyone was doing their best to hone both skills and weapons, either by strife practice with each other or hunting down the last imps on the Lands Jade had brought along. By night, anyone who wasn't too tuckered out to work out a strategy for beating something that was, at least in two separate universes, unbeatable.

John also spent a lot of his time just trying to catch up with everyone and help Kanaya and Terezi not feel so helpless - of course, this was easier said than done.

-- CURRENT ectoBiologist [EB] joined MEMO: FRUITY ASSHOLE SERIOUS BUSINESS SHIT at 06:17--

CEB: i don't understand how you can think something like this!!!!!!!
CGC: WH1L3 1 4PPR1C14T3 TH3 F4CT TH4T YOUR3 3VO1D1NG YOUR 4DOPT3D 31GHT QU1RK FOR US 1T DO3SNT CH4NG3 MY V13W ON TH3 S1TU4T1ON
CGC: W3 4R3 MOSTLY 3XP3ND4BLE
CGC: TH3R3S NOTH1NG WRONG W1TH TH4T
CGA: We Have Both Fulfilled Our Purposes In This Session
CGA: Perhaps To Our Fullest Extent
CGA: That Is Something We Have Come To Terms With And Should Also Be Taken Into Consideration During Your Planning
CGA: Should You Need Any Lives To Be Laid Down For The Greater Good I Will Easily Comply
CGC: M3 4S W3LL BUT 1M 4 B1T 34S13R TO OFF TH4N K4N4Y4 1S. >:/
CTG: jegus fuck can you guys get any more depressing?
CTG: i guess with handles involving 'grim' and 'gallows' i shoulda expected this shit
CTG: but as far as we know this is the fucking alpha timeline here
CTG: the final straw
CTG: the last battle
CTG: cant you guys just suck it up and try and live?
CGG: I agree with dave!!! enough people have died already. D:
CEB: and more people might if we can't all work together.
CEB: look, i know things look bad and it probably sucks to not be god tier or sprites or dog tier/whatever we're calling jade's crazy powers.
CEB: but we still need you guys! you are all very much worth having around and living and we will all miss you just like we miss everyone else.
CTG: wow john way to brighten the atmosphere here
CTG: remind us of deaths both past and future
CTG: lets just go the whole way here and start talking about the billions of innocent lives snuffed out by playing this fucking game in the first place
CGG: stop trying to deflect, dave! this is life and death we are talking about! grrrr
CGG: some of us don't get to just rewind and make things better!
CTG: wow jade thanks for the sympathy
CCG: OKAY EVERYONE JUST FUCKING SHUT UP
CCG: SHUT UP ABOUT DYING. SHUT UP ABOUT USELESSNESS. SHUT UP ABOUT PERSONAL PROBLEMS AND LET'S ALL JUST
CCG: FUCKING
CCG: FOCUS ON WHAT IS ACTUALLY RELEVANT RIGHT NOW.
CCG: WHICH IS KILLING A DOG.
CGG: poor bec ;_;
CCG: MOST OF US KNOW WHAT IT'S LIKE TO KILL SOMETHING THAT LOOKS YOUR LUSUS, AND YES IT'S GOING TO SUCK
CCG: BUT JADE, YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE WHO CAN GET CLOSE ENOUGH TO SNATCH HIS RING AND YOU CANNOT FUCK THAT UP.
CCG: ALSO NO ONE IS GOING TO HEROICALLY SACRIFICE THEMSELVES TO HELP HER DO THAT.
CCG: ESPECIALLY NOT THE GOD TIERS.
CCG: I AM LOOKING VERY SIGNIFICANTLY AT YOU, EGBERT.
CEB: why me?
CTG: i think i speak for everyone in the class when i vote you to be the most likely to be dumb and heroically die at the drop of a hat
CTG: probably tripping down the stairs on the way to the actual battle because youre so fucking noble and determined about this shit
CEB: shut up!
CTT: If I may be so bold as to interject now and bring the conversation back to the original topic?
CEB: the floor is yours, rose. right, karkat?
CCG: YEAH, WHATEVER.
CTT: I would like to remind everyone that Jack Noir might not be our only problem.
CTT: We may very well have to face off against such foes as her Imperial Condecension, or the Jack Noir of the Alpha session if we make it that far, which while unlikely is certainly not impossible.
CTT: Therefore, I propose we try to keep as many of our party alive as possible in the interest of strength and victory not only for this battle, but for future ones.
CCG: HEAR, HEAR, A SOUND CONCLUSION, NOW EVERYBODY GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE AND GO HOME.
CTG: what are you trying to get in contact with of your other selves so you can wax poetic hate to each other
CCG: NO, I'M TRYING TO CLEAR MY HEAD SO I CAN THINK AND SAVE ALL YOUR GRUBBY ASSES.
CCG: ALTHOUGH I'M STARTING TO HAVE SECOND THOUGHTS ABOUT SAVING YOU, STRIDER.
CGA: Karkat A Good Friendleader Is Not So Choosy About Assisting Those Under Him
CTG: yeah man what did rose just say about keeping people alive and shit
CTG: listen to these classy dames man
CTG: they know what theyre talking about

John quietly left the conversation at that - he didn't want to read more of Karkat's ranting and he really didn't want to see his friends fight. But Karkat seemed to find it cathartic and Dave didn't seem to mind, so it was probably best to let them handle it themselves. Right?

Sitting on his bed, he flipped through his sylladex again, pulled out a tiny laptop keyboard he'd painstakingly alchemised while on his three-year voyage and began to play a half remembered tune. But it couldn't drown out the thoughts he'd almost confessed to Karkat earlier.

He tried to reason with himself - death wasn't so bad, not in this Game at least. It's not like he'd never see his friends again, and he'd seen the dream bubbles himself a couple times so at least he knew roughly what to expect.

But he didn't want to die. He didn't want to fail, to be left behind by his friends, to float endlessly into a void until he stopped existing entirely and was forgotten by everyone.

"Stop, stop, stop," he swore, all but throwing the keyboard into his sylladex again as he clutched his head with his hands as if it could somehow stop the string of terrified thoughts of sliding inexorably to failure and loosing, again, everyone he loved. He had to stop crying - his father never cried, and he was supposed to help his friends win this! He couldn't help anyone if he spent all his time being weak and hurt and in pain. It was a luxury right now, one he couldn't afford.

The door to his room shuddered under the force of a knock, and John jumped. Quickly, he wiped off his face and called out, "Come in!" There was a little bit of a sniffle at the end of that John hoped no one heard.

Karkat's scowl peeped around the door, yellow eyes shifting to him. "I saw you left the memo early and wanted to make sure you were all right."

"You mean Dave made you scurry away in shame," he joked, sticking his tongue out at the troll. Said troll hissed.

"Actually, Kanaya banned us both and I'm not sticking around to see if my future self tries to get back on. And if you stick that out at me again, Egbert, I'll rip it off and cram it so far up your n-- waste chute you'le be tasting shit the rest of your life."

John grinned, then his body betrayed him by shaking with one last hitching sob. Instantly, Karkat's expression lost it's savageness (though he still looked pissed.)

"What's up with you?"

"Just... thinking. About death and stuff."

The troll gritted his teeth, strode forward and smacked John upside the head. He yelped, and glared at Karkat.

"What the fuck was that for?"

"I don't give a shit what kind of timeline we're in. If you go into something thinking you're gonna lose, you will. Same as thinking about winning. You have to be fully prepared for either outcome and just... just hope for the best or some stupid human shit, or at least be ready to go down fighting. Got it?"

John ran his fingers through his hair carefully as he surveyed Karkat. Then his grin returned, all the more mischievous in its second appearance.

"Aww, look at you, the big scary troll boss, trying to make me feel better."

"It's part of the job, you nook sniffing fuckass, so stop looking at me like that!"

"Like what?" John waggled his eyebrows and smirked wider. "How am I looking at you, Karkat?"

The strange buzzing snarl that emanated from the troll's throat was enough to take John by surprise - he shivered a little. (From fear! It could only possibly be from fear.) However, before he could otherwise react, Karkat had slammed the door again and could be heard stalking off in a huff.

John smiled, then tensed a little bit as he felt the heat in his cheeks. That was another string of thoughts he was not going to pursue. No way, no how.

Chapter Text

Karkat hissed all the way to his room, where he slammed the door and locked it with vehemence. Just to have something to do, he raked his claws down the steel wall, relishing in the agonizing sound and how he could almost taste the bitter metal as he scored it shallowly.

By the cursed blood of his ancestors, he had a problem.

He'd lost Gamzee somewhere along the way, and as much as he needed a moirail now he didn't want to risk breaking things off with his 'palebro' if somewhere, somehow he still needed him. Not that he really had any viable options for feelings jams with this addled crew, not now and probably not at any conceivable point in time.

But still.

-- current carcinoGeneticist [CG] opened MEMO: INTRADIMENSIONAL FEELINGS JAM at 07:06 --

CCG: OKAY FOR ONCE IN MY EXISTENCE COULD I REACH OUT TO PEOPLE FOR SOME HELP AND NOT GET SPAT ON?
CCG: I MEAN I KNOW I DESERVE IT. ESPECIALLY WITH THE SUBJECT MATTER I'M ABOUT TO DISCUSS.

-- past turntechGodhead [TG] began replying to memo two hours ago --

PTG: ah ha ha i knew it you whiny little shit

-- current carcinoGeneticist [CG] banned past turntechGodhead [TG] --

CCG: DIE ALONE, STRIDER. DIE ALONE AND UNTOUCHED LIKE THE FILTHY SOUL-LESS MAGGOT YOU ARE.
CCG: NOW, HOW ABOUT SOME ACTUAL USEFUL PEOPLE SHOWING UP?

-- past carcinoGeneticist [CG] began replying to memo one hour ago --

PCG: OH MY GOD NO.
CCG: YOU SHUT YOUR MOUTH, YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT'S GOING ON YET.
PCG: I KNOW WHAT'S HAPPENING.
PCG: YOU ARE, ONCE AGAIN, MAKING A MEMO TO BITCH ABOUT STRIDER PICKING ON US.
PCG: DUDE, YOU ARE SUCH A FUCKING CHILD AND I AM SO SICK OF CLEANING UP YOUR MESSES.
CCG: NO. THE CHILD HERE IS YOU. STOP TALKING LIKE YOU ACTUALLY KNOW WHAT'S GOING TO HAPPEN AND GET OFF THE COMPUTER.

-- current carcinoGeneticist [CG] banned past carcinoGenecist [CG] --

-- past grimAuxillatrix [GA] began replying to memo one hour ago --

PGA: You Just Stormed Off From The Group Meeting Memo
PGA: I Dont Entirely Believe You When You Say That Youre Not Here To Talk About How You Hate 'All This Hoofbeast Shit'
PGA: But I Am Here And Willing To Listen
PGA: Rose Has Even Promised To Distract The Others So That We Might Talk In Peace
CCG: I DON'T KNOW WHETHER TO BE THANKFUL OR SUSPICIOUS, BUT OKAY.
CCG: I
CCG: I THINK I HAVE SOME TROUBLE WITH
CCG: FUCK
CCG: OKAY I DON'T KNOW HOW TO FIT A CERTAIN SOMEONE INTO A QUADRANT
CCG: LIKE ANY OF THEM, NOTHING FEELS RIGHT.
CCG: I KNOW THAT THIS IS THE WORST TIME POSSIBLE BUT IT'S REALLY HARD TO WORK WITH HIM
CCG: I MEAN AROUND HIM
CCG: THEM

-- past tentacleTherapist [TT] began replying to memo 40 minutes ago --

PTT: I know this conversation is not designed to be open for my insolent alien babbling, but I feel obligated to inform you that we can all tell you are referring to your fellow friendleader.

-- current carcinoGeneticist [CG] banned past tentacleTherapist [TT] --

-- past tentacleTherapist [TT] began replying to memo 35 minutes ago --

PTT: This is certainly nothing to be ashamed of, Karkat, and neither is your perceived 'disability' to catagorise people into your occasionally restrictive and/or occasionally generalizing relational system.

-- current carcinoGeneticist [CG] banned past tentacleTherapist [TT] --

PGA: Karkat She Has Valid Points
PGA: Will You Stop Shutting Her Down

-- past turntechGodhead [TG] began replying to memo 20 minutes ago --

PTG: i educated you about the classy dames karkat
PTG: i told you bro

-- current carcinoGenecist [CG] banned past turntechGodhead [TG] --

CCG: PAST ME WAS RIGHT, THIS WAS A TERRIBLE IDEA.
CCG: I DON'T WANT PEOPLE CODDLING ME OR TELLING ME THAT THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH ME.
CCG: I WANT A SOLUTION.

-- future turntechGodhead [TG] began replying to memo in 43 hours --

FTG: i have a solution its called not fucking dying

-- current carcinoGeneticist [CG] banned future turntechGodhead [TG] --

-- future turntechGodhead [TG] began replying to memo in 42 hours --

FTG: okay i know you platonically hate me and all that shit but you have got to seriously fucking listen to me man
CCG: HOW MANY TIMES DO I HAVE TO BLOCK YOU ASSHOLES?
CCG: IF I DRAW YOU SOME MEDALS FOR PERSISTENCE WILL YOU LEAVE ME THE FUCK ALONE?
FTG: wow every once in a while i forget what an asshole you can be
FTG: fine ill leave
FTG: but john better check his fucking messages for once

-- future turntechGodhead [TG] banned himself from answering the memo --

PGA: I Do Not Think A Quick Fix Is The Best Solution To Your Problem
PGA: And As The Future Dave Suggested There Are Important Things Afoot
PGA: Both Your Mental And Physical Health Are Vital For Our Success
PGA: I Have It On Good Authority That Stress Is Good For Neither
CCG: I PROMISE THAT IF THE UNIVERSE WE FIND SLASH SAVE SLASH CREATE HAS A SPA I'LL BE SURE TO GO AND SOAK IN HOT DECAYING SHIT FOR HOWEVER LONG YOU DEEM NECESSARY TO LEECH THE STUPID FROM MY PORES.
CCG: BUT RIGHT NOW I'M KNEE DEEP IN A BILLION OTHER KINDS OF SHIT SO CAN YOU JUST
CCG: TELL ME HOW TO DEAL WITH THIS KID?

-- current tentacleTherapist [TT[ began replying to memo --

CTT: It might be best to start by calling him by name? Instead of the impressive assortment of half-fond insults you seem content to address him by.
CTT: John Egbert.
CTT: Say it with me, Karkat. You will find no shame here, only acceptance, love and the occasional bit of snarky horseshit.

-- current carcinoGeneticist [CG] left MEMO: INTRADIMENSIONAL FEELINGS JAM at 07:48 --

Moments after he closed his husktop, ready to retreat into his figurative shell and forcibly shove John either to one side or into one of his quadrants, the door to his room opened and Kanaya sidled inside.

"Ah, good, I did time my appearance correctly," she noted, smiling faintly as she stepped nearer, keeping her glowing hands close at her sides. Her dress puckered slightly around the hole in her stomach, and if he tried he could still make out the faint scent of her jade blood, cold and green as the precious stone.

Karkat looked away as he let her approach. It was nice to have her around, a troll who actually still followed the general social customs of their lost world. She wasn't invasively touchy, nor too talkative - but perhaps best of all was...

Kanaya sat beside him, silent as prayer and still as death, and he laid his forehead against her shoulder.

"Everything will be all right, Karkat. You will see."

Her skin was cold and he missed her being alive, and he pushed closer to her, hiding from the world under her chin as a few stubborn tears leaked out.

"I'm so fucking sorry, Kanaya. I'm so..."

He felt her shift, as if she'd started to move then changed her mind, then he more felt than heard her speak.

"None of this is your fault. Not this," and she placed two fingertips against his chest, where his blood pusher beat under thick skin. "Or this," she continued as she guided his hand to the faint pit in the front of her dress. "You have enough burdens to bear as it is. Don't take on anymore."

"Like quadrant problems." He gritted his teeth. "Got it."

"I didn't mean that. John is a very nice human boy and I have no problems with you pursuing a relationship with him."

"Just not now."

She inhaled, the movement stiff as though she hadn't breathed deeply in months, and sighed. "We may not have anything other than now. What have you go to lose?"

"Aside from everything, not much." He pulled away from her then, rising quickly to avoid the hand she reached out to bring him back. "Can I just... be left alone for a moment?"

Kanaya stayed quiet for a moment, then rose and brushed wrinkles out of her dress. "Of course. But..."

He dares to look at her as she stands there, calm and cool and still as a statue, as art itself except not quite as alive.

"If you feel the need for company, there's a movie in five minutes above the lab. You should attend."

"Like hell I will," he muttered as she pivoted and exited, leaving him alone with his thoughts.

Two minutes later, he was on his way upstairs.

---

And of course Kanaya had left out some serious details. Like how the only person that seemed to be attending this movie was John, and he was just sitting in one of the alchemized massive 'bean bag' chairs as he flipped through a stack of Troll DVDs.

Oh, whatever. He approached anyway, not missing the little startled jump from the human and the way the air around him seemed to constrict for a moment. At least John was capable of springing to action if needed.

Maybe if he could survive this and they went black for each other, John would use his powers to do delicious things, like constrict his breathing or--

Nope, not going there.

"Oh, hey, Karkat. I didn't expect you up here." John half twisted around to get the troll in his line of sight, grinning behind his glasses. "Not that I'm complaining. Can you help me read these movie titles?"

"Egbert, are you really going to watch..." Karkat peered over John's shoulder into his lap, " 'In Which An Artist Lowblood And An Highblood Whose Quadrants Have Already Been Filled Meet On A Doomed Starship Voyage Where They Fall Into Deepest Pity Only To Have Many Of The Passengers And Crew Destroyed In An Accident Involving An Asteroid And A Black Hole And Space Is Painted In All The Low Tones Of The Hemospectrum' -- and all alone too?"

"Wow, that sounds a lot like Titanic." John gave the stellar romance a dubious look. "It also sounds like a really bad idea."

"Don't be a dumbass. IWAALAAHWQHABMOADSVWTFIDPOTHMOTPACDIAAIAAAABHASIPIATLCOTH is one of the greatest works of my generation and it was a fucking amazing almost true story."

"Did you abbreviate the title, or did you just have a little anger aneurism right there?"

Karkat glared down at John's upsidedown smirk and the urge to pin him down and rake his claws all over his frail body until he screamed was a little too strong for him to deal with, so he closed his eyes and sighed.

Then he heard the scrape of shoes on the floor, and John headbutted him in the chin gently, like a little grub begging for attention from his lusus.

"You're so cute when you're angry. I should tease you more often, Karkat. Beep-beep-meow!"

And he reached up a little more (no way did Karkat lean into his touch) and nuzzled his jawline and wow, wow those were fifty different kinds of good sensations and none of them were black.

A little shiver ran down Karkat's spine, and he side stepped out of the contact and ripped the DVDs from John's lap.

"Hey!"

"Ignorant fucks don't get to touch my movies," he huffed as he went to place them back on the shelf beside the hilariously huge screen. John had managed to grab all the reddest of his redroms and there was no way anyone was going to mock those as he watched them. No way.

Instead, he tossed a mindless action movie in John's direction. "Here. 'In Which A Group Of Midbloods, Being Blackmailed By A Disgraced Indigoblood, Must Steal A Score Of The Fastest Landships In Existance In Less Than One Minute' is more your taste. We've even got the extended cut, with 17 more explosions than the original."

"Sweet."

John popped out the disc for IWAGOMBBBADIMSASOTFLIEILTOM and fed it carefully into the player, then leaned back into his sack chair. He patted the space beside him.

Karkat remained hunched over by the DVD shelves, busying himself with re-alphabetizing his movies. Order was good. Control was good. Sorting movies and rearanging them perfectly onto the shelves instead of snuggling up to his fellow friendleader was a good life decision.

"This doesn't seem like your kind of movie, Karkat," John continued to chatter as he presumably flipped through options on the title screen. "Whose is it?"

The troll rocked back onto his heels as he thought for a moment. "I'm not totally sure, but it sounds like one of Sollux' movies."

Sollux. Brilliant, prickly, gifted - and he'd just left him back at the green sun with Aradia. Why couldn't he have kept him alive and here instead of letting his whole team kill each other off and skatter like a pack of vermin?

"Was that the hacker guy I heard about?"

He snorted. "Sure. That's all he was. Just 'the hacker guy.' "

John muted the TV, manipluating the wind to literally give Karkat an air hug. "Hey, I'm sorry. I just... I didn't get to know most of you guys that well. I showed up too late for that."

The air pressure died, and when Karkat glanced over his shoulder, he saw John holding something small and sparkling blue up to the light.

A flurite octet.

"Move over," he grumped as he slunk over to the giant bag - John stashed the dice back in his sylladex and half rolled over, only to merrily smush back against him when he took his seat. Karkat made sure to dig his elbow into John's kidneys as hard as he could as revenge, and John laughed, and both of them ended up so focused on each other they hardly watched the movie after all.

Aboult halfway through, however, by which time both of them had given up pestering the other and their bodies had comfortably melted into each other and the plush sack, Karkat noticed his eyelids drooping.

"John," he murmured, growling as he spoke at the same time as an explosion. "John!"

"Mmm, yeah?"

"Don't let me fall asleep, okay?"

"Sure, whatever dude." John snuggled in a little deeper, a little closer and yeah okay humans were stupid and soft but he smelled like wind and rain and faintly like baked goods and it was really nice.

The sounds of screeching wheels and tough-troll dialogue (which he'd stopped translating 15 minutes in which forced John to put on the captions) faded into the background along with everything else as he drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

Practical jokes, while completely awesome, were not okay to pull in a tense, life or death situation.  Jump scares or surprises were especially out, since everyone on the meteor and giant golden ship had spent years honing their reflexes to almost match a Strider's speed.  All the other kinds of jokes, like plastic wrap over the toilet seat or a bucket (still funny, culturally rude but funny) filled with water balanced over a door might not get you killed reflexively, but probably maimed vengefully.

So John had no sinister intentions when he let Karkat slump against his shoulder, years of angry tension deflating if only for however long the troll would sleep.  He hadn't even entirely meant to, he was busy watching things blow up (this Sollux character had good taste) and by the time he actually noticed it was too late.

Plus, he didn't really see the harm.  Yeah, if you were caught outside a dream bubble you could sometimes hear the echoing calls of the Horrorterrors, but with Rose and Terezi doing the Sight-y thing he hadn't had a bad dream since the ship docked.

Thus, the Heir nestled deeper into the bean bag chair and resisted the urge to rub Karkat's nubby horns as he watched the movie.  Rose would be so proud.  He even only shifted a little when the troll drooled on him a tiny bit, washed-out-red seeping slightly into the collar of his shirt, warm breath skating across his collarbone and making it harder to concentrate.

John caught his gaze wandering and firmly reattached it to the screen.  That was not a road he wanted to go down.  Maybe one day when entire universes weren't relying on him to kill a dog he could consider the fact that maybe under some circumstances he appreciated Karkat's looks.  Huge eyes, sharp angles, thick and wiry-looking hair, cool rough skin, absurd horns...

He almost slapped his own hand away when he realized he'd been half-touching most of the things on that mental list.  Nope, John Egbert was not going to sacrifice his mangrit license just to run his hands all over a boy troll (who was currently asleep, which was more than just Gay in flashing lights, it was creepy!) who was starting to twitch.

John muted the movie, and Karkat stilled.

The explosions were considerably less awesome with the sound turned down, but he still had subtitles and the movie with the stupidly long title was actually pretty entertaining.  After the satisfying (?!) end where the protagonist flew away into the sunset with his hate-boyfriend and pity-girlfriend, he turned off the DVD player, fidgeting quietly with boredom.  He could watch another movie, but then he'd have to get up and wake Karkat.  He could go to bed, but he'd have to get up and wake Karkat.  He could stay there and sleep, but that would just be awkward to explain to everybody, especially Karkat.

John sighed and hit his head againt the back of the bean bag chair.  Reaching across with his free hand, he shook Karkat's shoulder gently.

"Hey, wake up dude.  I gotta get to--"

Claws wrapped around his wrist, and John's body barely had enough time to flood his system with terror and adrenaline before he was thrown across the room.  Something in his shoulder snapped and he screamed because oh god oh fuck something broke and moving for a moment seemed like the worst possible idea.

But he had already jumped to his feet, more propelled by wind than his limbs, his Vrillyhoo in one arm as the other dangled uselessly and Karkat stumbled slash rolled out of the beanbag chair.  The troll's arms shook as he tried to stand, snarling and rubbing his eyes quickly as he looked up.

Then his face drained of all color - he was always gray, obviously, but it was like the life had left him like a deflated balloon.

For one heart stopping moment, John thought Noir was behind him.  Memories flashed behind his eyes, and he could actually feel the sick blade, oblivion black, sliding through his organs and nerves and--

He turned, saw nothing.  Turned back and saw Karkat looking sick as he stepped closer, and then as John realized the danger was past and started to step out of his battle stance, his shoulder shifted slightly and oh sweet virgin mother have mercy.

"Karkat," he gasped as he went to his knees, then rolled onto his good side on the floor, sucking up the agony like a man and crushing every last scream of his nerves into silence, "get... get Rose or Kanaya or Jade, I don't know, just... ffff..."

Karkat approached like a frightened animal, eyes wide and too bright, too scared and apologetic as John snapped at him.

"I said get help, you asshole!"

He was mad, mad at Karkat to be so dangerous even when he looked so harmless, mad that his own reflexes hadn't saved him, mad that if Noir showed up tomorrow he'd be useless.  He'd be no hero, just canon fodder, and probably his death would stick anyway just because this whole game could be dumb like that and just completely fuck you over until you have nothing left but memories.

Karkat's feet pattered away into silence, and with it went his initial anger.  Instead, he lay there in silence and regret.  Noir would find them now, of all times, because irony actually sucked no matter what Dave said and the worst things would always happen at the worst of time.  He'd be here, helpless on the floor for another cruel stabbing and maybe he'd come back to life but maybe he wouldn't, or he'd be too late or a hundred different scenarios.

John didn't want to die.  He didn't want anyone to die - not again, not ever, even though he knew what followed and he knew that someday he'd lose the ones he loved (and then he'd been alone again, on his knees in his father's blood because nothing is a game anymore) but...

God, he could still see that guilty look on Karkat's face.  If only he'd have time to say he was sorry...

---

His consciousness must have lapsed or something, because when he opened his eyes again all three ladies he's mentioned were standing over him - and something orange hummed electrically and fluttered wings behind them.

Jade was examining his shoulder as Kanaya and Rose talked, then all fell quiet as they met his gaze.

"You're very lucky it's not broken," Kanaya explained carefully, like her teeth were sharp enough to cut her tongue if she slurred her words or spoke too fast.  

Rose chimed in then. "Jade and I concur that it is simply dislocated, and were just about to push it back into place.  Are you ready?"

No, John thought.  "Yes," he said.

Kanaya leaned down and, very gently, very deliberately, bit him high on the shoulder.  Moments later, his arm went numb like it had fallen asleep. He blinked, confused, before she licked something off her fangs and it dawned on him.

"Wow, thanks Kanay--AAUGH!"

Jade had shoved his shoulder back into place mid-sentence, and while the pain was nowhere near as bad as it would have been without what he guess was Kanaya's weird troll-vampire venom, it still left him shaking on the floor for a moment.

"Hey," Dave-- Davesprite called over his shoulder to the boy on the floor.  "Man up, Egbert."

"Shut up, Dave.  You have, like, a sword that lives in your stomach.  Can you even feel pain?  I don't think so."

Jade punched him in the side.  "John, you're such an asshole."

Rose, however, was quietly amused.  "Glad to see that you've sufficiently recovered from the shock and pain that comes with waking a troll."

John let out a hiss of pain as he sat up and began very gently moving his arm.  Some muscles had been torn, but if he could get some snow from LOFAF and ice it, he should be fine in a few days, maybe even less.  "So that was... normal?"

"Not for trolls who still have sopor slime to sleep in," Kanaya elaborated as she stood, dusting off her skirt and looking around as Davesprite replaced his sword in his stomach.  "Karkat especially has been known to have violent nightmares.  His moirail should be here to help, but..."

"Oh."

No one really knew where 'Gamzy' or whatever his name was had gone, and no one discussed it.  He submitted to Jade's prodding fingers with a wince and a fresh subject.

"Where did Karkat go?  I think I better apologise to him."

Rose and Kanaya exchanged looks for the briefest of moments as they stood, then the Seer offered him a hand.  "No, you had better go ice that first.  Jade?"

His ecto-sister's dog ears twitched as she grinned, then her whole body shimmered with stars and her sillouette was filled with the landscape of her land.  He'd seen her use her space-y powers before, of course, but each time it was amazing to watch her take a cookie-cutter to reality.

Rose scooped up a handful of snow and handed it to John to clap on his shoulder, and with all the patience and power of someone who knew best she shooed him in the direction of his room.

"Try to ice your shoulder until that snow melts, and don't do anything with that arm for a few hours."

He rolled his eyes and stuck out his tongue.  "Bluh bluh, bossy pants."

---

John had expected that, despite the pain and the adrenaline associated with Karkat's little outburst, he'd go to sleep the moment his head met the pillow.  Unfortunately, that wasn't the case.  Guilt was making him restless, guilt and concern and a whole cocktail of other emotions he didn't really feel like stirring up at that moment.

Okay, so maybe Karkat had almost torn his arm off.  But still!  A good man always admitted his mistakes, and his was probably letting the troll fall asleep on his shoulder.  It was at least his fault for getting angry at Karkat.

The expression of profound pain on that sharp, inhuman face...

It stung almost as much as his arm did.

Flicking off melted snow from his fingers, he got up shakily to drape the sopping wet rag he'd wrapped the snowball in on the rack in his personal bathroom.  His room wasn't on the meteor and he'd had it for three years, so he'd gotten used to some of the more alien look to the gilded sink, shower and toilet equivilants.

So much had changed.  John closed his eyes and tried to remember what his bathroom at home had looked like; before the game, before Rose had sent his tub through the wall.

He couldn't remember.

John shivered and tried to wrack his mind for more details; the feeling of sunshine on his skin, the smell of freshly mown grass, the sound of his father humming as he baked...

Nothing.

He'd spent so much of his time learning here, learning how to fight and kill and blast things to bits with bursts of air, he couldn't remember what it was like just to be a goddamn kid.

"I want to go home," he thought aloud suddenly.  "I just want to go home."

Someone knocked on his bedroom door, knocking him out of his misty eyed state.  Clearing his throat, John stood.  Hesitating a moment, he made sure Vrillyhoo was in easy reach.

"Come in," he beckoned, proud of the steadiness of his voice.

Jade peeked in the doorway. "Hey," she offered with a quick smile but her eyes were serious.  "How are you feeling?"

"Fine," he lied, avoiding her eyes as he fake-tidied his room.  "I should be fine in a few hours.  Gods heal fast, you know?"

"Good, because you should go talk to Karkat."

Her suggestion caught him off guard, and he paused in the middle of fixing a crooked movie poster.  "I don't think he wants to see me," he started, evasively.

There was a crackle of space warping, then Jade whapped him on the forehead with a rolled-up newspaper.  Hard.

"Ow!" John exclaimed, stepping away from the literally growling Witch.  "What's the matter?"

"Do you even know who we're talking about here?  Karkat Vantas, the guy who literally spends one third of his time hating himself."

With every sentence, she got more and more in his face until he was backed against his own bedroom wall, completely mute.

"Karkat Vantas, the guy who hate-proposed to you within moments of meeting you.  Karkat Vantas, the guy who lead a bunch of psychopath aliens through a game session only to get fucked over by people he never met.  Karkat Vantas, who in a few hours even might die to save our asses."

She hit him again, furious.  "Karkat Vantas, who is currently beating himself up over hurting you.  Get your whiny blue fuckass off my ship and go apologize!"

"Jegus, Jade--"

This time, when she hit him with the newspaper, space warped around him and he stumbled awkwardly into a door.  After his face had become acquainted with the hard surface, John stepped back and paid attention to the Alternian script on said door.

Of course it was Karkat's room.  Absolutely no one was suprised at that.

The door swung open, and John had just enough time to duck the blindingly quick twin sickles and step into the miserable glow of the hallways.

"Dude, you need to stop making a habit of this."  John forced a grin.  Apparently Karkat had been surprised.

More pain, more guilt washed over Karkat's face, then he dropped his gaze.  "Yeah, well, you should probably make a habit of actually knocking with your fist instead of your face, or just stumbling into the door like you're a drunk marathon runner and my bedroom is the finish line.  Your gold medal is a giant badge labeled 'fuck you'."

He winced again and before John could get a foot in the door, he retreated and slammed said 'finish line' in his face.

"Wait, Karkat," John exclaimed uselessly, as he leaned against the door, then carefully knocked.  Once that got him no reply, he banged on it with the flat of his good hand.  "I need to talk to you."

"Go away," came the muffled but definitely depressed reply.  Karkat was like a puppy that yapped and snarled but you always felt like the worst person in the world for scolding.

John sighed, and pressed his face closer to the edge of the door.  "Look, I'm sorry for yelling at you back there.  I know now that... that's not a thing you guys can really help, and you warned me and I didn't listen, and I can actually hear you brooding in there so just open the door and--"

And, what?

He didn't have an ending to his own threat.  

Fortunately, he didn't need one.

The door opened unexpectedly and John fell inwards as Karkat stepped out and they met in the middle with a very awkward sort of almost-face-collision.  John caught himself on the door frame, thankfully, but with his bad arm.  He gritted his teeth as both boys reeled backwards, the troll already starting to rant.

"Ow," John mouthed as he gingerly rubbed his shoulder, then actually got his foot in the door this time.  "Karkat, stop--"

"--face is in love with my bedroom door, that's just--"

"Karkat--"

"--are you even aware of the things you do?  You're so--"

"Kar--"

"--fuck me, okay, just fuck me."

Karkat's rant ended with a sigh and a stumbled few steps backward to sink into his desk chair, the back of his hand draped dramatically over his eyes.  John sighed and ran his fingers through his hair.  

"Look, it's-- it's okay, that's all I'm trying to say.  Jade-- Jade told me I better come talk to you because we don't even know how much time we have left and she's right and... I don't want to die with you mad at me."

And saying it out loud, even though he'd been thinking it so much for the past few days, was so chillingly final he wished he could take it back.

But he couldn't stop.  "I don't want to live or die with any regrets."

Karkat gave a short, rough bark that sounded like a curse in Alternian.  "It's not like any of us can do that, now, is there?

"We all have to live with regrets.  It's literally impossible to go through life and never seriously screw something up, whether it's an action you took or... one you didn't take.  When you could have saved a friend's life if you'd just been there for them, or when you had to take their life to save your own.  Even minor things, like not telling someone how much you cared for them or not being able to recriprocate their feelings...

"Everyone has regrets, John.  Even you.  Especially me."

There was something on the tip of his tongue, something left unsaid by both that itched to get out.  

John bit his tongue.  Not now.  Not like this.

Karkat sighed, again, like the weight of a thousand deaths was on his shoulders and the moment was gone forever.  "Get some rest.  We might need it in the morning."

Chapter Text

Halfway through a restless evening nap, one filled with the images of his dead friends again (and there were far too many of them in the first place, headless and young and all his fault) and brought on by sheer exhaustion, Karkat awoke to a sound he had hoped he'd never hear again.

Echoing barks and snarls.

Jack had found them at last.

His blood-pusher was practically vibrating in his chest as he sprung off his pile, grabbing his sickles as he fought to breathe.  In, out.  Easy there, Vantas.  You're no help to anyone if you panic and die.

Throwing open the door to his room, he was met with a horrible sight.  Dave, the one with the stupid cape, was lying in the hallway not five feet from his door, his blood spattered on the walls as Jack drew his sword out of the human's midsection.  Then Time skipped and lurched, rewinding as the red droplets were sucked back into Dave's body and he avoided the blow this time to vanish abruptly.  Jack stood there for a moment, stunned, then turned around to snarl at Karkat.

He vanished and reappeared, faster than the eye could follow but not faster than instinct.  Karkat ducked, parried, and countered the black monster with only the faintest awareness of his own movements.  He'd trained-- they'd all trained for years for this fight, and even if his mind had forgotten how to work, his body remembered.

Sidestep, because Jack always goes for the torso and troll bones are harder to cut than their organs.  Once, twice, swing the sickles in front of his face - watch the blows slide through the dog like he's a hologram, like he's not real but that blade is solid and sharp and kills.  Don't let him get behind you, back against the wall.  Duck, slice, wipe your blood off your brow and thank your Gods it was your forehead and not your neck.

Suddenly, Jack's ears pricked, and he teleported away with a puppy-like whine.  Just like they'd always planned.

Karkat leaned against the wall for a moment, getting his bearings, before racing towards the computer lab.  They'd gone over this plan, finalized it after hours of discussion only last night.  Just in time.

The pattering of feet sounded up ahead, and Karkat had only a moment to classify the sound as 'not Jack' before a blaze of blue filled his vision only a couple steps ahead.

"Hey," John greeted him, breathing easily despite his speed. It was the first time they'd spoken in person since their almost feelings jam two nights ago.

Karkat dropped his gaze and clenched his sickles tighter, feelings his emotions wrench and heave.  Not now - he couldn't afford to mess this up.

So without looking, he kept running.

John kept pace with him easily, pausing only to glance oddly at his pocket when a message alert sounded.  Neither of them stopped, however; there wasn't time.

Was there?

They slowed to a stop together in front of the transportilizer in order to calm down and be prepared for whatever lay on the other side.  John was shaking pretty badly, switching Vrillyhoo from one hand to the other to wipe his palms on his thighs.  He still favored his left arm a little, but he should be alright using the Breeze.

A twist of longing suddenly wrenched away Karkat's frail nerve; a faint wish that somehow, somewhere, he could be having John's hands sliding all over him, John's lips on his, John's hips against his, nothing but John.

John turned and Karkat looked away, ashamed to have been caught staring.  Silently, the troll stepped forward and then, still without meeting the other boy's gaze, offered his hand.

"Let's do this."

John took it and pulled Karkat onto the pad with him, and for a moment there was nothing but the feel of their bodies pressed together, face to face, heart to heart and when John lowered his head, cheek against cheek--

"Together," whispered someone--

Then they were in the basement.

Karkat didn't want to look, because all he could see in his memory of the place were the stains on the floor from where Gamzee had mutilated the bodies of his teammates. But when he opened his eyes, what he saw wasn't much better.

Kanaya had her back against one of the glass pillars where something massive floated like food from a giant's gruesome pantry.  Beside her, Rose had her hood up as she struck out with her needles at empty space that always became occupied by Jack at the perfect time.  Dave and Terezi had paired up similarly, using their powers in order to duck and counter and otherwise buy Jade's time as she tried to approach the black demon.  

It didn't look like much, but it had to be enough; the Sprites were gathering their troops of Consorts on the four Lands and were probably only minutes away - a back up plan of blade fodder prepared to sell their innocent lives dearly.

No one wanted it to come to that.

Without another word, both boys plunged into the action; John encasing himself in a sphere of wind as he skated across to where they had stashed the little Carapace who had flown with them all these years.  The Mayor had built himself a tiny fort of cans and was periodically flinging them at Jack with surprising accuracy, but not much effect.  Karkat didn't have to to study them any more, however, as he had to swiftly block a flurry of blows and tried to find a wall to place his back against.

When it came down to it, the mutant blood really was the most expendable of the party, but he'd sell his life at the best possible moment.  He wasn't going to let himself get stabbed abruptly from behind.  Not when he'd come this far.

Jade was indestructible and undeterred as she kept slowly approaching Jack, murmuring softly to him as though he was a wild animal she wanted to make all better. He was shimmering in place as he alternating between trying to kill everyone in sight and falling under the effect of Jade's terrifying Guardian's loyalty.  They might actually  be able to survive this.

Karkat's inner pessimism said no.  Karkat ignored the feeling.  For once, we was going to believe in what he wished would happen, and not what was likely.

He found himself against the glass column across from Kanaya and Rose, close to John and the little Carapace. The human male might have been saying something encouraging to the Mayor as he was kneeling next to the tiny person's head, and Karkat tried to focus on the battle in front of him.  His instincts kept screaming at him to throw himself in front of Jack's sword every time it whistled by one of his friends, but he knew he'd never get there in time and--

Time buckled for a moment and the troll stumbled, disoriented and for a moment everything seemed blurred and surreal, like it was all just a dream--

There was a grinding noise and a scream of pain, and he had to raise his arm as glass and rotting, acidic scented fluid flooded the room - a fiece stream of it from a crack in the pillar, tinted with jade.  The assault of sound and scent cleared his senses, and he focused again with a sickening feeling of loss.

Jack had taken advantage of the time jolt, then; and Kanaya had...

He couldn't bring himself to look - Rose's distorted scream of rage was all he needed to know, then icy black air filled the room along with the screams of the Elder Gods as a Rose with black skin and white hair, a Rose with black smoke and blood streaming from her cheeks under the hood, a Rose who had gone Grimdark flung herself onto the nearest apparition of Jack and shoved her needles into his eyes.

Red-green-electric blood soaked her ice-white dress and Jack howled like a dying wolf then sunk his teeth into the meat of her shoulder, shaking his head as she screamed as well and tore at him with her fingers.  The entire universe vibrated with their rage and pain, and it shook Karkat to the core.

He acted then, springing forward to cross his blades through the tendons in Jack's wings and leaping back just as quickly.  The black demon spat out Rose like she was a disgusting piece of meat and stood snarling at Karkat just long enough to yank the knitting needles out of his eyes.

The troll raised his blades for a block as time seemed to slow, knowing that now that Jack was fully enraged he'd never be able to parry this, but...

It was okay.  It was going to be okay.  He trusted his allies-- his friends to keep fighting when he was gone.

Jack darted forward, and then--

A blast of wind and a blaze of blue--

The sound of a blade through flesh--

Voices screaming in rage and pain, three human and one troll--

Then John crumbled at his feet, and Jack was facing down Jade with Kanaya's chainsaw in her hands and red spattered the walls as the unbeatable boss fell to pieces.

There was a moment of silence, as if the whole world had become muted.  Karkat watched Dave kneeling beside Rose, who had returned to her normal state and was still bleeding from her neck.  He turned and saw the spray of embalming fluid washing clean Kanaya's still corpse, cut through the middle in a display of wretched irony.

Then he looked down, and saw John lying at his feet; blue eyes still open, glasses broken and an expression of determination on the face of the boy he cared for so much, a yawning gash across his neck that cut halfway through his spine and the mutant blood he'd given their race still seeping out of it.

Karkat fell to pieces, too.

It couldn't be happening.  They... couldn't have won and lost both Kanaya and John.  He wrapped his arms around the boy's corpse, burying his face in the fabric of his shirt trying to smell his scent of wind and rain and cake but all he could smell was blood and that wretched sweet-acid scent of the strange leaking fluid.

There was a flash of light, then the freshly-Prototyped Mayor whined and nuzzled Terezi.  Other than that and the faint splashing as the fluid leakage slowed to a drip, no one made a sound.  

Tightlipped, Dave tried to take the body away from Karkat as Rose and Terezi went to Kanaya.  Ignoring him, Karkat gripped John tighter.  It was too much like what had happened here before, and he just--

Nepeta on the floor nearby Equius, their blood mingling like the colors of Earth, 'Nepeta <> Equius furever' scrawled beneath it in olive--

It couldn't be real.  It had to be a dream.  

Karkat clutched the boy's body tighter. He had to wake up!

W4K3 UP!


"Come on, man," and Dave's voice was cracking, "just give me John for a fucking moment, okay, he might still come back if he can get him all in one piece.  I know how you--"

There was another wretched sound of space ripping, then a glorious white figure flashed into being.  Their wings were blinding to look at, and before almost anyone had a chance to react, it whirled and drove its sword into the Mayor's chest--

But not until the sword had gone through Dave.

The human's blade whipped across its chest, tearing through pure white flesh and spattering his face with blood.

Then the white beast stumbled backwards, dark eyes wide with shock as she withdrew her sword,  and all three tumbled to the ground.  Terezi made a terrible keening noise, skidding to a stop halfway between Kanaya and Dave, and it blended with the agonized wail of his killer and the snarls of Jade.

The prototyped Prospitian fell to her knees and nuzzled the body of the Mayor, back in his original tiny form.  Then when she opened her eyes they were savage with rage in a way that Jack's had never been.

They were all doomed.

Terezi moved first, stabbing and slicing and parrying with almost blinding speed as she fenced with the white winged wolf, Jade joining her after a moment as Karkat splashed over to Dave.  He only had moments, moments before that pure white blade sliced him into bits.

His search was fruitful - away he came with Dave's blood stained turntables and as the basement filled with the shouts of Consorts as the proverbial cavalry arrived just too late, Karkat braced his fingers on the discs and turned...

Chapter Text

John stood in the mirror, practicing flexing his injured shoulder and trying to see how far he could move it without wincing. He had most of his mobility back, which was good but still a pain in the ass to have to work around.

There was a crackle of space warping, then Jade buzzed into reality right beside him; he was in the middle of sidestepping, already feeling the sword stabbing into his spine moments before he realized who it was.

He started to relax, then caught sight of her face.

"Jack's here," she said tightly, her face almost as white as her ears. "Davesprite's passing the word along to the Consorts. Come as soon as you can."

Then she was gone again. John grabbed his hammer and headed into the hallway, half skating on the Breeze as he kicked himself off the wall to whip around corners. Thrusting out a hand, he spun the wheel-like lock on the door to the outside open with a tiny tornado, then jetted himself off the side like a diver.

Normally the adrenaline made him giddy when he flew like this, but not this time. He skidded to a more reasonable speed as he landed, trying to avoid plowing a trench in the meteor with his heels as he ripped the door of the lab open and resorted to running in the terribly winding hallways.

The wind was his friend, and breathing came easy to him despite the exercise. He heard feet pattering against the floor and tensed as Karkat came into view.

The troll's eyes flicked up to meet his. "Hey," John grinned, although the expression was a little forced. He felt like this moment was important, he had to make it mean something. Hey, buddy, you ready to go die again? was the only thing that came to mind, though, so he kept his mouth shut.

Karkat did not smile, and then ran on in an awkward silence. John's PDA dinged with a message, and he half-considered reading it.

But...

Nah, it probably wasn't important. He could read it later.

He reached the transportilizer pad first, stopping more to calm his nerves than to catch his breath. Karkat was at his heels and followed suit, panting lightly and shifting his limbs in tiny, likely unconscious stretches. John followed his example, limbering up; the movement helped to relax him a bit but he was still frankly scared.

He wiped his palms on his pants and chanced a look at the troll, who was watching him with an expression he saw too briefly to name. Karkat glanced away quickly, muttered under his breath.

"Let's do this."

John let a little grin crack through as he mentally finished with Dave's meme - let's make this happen - and grabbed at the troll out of impulse. It was inelegant but it worked, drawing the slightly shorter troll close as he pulled them both onto the pad.

His fingers tightened around Vrillyhoo as he closed his eyes, feeling the warmth of Karkat's skin on his teeth as he tried to memorize everything about that one moment. He thought of everything he'd been through and everyone he lost, and he prayed with all his heart that somehow, after all this was over everyone would be--

"Together."

Was that his voice that had spoken up? Did it even matter?

John opened his eyes and stepped off the pad, forcing his mind to clear as he took in their surroundings. The basement was one of the places on the meteor no one liked to go - apparently it was where most of the bodies had been stashed when everything fell to pieces. It was too dark to really see the walls, only a few glass-like pillars filled with pickled aliens; just like something out of a horror film.

He quickly shifted his focus to his surroundings, his mind to the plan. Kanaya and Rose had their backs against one of the pillars, moving in perfect sync; his human friend's lips were shaping words drowned out by the drone of the chainsaw, but every blow sent their way by the devilish beast was blocked or countered perfectly.

Meanwhile Dave had his turntables out, spinning them with tiny tweaks of his fingertips so that the area around him and Terezi was distorted, like footage on a scratched disc. But each skip of time's flow set up the troll for an attack and saved her from a downfall - teal and red blood would spray, then retract as if nothing had even happened.

John didn't envy them in the least. But he had a job to do as well, so he skated on the Breeze over to the Carapace in the corner. The Mayor was encased in a tiny fortress of cans - even as John watched, a steel projectile bonked off Noir's pointed snout with a satisfying, juicy thud. The young God blocked the blow with a one-handed spin of Vrillyhoo, following his momentum to clock the demon under the chin. Just in time, a flurry of wind encased both John and his charge, and Noir backed off to harass Dave and Terezi.

The noise of the battle died down with the roar of the wind, John's god hood swirled in the force of it until he tugged it out of the thin wall of air. He was shaking as he pressed himself next to the chess piece who, he noted with a quiet smile, was still wearing his old bedsheets.

"We're going to be fine," he assured the Mayor, watching Jade hold her hand out and approach the image of Jack Noir which flickered as he teleported from combatant to combatant, a million places at once. Then he glanced up at Karkat as he stood not twenty feet away, copying Rose and Kanaya's tactic. He was shaking, just like John was, his gaze hard with anger as he watched every aspect of the battle.

It was like he was on the edge of an epiphany - some truth was hiding from him, like a treasure sinking into muddy waters. He was - Karkat was so much like him and -

Oh, god.

He loved him.

John had to tell him. Now. No, right after this. Damn the implications. He had to speak out about these feelings before they burst inside his heart and killed him from the inside out.

Now.

Time buckled suddenly, like he'd fallen from a great height right on his head. It was like the first time he'd really gone flying off his pogo ghost slime, and he'd had a moment of childish existentialism that left him crying harder than the pain from the impact and he'd sobbed into his father's shirt and--

Rose fell to her knees suddenly, coughing up red and reaching feebly out to Kanaya toppling over onto her side as Jack yanked his sword free. There was an awful grinding noise as chainsaw met sword, then the usurper jumped backward flashing his teeth.

Kanaya chased him, though, reckless and bright with anger, and John didn't understand why Rose wasn't getting up.

She was just laying there, so still and...

No.

John didn't even wait long enough to get to his feet - he just skated, half-kneeling across the floor, and hit Jack in the back with all his might. Jack stumbled forward, already turning to face the human, snarling like all of his worst nightmares come to life; but he'd fallen into Kanaya's chainsaw and the sound of metal tearing into static and flesh was a symphony to John's ears.

The demon vanished, too fast for any eye to follow, then a rush of wind from behind knocked John off his feet, saving him from the sweep of the red-coated blade. But--

The ring on Jack's hand flashed as the blood floated in the air, stretching out into fingers that spread like cracks in reality. John forced himself to his feet, wincing as his bad shoulder took most of his weight. He wasn't going to die on the floor; even as the Red Miles struck like a thousand tiny red vipers he felt nothing but calm.

Then--

Black and grey and the gentle curves of yellow-orange--

A snarl that turned into a choked gasp--

The sound of everything, blood and bone and skin and clothing, tearing--

Then John was catching something tattered and warm and soaked with blood as Dave hacked Jack's arm off with one final swing, and Kanaya's chainsaw guttered to a stop.

Adjusting his grip on the troll, John's eyes instantly returned to Rose. She looked peaceful, almost, her hood fallen out of the way and her eyes closed but she wasn't getting up. He choked back a sob and met Dave's gaze.

"We... we won?"

Behind them both, Jade let out a high pitched sob and fell to her knees, throwing her glasses to the side as she bawled into her hands. Then John noticed the discarded black sword, and the blood-soaked fist clenched around something bright red and...

"Karkat?"

John kneeled, rolling over the troll to look him in the eyes, and his eyes fell instantly on the gaping hole in Karkat's chest. Then, up to his face.

There was nothing there but echoes of life, of emotion - eyes staring past John into nothing. A tear, maybe, rolled out of the corner of his eye and slid down his temple to vanish in a sea of thick, messy hair.

John backed away, scooting out from under the corpse, his hands shaking as he wrenched open Jack's lifeless hand. He yanked off the ring violently, throwing it at the Mayor who had to scramble back the way he came to retrieve it, and kneeled beside Karkat's body as he held the organ in his hand.

"Kanaya? Can you come over here and tell me where this goes?"

Silence.

"Kanaya!" He shot her a savage glare, his voice starting to crack under the weight of his emotions as reality settled in. "I- I need you over here now, okay, I need you to help me."

The glowing troll turned her back on him, slowly, withdrawing her chainsaw into lipstick and retreating to Rose's body. The Mayor, now the spitting image of Jack except for his gentle eyes, wrapped Jade in a hug with one arm and both wings.

"Terezi!"

His voice was shaking now, as badly as the hands that held some delicate part of Karkat as it cooled and became sticky rather than slick, "can you help me?"

There was no reply - light flashed, the too-familiar sound of teleportation, then a glorious white figure appeared. Hope flared in John's heart, then he saw the pointed muzzle and his heart dropped into his stomach.

There was a second Jack.

This one didn't wait to ask questions, opting for a neat stab right through the chest of the Mayor, no fuss, no mess--

But it was countered by the vicious slice of Terezi's long, thin blade, and as the white beast fell back the teal-blooded troll fell forward as Dave arrived just a moment too late. No, not too late - Terezi's hand was still raised from where she'd pushed him out of the way to take the blow herself.

It... it couldn't end like this. No. John closed his eyes tightly, feeling the wind howling around him in response to his pain. This wasn't right. He had to snap out of this. He had to--


wake up!


Then the fight was back on, as Jade howled with rage, snatching up Terezi's cane as she flung herself at the white beast. There was a rush of wings, then a grunt of pain as Dave was flung backward, his turntables scattering out of his reach as he switched back to a sword. One landed near John and he reached for it with hands shaking.

He would not let it end this way. Never. He ignored the voice in the back of his head that said he'd been right, they'd never had a chance; he grabbed Dave's turntables and focused his mind.

As Kanaya sprang into the fray, John braced his fingers on the disc and turned...