It started as a dare.
Karkat Vantas had never been one for friends. That went beyond the realm of obvious into the state of being common knowledge. Roses are red. Violets are blue. Karkat will punch you if you try to talk to him.
He sat in the front of every class he had. Whenever the teachers tried to move him, he fought and screamed and claimed that he couldn't see the board if he was anywhere farther back than the second row.
John knew this, even if it was the only thing he could ever remember about the guy. It was hard not to notice someone that loud, and frankly, obnoxious.
He disappeared one day. Just stopped coming to class out of the blue, as if he was never meant to be there in the first place. It took a week before the teachers stopped calling his name for attendance. No one was sure what happened to him. Some said it was mono. Others said he got shot, and was now in the hospital.
Dave said he must have gotten pregnant and dropped out. It was about as creditable as any other theory out there. When it came down to it, no one really cared enough to figure out the true reason.
Weeks passed. Karkat Vantas's name faded from the realm of popular gossip, now only ever mentioned when a confused sub mistakenly called out it out to an awkward class, unsure of how to answer. Things returned to normal, even if this version of normal was much quieter than before.
That is, until the day Feferi Peixes marched up to the front of 3rd period English with an announcement to make. "I'm sure you all remember our good friend Karkat, right?" She was met with quiet murmurs and slow nods. "Great! Well, I know many of you have wondered what happened to him. It's been a long time since any of us have seen him!"
Confused murmurs continued to prevail throughout the class. From John's right, his self-proclaimed best friend forever, Vriska Serket, shouted, "get on with it, fishface!"
"Quit your carping, Vriska!" Feferi shouted right back. She closed her eyes, sighed, and slid her cheerful demeanor back into place. "Well, I've found out that poor Karkat is in the hospital!"
From behind John, Dave snickered. "Told you he was pregnant, dude. Bet he's going into labor as we speak."
"Dude, shut up before Feferi comes over here and punches you," John whispered back.
Luckily for Dave, Feferi failed to notice his quip, and continued her speech. "I don't know what's wrong with him, but he's going to be in there for a while! So, to show him that we haven't forgotten and that we still care, I've decided to make him a giant card! It'd be really great if everyone can sign it today. I'd like to have it over there by this afternoon, but I'm too busy to do it myself. Are there any volunteers?"
The class remained silent. No one had ever gotten close to Karkat since he moved in earlier in the year. From what John remembered, he ate alone at lunch. He had seen him a few times while Vriska dragged him around the school, tearing into a sandwich and mindlessly playing on his phone in a secluded part of their open, spacious campus.
"Hey John," Vriska whispered, mindful of her volume level so Feferi wouldn't think she was volunteering, "I dare you to take it to him."
John snorted. "Why would I do that? I don't know the guy."
"Serket's got the right idea," Dave added, his head right next to John's shoulder, fully butting into the conversation and John's personal space. "You should do it."
"But why me?"
Vriska chewed her lip in thought. "Tell you what, John. You take the card to the freak, and I'll spring for pizza."
"Spring for pizza or rob the pizza store?" John asked. "You know Rose works there, and she's the one who has to pay for all of that."
Vriska scoffed, and John knew he was right on the mark. His friends were generally really nice people, even if most of them did look like delinquents and edgy tools that ditched school in favor of loitering at the mall all day. Dave and Vriska had matching fashion senses and similar styles (John thought of it as edgy hipster couture, especially with Dave's half-shaved head and ridiculous snowy white fringe that never stayed out of his eyes, and Vriska with kool-aid dyed hair that looked eternally matted), but Vriska was the only one that ever got into real trouble. It was up to them to keep her on the path to success.
"You are so boring sometimes! I will actually get money and buy it." Vriska promised. "I will buy a supreme and give you as many pieces as you want."
"I'll spring for breadsticks," Dave offered.
John considered their proposition. Free pizza and breadsticks for taking an hour out of his day to go deliver some asshole he barely knew a card? He could care less for hospitals, but it seemed pretty worth it.
"Deal," he said quietly. "Hey, Feferi!" He shouted, raising his hand as high in the air as it could go. "I'll do it!"
Feferi beamed at him. "Thanks! Now, can I get everyone to grab some markers and sign this?" She asked, gesturing to the teacher to set a giant, colorful card against the whiteboard. "It'll only take a second!"
If there was one thing media was never wrong about, it was that hospitals sucked to be in. Even looking at one through a screen caused the viewer to experience the second-hand doom and gloom that comes with a building full of dying people. It was as if every single feature of a hospital was created only to make the structure as a whole suck more.
They were boring. They were dumb. They smelled like death and whatever cocktail of chemicals used to clean up stale vomit and blood. Even the lights existed in two equally depressing states: so bright they cast the halls in a harsh, unforgiving light, cold and impersonal like the staff who wiped your ass; or cracked and dying, like the people wasting away within.
John had been in a hospital exactly once in his entire life. Once he and Dave had to stay in the waiting room of a hospital in a faraway town for two entire hours, because Dad had miscalculated and dropped them off a few hours before Rose's single day internship ended. John spent that time listening to Dave make up fake stories about his fake uncles in Minnesota. When they got bored of that, John decided to switch the instant coffee and tea machines around in the waiting room. Not his best prank, but definitely one to remember.
He didn't think they ever got the stains fully out of the carpet, hehe.
When he tried passing the card off to the receptionist to deliver, she snorted and instructed him to go bring it to Karkat himself. "You have plenty of time," she told him with a cold smile. "Besides, I'm sure your friend would like some company. Mr. Vantas is in Room 18, third floor."
"Um, ok." With that eloquent response, John left. Unfortunately for him, living in the same town as one of the best hospitals in the world also meant that it was bound to be a large building that he knew nothing about, because who in their right mind went to a hospital of their own free will? Especially the children's hospital. Neither he nor any of his friends had ever gotten sick enough to be admitted there, so it stayed as a pale ghost residing in the background of his day to day life. Close, but never quite important to him.
He stumbled into the main part of the hospital long before he ever found his destination. He went up and down elevators, letting frenzied doctors constantly drop him off at the wrong floor and leave him only more confused than before. All he could see was a blur of gray, white, and tacky colors splattered on the walls and every piece of furniture that failed to ever make the place more friendly.
Even with a cheerful card in tow, this trip felt gloomier than anything he could have imagined. There were no tacky, uncomfortable chairs to sit on anymore, no ugly carpet to wonder how many stains it took to dye it such a hideous shade of purple. There were only the clatters of wheels, sharp voices barking out medicine names that sounded like gibberish, and John's sneakers squeaking against the polished floor. The tacky decor had long since gave way to tile and blinding, emotionless white.
He must have spent 10 minutes wandering corridors on the third floor before a disgruntled nurse directed him to the right area. He wasn't sure to be thankful when the cold, clinical look of the main wings were painted over with colorful animals that stared at him with soulless eyes. It might have been comforting to little kids, but anyone over the age of eight could only be freaked out by the way small giraffes stared listlessly into the distance. Any and all furniture was covered in every color of the rainbow, colorful triangles and squares splayed everywhere.
John felt a surge of pity for Karkat. Any teenager who...well, who wasn't Jade would hate it here. It was so condescending, especially to someone who had to be at least 16.
After a bit more blundering, John finally found Room 18, tucked away in a lonesome corridor. A piece of paper was taped below the room number.
"GO AWAY" was written in a messy black scrawl, the letters melting into each other despite the blank expanses left on the page. John frowned. No wonder this guy never got any visitors.
He rapped his knuckles against the door, hoping for a response. He couldn't really say that he didn't expect an answer like the one he got.
"Aaaargh, can't any of you read!? The sign clearly states go away! I'm not seven, I don't need to be checked up on every five minutes to make sure I didn't shit myself or suffocate under the bedsheets. I'm fucking fine, just leave me alone already!"
"Um. I'm not really a nurse."
"Then are you some newbie doctor, here to tell me that my next round of chemo has been bumped up to next week? If so, please kindly shove your stethoscope up your ass in front of every uptight prick you call a nurse that is located within a five mile radius, because it's a better use of your time than ruining my somewhat decent mood. Or do you assholes get off to my pain? Is that why you chose to become a Pediatrician? To masturbate in your shitty bathrooms to the sound of children crying from sheer pain and exhaustion? Do you dream of our suffering and smile to yourself? I bet you fucking do, you soulless monstrosity. You make me sicker than I already feel."
John tuned out about halfway through Karkat's spiel. He did, however, manage to discern three things from that rant:
1. Karkat has a mouth and likes to go on long winded, inappropriate rants.
2. Karkat is about as friendly as a nest full of angry wasps.
3. Karkat has to go through chemo. That means...
"Dude, you have cancer?"
"Whoa, holy shit! A guy in the cancer ward has cancer? Who would have thought!" Karkat yelled. Something thudded against the door, making John jump back in surprise. "You're definitely the shittiest doctor I have ever encountered here, and I'm certain I've had to listen to every blowhard with a fancy degree that works here drone on to me about how they can send the lukemia into remission using a simple program that only lasts my entire fucking childhood."
"Dude, no! I'm not a doctor! I don't even work here! Hell, I'm not even old enough to work here!" John snapped back.
"Then why the fuck are you here? And better yet, who the fuck are you?" Karkat asked, his voice receding to a more tolerable volume. He sounded wary, but John heard footsteps coming closer to him.
"I have something to give you. Actually, um, I should probably explain first, shouldn't I?"
"I'm not going to dignify that with a proper answer."
John figured that was his cue to talk. "Uh, well, I don't think you really know me, but my name is John. I'm one of your classmates."
"A classmate who I've never spoken to in my life is visiting me? Let me guess, some peppy asshat who felt pity for the poor, cancer ridden boy goaded everyone into signing some giant card. And for the bonus round, a cheerful asshole like you volunteered because you thought you could make me feel better, right?"
"Yeah, pretty much." Except, John noted with a stab of guilt, he did it for free pizza and breadsticks. "Do you still want it? Because, uh, if you don't, I can throw it away and tell Feferi that you loved it."
Karkat's sigh was loud enough for John to hear even through a layer of door. "Of course Peixes arranged this. She'd take pity on any poor dumbshit that stubbed their toe on a door."
The door wrenched open, and John found himself looking down at a boy who had stared death in the eyes; a far cry from the Karkat Vantas in his memories. His face was gaunt, with sunken in cheekbones and heavy bags under his eyes. His dark brown skin looked ashy, with a deathly tint to it, as if it was going to fall off of his body at any moment. He had always been a pretty tiny guy, but as he reached out to grab John's wrist, he could see every vein and tendon protruding from his hand. His arms were hidden underneath a thick sweater, but John guessed the rest of his body was in the same condition. He was nothing but bones and veins pumping drug-riddled blood through a broken shell of a body.
John shut the door behind him, standing awkwardly in the middle of the small room as Karkat flopped down on his bed. It was a room clearly meant for a single person, with a single bed and just one dresser and one nightstand; probably given to him because of how old he was. John wouldn't really be surprised if Karkat was the only teenager in this entire ward.
He glanced around, trying his best to examine the room. It was strangely colorful, full of pastel animals and dead eyed smiles, just like the outside areas. A small tv sat neglected on the lone dresser, unfeeling white under chilly black, while a laptop happily whirred away from on Karkat's bed.
"Uh, so. Here's your card," John said quietly, handing the card over to Karkat, who snatched it out of his grasp. He flipped it open with a glare, eyes scanning over the various get well messages.
He scoffed in disgust. "Half of these shitheads have never even spoken to me. Why would they want me to return? So I can block them from the teacher's view while they drool on their desks and dream about fucking the two dollar whore in a cheerleader's outfit?"
John coughed. "That's kind of gross." But probably true, he had to admit. "Do you know these guys?"
"Just because I'm a sad sack of shit without any friends doesn't mean I don't overhear their insipid gossip." He motioned John over. He stepped forward cautiously, and sat down on the bed besides Karkat only when he was certain that he wouldn't get attacked.
Karkat pointed to a message long enough to be an essay. John recognized Rose's cursive, written in her trademark purple pen. "Rose Lalonde. Ranked number 14 in the Junior class. Works at a run down pizza joint. Considered by many guys as 'hot, but in a scary way.' Considered by many girls to be 'weird.' Rumors that she was a lesbian went around school. They somehow got to her rich, doting mother that she has some clusterfuck of a rivalry with, and said mother hosted an assembly about homosexuality at the school. Last I heard of, she was dating one Jade Harley, also known as your sister who, for some idiotic reason I don't really care about, does not share a last name with you."
John whistled in admiration. "Damn. You got everything right! And yeah, she's still dating Jade."
"Well glad I got that right, except not really because the amounts of shits I give about them is rapidly approaching negative infinity. For that matter, the amount of shits I give about you has already surpassed negative infinity. Scientists have created a new term for it, and that term is 'why are you still here, Egbert.'"
John coughed, suddenly feeling out of place in the small room. "Yeah. This is pretty awkward! I guess I better leave." He stood up and headed towards the door, but looked back at the sickly boy and hesitated. No matter how much of an asshole he was, he still seemed pretty lonely.
"For once you have a good idea. Congrats. Do you want an asspat for your spectacular achievement?"
John couldn't stop an amused snort from escaping. "Haha, as if!" He quieted down, shuffling his feet against the ground, blue sneakers contrasting with the pale tile below. "Hey. Hope you get better soon."
Karkat snorted back, mocking John with a vicious sneer. "I don't need your pity. Just get out of my sight."
So he did.
John grinned as he took another slice of pizza from the box on his coffee table. Surprisingly enough, both Vriska and Dave held up to their end of the deal, and when Rose and Jade caught wind of the situation and offered to bring even more stuff, how could he say no? Thanks to their valiant efforts, the table in his living room was covered in pizza (with everything on it. Even canadian bacon!), breadsticks, soda, and nachos. And the best part? John didn't pay a single dime for any of it.
He stuffed about as much of the slice into his mouth as would fit, and grabbed the spare controller on his lap. Their Super Smash Bros. Brawl match had been interrupted only to start eating. Right now, he (along with his good buddy Ness) was facing off against Rose (playing as Princess Zelda), Jade (as Fox, of course), and Vriska (who chose Ganondorf). Dave was the only one not playing; instead he sat on the floor by Vriska's feet, elbowing her in the shin whenever she kicked his back. John wasn't quite sure what he was doing, but his iPhone had definitely captured his attention.
The match started, and while John fought bravely and honestly, the girls were simply too good. Jade executed flawless gun combos, Rose used her freaky super-smart brain to know exactly when and where to attack, and Vriska cheated. John didn't how how she did it, but she did.
The match was intense, full of cursing and laughter from everyone involved. Well, everyone and Dave, but John suspected his laughter was probably due to something dumb he saw on his phone. When the match ended, Rose had somehow pushed Vriska out of first place, and was staring at the screen with a large, smug grin. Vriska rolled her eyes and threw the controller down at Dave. "Hey Stri-dumbass, it's time to switch."
"Kay," Dave said, and tossed his phone up to Vriska, who swiped it right out of the air. She leaned into the corner of the couch and busily tapped away at the small screen while Dave scooted back and settled against her legs, shaking his hair out of his face as he gripped the controller. They returned to the character selection screen, and just as Dave selected Princess Peach, John's PDA rang from inside his pocket.
"Someone calling you?" Jade asked.
"Strange, considering the people you talk to the most are currently in the same room with you," Rose said. She paused, and then threw a hesitant look at Vriska. "Unless of course..."
Vriska rolled her eyes, still tapping away on Dave's phone. "Try again."
"Check it, check it!" Jade said, leaning over John's shoulder to look at the small screen.
CC: )(----ELLO JOHN! 38D
John stared blankly at the screen. "Why are they typing like that?" He sighed, thumb hovering over the block button. "Must be a bot."
Jade growled and shook her head, sending wild black hair flying everywhere, spreading out around her face like a lion's mane. "No, you dummy! It's Feferi!"
"How did Feferi get my Pesterchum?"
Vriska raised her hand. "My fault. She asked for it earlier today."
"Oh. Ok then. I guess I better...see what she wants?"
EB: um. hi feferi.
CC: O)( good! You know it's me!
EB: yeah. jade told me.
CC: Tell )(er I said )(i!
"Hi Feferi!" Jade said with a smile. Variations on the phrase, "tell Feferi I said hi," echoed through the room.
"Oh, and John?" Jade added, voice suddenly lowering to a whisper. "Don't be an idiot and ask her about her typing quirk, ok? You'll just make her mad."
"Got it." Good thing, because he was just planning on doing that very thing. Whew! Crisis averted.
EB: she says hi back. and so does everyone else, hehe.
CC: Aww, )(ow sweet!
CC: Anyways, I messaged you for a V---ERY IMPORTANT R-EASON!
EB: which is?
CC: Well, I t)(ink we s)(ould give Karcrab somefin more t)(an just a card!
CC: Maybe a plant, too! W)(o doesn't like plants?
EB: good point!
EB: but why do you call him karcrab?
CC: )(--E--E )(-E-E! It's because )(is name means crab!
CC: And it's a good pun. 38)
EB: oh. hehe. it kind of fits, doesn't it?
CC: Now. Back to business.
CC: Since you volunteered to give )(im the card, I was wondering if you'd be willing to give )(im the plant as well!
John turned to face Jade, who was still reading over his shoulder. "You work at a flower shop, right?"
Jade nodded. With a giggle, she said, "okaaaaaaaay John, I'll make sure to get you some flowers!"
"Flowers? Why not a potted plant?"
"I work at a flower shop, duh! We mainly sell bouquets, and no one would notice if one was gone."
"Harley, are you telling me you're willing to steal from your work for your brother?" Dave asked, never looking away from the screen. By now, he and Rose were the only ones left playing. They spent most of their time taking turns pushing Fox McCloud to his doom.
"Maybe." She said with a grin. "What do you say, John? It saves Feferi money!"
"Yeah. I'll ask."
EB: jade's offering to hook me up with a bouquet of flowers. will that work?
EB: then i'll do that tomorrow after school.
EB: even if i don't think he likes me much.
He felt another stab of pity for the poor boy alone in the hospital, with the sallow skin and the cynical, world-weary eyes. He obviously did not like John much, but human contact that involved someone who wasn't a doctor had to be good for him. Everyone needed a friend, right?
John didn't really regret typing out the next message.
EB: in fact, if you need any karkat-related business done, i'll do it. i take on the title of 'go to karkat guy.'
The next day, John stood in front of Room 18 on the third floor, holding a bouquet full of flowers hand picked by Jade. She said that they all had a very specific meaning and that they were good flowers to give to a sick person, but those supposed meanings were lost on him. He doubted Karkat would know either.
"Hey, Karkat?" John asked, gently knocking on the door. "It's me, John. I have something for you."
An irritated groan came from within. "Ugh, didn't you realize when I said get out of my sight, I meant it in a permanent sense? As in, I don't want to see your moronic face ever again?"
"Yeah, but Feferi asked me to come here!" John prided himself on the fact that it wasn't a total lie this time. "And it is literally impossible to say no to any member of the Peixes family."
A pause. "...You have a point. Let's just get this over with as quickly and as painlessly as possible." Karkat opened the door, allowing John to step in. The room looked the same as it did yesterday, except the laptop was shut and laying on the dresser by the tv. Even Karkat looked the same, wearing the same outfit from the day before.
Somehow, it seemed lonelier.
He held the bouquet of flowers out as a gesture of peace. "Before you make any jokes about me trying to win over your heart or whatever, I just got you flowers because Feferi thought it'd be a nice idea, and since Jade works at a flower shop, they were free."
Karkat grimaced at the arrangement, as if they had personally insulted him.
John wiggled them in response, waving them just under Karkat's nose. "Come on, you know you want them!"
Karkat scowled, and snatched the flowers out of his hands. He untied the ribbon binding them together, and shoved the plastic covering in the trash. "Oh, how fucking thoughtful of her to choose these flowers!" He said. The words might have sounded vaguely thankful if not for the vile, disgusted anger evident in his voice.
"So they do have a specific meaning?" John asked, confused.
"Of course they fucking do! Pink roses, for friendship," he said as he threw said flowers onto his bed. "Ha, as if I'd ever want to be something even approaching the disease you call friendship with the likes of you." He snorted and grabbed a handful of skinny, white flowers. "Gladiolus, for strength of character." Those joined the roses on the bed.
"Hydrangea, for perseverance. Yeah, maybe I can just outlive the lukemia, and it'll go away on it's own!" What John guessed were the Hydrangeas joined the other flowers on the bed. "Star of Bethlehem, for hope. And most infuriatingly, yarrow! For good fucking health!" He held the last few flowers, a cloud of yellow that reminded John a little of cauliflower, in his hands. He glared down at them as if they were the reason why he was cooped up here.
"What a load of bullshit," he said venomously, and tore the flowers in two. He balled the remains up in his fists, stomped over to the trashcan, and let them flutter down to join the plastic remains.
"Hey! What was that for!" John asked, slightly offended despite the fact that he didn't even pay for the flowers. "That was a gift!"
"A gift? you think giving someone a bunch of flowers that, no matter how hard you fucking try, will never survive, a gift? Sounds like a festering crockpot of bullshit to me." Karkat gathered up the rest of the flowers, forcing them to join the yarrow a few seconds later. "You give someone a shitload of cut flowers. Put them in a vase with cold water, they said! It'll make them live longer, they said! Well, no matter what you fucking do, they're going to die. They're cut off from the rest of the plant - there's no hope for them. All you're doing by putting them in a vase is prolonging their inevitable death and putting it on display for others to admire." He said, turning away. He ran out of steam halfway through his rant, morphing from a ball of vibrant anger to what he really was; a tired, sad kid.
John had a feeling this had something to do with more than just flowers. There was no way someone could get so upset over something as silly as a bunch of flowers for no good reason. "There's a story behind this, isn't there?" He muttered quietly. Karkat swallowed visibly, but refused to speak.
"Will you tell me?" John asked.
Karkat shook his head vehemently. "Do you enjoy butting into people's private business?"
"I'm just curious."
"Curiosity killed the oblivious asshole who didn't know when to shut up."
"That's not how the saying goes, dipshit."
"Do you see this face?"
John looked down and stared at Karkat's somewhat exasperated expression.
"It's the face of someone who has tried to give a shit and failed spectacularly."
John blinked, and adjusted his glasses, trying to find something for his hands to do. He didn't know what else to say or do that wouldn't make Karkat mad. How do you appease a guy who has every reason to be pissed off at the world?
The answer is, you don't.
Karkat flopped down on his bed and rolled over, curling into himself. "Can you just go?" He asked tiredly, his voice almost pleading. "You gave your useless gift, and now there's no reason for you to stick around. Just leave already, and this time, don't come back."
"Are you sure?" John asked. "You seem kind of lonely here. I wouldn't really mind coming back every once in a while."
"I have the entire internet, a small army of children, and know-it-all doctors to keep me company. How could I be lonely?" He answered.
"Are any of them your friends?"
He was met with more silence.
John gritted his teeth, and tried again. "Would you like one?"
The pauses kept coming, one after another. John fought his way through them. "...I have a friend."
"Here, or online?"
Karkat flipped him the bird. "Are you trying to invalidate a friendship formed on the internet?"
"No, not at all! Just...no one comes to visit you, do they? Your online friend lives too far away, right?"
"Yeah." In that moment, Karkat looked so small and fragile. John felt the need to do something, anything that would make him feel better.
"I'll keep visiting, if you want."
"How many times do I have to tell you I don't want your pity?"
"I wouldn't do it out of pity!" He hoped Karkat would think he was telling the truth. He hoped there was at least some grain of truth in the statement. "Every day I can, I'll come visit you after school."
"There's nothing to do here" Karkat replied quietly. "You'd get bored."
"You get wi-fi here, right? That's more than enough for me! I can even bring cards! Do you know any card games?"
Karkat snorted. "Only go fish."
"Cool! I'll teach you how to play all sorts of games. You're going to be a master by the time I'm done with you."
"Since you're clearly not going to leave me alone anytime soon, I'll humor you for a bit, even though I'm certain you're not actually going to follow through with any of this."
"And you can teach me about flowers. I'll wow Jade with my sudden knowledge of plants."
"I don't really give a shit, but ok."
Maybe, if John tried hard enough, he really could become Karkat's friend. He was prickly and set up wall after wall in defense, but with enough time and patience, maybe he could break through that and find out what was really underneath.