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echoes of angels

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When you were very little, and your mom kept dragging you to Civil War battle reenactments, forcing you to wear accurate period clothing (truly fucking heinous, she made you wear a bonnet) and lecturing you on the importance of history when you tried to protest, and you had to spend eight hours at a stretch in blistering heat bored out of your skull, you first came up with Orphaner.  Orphaner was a badass lady who used modern weapons and waged battle on the high seas and kicked ass in a cool costume, and when your mom's friends' kids called you ugly, you made her Orphaner Dualscar.  Your alter-ego, your imaginary heroine.  You never told a soul about her; she was your dearest secret.

She had two jagged scars across her face, but no one ever called Orphaner ugly.

-

The first time you ever met Fef you were still a gangly kid, and it was a mixer for the adults (you knew why they brought their children along, you were supposed to mingle and be nice and not throw punch in the faces of the punks that made fun of your thick, coke-bottle glasses or your weird way of talking (your mother's German w's and v's) or your thick volume of US naval history, clutched tightly to your chest.)

He was just as gangly and, going by his goggles, just as myopic as you, and he was staring in an exasperated way at the table of food that no self-respecting ten year old would ever want to eat.  You sympathized, quietly, to yourself, and joined him in scowling at the revolting assortment of sandwiches.

"What are you reeeading?"

You jumped, braids whipping through the air as you spun to stare at him.  You hadn't heard him sidling closer, and no one talked to you at these things, they just threw rocks and interrupted your reading, and oh, up close, he was really cute, your heart beat faster, you blushed.

"History a the naval battles a the Revolutionary War," you blurted out without thinking.

"You like the ocean?" he asked, beaming at you, eyes lighting up even behind his goggles, and you found yourself smiling back out of sheer unfamiliar warmth.

"I love the ocean," you said, and his smile went wider, oh, that was the right thing to say, someone was paying attention to you and liked the things you liked, and you felt special, you felt like the other outcast at the bottom of the ladder had looked you in the eyes and accepted you as comrade.  

He talked to you easily, vivaciously, a non-stop stream of questions and anecdotes and jokes that actually made you laugh, and it was so easy to talk to him, you told him how to file off the speed supressor inside his Nerf guns so the bullets would fly faster and he told you about scuba diving in the Keys and you told him about the whaling museum on the coast and he told you about spear-fishing in Vietnam and before you realized what you were doing - you had wandered off together outside and sat in the garden on a bench, discussing animatedly the things you loved in common - you told him.

You told him about Orphaner Dualscar, pirate queen of the sea, and the most beautiful thing about this boy was that he didn't laugh at you, not once.  "Cool," he breathed, and then blinked prettily at you through long lashes.  "I'm Fef, by the way.  Sorry, I forgot to introduce myself."

"Eridan," you said, trying to bob your head in a polite curtsy as you'd been taught, even though you were sitting down and it was stupid of you.  "They always tell me it's a boy's name."

"They tell me Feferi sounds like I should be a girl," he told you, laughing, and your heart leapt into your throat out your eyes and vanished somewhere in his smile, where it was lost forever.

When your mother and his father found you both, your mother seemed awkwardly short with you.  "Eri, there you are, I didn't realize you knew Mr. Peixes's son," she said in a warning way, which meant do you realize who you're sitting next to, young woman?  And the blood rushed out of you as you paled.

You knew who the Peixes family was.  They owned the largest international arms trading company in the world.  You were an avid, vocal fan of their R&D department; on your obligatory hunting trips with your mother you would pretend to fire Ahab's Crosshairs at the pheasants, your mind coloring in the burst of blue flames, the shriek of the blast, the imaginary recoil.  

The look on your mother's face said tell me you didn't embarrass us, tell me you were a well-mannered girl for once.  You were pink, dizzy with your windfall of sudden, entirely undeserved fortune.  What were the odds that your new (and first, and only) friend would be the most amazing person on the face of the planet?

"I - I love the Crosshairs," you whispered, staring up at Fef's father, stomach twisted with excitement.  You were meeting your hero, and to think you had screamed and cried and pleaded with your mother not to make you come! To think you'd wanted to stay home!  "It's the best rifle in the world."

The CEO of Strife Specibus smiled at you, and in retrospect it was indulgent of him and patient, a glossy PR photo moment, a practiced face, but to you at ten years old it was fire from Prometheus, it was the best thing, and you should have noticed the way Fef's eyes went sad at the corners then, but you didn't.  You only extrapolated that they must have, and added it to your memories years later when it became familiar: a look of soft and terrible disappointment.

That night you were almost deliriously happy.  You skipped around your room, shivery with excitement; Feferi was no fairy-tale, he was a real prince, he was perfect, he was the most amazing boy in the world and he was your best friend and your mother let you stay up an hour and a half later than your curfew hesitantly tapping out instant messages and staring, like a man in a gallery at a surgery, at the screen until Feferi's responses arrived.

You couldn't sleep that night, twisting in your sheets and staring up at the ceiling.

You thought you loved him so much you would burst, or die, and of course you would marry him someday, you loved him completely and fully and you knew you would, for the rest of your life, because it was destiny, it was everything you had always been too cynical and angry to wish for or imagine existing - and then as your thoughts stopped their frantic spinning and began to wind down, a chill set in your gut.  You shivered.

You cared very much, suddenly, about being ugly.

-

A moment you snatched from the lives of your parents and the crushing weight of his duties:  you were twelve and a half and he texted you, suddenly, saying he was only six miles from your school that very minute at the city library, he'd taken the bus by himself, running away from his older brother's supervision and his mathematics tutor at mid-day to see you with only his wallet and his beaming, easy grin.

"What the shell were you thinking?" you gasped at him, face flushed from running the whole way there from the train station, which had terrified you with its noises and strange people and awful smells but which you braved because the prospect of seeing Fef made you brave enough to do anything.  Your hair was a mess (you had tried, you had locked yourself in the teacher's bathroom and hoped and prayed and ripped yourself away from the mirror because you couldn't wait, you had to see him now!) and you had plucked your eyebrows too thin the day before, trying to shape them, and the girls in your class had mocked you, but he didn't seem to notice or care how you looked.  

(You used to be glad, that he didn't notice these things.  It would wear you so thin you'd snap under it, the absence of his attention.)

"I wanted to sea you, Eri," Fef said, excitedly tugging on his goggles, and he was getting taller than you, you had to look up, and he beamed down on you like sunlight through water.  "And the aquarium is open today, and no one else wanted to go with me, and I knew -"

"- let's go," you were saying, interrupting, every measured ounce of you overflowing with warmth, with light, with a joy so simple it hurt.  His nose was straight and aquiline and dotted with pale freckles and you got to count them, he held your hand this time, and the train wasn't bad if he was there to stand beside you.

You hated the dirt, the stench of sweat, the shrieking of the cars along the tracks, the feeling of being trapped underground in a metal box - being around lots of people always made you inexplicably nervous, as though it was something your heart wasn't built for, and you avoided it whenever you could.

" - You eeling okay, Eri?" he whispered, hot against your ear, and you blushed, and the car swayed, bumping your knees against his.

"Shore, Fef," you whispered back, rolling onto the tips of your toes to press your mouth close to his ear.  "It's just - all these fuckin' landdwellers."

He tilted his head back and laughed, infectiously, and you couldn't help laughing with him, his laughter rose up and floated you like a boat on the tide, and you thought he would always be there to ask if you were eeling okay, you thought he would always be there to notice your anxiety and fear and gently banish them with his smile.

-

You don't go to the same high school as Fef because you live so far apart and your mother wants you to attend the school she chairs, keep an eye on you, but you promise to go to the same college, you study your ass off: bringing your textbooks to the exercise room in the basement and propping them up on the treadmill, listening to recordings in the shower and in the car your mother buys you once you pass your license test, taking AP classes online, doing anything and everything you can.  You even hire an SAT tutor, privately, out of fear.  

Once or twice a month, one of you takes a plane out to see the other and you do things that you feel like they might, possibly, count as going on dates, but you don't know and you're too scared to ask and besides, the way he looks at you, the way his face lights up to see you, surely it's all a given.  Surely you were meant to be.

You play laser tag and you go on whale watches and he takes you out in his brother's tiny boat at four in the morning to look at the bioluminescent fish, one weekend at his father's coast house.  You go to the shooting range together with his father, and you drag him into war museums, and he laughs at your eccentricities in an gentle way, you think; gentle or mocking, you can't be sure, but you don't let him know how insecure and frightened you are, frightened of something you can't name and can't place.

There's a six-week break during which neither of you can spare any time at all, and you're miserable, and you text him ten times a day and Fef responds only once in a while to say he misses you too, and you wonder if it hurts just as much for him?  Probably not, no one has ever hurt this much, just being apart from someone, you are thirteen and you have broken a world record with how much you hurt.  You can't take it, you have to do something stupid and exciting, and so the next time he's in town you text him: pack your glubbin swim trunks and shoal up at ten.

You save up your allowance and use it to bribe the swimming instructor (who works at the gym and who's known you since you were born) into staying late, to act as your private lifeguard, and you sneak in when the gym closes for the night.  The only light flickers in the bottom of the Olympic pool, and Fef practically glows, whoops loudly, praises your genius for setting up something so cool, gosh, Eri, this is fin-tastic.  And, because he's the most wonderful buoy in the ocean, your sole-mate, he brings water guns.  

You spend hours exhausting yourselves, laughing and shrieking and shooting each other and he dunks you and you dunk him in revenge, and finally you are catching up, running down on gossip, and you are so hungry to touch him, tactile and needy, holding his hand tight in yours as you dive together and sit for a full minute holding your collective breath at the bottom of the pool.  You know you'll have to surface soon, you'll have to leave and head home, it's almost one in the morning.

Fef watches you, inscrutably, behind his googles; you don't need them to open your eyes, the chlorine doesn't bother you, but everything's a soft electric blue blur, and you can hear only your heartbeat.

That night you fall asleep curled up next to him on the couch in your rec room, hair still wet from the shower, The Little Mermaid playing quietly on your flatscreen.  There's an unused fork from the reheated dinner you ate; softly, thinking you're asleep, he picks it up and runs it through your hair, humming quietly to himself, chin tilted up as he watches the rest of the movie without you.  

It's raining outside, a gentle murmur; you are exhausted, and you don't want to fall asleep slumped in his lap, you want to sit up and ask him if he loves you, you want to try to kiss him because you think this has to be the time, this has to be the right moment.  You struggle, but you drift off, helpless against your heavy eyelids and the soporific melodies of rain, The Little Mermaid, Fef's slow and steady breathing; anchorless but for his arms.

-

The whole process of getting ready for school takes about an hour, so you have to wake up early for it.  Shower.  Deodorant.  Body powder.  A little bit of cologne - it smells like sea salt.  Brushing and flossing your teeth, scrubbing your face a little cleaner, carefully patting the moisturizer on with your fingertips.  Then primer; then foundation, then sponging off the excess.  Then the primer for your eyeshadow, painted on carefully; the faintly pale purple you dab on is barely visible, but shimmers in the light as you blink, and even if you have to pluck your eyebrows every other day, even if your jaw is a square brick and your nose is beakishly masculine, hideously prominent, at least when you are zeroed in on the soft shimmer coating your eyelids you can look at your face and see something pretty.

Liquid liner, mascara.  It took you so long to learn how to ignore the chemical sting in the air, took you so many hours staring at the bathroom mirror, applying and reapplying your face, before you could do it right.  

Your mother made you get laser surgery, but you keep the frames of your glasses for sentimental reasons. Studies and magazines have told you that glasses make you look ten IQ points smarter and you want the fucking landdwellers to know you're fucking better than they are, want them to keep the fuck away from you, want to fend off those who would dare approach you.  You don't want to associate with your stupid, inane, trashy classmates and you don't want them to think they have any business chumming up to you.  The boys revolt you - none of them are Fef.  The girls, well.  The girls are boring and dull and stupid, unfashionable, unadventurous, unkind.  They titter behind their hands and laugh and gossip about you when they know you'll hear them, they call you a gun freak, a psycho, a crazy stuck-up rich bitch, no ass and no tits and too full of yourself to join the swim team.

You consider yourself a poisonous mermaid princess, and your flashy appearance a bitter warning.  

You put in circle lenses, they make your eyes look a little bigger against the vast expanse of your nose and forehead.  The false eyelashes aren't really necessary, but you feel like you have to wear them to stand next to Fef, since his are so lovely and yours simply average, you have to look pretty next to him even in comparison even if he's a thousand miles away, right?  You hear in your head, echoing: too ugly for him, and you stare into your own eyes like a basilisk unblinking as you wait for the glue to dry.

Very, very carefully, you spray on the fixative, and then you put on your lipstick.  Hilariously, it is called nude.  There is nothing nude about this face you have constructed so carefully.

Your hair is last, curled and gelled and sprayed into a careful, flawless set of waves.  Your mother screamed at you for cutting it all off, and screamed even harder when you bleached a streak to dye it purple, a purple that matches the contacts in your eyes.  When you hit puberty you started wearing push-up bras, tight jeans, following fashion blogs and refusing to eat dinner with her.

(Before the first awful shock, you were actually looking forward to getting your period, you thought you'd grow breasts overnight, you thought Fef will think of me as a girl and Fef will think I'm pretty and spent altogether way too much time preparing yourself for him ever, ever possibly wanting to go out with you, even though you go out together all the time, it'll be different, he will look at you and you will finally, finally take his breath away, the same way he takes yours, every moment every day of your life.  

(You honestly believed that the blood in your underwear would be the key to all that.  Instead it meant gaining weight, bloating, feeling awful for no reason at all, being in pain, and you were so disappointed and crushed, you sobbed all day.)

Your outfit is decided meticulously the night before, carefully accessorized, and laid out across your study table.  Sometimes you panic and have to wear something else; sometimes you realize with horror that you are too fat to wear that skirt today, your knees are too ugly to wear those shoes, your taste abandoned you the night before and you put together all the wrong shades of blue and grey and purple, what the fuck were you thinking?

Once you have swallowed your anxiety pills and finished drinking your protein shake, you are ready to drive to school.  Every single inch of you has been depilated, scrubbed, moisturized, pinched, screamed at, until you can exit the bathroom with your head held high, and know you are ready to face shit.

You are ready to sit alone in homeroom, ready to be polite and sweet to the teachers who hate you because your mother owns this fucking school and wants to cut their vacation days.  You are ready to watch out for girls trying to trip you on the way to your locker, ready for your locker itself to be dripping with wet paint and all your books ruined again, ready for your Economics professor to leer at your breasts (your mother won't let you drop the class) and ready for the only subject you love with a passion to be taught by a senile old bitch who thinks group projects are a great fucking idea, because god knows historians are team players.  You're ready to be wary of the boys who think it's a game, who think it's funny, to try to mess up your hair or snap your bra straps; you will smile and be demure and you will endure these people you loathe and barely tolerate and wade through every day like a sea of filth, hating them and wishing with every fiber of your body that Fef were there to walk beside you.

Every day before classes start you play this little game with yourself: today, you think, practicing the prettiest smile you have in the mirror, texting him between classes and idly picking at a lunch you will end up throwing away, skipping across the street for celery and another protein shake, today I am pretty enough for him to fall in love with me.

Chapter Text

You are seventeen now, and you are finishing up your senior year at last, and you are not sure you'll make it to graduation without a complete and total nervous fucking breakdown.  You haven't had time to see Fef in months, he's been so busy, you've been so busy, it was summer the last time you saw him in person.  They told you senior year would be easy, and they had lied.  

You call him almost every night, and sometimes - your heart hammers like a barrage of bullets and you cry alone in the shower - he just doesn't pick up anymore.  He's busy.  He's being responsible, he's focusing on keeping his grades up, you both got into Skaia U, he's working on securing your future together.  Just like you are.  It's normal, what he's doing.  Your feelings are not.  

You tell yourself, over and over again, all of the perfectly logical reasons Fef might not pick up the phone when you call him, but you are so scared, scared out of your mind, that he just doesn't want to fucking talk to you.

With good reason.  You're not even sure what you did. You spent time at his family's summer cottage last year. At least his father likes you, fond of your sheer enthusiasm for his business; at least you had been able to be a polite guest and make dinner conversation.  Fef was bookish and quiet and lost in his own thoughts to the point of rudeness during the whole trip; you tried to get him to come surfing with you, tried to show him how your marksmanship had improved, tried to talk to him, tried spraying him in the face with a goddamn water pistol, and for all that he just laughed vaguely and went back to reading, scruching his face around his goggles.  

You went out blushing, nervous, and excited with your mother and went fucking shopping and bought a fucking bikini, something tasteful enough for your social position and absolutely gorgeous, and you looked acceptable for once in your miserable life, and all he had done was blink, and smile half-heartedly at you, and mumble that's nice, Eri, where'd you find those hermit crabs again? Uh, maybe later, I've got a lot to read.

You had only finally broken through to him on the journey home, when you unveiled the present you had carefully bought and put together for him for his birthday, setting it up with his father's permission in the main Peixes estate: a six thousand gallon aquarium, top of the line, with the best filtration systems and a salinity regulator and live coral, and you filled it with the species you knew he cherished the best.

He had gaped in shock at the school of cuttlefish, dropping the book he was reading. (Marine biology? Ecosystems management? Environmental stewardship? The books he'd packed had all been boring as fuck, you couldn't get interested no matter how many times you attempted, but you weren't an ass, you never made it a federal fucking issue, you were so fucking understanding you wanted to puke.)

Fef pressed his nose against the glass in astonished wonder, and then he looked at you like he was seeing you for the first time in weeks.  Oh, Eri, I've been reel-y shellfish, haven't I, he whispered, his beautiful face wrinkling with something you found uncomfortably close to pity.  You hadn't been in the mood for the cutesy fish puns at all, you were pissed off, he had hurt your feelings and ignored you and you were too terrified to ask him why.

But the look on his face melted you, dissolved you, salted the wound and made your eyes sting.

How could you take offense with him?  Any offense?  You had been in love with him for six years, never wavering and never straying, as true and patient and deep as the deepest sea.  He was so perfect, he was your prince, you didn't deserve his attention in the first place, how dare you feel hurt when he took it away?  

Your lower lip had trembled.  No, no, you said, brokenly, scrambling to pull up your smile from wherever you'd lost it, reaching for a face you couldn't find.  It's not like it's your fault or anyfin, you're great, Fef, I just.  Don't worry about it.  Sear-iously, it's okay.  Happy birthday, right?

Your chest hurt.  You were lying through your teeth.

All right, he'd said, doubtfully, and then he'd smiled, cheering right up again, and hugged you, laughing, thanking you for the best present ever, holy mackerel, thank you Eri, and you had been happy, so happy, you hadn't wanted him to let go of you ever again because your world was falling apart at the seams and you couldn't tread water forever, you were going under, you were drowning in the pull of something you couldn't understand and couldn't control, a hell in your own head.

 

He clapped you on the shoulder, and carried your bags to the taxi that would take you to the airport like any gentleman would, casually tossing I'll miss you! over his shoulder as he went back inside.

 

-

The group of girls that hates you the most and has the most to prove, a bunch of fucking losers who get into trouble frequently and whose families are basically wallowing pigs, locked you in the empty theater once, turning all the lights out.  

You had gone to the abandoned auditorium to work on your homework after school, humming softly to yourself, listening to Florence & The Machine and spreading all your papers on the broad, empty stage.  You loved being dramatic, being faintly picturesque, practicing your poise; you were too shy and too afraid of rejection to audition for anything, and the drama department sucked ass anyway, but you loved it, the empty arena.

And then the dark hit you like a heart attack, and you heard them laughing and running away together while you shook and blinked, hyperventilating in the black.

You didn't want to panic or cry anymore when this shit happened and kept happening, your anxiety medication was supposed to work its magic, you were over it, you were just so fucking done with this carp.  

You used the light from your phone to gather up your things and then used one of your credit cards to force a back door open with your shaking hands, because it was the only one with the right kind of lock for that trick to work.  You tried to call Fef - you were upset, you needed to vent to someone, but after the fourth attempt with your hands still shaking and your eyes blurring with angry tears, you accepted that he wasn't going to pick up.  Instead you texted him: fuckin awwful day fef, and turned off your cell, watching the light die with blank, reddened eyes, sobbing and hiccuping air without making a sound.

 

If your phone was off, you wouldn't know that he was ignoring your texts, you wouldn't stare for minutes and hours at your phone until you found yourself, pathetic, sending him another one to ignore.  Really, you were better off.

 

-

Those bitches are just jealous of you, anyway.  Fef has attended the school dances you're socially obligated to show your face at when you ask him to come, at least half the time, and he's gorgeous and he only ever dances with you, showing off the results of the lessons you have both had to take since you were old enough to toddle around a dance floor.

You can't call him your boyfriend, because it isn't true, and you can't lie that thoroughly to yourself; but the bitch-piglets don't have to know that.  They just see your Prince Charming and drool with envy, and you revel in the schadenfreude.  You feel like Odile, yearning to be his Odette.

Fef doesn't under-sand, he says, frowning a little at you over the punch bowl, why you don't have more fronds, Eri?  Shore-ly you cod make a few?  Open up that shell a little!  He peppers his words with German, aware of the eavesdroppers, and you're grateful for that, but you feel a little hopeless and sick that he even asked you that awful question.

You don't understand why Fef would possibly want you to be friends with anyone else.  Aren't you enough for each other?

Aren't you enough?

You feel so ill.  You're sweating.  Your stomach hurts.

You smile, sweetly sick at him, your temples throbbing.  You hope you don't get a migraine - they've been coming more and more often, lately, migraines so bad you can barely see, crackling your vision and hurting you until you're crying in a ball under your blankets.  You don't want to have one here, where all the guttersnipes who hate you can watch you in pain.

"Aww, Fef, aren't you flippin' excited about Skaia U?" you say, through gritted teeth, forcefully changing the subject.

He perks up.  "SO eeeeexciteeeeeed!" he says, breathlessly, dragging out the vowels like he's hosting an auction, grabbing your hand and tugging you out to the dance floor again, grinning like an absolute loon.  

"People like us, Eri," he murmurs into your ear, leading you in a slow, gentlemanly tango to - absurdly, nonsensically, beautifully, fuck, you love him - a really shitty rap song about tits and asses and whores.  Your heart throbs, because your heart is an idiot.  "Smartasses and crazed geniuses and tortured artists so thick on the ground you can't spit without hitting a prodigy, Eri, not that you'd spit on anyone, I mean, you're a lady, but you get what I mean!  They have an orca-stra for their drama department, they do opera, we're gonna have such a good time there!"

This is a game you've taken to playing together with him, lately, in the absence of anything else to talk about, and to take the place of talking to him about anything that matters.  

"They have - a shooting range," you remind him, breathless, curling up around his shoulders, letting him dip you, arching your back perfectly against the palm of his hand.  Years spent taking classes in front of mirrors; you know how flawless you look together, you feel more than a few pairs of jealous eyes, and the slight satisfaction takes the edge off of your looming headache.  "They have a stable with horses, they're right next to a flippin' nuclear reactor, we're gonna be living in a real-life mad scientist - paradise," you murmur, softly, into his ear.

"Yeah!  And.  You'll be able to make some friends, there, Eri," he murmurs back, kind and loving and oblivious to the hurt he's dealing you, an icicle stabbing your spine.

You want to throw up, you want to cry and scream at him, you want to say if I'm lonely it's because you've left me alone, if I'm lonely it's because meeting you made solitude unbearable, if I'm fucking lonely it's your fucking fault, you impossible, impossible fuckass.

Instead you wince at the floor, shuffling your feet and hiding your stinging eyes, and say "I can't...  I can't dance anymore in these fuckin' heels, Fef, I'm gonna take another breather."

"All right," he says, smiling, and staring sort of wistfully at the other dancers on the floor.  "Do you mind if I..."

- He sees your face go suddenly white, he sees your eyes go wide and he sees your carefully maintained face fall apart in a rictus of betrayed.  Fuck, your makeup is going to run, you are not going to cry, not here, not even if Fef is there to hold you and dab at your eyes and try to make you feel better, not where the landdwellers can fucking see you and laugh about it later, not even if the only good thing in the world, the only thing you love, the only thing that loves you, wants to buddy up to the people who have made you want to die every day for the last four years.

"... I'll. Hey, I'll go get you some water," he says, quietly, not finishing his original sentence.

And there it is, curling his eyes downward as he turns away from you and cutting lines of sorrow into a brow that should always have been smooth: the soft and terrible disappointment he can't hide, disappointment with you.

You walk off as stiffly and gracefully as you can manage and you lock yourself in the handicapped bathroom, because it's a single room with only one toilet, and no one can hear you bawl your eyes out or watch you retch, dry heaving helplessly, above the sink.

-

It wasn't enough to wear cute clothes, get excited about dresses, take care over your appearance, follow every rule of proper girlfriend behavior, be the same as every other boring piece of shit girl in the world.  It wasn't enough because Feferi was the heir to an empire, a global empire, and you could never be a princess but at the very least you could try to be special.  He deserved someone amazing, someone unique, someone fantastic, and you were really just a fucking nerd, deep down, and sometimes you missed being incredibly nearsighted because it cut out the world beyond the lenses of your glasses, gave you something to hide behind, gave you an excuse to be blind.  

And you didn't know what you wanted, except you wanted Feferi so badly you found it hard to breathe.

You didn't know what the hell you wanted to do with your life, and it felt like you had no time to think before you'd be forced into the water, forced to take a plunge, declare a major, get into a career.  You were half-heartedly interested in the job your mother was nudging you towards - financial sector, she wanted you to do an easy desk job, nothing dangerous or exciting or brave.  You were a well-bred girl, such a good child, you heard her bragging about your grades on the phone to her friends that really weren't friends at all.  You hated it.

You felt like there had to be something missing. 

 

You wondered, late at night, curled up under the sheets of your bed and terribly alone, what Orphaner would have done, but that dream didn't fit you right, anymore, it was too flimsy and thin to cover your adult body with purpose, and besides, you hated thinking about your childhood.  

You hated remembering how happiness came so easily to you, once.  You hated remembering what it was like before your entire being revolved around a single person who held your life in the flutter of his eyelid, in the twitch of his lips.  You hated remembering that you used to know who you were, that you used to be sure of yourself, that you used to imagine all kinds of things about the future and about the world and about yourself, and slowly as you aged a noose had tightened inexorably around the neck of your dreams, until you barely even had preferences for things anymore.  You barely knew what you enjoyed, you didn't even know what kind of foods you liked, because it didn't matter what you liked, there were things you were required to eat and things you were forbidden to eat and the fact that you hated protein shakes and cottage cheese never entered into it.

 

Some days you felt like your love for Feferi was the only good feeling left, in you.

 

You scowled, flipped through a little booklet of rifles and ammunition, idly circling the ones you wanted, mentally counting down the days until you could register for your license to carry, the days until you could actually legally own a gun and you wouldn't have to borrow your mother's fusty, antique hunting rifles, you could get a pump action rifle, you could get two AK-47's and run around in a cod-damn cape on the deck of Fef's ship, firing like an idiot into the water at imaginary sea monsters and it'd be fun again, being around him, it wouldn't feel like you were being sawed in half.

You found yourself smiling a little when you remembered how much you wanted Ahab's Crosshairs when you were younger - a real smile, your old stupid sappy grin, not the polished one you've learned to wear outside your bedroom.  You were almost done growing, your doctor said, and you were still shorter than the Crosshairs were long.  It weighed almost as much as you did.  It was a gun for a superhero, a gun for a giant, not an awkward teenaged girl.  You were strong enough to lift it, now, you'd started lifting weights to keep up with how athletic and fit Feferi was getting, but the recoil on Ahab's Crosshairs would shatter your whole shoulder.

You were sort of nostalgic to realize, at - shit, it was already half past three in the morning - that you had never forgotten the Crosshairs's specs.  You'd memorized them carefully the way some people memorized baseball statistics, or prayers.  

You had stopped praying a long time ago.  It was about as futile as wishing.

 

A thousand youtube videos told you: it gets better.  You hoped, heading into the final weeks of your senior year at Tyrian, that they were right, that it would get better, that Feferi was right, too, and college would change you for the better.  You hoped that things would improve.  After all, you'd get to see Fef every single day, even if you had to share him with another thousand-odd students on campus.  You would get to talk, really talk to him, and he'd have the time and energy to listen to you, you wouldn't be so fucked up as long as he was just a dormitory away, there for you to cry on and hold your hand, and maybe if he saw you every day he'd fall in love with you a little, or at the very least he'd care, and you two fish-out-of-water could swim through a river of landdwellers together. 

 

You would find out in amazingly short order that hope was a crock of shit.

Chapter Text

He didn't come to your prom, in the end.

You had planned on it for as long as you'd wanted to go to prom at all, you had picked out a dress months in advance, an ambitious two dress sizes smaller than you could fit into, because there was always room for self-improvement (or self-destruction, but Chuck Palahniuk told you they were the same fucking thing anyway.)  Weighing yourself every time you saw the scale, checking your makeup nervously in every reflective surface, you tried not to think very hard about what you were doing, swapping out the low-fat cottage cheese for no-fat cottage cheese, swapping out the spoonful of sugar for a spoonful of stevia, throwing the birthday cake your mother bought you into the garbage disposal so that even if you caved and wanted some later, you couldn't fish it out of the trash.  

You watched your skin for breakouts like a hawk, took skin and nail and hair vitamins every day, drank so much water you had to run to the bathroom between every class, ate protein and nutritional yeast and raw vegetables and carefully kept track of your body fat percentage with calipers.

You were too proud to consider throwing up, too invested in the belief that you were fucking superior to these bitches to ever compare what you were doing to anorexia.  You didn't think of this as an eating disorder, you were proud of yourself for keeping your muscles healthy and trimming off the fat, you thought it made you look cute, boyish, a little like Fef, even. The only thing sick about you was how sickly you were missing him.  If you died of anything, it would be that.

Of course, a new batch of rumors started: that in addition to being a gun-toting coke whore who fucked truckers for hard drugs and had herpes and sucked off the professors for grades and that your late-onset boobs were silicone, you were also bulimic.  

You tried so fucking hard not to listen to them.

You tried, but you ended up going to the shooting range by yourself twice a week, unable to boil off your helpless fury by any other means.

You didn't complain to Feferi about this anymore.  

Your pride couldn't bear it, you were too ashamed to say the words by the way, Fef, I'm being fuckin' bullied, that never actually stopped bein' a thing that was happenin', surprise!  You could only stand to bitch half-heartedly about things that didn't really bother you, like you were venting-by-proxy the buried hurt you had learned to keep under wraps.  

Fef didn't get it, found your tirades boring and stupid, but you could tell that on some level he was relieved.  Relieved to hear you complain about the weather, complain about not getting your parking spot, complain about the poor quality of the cafeteria salad bar, instead of having to listen to you sob at three in the morning, whimpering about your stomach ulcers and your nightmares of suffocation and your crushing self-hatred, burdening him with problems he couldn't fix.

Feferi was nice in a backhanded way like that; he hated it when anything suffered.  He was so exhausted, with senior year bullshit.  It would have been awful of you to add to his worries, so you bit the inside of your cheeks and pretended to be as vapid as you sounded.

They broke into your locker and crammed it floor to ceiling with unwrapped Twinkies, for some fucking reason, and you pretended not to notice the small crowd of blank, faux-neutral female faces that watched you gather them all up and throw them all out, your hands reeking of vanillin and covered in crumbs.

In a way, it had been a tiny, hopeful, deluded fantasy of yours, something you imagined to yourself, blushing, burying your face in your pillow.  Feferi would show up as your prom date looking dashing and beautiful and you would be perfect next to him and you would dance your heart out with him, and at midnight he would kiss you, once, on the lips, softly and gently, and you would melt in his arms like butter and tell him you loved him and he would smile back and murmur I love you too, Eri, always have, cod, didn't you reel-ize?  And he would take you to a five-star hotel, something glittering and clean and beautiful, and he would make out with you in the elevator to the penthouse suite, and you would lose your virginity to him, and you wouldn't be scared at all, because it was Fef.

That's what happened on prom night, wasn't it?  Going all the way.  It was revolting and sexist and it was stupid and you were pretty sure it wasn't a real tradition, but that was part of the appeal, the fact that it was so simple and stupid.  You hadn't known, you only found out because you overhead stories at school, but it nagged at you.

You had caved into the urge and watched teen soap operas after your final exams, flushed and embarrassed by how much you wanted something like that, something romantic and sweet and special. It wasn't like you had friends to talk to about Fef.  You had the internet, you had Netflix and Hulu and Katy Perry's Teenage Dream to offer you detailed depictions of things you had never had the chance to experience and now never would, because high school was over.  

"Oh, carp, I'm sorry, Eri," he told you on a video call, fidgeting.  He winced at you, oozing sympathy from his invisible pores, and your lower lip trembled.  "My dad is taking me to Singapore, I don't want to go, I just can't get out of this one, if I cod, I would, I -"

"Fef, fuck, you're krillin' me," you told him, voice only wavering a little, pouting to hide your geniune hurt, your very genuine disappointment, clenching your jaw and forcing yourself not to have a panic attack while he watched, staving it off until the phone call was over.

You could see the slight hint of fear in his narrowed eyes, even though the video quality was shit.  You knew he was afraid that you'd start to cry, so you didn't.  You spared him that.

"I've gotta get to school, Fef, there's a practice exam in AP Calc," you lied, cutting off his half-hearted apologies, and - even though you hated having to put on a McSmile in front of him, even though it was like acid in your veins to fake it, you glossed one over your face, shiny and glistening and wrong.  "Don't worry a-boat it, fussyfins."

"I'll coral you later, Eri," he promised you earnestly before you hung up and dropped your phone in your bag, feeling like the recently resurrected dead.

You still appreciate the gesture of making that promise, even though you know it's 50-50 odds whether or not he'll keep it.  Can't be kelped.  You are too jaded to actually expect him to call you, not after two and a half years of flaking out, not after the last time you screamed at him and made him cry for standing you up at the theater and you got it through your thick, stupid skull that Feferi had other things than your feelings to worry about.

He still cares enough about you to lie to make you feel better.  You guess that's something.

-

They had watched you buy your prom ticket, and Feferi had had the graciousness to send a corsage of daisies to your house, and your lovely violet dress fit you so beautifully and you had worked so hard for it, you had to go, so you rode in the limo alone, and you stalked into the dance hall with your chin held up and your shoulders braced, daring them to start shit with you.

The first hour in, someone snapped a black pen in half, stirred the ink into a large cup of punch, and poured it down the front of your gown.

You handled it like a professional, you blinked slowly at the stain on your beautiful, ruined dress, and you mopped off as much of the sticky dampness as you could, and then you wore it for the rest of the evening like you'd planned it, like it was supposed to be a fashion statement about how much of a fuck you didn't give about this bullshit.  No one bothered you after that stunt. They didn't have to.  You were already crushed.

(You were extra upset because - you had planned this since you found out he couldn't come.  You wanted to have a prom photo taken of yourself holding a shitty plastic knockoff version of Ahab's Crosshairs you found at iParty, staring at it like it was your hot date, biting your lower lip and raising your eyebrows at it and winking.  Cute, right?  You wanted to make him smile, wanted to prove to yourself you could still make jokes and make Fef laugh.  And so you had paid for them to express mail a copy of the glossy print to Feferi's Singapore address, and - it was just, they managed to spatterbomb you before you got to the photographer.  You slipped him a fifty and you asked him, quietly, if he could please edit it so your whole dress looked black? And he said he could and didn't say anything else.)

And you had found Valium online and had started taking it, so that was probably helping you keep your cool.  You were eighteen now, and your mother refused to let you see a psychiatrist for depression because it would go on your adult medical records and you couldn't have that, could you.  You were off your anxiety medication for only three days before you caved, and desperately ordered the Valium; a mess until it arrived.

When it had kicked in, restoring you to a state resembling sanity, your mother had smiled at you and told you see, Eri, you never needed those drugs.  It's all about willpower.  

You had smiled right back, demurely sipping your black coffee, and imagined what it would be like to empty a magazine into her ugly horse face, pure rage tying your guts into knots.

You couldn't force yourself to stay at prom until midnight.  Some of the boys going stag were getting drunk, knocking shit over, laughing too loud, and you had picked out these black stilettos when you thought you'd be dangling off Fef's arm, you hadn't worn shoes fit for running, and you hated and feared your landdwellers in equal measure.

So you slipped out an hour and a half before prom was supposed to end, heels clicking in the empty parking lot; and because you had the opportunity and because no one was watching and there were no security cameras in the garage, you took a box cutter out of your purse and you slowly slashed the tires of the gutterbitch that had ruined your dress.  

She had had to carpool with her friends, too poor to afford a limo.  You bet, giddy and giggling to yourself in the rush of adrenaline, that she couldn't afford new tires, either.  Stupid fucking whore.  Served her right for crossing you, served them all right, they were just lucky you hadn't done worse.  

You had kept your cool for four fucking years, you hadn't crossed a single fucking line for the duration of your sentence at Tyrian Prep.  You had been a doll.  You had your diploma and you had the highest GPA in your class, but fuck if you were going to attend graduation next weekend.  You were done.

LOL!!!! should I be jelly-fish of my replacement?!? I thought your dress was gonna be purple though 38o
Fef texted you two days later, and you were sitting in your old rec room, rewatching Ponyo, and you remembered your poor dress, and it made you start to tear up because fuck, that had been the worst night of your life, sand-bar none.

But it was all right, you told yourself, this was your last night of helpless sobbing, your last night of drowning.  No one else was home to hear you.  Your makeup was already off. You never had to go back there again.  

Things were okay.  Things were looking up.  Fef was coming back for the last few weeks of summer before you had to move into your dormitories.  

It would be all right.

It had to be all right, or you didn't know what you would do, because everything was pinned on this.  This was your last exit.

-

Fef showed up at your house for the weekend tanned and muscular and taller than ever, beaming at you, sweeping you up in a hug that made your eyes water with hot feeling.  It was the old, familiar ache, paralyzing you with fear and intoxicating you with the wretched sweetness of the hurt: your love for him was a war wound, a knot of scar tissue in the center of your soul.  

You would never be free of it, and you were passionately sure, then, that you'd never want to be.

Slowly, you tried to chit-chat like you used to, you grasped for what used to be easy, you struggled to get your old connection with him going again, like a stalling engine letting you fall out of the sky, stomach pitching back and forth with nerves.  

It took so long for you to remember how to interact with him, and you were afraid you had lost it, but eventually something clicked, and you were snorting and laughing and making cracks like his friend again, and he was smiling at you, and oh, you couldn't believe in God, you only had faith in chemistry and force equations, but you thanked him anyway for the latest favor you couldn't hope to repay.

You told him about the Glock your mother bought you even though you had told her you wanted something flashy, you proudly showed him your gun license, and he laughed his dumb ass off at you because you had completely forgotten to register to vote.  And you stuck out your tongue at him and made fun of the (atrocious!) face he was making on his driver's license, and you shrieked with wicked delight at his AP scores because you beat him at History, you knew you would, and you pressed him for stories about the things he had done and seen and become, while you had been apart, listening in something like drunken rapture.  Something bottled up for far too long inside of you was unstoppered, gushing out, you were laughing too hard and feeling too much, so happy you were raw, so happy you were flayed alive.

And as he was telling you about the people he'd met in Singapore, urgently explaining to you how you had to do your laundry over there, that the boxes for dog biscuits looked way too similar to the boxes for laundry detergent, for some reason you started to cry and you couldn't stop.

He faltered, a little, and you realized as he stammered (a wave of nausea rising in your gut) just how hard he was trying, he was trying so hard to be your friend, he was wearing his ocean puns like a set of fish scales to reach out to you, his terrible mermaid that wanted nothing more than to drag him under, and it occurred to you for the first time that you weren't the only victim of your ruinous pain.  It was drowning him, too, because he cared; your precious, lionhearted prince who was nineteen years old and still wore goggles.  

"No, no," you said, shaking your head. "I'm - Fef, don't flip, I'm glubbin' all right, okay," you said, wiping the saltwater off your face, grimacing into the sunlight.  "I don't fuckin' know what's up with me today, I'm sorry, all these... emoceans."

He smiled at you, eyes warm and soft, but he didn't laugh.  It was unspoken, but you were both aware that there was something wrong with you, and you were both trying to ignore it politely, because you had both been raised with impeccable manners.

Fef looked so tired, holding your hand in mute exhaustion, as if he could loan you some of his strength if he gripped hard enough and laced your fingers together tightly enough, and you remembered sitting next to him at the bottom of a swimming pool just like this when you were younger, and - because you were tired, too, you were so weary, you allowed yourself to lose some of your composure.  You leaned into his side, resting your head on his shoulder, shoulders still quaking with your gradually tapering sobs.

He was warm, murmuring gently nothing in particular, and you didn't mind that the wasn't looking at you.  You weren't dressed up today, anyway.

You were going to Skaia together, after all.  The fisherman prince and the mermaid, united at last, still together after all this time, still close enough to finish each other's sentences and still laughing your fool faces off at fishing puns, still able to smile and hold hands.  You thought you could handle this.  It had been so bad, it had been unbearable, it had killed you a thousand times and you had died every day, but you hadn't drifted apart.  

You told yourself: everything will be all right.  Everything will be all right.

-

You held off realizing it for as long as you could, but eventually you had to face the truth: you were completely wrong about that one.

 

Chapter Text


This is how you meet Karkat Vantas:

You are standing in front of your dorm room with a stack of baggage and duffel bags that the mover your mother hired kindly carried indoors for you, which was nice of him, but which made you feel awkward and helpless when you were already feeling intensely awkward and intensely helpless in the face of starting college and being away from home.  

You barely managed to choke out your feeble "thank you", and he left before you could think of tipping him or what would be an appropriate amount.  You were supposed to tip service workers, your mother had scolded you severely your entire life that you had obligations to the lower classes, and now look at you.  First hour of independence and you're already a dick.  You feel quietly awful.  

You aren't allowed to have your Glock in the dorms, but it's in a safebox in town.  The fact that you wouldn't have a weapon on campus didn't occur to you until about a week before you had to leave, and you flipped your shit over it.  You're actually still sort of anxious.  You have half-formed plans to see if the women's center has any self-defense classes; Feferi told you that Muay Thai, capoeira, and Krav Maga were the best forms of gun-free hand-to-hand combat training out there, but after some frantic googling you're pretty sure that the podunk little campus town only has a kickboxing group.  

Fef is strong.  He isn't paranoid like you are.  He prefers to study spears and scythes and tridents, and you're all about long-distance rifles.  It makes you queasy, thinking of having to grapple someone.  You don't do well with strange contact; you don't do well with strangers at all, and Fef is the only person who's hugged you or held your hand in the last six years.

You requested a single, but they gave you a roommate anyway.  

You've never shared a room in your damn life.  You've always been alone, and you're not sure what on earth you're going to do with a roommate around.  You are afraid, deep in the pit of your stomach, that you will never be able to relax.  You're afraid that you'll have to keep up a dignified pokerface at every hour, even when you sleep.  What if she sees something she doesn't like?  What if you do something disgusting without thinking, like scratch your crotch or pick your nose, and she sees you do it?  It's your room.  It's the last place to run to, the last line of retreat.  

What if it's not safe?

You don't even know if she's in there yet, but you're still scared to cross the threshhold.

(God.  What if she's in there?  What if she's in the middle of changing her clothes?  What if she just took a shower and she's naked?)

Bravely, even though you already have a room key, you knock on the room's tall, glossy white door, and wait.

You don't have to wait long.

"JESUS'S TAINTCHAFING FUCKRAG, GAMZEE, I TOLD YOU TO GET TO YOUR OWN FUCKING ROOM AND TAKE YOUR FUCKING SEPARATION ANXIETY WITH YOU NOT FIVE DICKBLISTERING MINUTES AGO, I SWEAR TO BALLS I WILL RIP YOUR THROAT OUT YOUR NOSTRILS AND SHIT IN THE MOTHERFUCKING WOU- oh fuck hi," says the incredibly short girl in front of you, after nearly ripping the door off its hinges.

You gape, floundering.

"I, uh, fuck, sorry, lady, I thought you were this shitty friend of mine who - oh no," the girl says, blanching an even more sick shade, her pupils shrinking into pinpricks beneath her out-of-control eyebrows.  Her hair is gathered in two incredibly neat braids, but her bangs look like she just spent an hour yanking on them.  

"Oh sweet fuck no.  Are you Eridan Ampora."

"... yes," you say, carefully, terrified that this will cue another bout of screaming.

Instead the girl in front of you collapses against the doorframe, holding a trembling hand to her face.

"Eridan.  I thought that was a boy's name," she croaks, hoarsely.

Your mouth twitches.  "Uh, yeah, I get that a lot, it's not like -"

"I just sent a ten-page email to the resident advisor about it," she says, hollowly, staring at the chain-laden ghosts of her past actions.  "Ten.  Pages."

"... nice to meet you, um, Karkat," you offer, checking the name on your paperwork.  You try not to burst into hysterical laughter.  Instead you search your brain for a question to make polite conversation with.  "W-what are you majoring in?" you ask, fumbling over your w's for the first time since freshman year of high school.

Karkat makes a tiny noise like her soul has just died.  "... Fucking religious studies," she croaks.

- You're a goner.  

The laughter bubbles up out of you like a volcano erupting, and you find yourself leaning against the wall, convulsing helplessly. 

Karkat eventually joins in and collapses against the door, snickering.

"- oh my god, you scared the shit out of me," you gasp out, wiping the tears from your eyes.

"No fucking shit, god, I am such a prick, I have to send the RA an apology.  Fuck.  That's gonna look so good.  Freshman sends a ten-page email accusing them of six different kinds of discrimination and threatening to sue and then the next one is oh, wait, never mind, my bad.  Fuck.  I'm gonna be that kid," Karkat wheezes, still sort of crying with laughter.

"Good to meet you, Vantas," you say, smiling without any effort for once, and Karkat rolls her eyes and shakes your proffered hand firmly.

"Last name basis?  Really?  Fuck, how much am I going to have to catastrophically embarrass myself before we get to nicknames?"

Your heart lurches in your chest.  What?  Did you just actually make friends with your roommate?  Was that a thing just now?  

"Can... Can I call you Kar?" you ask, feeling incredibly shy.

"Beep beep, motherfucker," Karkat answers, rolling her eyes, and you're basically 75% sure that that means yes, so you decide to roll with it.  

She slaps you on the shoulder for making that pun aloud, later, while she helps you shelve your books, and it shocks you because no one has ever touched you so casually with your welcome before, save Feferi.  

(He's always the glaring exception to the rules of your life.  He won't be here for another three days.)  

You are briefly frightened of your roommate, shocked at the invasion of space, but a few minutes later you catch yourself wondering if she'll do it again.  You have the decency to be ashamed of how tactile you are.

"All right, Amp," Karkat says, clearly test-driving the name, and you snort into your scarf.  "Here's to a good fucking school year, right?"

"Right," you say, and because she has her fist held out like she's expecting something, you hesitantly bump it back, and oh, you're dizzy, you're pretty sure that's friendliness, the way she gives you a little approving tooth of a grin.  

You don't realize until she leaves on a run for toothpaste and Q-tips that you've been smiling right back; you only notice it slowly melting off your face after she leaves.

Abruptly, you feel a surge of inexplicable guilt rush around you, like the tide pulling on your feet.  How could you be happy with anyone but -

You try to stamp that thought out, but it rears its ugly head again and again, repeating the same accusing question:  how could you be happy without him?  And you notice, deep in your gut, that you feel like you've abandoned him, somehow; and you worry it's true, you worry your gut is right this time.

-

It turns out that worrying about leaving Feferi alone is fucking useless, because Feferi is never alone.

You have a weekend of orientation before classes officially start, and by the end you're pretty sure Feferi has managed to shake hands and make nice with your entire year.

He's friendly, cheeful, outgoing, sunny; he's sweet, patient, kind, and gorgeous; he's clever, and funny.  Feferi is reliable and honest and earnest, a genuinely wonderful human being, his goodness shining out of every pore; someone to cherish, an enviable friend.  

And everyone knows those things.  You're not special or unique for noticing them.  Everyone and their fucking mother wants to be friends with Feferi Peixes, and you feel like a flower turning towards a sun that only burns it.  

You guess you always knew in the back of your head that he was great with people, or at least assumed it to be the case, but you never had to watch before.

And it turns out that yeah, sure, you might be surrounded by the sort of people you'd like to be friends with, surrounded by bright young minds and geniuses and genuinely special people, but you're just as bad with people as you were at twelve.  You never learned to socialize; Karkat's presence helps, but she can't be around all the time, and when you're alone you still feel like you're lost in a sea of threatening strangers.

The pain is ameliorated, a little, when Fef can still pick you out in crowds.  You watch him saunter into the student center, search for you, see him smile, see his eyes widen as he notices you against the wall.

"Found me," you murmur at him as he approaches, a spring in his step.  

(And it's been so long, forever and a day, but he's still so gangly, still so precious to you, still freckled across the bridge of his nose, and it shocks you every time how much you're in love with him.  You go to bed with your misery every night.  You are saturated with it.)  

"Eeeeeri!  How are you settling in so far?  Is your roommate nice?  Getting along?" he asks, grabbing you by the wrist and tugging you towards a small table near the windows.  You waver before following; all he has to do is touch you a little and you're lost for him.  It's pathetic, and it's every other time all over again.  You know you're blushing.  You hope it's not obvious.  

You don't want to be scrutinized too heavily by the detritus that wanders in and out of the common room, but at the same time, you're grateful that he's willing to be seen with you in public.  You know he doesn't think of it that way; you know that it wouldn't occur to him, because horrid thoughts like that don't occur to good people.  All the same, you're grateful.

"Kar is real nice, she's a fuckin' riot," you tell him, fidgeting in your chair.  There's no point in trying to look away from him, or trying to hide how hungry your eyes are. He just got settled into his room last night; you haven't seen him since that shitty day you cried on the porch. "Looks like an angry little elf and cusses like a drunk sailor.  How's yours, Fef?"

Feferi's face crumples a bit at the edges, and he winces.  "I'd rather hear about Karkat, to be honest!  At least you've got good news to share on the roommate front."

"That bad, huh," you mutter, raising an eyebrow at him, and he sighs, long and hearty, and you're actually sort of shocked that someone isn't charmed by him.  How's that possible?

"Seriously, Eri.  Don't wanna talk about it," he insists, steepling his fingers, giving you a private, gossipy eyebrow waggle.  "Vriska Serket's massive, gaping personality faults aren't my place to diagnose or discuss, all right?"

You mentally add Vriska Serket to your ongoing shit list of people to hate by default, and sip from your Nalgene bottle.  "Aww.  I'm saury," you say, quirking your lips at him in a tiny smile, and he giggles a little, and you feel a little bit better.  "I lucked out with Kar, she's a fuckin' dreamboat."

"Yeah? What's her major?" Fef asks you, coaxing you into blatantly inane conversation that neither of you care about, and you bite your lip.

There are a thousand jagged questions churning in your stomach, and it's been years since you actually broke down and told him everything, glubbed it all out in snot and tears until you felt empty.  It's been such a long fucking time since you let anyone know how bad you felt, every day of your life; you feel like the pressure release valve has been locked shut, and you're trapped inside yourself, being slowly crushed to death.

And you're pretty sure Fef doesn't want to hear it.  He's meeting you in public.  He doesn't want to be cried on, he wants you to be happy.

For the love of god, why can't you just be happy?

You give in.  

You talk to him about Karkat's major, and he fills in the gaps with harmless, happy noise, and you let him numb you into a lull.

"- is your mother making you do the weekend MBA program carp?" he asks, pouting, and you almost laugh.

"Course, what else would I do with my fuckin' weekends," you gripe.  "Cod."

"Well," he says, smiling sweetly, "at least it's something we can do together."  

You try to smile back.  

You know damn well what that means.  Twelve hours of extra class hours crammed into your weekends for an add-on degree that your parents expect from you both.  He won't feel guilty if he ditches you or ignores you for the rest of the week.  He'll have done his time.  

How convenient.

"Did you get the flier for the freshman mixer?  The clubs are recruiting and there's going to be a barbeque or something, whatever.  It's on the roof of the auditorium tonight.  I think it's not technically required, but you should totally come! I could introduce you to the Drama department, they're cute.  Want to be my plus one, Eri?" he asks, batting his lovely eyes at you.  

You hate that you fall for that line every.  Goddamn.  Time.

"Uh, whale, Fef, I wasn't that keen on it, to be honest," you hedge.  "Kar isn't gonna go."

Actually, Karkat had taken one look at the flier on your door and laughed at your facial expression.  Yeah, same, I was gonna grab some friends from home and eat junk food and watch movies instead, she'd told you.

What films? you'd asked.

The Notebook, Moulin Rouge, Love Actually, she had listed, ticking them off on her fingers, and you had made an even more nauseated face and made your excuses.  Moments of shameful teenaged weakness aside, you were not a fan of chick movies and you did not particularly want to bawl hysterically in front of Karkat's unquantified friends.

Let me know when you're watchin' Quantum a Solace,
you'd told her, and she had rolled her eyes and stuck her tongue out at you.

" - please?" Fef asks you again, batting his eyes and pouting.

"... All right," you say, giving in again, and he beams.  

"Great!  I'll pick you up at your room around... seven?"

You smile hesitantly back.  It's been a really long time since you got to play each other's arm candy at whatever fucking retarded function your parents insisted you attend.  You're not sure if there's anyone he's trying to impress by dragging you along, or if he's just trying to display you to the student body at large in his ongoing quest to force you to have friends.  

You don't mind, you know he has good intentions; deep down in the pit of your stomach, however, you know that you're not quite good enough to show off.  You gained some of the weight back after prom, too depressed to force yourself to exercise (which, hilariously, would have made you feel better) and too upset with everything to monitor what you ate.  You were, according to your weekly measurements with the calipers, approaching 18% body fat.  

Karkat had spit her water out and raised her eyebrows when you whined that you needed to hit the gym ASAP, but Karkat is pretty in a nice, natural, unpretentious way.  Her features are honest and solid, like her convictions; despite her very vocal moments of self-abuse, she's leagues and leagues more confident than you are.  

When she asked, curious, you showed her how to do a proper smoky eye.  The smudge of black adds something breathtakingly lovely to the sharp, square lines of her face, but Karkat doesn't care about makeup.  She only uses it to cover up her sleep deprivation, and laughs at herself for doing so.

She's going to laugh even harder at you, when you get all dolled up for a shitty party you told her you didn't care about.

"Seven thirty," you tell Feferi.

"Sharp," he promises, and you wonder if he'll keep it.

-

The pain has receded into a blank, swallowing numbness.  You are grateful, in an odd detached way, to feel so empty and absent all the time.  It is better than the alternative.  When you surface, when the apathy vanishes, your terror and your pain and your sheer unhappiness come back to hound you.  You don't know if the grey that blankets your world and bleaches out the colors is a bad sign.  It probably is.  You're too apathetic to care.

You wish you could stay like this forever, but then you couldn't love him.  It's very tragic.  

He damns you, and he drags you back up again.  

-

That night, you meet Vriska Serket.